Standing on the teebox during a round of golf several weeks ago, the conversation inevitably turned to baseball. The World Series had ended a few nights earlier, and I told my golf buddies that Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer’s mad dash to score the tying run in the ninth inning of Game Five was my new favorite baseball play.
You remember that, don’t you? Hosmer is on third, the Royals down a run in the ninth inning. His teammate hits a slow, bouncing ball that is fielded by Mets third-baseman David Wright, who glances at Hosmer, then throws the batter out at first.
As Wright throws, Hosmer takes off down the third-base line like a man trying to outrun a cheetah. Mets first baseman Lucas Duda catches Wright’s throw, then whirls and fires to the plate. His throw is off-mark, and Hosmer slides home to tie the game. The Royals go on to win the World Series in the 12th inning.
One of the guys responded that the Royals “got lucky” because a good throw would have nailed Hosmer. Duda’s errant throw, he argued, made Hosmer a hero and kept the Royals alive.
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But my pal was wrong. It was not luck. Hosmer’s audacity had forced Duda to make an unplanned, hurried throw. It was smart baseball.
When I coached high school tennis, sometimes my player would hand me the balls after a loss and say, “Coach, I should have beaten that guy.” To which I would usually reply, “No, you shouldn’t have. You ‘could’ have, but he outplayed you, outworked you and outsmarted you.” For those reasons, the person who “should” have won did.
As sports fans, we love to throw around words and phrases to describe outcomes. “Lucky” is one. So is “should have.”
But in doing that, we minimize two of the best aspects of athletic success – skill and tenacity.
The next time your golf partner tells you that 25-footer you drained was “a lucky putt,” scold him.
Because there was nothing lucky about it. You took aim at your target, estimated the distance and hit the ball squarely on line. Tell him he should say, “great putt,” and shut the heck up with the L word.
During another recent conversation, about NFL football, a buddy opined that the New England Patriots “got lucky” at the end of the Super Bowl last season when they intercepted a pass as it appeared the Seattle Seahawks were about to win the game in the final minute.
Again, I begged to differ. Sure, Seattle’s choice to pass instead of run was a curious decision that will be debated for decades. But the interception came on a daring move by New England’s Malcolm Butler, who read the play and got to the ball ahead of the intended receiver. Again, not lucky, just good and smart.
Now, I’m not saying luck never plays a role in sports or life. You want luck? Hale Irwin’s tee shot on the 72nd hole of the 1984 Pebble Beach Pro-Am hooked onto the beach – then hit a rock and bounced back up onto the fairway, allowing Irwin to birdie and win a playoff a few holes later.
How about a tennis player’s shot off the racquet frame that falls weakly on the line for a winner? Or a “Hail Mary” football pass that bounces off several players’ hands and lands softly into the lap of a receiver who is falling to the ground in the end zone? (Although I could argue that the receiver helped his chances by staying focused with all the chaos going on around him.)
But luck is rarer than we believe it is. So why do we continue to use the word when describing unbelievable feats? Often, it’s because we want to believe that our favorite team or player is superior, and anyone who beats us with a terrific play was “lucky” and didn’t deserve to win.
Likewise, we often claim that our team or player “should have” won or “should have” made the play he or she bungled. But that’s not usually true.
When I coached high school tennis, sometimes my player would hand me the balls after a loss and say, “Coach, I should have beaten that guy.”
To which I would usually reply, “No, you shouldn’t have. You ‘could’ have, but he outplayed you, outworked you and outsmarted you.” For those reasons, the person who “should” have won did.
It’s human nature – and a cop-out – to believe we “should have” been successful, because that gives us a sense of entitlement that we really were the better team, player or employee. Obviously, fate conspired against us.
But we all know from watching and studying sports performance that often a player or team that supposedly possesses superior technical skill and/or physical prowess can lose to the “inferior” player or team because that opponent played better (harder, smarter, more precise) on that particular day.
So I rarely let a player get away with the “should” excuse. I’d tell him this: Play smarter next time. Play with more control. I know it’s hot, but work harder out there. Show me you can beat him next time. I know you could, show me you “should.”
So here’s the crux of this lesson: If you possess the skills, if you are bigger, stronger and faster, then do the little things that accompany your assets, and don’t make excuses. Then, just maybe, you should get lucky.
Ken Robison is a retired Fresno Bee sports writer.