An Essay on Greatness:
Why two equally matched teams can have a consistent winner and loser.

Doc asks why I called the Giants to win the World Series, when they were clearly second tier behind the Dodgers, Nats, Tigers and Angels in terms of on paper formidableness.

Here's my answer:

 I used to wrestle in high school, and was highly successful at it.  My repertoire included about three good judo throws, a few illegal strangulation and joint manipulation techniques, tightrope balance and a dedicated mean streak.  During my senior year, I was the fourth seed in the state tournament.  I dispatched the first feeb with an exclamation point, and left my quarterfinals opponent with a shoulder injury.  Mojo was a little monster.

My semi finals oponent, the first seed, was a different kind of kid.  He was a senior as well. We'll call him Russell Wilson.  He got straight A's and had a senator appoint him to Westpoint. He had a perfect wrestling record on the season and was really nice too.  He had a plus single leg tackle and did everything well, but wasn't great at anything.  Stylistically, he matched up well for me, as his large West Point noggin was too big to slip through my high flying judo throws.  

During the first period, the score was even.  During the second period, I scored two big judo throws on him, both o soto gari, and held him on his back for about fifteen seconds, and scored what should have been called a pin.  

In between the second and third period, Russell was down by two points, and I had the choice of positions to choose.  He was alarmed, and was deliberately taking huge breaths to get his wind back.  Instead of choosing down, and getting a point escape and a minute or so burned off the two minute clock, as my coach screamed at me, I chose the standing position, as I wanted to score another big throw and get that pin.

In the third period, Russell dug deep, scored two single leg tackles on me, evaded the last big throw, and won the match by a point.  The person who made the finals on the other side of the bracket was someone I had dispatched easily earlier in the year.  Russell scored a first period pin against that guy, a gold medal, a giant bracket, and a lifetime of bragging rights.  A heartbroken little Mojo took fifth.

After all these years, I still can't completey wash off the stink of losing a stupid high school wrestling match.  If the dumb ref would have called my pin against Russell, if I would have chose down, if my defense were a little better.  Woulda shoulda coulda.  

So, I'm a little bit more sensitive than most on the difference between goodness and greatness, or formidable and indomitable.  When I think about indomitable, I think about Tim Hartung.  Hartung wrestled for the Minnesota Golden Gophers from 1996 to 1999.  At some point after his sophomore season, he decided that he wasn't going to lose to anyone anymore, and he didn't.  His two year win streak is the longest in school history.  Hartung featured superb defense, and a low ankle pick.  His great nemesis was Lee Fullhart of the University of Iowa.  Fullhart was the 1997 NCAA champion.  The two were equally matched, in terms of ability, strenght, balance and the like, but Hartung owned him to the tune of plus one point each time they wrestled.  Here's a representative match.  See Hartung dig deep and get that takedown at the 8:30 mark.  Hartung won 6 or so matches against Fullhart by the thinnest of margins.  This culminated at the 1999 NCAA finals, with Fullhart leading by a point at a minute to go in the third period, and Hartung needing to score or go home.    Here's what happened.  

Hartung was indomitable and undefeatable.  Fullhart was formidable, and looked good on paper.  As the broadcaster says, Hartung will find a way.


Baseball is an inherently different game than wrestling because there is much more randomness in baseball than there is in wrestling.  The best wrestlers can stay undefeated, while the baseball equivalent is a .700 winning percentage.  Still there is room for an indomitable spirit, and a champion imposing his will on the outcome of the game.  The Giants have that.  Here's Hunter Pence explaining the matter after the Giants had just clinched the Wild card berth.  "We have the (Bleeeeep) champion blood.  We're going to burn these other (bleeeep) cities down, every one of them".  

After watching the NL Wild Card game, I became convinced that Pence's rant was real, and that the Giants were practicing what Pence preached by curb stomping the Pirates like Hartung crushing a stadium full of Iowans.

Now, you might not believe in champion blood versus contender blood, but the Giants do, and I guarantee you that the Dodgers believe in the difference.  They think that fate is against them, that the refs were against them, that BABIP is against them.  The Dodgers believe in woulda coulda shoulda.  The Giants believe the opposite, and at some point, both teams fullfill their own prophesies.  

My two cents.  



