September 9, 2009 Volume 2 Issue 13
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Valerie Gin
This past July 23rd, I was on the South side of Chicago watching America’s favorite game: baseball. The White Sox were playing the Tampa Bay Rays and I was watching with one of the White Sox greatest fans, my mom. It was a thrill to be there that day, not just to be with her but because together we witnessed something most baseball fans dream of.
As Sox pitcher Mark Buerhle took the mound in the ninth inning, he’d already faced two-dozen batters without one of them reaching first base. Still, the tension rose, not because of who would win--the Sox were ahead 5-0. But everyone wondered if Buerhle could make history by making this no hitter a reality.
When the first batter stepped to the plate in the ninth, he hit Buerhle’s 2-2 pitch straight toward center field--or beyond. We held our breath. But just at the fence, DeWayne Wise threw his body in the air, his glove high above his head and made a spectacular catch. The roar was deafening. And when the next batters stepped up to the plate--who also couldn’t handle the Sox pitcher--the game was over. Buerhle had pitched a perfect game.
You didn’t have to be a baseball player or even a fan that day to appreciate the beauty of it. After all, there haven’t been many perfect games in the history of baseball, and that day in Chicago everyone--including the Rays--admired the integrity of Buerhle’s efforts.
Of course, if we only defined perfect in terms of winning, it’s safe to say the Tampa Bay team had no part in it. Yet there was no mistaking their admiration for Buerhle’s performance. And as I watched history in the making, I realized that I’d spent my career of coaching and now teaching promoting that definition of the perfect game.
When we think of good sportsmanship, we often think in terms of social values: sacrifice, dedication, loyalty. Usually, those are qualities that push players toward the perceived cultural goal of every game: winning. Yet, if some of these values are compromised along the way in order to come out on top, no one much notices. If a player shoves an opponent without the referee seeing it, he shrugs it off because, “everyone does it,” he’ll say. Winning, after all, has become everything.
But of course, it isn’t. In fact, too often we minimize the perfect game by equating it with winning. We reduce the love of sport, the gift of athletics, to a mere number, as if it were only a price tag on a jersey. The higher the number when the players walk off the field, the more “superior” the team. The ends have come to outscore the means.
When we stress winning at any cost, we sacrifice the opportunities to truly love the game and to promote and build character in sports. Especially at this time of year when many school and little league seasons are beginning, it’s not hard to hear parents and coaches lecture young players on the rewards of responsibility and fair play. But the moral mantras fade as win/loss records are tallied and success or failure awarded. Yes, the social value on winning trumps character, usurping the values of honesty and integrity we say sports promote.
Which is why I believe we need to redefine the perfect game: two teams playing hard, fair and respectfully to bring out the best in each other. Period. If we want young people to love sports, we have to take the pressure off of them to simply win and instead encourage them to perform well.
I’m not saying we don’t play--or coach or cheer--to win. We do. But a truly competitive spirit doesn’t win at any costs; it agrees to pursue a win by bringing out the best in the game, opponents and ourselves. If we really love the sport, we won’t degrade it with inappropriate, unloving, or unethical behaviors.
This sports season let’s applaud performance, not just the outcome. Let’s love the sport itself, the sheer beauty of the form and the camaraderie it inspires. Because the perfect game really is a work of art, one we’ll admire for form and finish no matter who we cheer for.
Dr. Valerie Gin is professor and chair of recreation and leisure studies and consults internationally on sport ethics. She lives in Magnolia, Massachusetts.