King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Ya gotta believe: It's funny how fond the immensely talented are of assuring us that confidence and "knowing how to win" lead to victory.


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Salon Staff
June 21, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

ESPN announcer Sean McDonough mentioned during North Carolina's win over Rice Wednesday in a College World Series game how surprising it was that the Tar Heels, who hadn't been hitting at all, had managed to stay alive this long.

His partner, former Cincinnati Reds great Barry Larkin, launched into a pretty standard baseball riff about North Carolina, which lost in three games to Oregon State in the finals last year.

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"I think that has to do with experience," he said. "They know how to win. I tell you, playing for the national championship, having that experience, that's something that you can rely on, that's something that you can bank on."

He went on a bit about how some ill-timed errors did in North Carolina a year ago in the deciding game. The Tar Heels made four errors that day, including the one that allowed the winning run to score as Oregon State won 3-2. Evidently, the Tar Heels didn't know how to win last year, but they're now clued in that making four errors in a game isn't the ticket.

The '06 Beavers knew how to win, having been to the College World Series the year before, not to mention in 1952. One good way to do it: Have the other team make four errors in one game. Write that down, kids!

This body of knowledge has propelled Oregon State to the finals again this year. They'll play the winner of Thursday's knockout rematch between North Carolina and Rice, the Tar Heels having won Wednesday's game 6-1 thanks to knowing how to win, and also to limiting the Owls to one run on seven hits.

Not to pick on Larkin, who's just fine. He just got me thinking by pushing one of my buttons during a perfectly enjoyable broadcast.

This idea of having to know how to win is a common one in baseball and other sports, and it's not totally nonsensical. But I think it's vastly overrated.

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For example, you'll hear next year about how the Cleveland Cavaliers, newcomers to the NBA playoffs this year in their run to the Finals, will be that much better prepared to contend next year because of that experience. There might be a little bit to that. Experience really is the best teacher, and the Cavs figure to be a little better prepared next year.

But there'd be a whole lot more to getting a decent point guard. There's no amount of knowledge that was going to help the Cavs beat the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. The Spurs had better basketball players. By a lot.

It reminds me of my favorite boxing joke, the one where the pug asks his priest if it's OK to pray for victory in an upcoming bout. "It couldn't hurt, son," the padre says, "but it'd help a lot more if you could fight a little."

When a team fails in its first postseason and then succeeds later, we all notice and we nod our heads and note that they were able to lean on their experience and finally break through. I'm sure I've done this myself. We conveniently forget at these moments all those times when a first-time contender wins the title, or when a team that's been there before never does win the ring.

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Haven't the Sacramento Kings had ample opportunity to bank on their playoff experience? When are the Atlanta Braves going to put some of that knowledge, last cashed in in 1995, to work again? Didn't the Minnesota Vikings of the 1970s or the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s have a helmetful of championship experience?

Larkin's own Cincinnati Reds went to the World Series in 1990, the first time they'd been to the postseason since 1979, when every single player who got into a game that year except fifth starter Rick Mahler was a teenager or younger. Mahler had been a rookie with the Atlanta Braves in '79. The only Red who played regularly in 1990 who had been to a World Series was starter Danny Jackson, who'd been on the winning side in '85 with Kansas City.

The Reds were green!

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Their opponent, the Oakland A's, had lost the '88 World Series and then, knowledge in hand, won the '89 Series.

They knew how to win!

The Reds swept the A's in that Series. They didn't get back to the postseason until 1995, though to be fair they were also in first place in 1994 when the strike killed the season. They lost in the League Championship Series in '95 and haven't been back to the playoffs since. Larkin played through 2004.

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So Larkin's own career is a counterexample to this idea about knowing how to win, but he still believes in it. It's powerful stuff.

Larkin then moved on to an idea that transcends sports: confidence.

"That's a huge part of playing baseball," he said. "It's the mental part of playing baseball. If you have the confidence that you can get it done, you're going to probably get it done."

Spoken like a guy with the talent to play shortstop in the big leagues for 19 years and get 2,300 hits!

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Successful people talk like this a lot. If you just believe in yourself, you can do anything. You can pay a lot of money just to hear this message from one successful person or another. After all, that's been their experience, right? Young Barry Larkin surely believed he could play in the major leagues and win a World Series and an MVP award. And sure enough, that's what happened.

It's hard to believe this didn't dawn on me till I was in my 30s, but one day it did: Nobody ever interviews unsuccessful people about this subject. There must be millions more failures who had the confidence they could do it, whatever it was, than there are successes.

This may have dawned on me reading the writing of sometime Salon contributor Gina Arnold when she wrote a local music column in the Bay Area. She used to express amazement at the continued confidence of local musicians that their band was fantastic in the face of all evidence to the contrary in the form of critical and commercial indifference or outright failure.

I was once bitching to a bandmate about some other local group getting some prime gig I felt we should have landed. We're better than they are, I said. "You think we're better than the Rolling Stones," my bandmate chuckled. And I did. And we couldn't fill a phone booth by papering the house.

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Previous column: My All-Star ballot, and outrage

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