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On Who Ought To Win

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Driving back from lunch today, I got to considering what I wanted to write about. The offseason's weird; despite so many people saying to me "the season's over, what do you have to discuss?" there's always a ton of material, a ton of different subjects worth a close look. It's just that sometimes I don't feel like writing about the ideas that come to mind.

Today, I haven't really been in the mood to talk about the Mariners. Fortunately, a lot of people are still focused on the playoffs. "The World Series is coming up," I thought to myself in the car. "That's kind of a big deal." So I switched gears and started mulling over different topics related to the World Series. One of those topics, naturally, was rooting interest. Who are people going to root for? I should post a poll!

You might have noticed that I didn't post a poll. For one thing, Christ, enough with the polls. And for another, what would be the point? If I put up a poll that said "Phillies or Yankees?" 95% of you would say Phillies and 85% of you would leave a comment about how you can't remember the last time you were so bored by a World Series matchup. I shot down the poll idea. It was a stupid idea.

What it did do, however, was make me ask myself who I'm rooting for. And though I chose the Phillies, I didn't choose them because they're playing the Yankees; I chose them because - according to my brain - "Raul deserves a title."

That surprised me. I wasn't expecting that kind of reaction. I don't know how in touch the rest of you are with your brains, but me, I don't know how I feel about something unless I ask myself about it, and it was only when I asked myself about the World Series that I realized what I think about it. I want the Phillies to win. Because it turns out I think Raul Ibanez deserves to win a championship.

It's a silly sentiment, but not an unusual one. People wanted to see Peyton Manning win a title because they thought he deserved to win. We wanted the Mariners to surround Edgar with a championship team because we thought he deserved to win. Ray Bourque winning a Cup with Colorado was a huge, huge deal because people had spent so long going on about how badly he deserved to win. Every year in every sport as the playoffs approach, you'll hear fans and writers talk about how they hope Team X can pull it out, because Player Y deserves to win it all.

Why do so many of us think this way about certain players? That became my thought experiment for the afternoon.

Boiled down, I think it's a matter of conditions. In that, there are a handful of conditions a player should meet if he is to be thought of as a player who deserves to win a title. This rather obviously isn't falsifiable, since there's no master list out there of players people thought deserved to win, but then I don't intend to present it as such. This is just a theory thought up while I wasn't doing any work.

The first condition is that the player has to be a veteran. Often, but not always, one of at least ten years. There's no one out there saying "man, that Felix really needs a ring." When Dustin Pedroia got his, there wasn't any sentiment of "well FINALLY." We see veterans as being more deserving, presumably because they've been doing their job for so long that they've poured a lot of themselves into it. They've fought. They've been through the wars, so to speak. Rookies and young guys don't deserve anything. No one deserves immediate success. Players should have to earn it, and here in America, there's no way of earning anything quite like punching your time card day after day and year after year. It's also noting that "_ deserves to win" generally comes with an unwritten qualifer of "before he retires," and young guys are seen as having all the time in the world. Veterans are in a race against their calendars.

The second condition is that the player has to be perceived as a guy who really cares. And caring, in this case, usually means "demonstrates effort." Players who deserve a championship are players who really want a championship and do everything in their power to get one. Players who train hard in the offseason. Players who seem to leave everything on the field. Players who take losses hard, players who're never satisfied and who put their team above themselves. All the standard "gamer" cliches, really. Raul Mondesi was pretty good. Derek Bell had his years. Gary Sheffield has been awesome. But I've never met anyone who thought any of those players were deserving of a championship, because - whether right or wrong - they've conveyed the impression that they're in it for themselves. Fans don't really take kindly to selfishness. Fans want to root for a guy who cares as much about a team as they do.

The third condition is that the player has to be good. Or at least have a history of being good at some point or another (bonus if he is/was good for your team). Joe McEwing probably worked his ass off, but effort isn't enough. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a shitty player who tries really hard. More than a guy who maximizes a lousy skillset, fans want to get behind a guy who maximizes a good skillset, or a great one. We watch sports to be amazed by players doing extraordinary things. The players who do a lot of them - these are the players we're more likely to see as deserving. There are players with exceptional dedication and there are players with exceptional talent, but the ones we want most to see win are the ones in possession of both. Because there are few things with which we identify more closely than the drive to defy probability and become the best.

The fourth and final condition is that the player has to be seen as a good person. It sounds kind of stupid, but there's a reason why stuff like The Alex Rodriguez/stripper story gets in the news, and while it's preposterously naive to expect the world's best athletes to be the world's best people, that's what a lot of fans want, and so they want to reward the guys that meet their standards. Now, I don't apply this condition to the extent that a lot of other people do. I think A-Rod deserves to win, and I thought Barry Bonds deserved to win. I know a lot of you are the same way. But that's my rational mind talking, and I know that, perhaps irrationally, it would warm my heart more to see Raul (or Jamie Moyer a year ago) get a ring than to see A-Rod or Bonds do the same. And ten years from now you won't see me feeling sorry for Elijah Dukes. Fans are horrible judges of athlete character, for reasons both in and out of their control, but there's nothing people enjoy more than passing judgment, and if a player is judged to be a good or seedy individual, that will in large part determine whether he's seen as a sympathetic character should he age without a championship. Even in an environment as unjust as professional sports, people still want to see the triumph of decency.

Those are the four. If a player is deemed as being deserving of a championship, he's probably considered:

(1) a veteran
(2) a hard worker
(3) a good player
(4) a good person

I don't know that a player is automatically disqualified if he fails to meet one of the conditions. As I said, this is a theory, not a scientific hypothesis. I think Ichiro deserves to win a championship, and I don't know shit about who he is as a person. What I think would be an automatic disqualification is if a player were the opposite of one of those conditions; young, lazy, bad, or nefarious, or what have you. So perhaps these are more guidelines than conditions, in that you'll be fine if you kind of go along with them, but if you don't go along with them at all, you're out of luck.

Of course, there's a whole other question here of whether any player actually deserves to win a championship in the first place. I don't know the answer to that. On the one hand, a championship isn't a right. Nowhere in any rulebook does it say that the title is to be awarded to the team with the best player or the best person. But on the other, the difference between championships and brownie points is that championships are won every season, and if you already know that some collection of players is going to take one once a year, then you're left wondering whether a brief postseason tournament is the best measure of which players are deserving of the glory and which players are not. Francisco Rodriguez pitched lights-out for five weeks. Edgar Martinez hit like a madman for 15 years while contributing more to charity out of the public eye than any of his teammates. Did Edgar Martinez deserve a championship? Did Francisco Rodriguez?

I don't know. The trouble with this sort of philosophy is that you're left with more questions than you started with. The only thing I'm certain of now is the same thing I was certain of this afternoon: I'm gonna root for the Phillies. Because Raul Ibanez deserves a God damn ring.