Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Promises Are Like Babies: Easy To Make, Hard To Deliver

Predictions get tossed around in the sports world all the time. Guys guarantee their teams will win a game or a series. They guarantee that they will not be back with a certain team. They guarantee postseason appearances. The say that their team is the team to beat before the season starts.

You always hear announcers talk about how that makes great "bulletin board" material and occassionally a player will say that it was a motivating factor, but it seems like all the guarantees are so run-of-the-mill these days that few bat an eye at them.

When Jim Fassel angrily declared to the New York media that the 7-4 Giants were going to playoffs, it wasn't so much that it was a groundbreaking prediction; coaches and players say this type of thing all the time. What makes this moment memorable was that the normally mild-mannered Fassel blew up and essentially told the world famous New York sports media to sit down and shut up for the rest of the season...and then he backed it up.

Before this last Super Bowl, had Plaxico Burress given a run-of-the-mill "we're gonna win" prediction, no one would have cared...likely any player would have said the same thing. But Burress gave the score as 23-17, which was so far below the Patriots' average that it raised some eyebrows, but was still mostly laughed off as harmless fun. When the Giants wound up winning, holding the Pats to a lower score than Burress had predicted, and Burress himself scored the winning touchdown, that became an all-time great prediction.

Perhaps the three most famous sports predictions are Babe Ruth famously calling a home run by pointing to the bleachers right where he hit the ball on the next pitch (or maybe he just stretched his arm, no one is sure). Joe Namath called the Super Bowl upset in 1967. And of course Kramer's two-home run prediction on behalf of Paul O'Neil to a sick boy.

But every year some guy you haven't really heard of says his crappy NBA East team will beat some other crappy NBA East team and no one cares. So what makes a great prediction? What makes it memorable? Why was Joe Namath's Super Bowl III prediction a seminal moment in sports history but so many other guys have done the exact same thing and been forgotten?

First: the stage has to be big. Boldly declaring that your 7-year-old son will score in a YMCA league basketball game is not exactly the stuff of legends.

Second: the odds have to be against you. If a first place team's manager declares his team will make the postseason when they have a 10 game lead with 11 to go, no one will really take notice.

Third: you get points for originality. Hundreds of coaches have probably told writers at some point that their struggling teams would put it all together and make the playoffs, but Fassel did it with fire, with (apparently real) anger, and most importantly with style.

Fourth: the predictor needs to have first-hand impact on the game. No one cares what the owner's dog walker says will happen. But if the shortstop guarantees a World Series sweep, that's getting in the papers. Abe Lincoln once said, "We must not promise what we ought not, lest we be called on to perform what we cannot."

Fifth: it has to come true. If you make a bold enough prediction and use bold enough words and fail, you will perhaps be remembered, but not how you want to be. Had the Patriots beaten the Giants 41-17, do you think there would be any stories on Super Bowl Monday about how Burress' relatively mundane prediction had been wrong, or would the press have written about the 19-0 story?

Sixth: there has to be an intangible endearing quality to it. If Roger Clemens came back and predicted that he would lead the Mariners to the World Series this year, it would come off as arrogance from a world-class jerk - not a prediction. If he pulled it off, history would find a way to cheapen it (steroids, etc.) so we wouldn't have to appreciate it like we do the Jets in Super Bowl III or Base Ruth's possible shot-calling.

Recently Big Brown's trainer, Rick Dutrow, Jr., has been proclaiming that his horse winning the Belmont Stakes is a "foregone conclusion." He boldly stated, "Forget about it. There's no way in the world there's any horse that's doing any better than Big Brown. It's impossible...I don't even care about the post position...We don't need to worry. He will handle things."

So how will this prediction be remembered? This passes the first three tests with flying colors: it is the biggest stage in his sport, and one of the biggest in all of Sport. While his horse will be the odds-on favorite, the odds are against him that he'll win - no one has done it in 30 years and there have been odds-on favorites many, many times. Originality! Even Bob Baffert never mouthed off like this.

Where Dutrow's prediction gets hurt starts with #4- he doesn't have enough to do with the prediction coming true. Sure, he knows better than anyone what his horse can do. He knows better than anyone how much steroids have been pumped in him. But he won't be the one running, nor the one riding. If the jockey made this kind of prediction, that would be interesting. If the horse did, it would be astounding! If he doesn't win, Dutrow will likely be a laughing stock (for a day or two until we all forget about him) for being too bold. And if Big Brown does win, because the prediction is just so sleazy and self-righteous, and the guy keeps yelling it into any microphone he can find, we won't remember this fondly. We will blame it on a weak field and overt steroid use, and we will likely remember this more clearly as the last of the old-fashioned, inhumane Triple Crown seasons.

Now Petr Sykora's prediction in Monday's Stanley Cup Finals should be remembered as one of the all-time greats, and may be the best ever depending on the series plays out. Sykora played his shot-calling down later, saying he was just trying to loosen up his teammates, but regardless this is a classic:

The Red Wings were 35 seconds away from a Stanley Cup win. The Cup was polished and in the tunnel leading to the ice. The champagne was chilled in the home locker room. But the Penguins spoiled the party by pulling their goalie and scoring to tie it up with the extra attacker. Midway through the first overtime period, NBC's sideline reporter Pierre McGuire announced that Sykora had told him that he was going to "get the next one." Two overtimes later, he did and the Penguins won, sending the series back to Pittsburgh for Game 6.

Now this is a fantastic story, but if the Penguins go on to come back and win at home and then go back to Detroit and steal the Cup, it will be immortalized in sports legend. Stay tuned.

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