The moral of this Aesop (really!) fable is “Kindness Effects More Than Severity,” just another version of Mama’s old honey-vinegar tale.
Abacus, in his long-term guise as a classroom English teacher, enjoyed pointing out to his captive audience…er, that is, students that an equally valuable lesson to be extracted from “The Wind and the Sun” is “He Who Makes the Rules Usually Wins.”
A little healthy cynicism can’t hurt ya, can it?
Public schools within the whole wide state of Texas, all extra-curricular activities—from the Academic Decathlon, to the Battle of the Bands, to Friday Night Lights—are administered by the University Scholastic League (UIL), an arm of the Texas Education Agency (which controls everything from kindergarten class size to the size of Abacus’ modest teacher pension).
For championship competition in team sports, match-ups are determined by the final standings in each UIL “district,” or league. The number of teams per league who qualify for the playoffs has grown as high as four in certain classifications. While the match-ups are locked in (and frequently traditional), issues such as time, location, even game officials are settled on the flip of a coin.
The UIL playoffs for baseball and softball, both HUGE youth sports in a state where far too much ballpark food is peddled and consumed, have offered an additional competitive twist to the festivities. Until these tournaments reach the Final Four showdowns pre-scheduled in and around the state capital, the teams have the option to play a best-of-three series in lieu of a single game. The caveat here is that both sides must agree to the series or, by default, one game determines advancement.
Now, the mission of high school sports, indeed of youth sports as a whole, is to maximize participation in a beneficial activity believed to provide numerous “teachable moments” in the growth and development of participants—even old grumpy umpires like the now-retired Abacus. (Whoops…didn’t notice that dusk had fallen with those rose-colored glasses on!)
But realistically, when competing for a state championship over the course of a month or so, the mission for these teams (whose “curriculum” all season has been steeped in competition) is to survive and advance. If, for example, a team’s starting pitching is thin, what advantage is to be gained by playing a series? If coach knows in his heart of hearts that his kids are “in the zone” and have been exceeding all reasonable expectation, why tempt the law of averages? On the other hand, a savvy squad with senior leadership may have enough tricks up its collective sleeve to gain advantage from extended play.
It can make for some fascinating and passionate debate…such as, what IS the most proper method for determining a champion?
The single elimination suspense of the NCAA March Madness basketball tournaments generates both excitement and dollars, but do we actually crown as champion the “best” team? Rollie Massimino’s Villanova Ewing-beaters, Danny Manning and Larry Brown’s Kansas miracles, the David Thompson-led NC State Wolfpack that ended Coach Wooden’s run back in the ‘70’s, Valvano’s bunch, North Carolina’s 3-OT defeat of Wilt Chamberlain and some other Jayhawks. Would all of these iconic upsets have occurred in a series or even a straight double-elimination format? Any of them?
Maybe the ebb and flow of an extended series is a better test for the competitive mettle of a player or team. Skill, strategy, adjustment, endurance. Team- and character-building opportunities abound, as Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks so eloquently reminded us while the 2012 NBA Finals were winding down. Magical performances and memorable games aplenty—Morris vs. Smoltz, Havlicek Stole the Ball, Pesky held the ball while Enos Slaughter scored from first.
But if we subscribe to a partiality for multiple games, then should not the ultimate determinant be a team’s performance over a full season?
Until divisional play was introduced in 1969, an MLB league championship was the result of a full season of games—a playoff meant there had been a tie for first place in the standings and was a rare treat, like the inter-league play found only in All-Star and World Series competition.
The significance of regular-season competition, however, has largely been reduced to weeding and seeding for the all-important post-season. How many NCAA Division I basketball conferences choose to award their coveted automatic national-tournament bid to the first-place finisher? Exactly as many as choose NOT to award athletic scholarships!
Of course, the notion that “bragging rights” are earned through regular-season play is as obsolescent as an abacus. Even the ponytail division at the neighborhood “Y” holds a post-season tournament—and they don’t even keep score at that age! But which playoff format provides the most equitable method for acquiring those bragging rights?
The NFL tweaks the single-elimination concept by offering byes into the second round to its top regular-season teams.
The seven-game series has become the traditional gauntlet to be run in most leagues and has provided the stage for some of sports greatest rivalries and most memorable moments.
Championship competition in many youth sports, notably baseball and softball, frequently incorporates a pure double-elimination bracket—you don’t go home until you’re beaten twice. The College World Series for many years used a simple eight-team double-elimination bracket. In its stead, the CWS is currently a smorgasbord of four-team double-elimination Regional, best-of-three showdown, more double-elimination that whittles eight teams down to a final two, who go head-to-head in a best-of-three series for the brass ring. A team could play as many as 16 games, comparable to MLB in which this year’s post-season maximum is 20.
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig continues to tinker with his game, adding to the 2012 post-season two additional teams as well as a do-or-die play-in game. If Bud should hold on to his job for much longer, the World Series may become a three-team round-robin, concluding on Thanksgiving.
Maybe there is no ideal format, no one valid measuring stick, no magic formula for crowning a champion.
Perhaps our games and rivalries are intended to live in perpetuity through banter and bickering on barstools, at bus stops and in board rooms anywhere there is Wind and Sun.
Most baseball aficionados remember that Bill Mazeroski won the 1960 World Series for his Pittsburgh Pirates with a walk-off Game 7 home run. But how many are aware that the Yankees outscored the Maz crew 55-27 in that series? You could look it up, as one of those Yanks was known to say.
In the 2012 NBA playoffs, both Los Angeles teams advanced to the second round despite scoring fewer total points then their opening-round opponent. (Denver topped the Lakers by a 677-674 count while the Clippers were outpointed by Memphis 640-635.)
Are there not soccer leagues that utilize a two-game, home-and-home playoff format in which advancement is determined by total cumulative score for the pair of games?
When all is said and done, methinks the curmudgeonly English teacher’s spin on Aesop may have been right all along.