If you follow baseball at all, you might have noticed some obscene scores involving the Pittsburgh Pirates recently.
Scores such as 20-0 and 17-3. They’ve been part of a seven-game skid in which the Pirates have been outscored 72-12. This is the kind of pounding I can relate to on a “competitive” level … because it reminds me of the softball team I was on in grade school, a misfit squad for which the term “mercy rule” might have been invented.
I’m not exaggerating; I distinctly remember games “called early” when we were losing 49-1 and 62-2. You wonder how a team could be so bad. And back then, I did, too. We were from an extremely small town (less than 500 people) but we played some teams from towns that weren’t all that much bigger. We practiced. We wanted to win. Yet we’d get into some of these games and just be blitzed. It would seem a miracle we got anybody out.
As the season went on, we actually did not lose every game, nor did we get annihilated in all of our losses. But we lost enough of the mega-blowouts that they are my predominant memory. You know how they say something may be bad at the time it happens, then later it becomes pretty funny in retrospect? Well, that happened for me with this softball team … but then there was another twist.
It seemed funny to talk about it sometimes in my 20s, because scores like 62-2 are so ridiculous. But then as I got a little older, it became “not funny” again, because I realized one big reason why we were so bad: We had very few examples of how to play well. Our coach was a dad who did the best he could, but he hadn’t played true competitive softball. I was a pitcher, and the summary of the instruction I got was: “Get it over the plate. Don’t walk people.”
I wasn’t taught any real mechanics on how to pitch.The coach didn’t know. My own dad didn’t know. None of the parents who came to the games knew. I was one of the oldest kids on this team, so we had no older teammates to teach us what they knew – if any such kids had even existed in my town. At the time, there wasn’t even a softball team at the high school team I would eventually attend.
If it would have occurred to me then, I might have asked my parents to get me a book on pitching and tried to learn from that. But I didn’t think of that then. I thought I was just “supposed” to know how and then do it with sheer willpower.
So we muddled through and came to the understandable conclusion that we were not good. In truth, we never had much of a chance.
Now, it’s a different story for the Pittsburgh Pirates … or for the Kansas City Royals. They are both in last place in their respective Central Divisions and already feel a sense of hopelessness even though we’re still in April and just a few weeks into the season. The Pirates have had a losing record the last 17 seasons. The Royals have had one winning record (2003) since the strike ended the 1994 season.
So, naturally, the players on these teams over the years perhaps have gotten to the point where they felt like they weren’t any good. But, of course, the truth is you have to be good just to make the major leagues.
Admittedly, when you reach that point, “good” becomes something much better than what it had been previously. But even so, the Pirates and Royals have had – and currently do have – at least some players who are truly “good” major-leaguers.
Yet both franchises seem long past the point of appearing to have any realistic chance at winning records. The economics of the sport have taken a toll, along with bad and unlucky decision-making.
When you’re a so-called small-market club, your margin for error is tiny. Whatever mistakes you make, you pay dearly for them. You can’t “spend” your way out of mistakes. And, of course, sometimes the decisions made truly don’t seem like mistakes … until a player gets injured or, for whatever other reasons, fails to perform as anticipated.
Baseball writers have devoted millions of words to why that sport has ended up in the predicament of having franchises that seem utterly hopeless. While I am biased, I don’t think there is any more astute sports writer than my friend and former KC Star colleague Joe Posnanski, now with “Sports Illustrated.”
Joe had the perverse luck, if you will, of (A) growing up a Cleveland Indians fan and (B) coming to KC at essentially the start of the Royals’ precipitous slide into the netherworld. Joe is a baseball savant like very few people who’ve ever typed on a keyboard, and yet somehow has ended up seeing an absurd amount of lousy baseball from teams he’s gotten to know inside and out.
On his amazingly great blog – Curiously Long Posts _Joe sometimes will take various journeys back into Royals’ misadventures of the last decade and a half. It’s somewhat like reading what a totally sane and good-humored person would write about his compulsion to attend family reunions despite knowing full well that numerous raving-lunatic relatives would be there.
Now, if you’re wondering if I’m going to tie all this back to women’s basketball somehow … well, of course I am. Joe’s most recent post is about an idea from one of his readers who suggests that the moribund Pirates and Royals ought to switch leagues to try to bring some sense of a “spark” to both franchises.
And while reading it, I thought, “You know, here’s a definite upside to the WNBA: There is a sense of real competitive balance.”
Now, MLB is an American institution followed by millions for more than a century; the WNBA is a niche league still finding its audience. I’m not trying to really compare anything about the leagues, except to say that sometimes I remind myself that even the “crown jewels” of the professional American sports world have their problems.
Baseball has a competitive imbalance that has hit some franchises like the Pirates and Royals so hard that it almost seems like having even a shred of optimism about them is delusional.
The NBA, preparing for what may be another painful and venomous collective-bargaining agreement process, seems to have both some competitive-balance issues and financial woes by what management will contend are too many excessive salaries.
The NFL’s biggest issue seems to be policing its various bad citizens (though it’s also not immune to economic woes.) The league that sells on-field brutality and fearlessness wants all of its players off the field to “blend in” and stay out of trouble. An especially tricky proposition in this instant-media age where it’s nearly impossible to keep misdeeds under wraps.
The WNBA isn’t close to any of those worlds, of course. But I think it’s worth looking a the bright side sometimes … especially when as women’s sports followers, you so frequently have negativity shoved in your face. For whatever bad you can find in having “only” 12 teams with “only” 11 roster spots, the good is this: The talent is pretty well-dispersed. From that standpoint, no franchise should feel “hopeless.”
There is a salary cap that seems to work in the favor of competitive balance. While the issue of players competing in overseas leagues does impact the WNBA, it’s a compromise I think everyone involved in pro women’s basketball has just learned to live with. There are legitimate gripes about the quality of coaching and officiating, but the reality is that every league has those.
I’m not trying to be Pollyanna; there are worries, of course, for WNBA fans that all go back to economics. There is the stark fact that eight of the 13 championships in league history – 61.5 percent – belong to franchises that either are now defunct (Houston, Sacramento) or have relocated (Detroit to Tulsa).
But again, from a competitive standpoint, the WNBA is in reasonably good shape. Yes, there are franchises that have have proven themselves consistently capable, while others have shown to be consistent underachievers. There are those that seem to make the right moves time and again, while others seem to do just the opposite.
But none of the 12 existing franchises – not even Tulsa, a cross between a relocation and an expansion team because of the veterans who left the Shock – feel they simply can’t win, either now or in the foreseeable future. In the WNBA, you can be in the cellar and still see some daylight. It doesn’t seem like a perpetual dungeon.