Dr. D will buy in on The Counselor's extra sensitivity to teams that can impose their will.  
As you note, amigo, this "heart and soul" issue comes in especially (maybe only) when you get to that point of extreme fatigue, or adversity, or etc.  When you're seeing stars from oxygen deprivation, THAT's when the extra desire matters most...
1.  Does this sensitivity transfer to other sports?  Do you have any comment on the Seahawks' fighting spirit last year, and this year?
2.  Can you rank the current (Aug-Sept 14) Mariners on a 1-10 scale?
3.  Where do the Orcs stand?  ;- )

misterjonez's picture

I can attest (on a much less impressive scale than mojician's) to lacking this particular indomitable factor. I could thrash everyone in wrestling practice except those guys that were both 1) bigger than me and 2) multiple time state placers. I mean, I could *thrash* them and make it look lopsided. It got so bad that, as a 151lb (actual, walking around weight) sophomore they started putting me in against the heavyweights during takedowns, and I would routinely be paired up with our 178-215lb'ers just to keep it fair.
But I never even made varsity, and my record was probably less than five hundred in recorded matches. I actually do think I would have made varsity my sophomore (last) year if I hadn't broken three ribs during a challenge for the first string JV spot, which lines up perfectly with the whole 'coulda, shoulda, woulda' mentality. That's me, unfortunately :(
Our 178lb, two-time state champ, used to whip everybody bigger than him (including a pair of state champs) and he said it was in large part due to his more pronounced 'animal mentality,' and how he could just exist in that moment and not think about what was coming next. Every second of every match was a life-and-death struggle for him, and when he stepped under the big light everyone in the arena could tell the difference between him and the unfortunate soul who happened to draw his assignment that night. Funny thing is, he was the nicest, softest-spoken guy you will ever meet.
Excellent, excellent post, Mo. Anyone who has actually gone mano-a-mano in something like wrestling, or even baseball while truly understanding the one-on-one nature of the pitcher vs. batter battle, will attest to the phenomenon you're describing. There is simply no way to quantify it on a stat-line, especially since the 'will-to-win' gap is so much more narrow at the MLB level than it is at the high school wrestling level.
I could read posts like this all day long.


Sometimes, it's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. All those corny sayings have been around forever because there is truth there.


I'm long as we don't mistake "rants" for determination.  
Pence's may well have been the later.  No dispute here.  But often we mistake steely-eyed focus for passivity and wild-eyed screaching for desire.  It doesn't quite work like that.
More often than not, the first is what you want.  
I have no problem with giving fist bumps to Pence, but frequently such behavior is just easier than real focus and a "go to war" mentality.

misterjonez's picture

rants are precisely what you suggest, and they don't actually lead to anything. The funny part about them, though, is that their effect is almost entirely in the eye/ear of the beholder(s). If *you and I* buy into something Hunter Pence is selling, that doesn't mean snot if his teammates don't share our sensitivity to his rah-rah antics. But the reverse is also true: if it doesn't really get *our* juices flowing, but it does get his *teammates* fired up, now you're cooking with gas ;) And which one has a higher probability of affecting the bottom line (or, in this case, the outcome on the field)?
There are times when PR is critical (asking the public to believe something that isn't easily provable, like in pretty much all modern politics) and there are times when the only thing that matters is what the people on the field think and feel. Success is everything in pro sports, meaning that the fans are almost universally happy if their team is winning, so the only thing that matters is whether or not the people in uniform buy into a given impassioned gesture. That's what makes the whole 'chemistry' conversation so much fun. We've all witnessed examples of smooth-running clubhouses that produce winners, and we've all witnessed diametrically opposed attitudes yield the same fruit on the field.
Good point to add to the discussion, Moe :)


It just seems to work for the Giants. I remember Eric Wedge having a wild intensity about him and it never seemed to help. The Mariners could be just as successful doing things in chillax Cano style. But, the golden boy self image and the unbeatable spirit seem like key elements to winning.


It may seem juvenile, but that stuff is hard to get over. Most of us are fifteen year olds walking around in man bodies. You learn alot about yourself and who you wish you were playing sports.


The Mariners collapsed in Toronto last month like Colin Kaepernick in the red zone. I don't know why. Even James Paxton played poorly. Without that set, the Mariners woulda made the wild card game. The 2014 M's were impressive in how they always rallied from soul crushing defeat. They have something cooking. For wild theories on what happened to the Orcs, I'm taken with the new SSI theory that a RH thumper is a necessary piece of equipment.

I haven't watched any football since the Super bowl and I only saw two games last year, but the Hawks are definitely winners.

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