LONGSHOTS: Lessons to be learned from Robinson, Monarchs and I-Man
by Dave Long
There are many types of pressure in sports. Thereís the kind where the game is on the line and you need a big play to send everyone home happy. Then thereís the kind where you need to do well just to keep your job. Thereís handling failure with grace after giving it away and everyone is on your case or when the entire world is watching (or so it seems) and success has far bigger ramifications than just your personal benefit. And there is pressure that has nothing to do with sports beyond a personís bringing all kinds of it down on themselves for saying something about a topic that is simply related to sports.
Long ago Sox centerfielder Reggie Smith correctly said before the 1977 World Series that pressure is losing your job with four mouths to feed. Still, how you handle pressure at the moment of truth has a way of defining you. Folks love Tom Brady because he comes through when it counts and for his humility when he does. For Calvin Schiraldi itís another story. So, in a way, handling pressure is the essence of sports, at least at the high levels.
All of those sports pressures are in the news this week and offer lessons to be learned. The Manchester Monarchs, for instance, begin their quest this week to advance past the first round of the playoffs after failing to do so in all five years of their existence. That happens in the same week baseball celebrates the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking its color barrier ó where he endured unspeakable invectives from racists to show black America what was possible. And then there was the national firestorm surrounding the idiotic comments of Don Imus that got him fired.
In the case of the I-Man, itís not a sports story, but it dominated Sports Center because it involved the womenís basketball team at Rutgers. It was a textbook display of what not to do when you do something idiotic, let alone after stepping over a line that just must not be crossed. He handled it like Bobby Knight would in telling everyone to take a flying leap and then couldnít recover as pressure mounted after he came to his senses and apologized. By then Pandoraís Box was wide open and the story mushroomed into one involving race, prejudice, free speech, hip-hop and everyone but Barack Obama and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had weighed in before it was 24 hours old. It also showed Al Sharpton has the clout to make a company like CBS quake in its boots ó which was stunning in itself.
The only thing not mentioned was the most important thing to be learned by the women from Rutgers. Itís an oldie, but a goody. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. That doesnít mean I-Man shouldnít have gotten whacked and it certainly wonít get Sharpton the publicity he craves. But this probably wonít be the last time the offended parties face something like this and the best way to deal with it comes from inner strength, which doesnít allow ANYONE to make you a victim with mere words, no matter what they are.
Inner strength was on display as Robinson faced the pressure of integrating baseball 60 years ago this week with everyone watching. Brooklyn GM Branch Rickey knew how important that was too. Itís why he picked Jackie, who he believed had the strength not to fight back at the bigotry he was sure to face. Itís what let him stay silent amid the taunts as he brilliantly became the Rookie of the Year in 1947 and then MVP two years later despite the immense pressure. And it helped millions who faced discrimination denying them jobs, admission to restaurants and access to whites-only restrooms believe it all could change. And it makes the uproar over offensive words that somehow Chris Rock is allowed to say in this country and an aging Caucasian isnít seem so small by comparison.
Thereís a lesson for the Monarchs in Robinsonís Dodgers as well. Despite being a terrific team, Brooklyn faced growing pressure from being a team that couldnít get it done when it counted most. They faced the Yankees in the 1947, í49, í52 and í53 World Series and lost every time. They also lost the pennant to Philly on the last day in 1950 and blew a 13-game lead with six weeks to go in 1951, which ended with Bobby Thompsonís shot heard round the world. Not until Johnny Podres beat the Yanks 2-0 in game seven of the series in 1955, nine years into his career, did Robinson finally get over the hump.
In getting knocked out of the playoffs in round one five years in a row, getting over the hump is what the Monarchs need to do. Jeff Eisenberg told me a while back, players donít think about a negative streak, especially when many havenít been part of it. I respectively disagree with El Presidente. Theyíll hear about it from knuckleheads like me, because despite a fabulous regular season, itís the story of every playoff until they finally advance. And fans will let them know about it too if things start badly. Thatíll add to the pressure, especially when the playoffs are the time to get noticed by the people who sign the really big checks in L.A.
The good news is they ainít the first team needing to get over the hump. L.A. lost to the Celtics in eight straight NBA finals before beating them in 1985. The Pistons lost three times to Bird and company before finally beating them and owned the Bulls until Michael finally slayed that dragon in 1991. And Iím sure thereís a post-Andy Bathgate hockey analogy here, but I canít think of one. Although, Iíll bet it involves Montreal, Boston and too many men on the ice if there is one.
The trials that come under such pressure teach mental toughness. Along with good goaltending, thatís whatís needed most to win in the playoffs. Itís what Ron Hextall said he wanted in his new team upon taking over last summer. In rolling up an impressive 110 points theyíve had a great regular season, but weíve seen that before. So with the playoffs at hand, itís time to see if come this time next year theyíll still be looking to get over the hump or become the kind of team that sees pressure as an ally that makes those who embrace it so much better.
Dave Long is host of Home Team Saturday with Dave Long and Company, 10 a.m. to noon each Saturday morning on WGAM (1250 AM in Manchester and 900 AM in Nashua).