One of the most fascinating and frustrating aspects about professional sports is the degree to which perception rules all else. Reporters, analysts, fans, and virtually anyone who contributes to the institution of professional sports often find their opinions governed not by the realities chronicled in hard data, but by the perceptions that emerge organically or through sports media inculcation.
Examples of this phenomenon are both endless and complicated. One fan might see a laziness in a player’s fielding, while another sees grace. A broadcaster might see fire and passion in a player’s on-field temperament, while a beat writer could see insolence and immaturity. Post-game stoic leadership? Try divisive aloofness. In this way, perceptions of players, teams, organizations, backgrounds, and countless other variables provide abundant material for discussion and often make their way into the fabric of the culture surrounding professional sports. I’m sure there’s a huge and interesting sociological discussion to be had about the factors contributing to the propagation and cementation of perceptions in professional sports. I’m just not sure I could give it the attention it deserves right now.
For the purposes of this post, I’m interested in the indelible perceptions and labels that are attached to certain teams, regardless of their accuracy. There are many examples of this. The Pittsburgh Steelers are assumed to be good at running the ball. The Chicago Bears play strong defense. The Dallas Mavericks run and gun. The New York Yankees rely on the home run for offense. Some of these are founded, and some aren’t. But these perceptions persist for extended periods of time with very little mainstream questioning.
I bring this up because of the Minnesota Twins. Like the teams above, the Twins are assumed to play fundamentally sound, hard-nosed baseball. The accompanying and perplexing assessment for such teams is that they “play the game the right way.” Teams that are labeled in this way are assumed to be good at bunting, hitting-and-running, stealing bases, and fielding the ball. Because this is the persisting perception of the Twins, broadcasters waste little time in mentioning the smart and tough nature of the team. During the recent Twins-Yankees series, it took Michael Kay, Paul O’Neill, and David Cone all of one inning before they began to extol the virtues of “Twins Baseball.” They regurgitated the perceptions with which the Twins have been branded, which got me thinking about the accuracy of such proclamations. So, I looked up the Twins’ performance over the last six years in the three most “playing the game the right way”-ish categories: stolen bases, defense, and baserunning.
The Twins’ stolen base percentage from 2004-2009 has ranked 12th, 16th, 15th, 5th, 19th, and 17th. During the same timeframe, their defensive efficiency has ranked 22nd, 7th, 17th, 16th, 19th, and 12th. Lastly, their baserunning has ranked 7th, 23rd, 6th, 7th, 3rd, and 14th. These numbers tell us that the Twins have been average at stealing, average on defense, and good at running the bases in recent history. They are not, however, significant enough to justify the continual portrayal of the Twins as an organization that sets the bar in these categories. For at least the last five and a quarter seasons, “Twins Baseball” has been an unfounded perception.
I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect broadcasters to go suddenly against everything that they’ve believed and said about the Twins over the last several years. But a couple of in-game events that directly opposed the perception of the Twins’ went completely without mention in one contest against the Yankees. The Yankees’ Brett Gardner blooped a ball down the left field line. Twins’ left fielder Denard Span misplayed it woefully, leading to an inside-the-park home run for the speedy Gardner. This defensive lapse went without mentioning. Standing on second and with one out, the Twins’ Brendan Harris took off for third base on a ball hit in front of him (something even my fifth graders know not to do). He was promptly thrown out at third. Both plays would qualify as gaffes for any team, so I expected the broadcasters to be all over these failures to live up to the Twins’ purported standards. Both plays passed with no discussion.
The coup de grace came from color commentator Paul O’Neill. Late in the same game, Twins’ first baseman Justin Morneau made a nice play to rob Nick Swisher of a hit. O’Neill:
This is how they win. Defensively and offensively, they do everything right. When you show up to the ballpark to play them, you know you’re going to have to beat them. They’re not going to give you anything.
How quickly we forget that, in the very same game, the Twins made two critical errors – one on defense, and one on offense.
My point is that rigorous adherence to perceptions, while easy and fun, does nothing to raise the level of analysis or discussion about sports. With all the incredible and accessible information available to just about anyone these days, there is no reason why anyone should resort to the lazy recollection of useless labels in an attempt to provide insight. It just doesn’t work. We would all be better off if we simply examined the objects of our curiosity with an open mind and a receptiveness to any realities the information uncovers.