Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Measures of Success

How should success in sports be measured? Is a single championship worth more than years of steady play that fall just short of the ultimate goal? Or does the act of competing outweigh results that are often impacted by factors outside the participants’ control?

Since 1997, the Florida Marlins have attained a winning percentage of .485, losing more games than they won and never winning a division title. The team has been dismantled on several occasions, its best players going to the highest bidders. Yet the Marlins won World Series titles in 1997 and 2003, the only two years in which they reached the post-season, both times as the Wild Card – the best second place team in the National League.

Conversely, the Minnesota Twins, like the Marlins a small market team hindered by financial limitations, have attained a winning percentage of .511 and won six division titles in those fourteen seasons. Unlike the Marlins, however, they won no championships during those years, and only once made it past the first round of the playoffs.

Does this mean that the Marlins have been the more successful franchise since 1997? Are the Twins’ wins and division titles overshadowed by the Marlins’ World Series rings?

These questions arise because, in the past two weeks, two long time managers, Bobby Cox of the Atlanta Braves and Cito Gaston of the Toronto Blue Jays, retired from the game with vastly different records and public perception of their respective accomplishments.

Cox retired after twenty-nine years of managing, twenty-five of them with Atlanta. From 1991 to 2005, Cox’s Braves won an unfathomable fourteen consecutive division titles, interrupted only by the 1994 season, which was never completed because of a players’ strike. Cox won a total of 2504 games during his managerial career, and attained a lifetime winning percentage of .556. Yet, despite reaching the World Series five times, Cox’s Braves won only one world championship. Some critics contend that, despite their regular season success, the Braves, who featured three assured Hall of Fame pitchers (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz) underachieved during Cox’s managerial reign.

Gaston’s managerial career was brief by comparison. He managed for twelve years, all of them with the Toronto Blue Jays. His teams won a total of 894 games (slightly more than a third of those won by Cox’s teams) and his lifetime winning percentage was .516, well below that of Cox. Yet Gaston’s Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, the only world championships ever attained by a team outside of the United States. The Blue Jays’ accomplishment those two years elevated baseball on an international level and made relevant in Canada a sport which, until then, had received only lukewarm support above our northern borders.

Do Gaston’s two championships trump Cox’s twenty-nine years of success? In today’s post-MTV world, where attention spans are short and immediate results are demanded, one would think so. Yet that is not what one takes away from media coverage and reaction to the two managers’ retirement.

While Cox has been universally acclaimed as one of the all-time great managers, a certain Hall of Famer, praise for Gaston’s accomplishments has not been nearly as effusive. One might almost forget that the Blue Jays won four division titles as well as two championships during Gaston’s years, and attendance rose above the four million mark during three of those seasons, the only time that has ever occurred in the history of the franchise.

What is the reason for the disparity in media and fan reaction to the retirement of these two men? Race may have something to do with it. Cox is white, Gaston black – and while one would hope that this would not be a factor in the twenty-first century, during a period that has seen this nation elect an African-American President for the first time, we must remember that baseball excluded black players for nearly half a century, until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

More likely factors are personalities and visibility. Cox was a character, evoking a southern, good-old-boy persona (despite the fact that he was born in Selma, California). He regularly argued with umpires and was tossed from games several times each year – the most recent instance coming last week, during the Division Series against the San Francisco Giants. Further, the Atlanta Braves’ games were televised nationally by TBS, which brought Cox daily into living rooms across the U.S.

Gaston was quiet and cerebral. He lacked Cox’s charisma and approached the game in a professional, understated manner. Perhaps more importantly, his team’s games were principally played outside of the United States, giving American viewers limited exposure to his accomplishments. It was not until the post-season that Americans got a true sense of Gaston’s managerial prowess, and the Blue Jays took full advantage of this limited exposure by winning two championships.

It is difficult to compare the managerial careers of Cox and Gaston precisely because their circumstances and accomplishments were so different. Each merits accolades and, if there is any justice, each will find a permanent resting spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yet the differences in their careers raise valid questions about how we, as a society, measure success in sports. We can ask those questions, but the answers are as elusive as a home run ball bouncing in the bleachers at Wrigley Field.

1 comment:

  1. Much of the points raised here, could apply to anything.

    At my sister's graduation from grad school, Wayne Huizenga gave a speech that raised a point that has stuck with me. Considering that he is a former owner of the Marlins, fits nicely with this topic.

    Huizenga said that you can have all of the qualifications in the world, all of the credentials, and look all well and good in theory, but your reality can be markedly different from what you are theoretically worth.

    He noted that opportunity makes all the difference. (And with opportunity, the good sense to jump on it.) He highlighted that success often turns on being in the right place at the right time.

    I think too, that as to these two men, their successes are relative to time and place. Both are highly talented managers. But each took a different path, because life offered each a different path.

    So too, the perceptions of how successful each was will depend on the audience. Beauty is relative to the vision of the beholder. Thus, I think success ought to be measured in relative terms - no two people in the sport of baseball, have ever enjoyed the exact same path. The induction of Andre Dawson into the Hall of Fame caused a lot of commotion because many contended that there were others more deserving than he.

    Some were partial to Don Mattingly. Bert Blylvevin. Jack Morris. Tim Raines. Roberto Alomar. The list goes on. Again, finding a perfect comparison is difficult without relativity.