Friday, March 17, 2006

Heart of a Champion

Thankfully, I haven't heard that phrase this March. A couple years back during tournament time you would hear commentators use that term with a straight face to explain how a 14th seed beat a 3 seed. It couldn't have been superior talent, the thinking goes, so it must have been all about the "heart." You often hear the theory that the team who won "simply wanted it more." The very term "March Madness" itself implies a de-emphasis on the cerebral or even the physical and an emphasis on the romantic, the valuing of some kind of crazy romantic pulsing emotion as the key to winning athletic competitions.

I thought about these assumptions the other night while listening to the Korea vs. Japan WBC game (Digression-- I had to listen on my XM because ESPN2 showed it on tape delay at 1 a.m. I'm not sure why college softball was shown instead, nor do I think there is any reason that would satisfy me-- end digression). The announcers, Charley Steiner and Kevin Kennedy, commented about how crisply and fundamentally sound the two teams played, in comparison to the sloppiness of the U.S. team. Steiner made an interesting observation about the level of emotion showed by the teams. He compared the disposition of a Korean pitcher after a walk ("He simply got the ball back and kept pitching like nothing happened") to Dontrelle Willis in his start against Korea (who walked around the mound shaking his head). It may be a bit of a cultural stereotype to describe these far Eastern teams in Zen-like states, but I think there is something to the observation that there is a major cultural difference in how demonstrative athletes are, and how much emotion is shown during competition. That's not to say that the Eastern athletes don't have emotion, as evidenced by the Korean celebration after their victory over Japan, culminating with them jubilantly planting their flag on the pitcher's mound. It's just that emotion is held in check while competing.

Roger Clemens is a pitcher notorious for thriving on emotion, so much so that he claims to have not been thinking clearly when he threw a jagged bat at Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series. A lot of people had trouble believing this explanation, but I can see how the part of his brain dealing with logical thought may have shut down in this spot. It's true that Roger Clemens is one of the best pitchers ever, but could he have been even better if he had a more Zen-like approach to his craft? Would he have beat Mexico last night? I guess we'll never know. Just like we'll probably never know what really goes into the making of the heart of a champion.


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