|A win is a win|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: From his home on the Northern California coast, Page 2's Eric Neel is keeping a diary of the 2002 pennant races involving the Giants, Dodgers, A's and Angels. This is the fifth installment of Neel's journal.
Saturday, Sept. 14
Status: Giants move 1 game ahead of Dodgers for NL wild-card. Angels and A's remain tied for the AL West lead, with 15 games remaining.
You watch "Inside the Actors Studio" -- you know it's all about motivation.
Imagine yourself as a Dodger or Giant and it's not hard to figure out what moves you.
For starters, you can draw on the venom and bile that has been circulating in the rivalry for generations. Just dip your foot in that stream and before you know it you're raising your bat in the air like it's a sword from a scabbard, ready to smite the sorry bum who happens to be wearing the wrong colors tonight.
Add to that the fact that you and your ancient rival are fighting for the one and only playoff spot left, and you're ready to walk naked through the desert, take a sharp stick in the eye, and play fungo till your hands bleed.
But what if you are the Angels and Athletics? What gets you going? What's at stake? Where is the drive? After all, as Kevin in Sacramento pointed out in a letter to me yesterday, the games between the two are "almost totally meaningless" because it's very likely (with the Red Sox something like 23 games back now) both teams will make the playoffs.
Kevin is right. The AL race doesn't have the same desperate, crazed, end-of-the-world energy that the NL race does.
Still, look at the players on both sides of the Angels-A's divide this past week. They were jacked. They had the love and they had it bad. Winners were dancing jigs and throwing fists in the air, losers were hanging their heads and kicking the dirt like disappointed schoolboys.
So what was their motivation?
I figure it's four-fold and it breaks down something like this:
1. Pennants and paint jobs. Nobody on either side wants to see a wild-card "winners" pennant raised in his home park and everybody kind of cringes at the thought of the grounds crew unveiling a fancy wild-card logo painted on the outfield wall. There's no shame in the wild card, of course, and if you get it you take it, and gladly, but there's no real pride in it either.
If you win the big hand at the end of the night because the dealer got tired and called a deuces and one-eyed jacks are wild hand and you ended up with five "aces," you take the pot and go home smiling, but you don't get to talk about it the next day, and nobody is coming up slapping you on the back and telling you what a stellar hand of poker that was you played last night. Whichever team wins the wild card will storm the field and do the champagne thing, sure, but they won't get that buzz off of it next spring, they won't tear-up looking out at the pennant and paint job. And they want to tear-up, see, they want to swim in the sea of glory and pride.
2. Home field. The Yankees have the best record in the league right now (by 1 game), but they are catchable, and with the top seed comes home cooking in the playoffs. If you're good, you can win anywhere, of course, but it's nice to be at home. It's nice to think that the kid in the fourteenth row dribbing ice cream down the front of his shirt is wearing your team shirt. It's comforting to think that the blue-haired lady in section 128 who has been to every home game since 1969 is here again tonight, and to know that she's brought that lucky cap of hers, the one you signed on fan appreciation day back in '97. And it's good to have the feeling that the almost millions of tiny beads of sweat, molecules of oxygen and waves of light moving through the park are laden with love for you and not the other guys. Guys will give it up to play in such a comfort zone; they will play like mad dogs now to feel so easy and welcome come postseason.
3. The Yankees. Unless things change drastically, the loser of this thing gets the Bronx. They get Torre, Clemens, Rivera, Soriano, Jeter, Giambi and Williams. They go heads-up with mystique, they wrestle aura. Not a player on either the A's or the Angels will shrink from this task, you understand, but you can bet every single one of them would like to warm up in Minnesota first, where the kids are real good, yeah, but they aren't exactly cast in bronze just yet.
4. You play to win. Always. Parcheesi, H-O-R-S-E, Risk, or Go Fish -- come strong or don't come at all. It wouldn't matter if the games were for food money or matchsticks. All that matters is that they're games. You make it to the bigs because you are incredibly self-motivated, because you spent hours and hours and days and days in the minos, trying to level out your swing, master your footwork and flick your wrist perfectly every time. You make it to the bigs because you can't stand to lose. Now you're in a fight for the AL West title, and you know that win or lose you're going to make it to the playoffs. But that's tomorrow's news; today's news is there's a game at seven and it's time to lace 'em up. You don't turn off the want-to, you don't know how. A win is a win. A win is good. A win beats losing every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column on Page 2. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.