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Friday, October 22

The Levels of Choking and Panicking  

In an attempt to (temporarily) close the book on the ALCS before the start of the WS, there are but two questions to answer. First, did the Yanks choke or panic? Second, where does the 3 game collapse sit on the 13 levels of losing? Hopefully Simmons will address the latter today, and I e-mailed Gladwell to get his thougts on the former. Let's begin with Simmons since there are so many different instances of each (and it's so sweet to relive them).
Level XII: The Achilles' Heel
Definition: This defeat transcends the actual game, because it revealed something larger about your team, a fatal flaw exposed for everyone to see ... flare guns are fired, red flags are raised, doubt seeps into your team ... usually the beginning of the end (you don't fully comprehend this until you're reflecting back on it).
This, to me, is A-Rod slapping the ball out of Arroyo's glove in game 6. The Yanks were down having been dominated by Schilling all night and Arroyo was about to tag A-Rod and all but kill their chances for a come back. A-Rod, like a Litte Leaguer who doesn't want to lose, slaps the ball out of Arroyo's glove:

Without question this play revealed something larger about both A-Rod and the 2004 Yanks. From Simmons
The Buckner-Armbrister flashback play in Game 6 clearly exposed A-Rod as a liar and cheater of the highest order -- the kind who would turn over an "R" in Scrabble and pretend it's a blank letter. Warrants mentioning.
Additionally, the play showed (as is being discussed to my glee ad infinitum in the City yesterday & today (you know I always liked Mike Lupica ... really), this Yankee team had none of the pride and passion that made their predecessors so dominant. What would Paul O'Neill have done if one of his players had pulled the shit that Rodriguez did?
Level X: The Rabbit's Foot
Definition:Now we're starting to get into "Outright Painful" territory ... this applies to those frustrating games and/or series where every single break seemingly goes against your team ... unbelievably frustrating ... you know that sinking, "Oh, God, I've been here before" feeling when something unfortunate happens, when your guard immediately goes shooting up? ... yeah ... I'm wincing just writing about it.
A slight modification on this one is that every Yankee fan out there could look at the Bellhorn homerun and the A-Rod slap as calls that would have stayed the Yanks' way in seasons past but didn't this year. In past years the opponents would have been stewing that the Umps had screwed up two easy calls and it would have distracted the whole team. The Yanks would then smile inwardly, get that warm glow of knowing the gods are looking out for you, and put together a fierce two-out rally to bury the opponent.
Level VIII: Dead Man Walking
Definition:Applies to any playoff series when your team remains "alive," but they just suffered a loss so catastrophic and so harrowing that there's no possible way they can bounce back ... especially disheartening because you wave the white flag mentally, but there's a tiny part of you still holding out hope for a miraculous momentum change ... so you've given up, but you're still getting hurt, if that makes sense.
  • Games 6 and 7 of the [1986] ALCS (Red Sox-Angels), following the dramatic Game 5 when the Angels (three outs from the World Series) blew a 5-2 lead in the ninth inning (capped off by Dave Henderson's go-ahead homer with two strikes and two outs in the ninth, as policeman surrounded the field and the Angels bench was ready to run onto the field). If that wasn't bad enough, the Angels tied the game in the bottom of the ninth, had two chances with the bases loaded to score the winning run, then blew the game in the 11th. Then they flew cross-country to Boston to play Games 6 and 7, which they promptly lost by a combined score of 132-2. Talk about Dead Man Walking.
Could it be that game 4 did this to the Yanks? It's certainly possible. Rivera with a 4-3 lead to start the 9th and complete a 4-0 sweep of the Sox after embarassing them in game 3. Easy money, done it 1000 times before. This is why they play Enter Sandman when he comes out of the dugout. And yet he blows it. The next night, when they really needed him to come through, Torre puts him not so much to save the game (there was a man on 3rd with one out) as to prevent an actual loss. That is, keep the Yanks on life support. But here's the thing, Torre knew he couldn't expect Rivera to actually get out of the situation. They were fighting the tide. Later on, Señor Octobre strikes again. Finally there's a combination of two for Game 7. The sweetest thing about all of this is that the backdrop to the whole week was that everyone knew the Yanks would pull it out. Game 7, I feel, is these two together:
Level VI: The Full-Fledged Butt-Kicking
Definition:Sometimes you can tell right away when it isn't your team's day ... and that's the worst part, not just the epiphany but everything that follows -- every botched play, every turnover, every instance where someone on your team quits, every "deer in the headlights" look, every time an announcer says, "They can't get anything going," every shot of the opponents celebrating, every time you look at the score and think to yourself, "Well, if we score here and force a turnover, maybe we'll get some momentum," but you know it's not going to happen, because you're already 30 points down ... you just want it to end, and it won't end ... but you can't look away ... it's the sports fan's equivalent to a three-hour torture session.

Level V: The "This Can't Be Happening" GameThe sibling of the Full-Fledged Butt-Kicking ... you're supposed to win, you expect to win, the game is a mere formality ... suddenly your team falls behind, your opponents are fired up, the clock is ticking and it dawns on you for the first time, "Oh my God, this can't be happening."
The beauty is that since everyone knew the Yanks would come back, the creeping death of Game 7 is all the sweeter. They didn't come back.

2004 Red Sox. Biggest comeback in sports history. So did the Yanks choke or panic? My reading of Gladwell's article is that they did indeed choke. It's hard to believe that a team could choke four straight games, but I think the important quote that elaborates how this could happen is this:
"When you go and interview them, you have the sense that when they are in the stereotype–threat condition they say to themselves, 'Look, I'm going to be careful here. I'm not going to mess things up.' Then, after having decided to take that strategy, they calm down and go through the test. But that's not the way to succeed on a standardized test. The more you do that, the more you will get away from the intuitions that help you, the quick processing. They think they did well, and they are trying to do well. But they are not." This is choking, not panicking. Garcia's athletes and Steele's students are like Novotna, not Kennedy. They failed because they were good at what they did: only those who care about how well they perform ever feel the pressure of stereotype threat. The usual prescription for failure—to work harder and take the test more seriously—would only make their problems worse. That is a hard lesson to grasp, but harder still is the fact that choking requires us to concern ourselves less with the performer and more with the situation in which the performance occurs. Novotna herself could do nothing to prevent her collapse against Graf. The only thing that could have saved her is if—at that critical moment in the third set—the television cameras had been turned off, the Duke and Duchess had gone home, and the spectators had been told to wait outside. In sports, of course, you can't do that. Choking is a central part of the drama of athletic competition, because the spectators have to be there—and the ability to overcome the pressure of the spectators is part of what it means to be a champion.


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