Sunday, August 23, 2015

The joy of ... losing

So this popped on Deadspin today, and, man, it's priceless. And timeless. And oddly affirming in a world turned ugly these days by canting demagogues and their vicious, mindless acolytes.

Mekhi Garrard's wide-eyed, laughing response to some kid blasting a grand slam off him reminds us, first of all, that kids sometimes have a better perspective on life its ownself than the adults around them. And that, sometimes, there can be sheer wonder in a thing even when you're getting your head kicked in.

Cole Wagner's mammoth blast off Garrard, after all, put Garrard's team down 18-0 in a Little League World Series game. And yet ... look at that face. Lip-read the "wow" coming out of him. Does that look like a kid who feels any grownup-infused shame because he just failed so spectacularly? Does it look like anything but someone who recognizes a "wow" moment when he sees it, and will stop to appreciate it even when it comes at his expense?

We've read and heard a lot this week about Steelers' linebacker James Harrison taking away participatory trophies from his kids because they didn't "earn" them. Because achievement, apparently, is measured not by effort but only by results. That if you don't win, effort means nothing.

It's an effective, if ultimately unsatisfying, way to succeed in the adult world.  But what a soulless thing to impose on kids who are 6 and 8, as Harrison's are. At 6 and 8, they shouldn't even be playing organized sports. They should be two houses over in an empty lot playing football, or something vaguely resembling it, with a bunch of other 6 and 8-year-olds. They should be playing baseball on some weedy diamond where if you hit it into right field it's an out, because you couldn't scare up enough players to field complete nines.

In this game, there are no bases on balls. Pitcher's hand is in effect. And if your goofy little brother dribbles one through the infield and takes off for third base instead of first, some coach isn't going to scream at him to stop screwing around and play the game right.

There's a time and place for all that. There's a time and place for playing the game right, and for all those bromides about winning and earning and feeling bad about yourself when you lose. There's a time and place, unfortunately, where the sheer joy of games exits stage left, and the games become a job, a means of gainful employment just like any 9-to-5 gig in the belly of some corporate beast.

Sadly, that's happening earlier and earlier now. High school kids have gone from being high school kids to potential commodities for the massive enterprise that is high-dollar collegiate sports. College kids become potential commodities for the even more massive enterprise that is pro sports. And somewhere in that process, the wonder of it all often gets lost.

In the last year, a handful of NFL players have made news by quitting the game in their 20s, at a time when their careers are presumably just taking off. It's been widely and accurately reported that they've done this because they fear the long-term physical and neurological consequences of playing the game, even for fat paychecks. In other words, the game is no longer worth the candle. And that's because there is no longer enough joy in the game at that level to keep them playing it.

And so, let's celebrate Mekhi Garrard's wide-eyed wonder in the face of spectacular failure. Let's celebrate the "wow" in his defeat. Let's celebrate the wonder of it all, because the wonder of it all can be such a fleeting thing.

Yeah, the kid lost. But it sure looked like winning from here.

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