Jim de Bree | Is Winning at Any Cost Worth It?

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“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

— Former UCLA football coach Red Sanders

Although the preceding quote is frequently attributed to Vince Lombardi, Lombardi heard it from a UCLA coach who first made the statement after his team lost on the gridiron to USC in 1949. 

At least two recent World Series champions, the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox, were caught using technology to steal signs from the opposing catcher. In other words, the batter knew what pitch was coming and had a good idea of where the pitch would be located. That makes it a heck of a lot easier for an experienced Major League batter to hit the ball. 

Using technology for these purposes is nothing new. The New York Giants’ seemingly miraculous comeback in 1951 and Bobby Thompson’s infamous walk-off home run off of Ralph Branca in the playoffs were made possible, in part, because the Giants had developed an elaborate mechanism at the Polo Grounds for stealing signs and notifying the batter using relatively primitive technology available at the time. 

Technology is a great disrupter in baseball, as well as in life generally. But when technology is used to cheat or gain an unfair advantage, it can destroy venerable institutions. 

If MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred had not punished these teams for technological cheating, every team would have started cheating and the game of baseball would suffer because fans would lose interest. 

Like many things today, baseball has been monetized into big business with lots of dollars to be had for winning. 

The temptation to win at all costs can prove too great, causing people to sacrifice their integrity in order to win. Winning isn’t always the only thing, as unprincipled behavior typically does not end well.

Baseball is a microcosm of America. In so many places we have placed too strong an emphasis on winning. In too many venues, participants increasingly believe that being victorious justifies the means employed to win. When they act in this manner, they tear at America’s institutional fabric.

Consider the subprime mortgages after the turn of the 21st century. Participants in the “Big Short” put our entire economy at risk. They cheated the system so they could win by getting rich. Many Americans still have not fully recovered from the Great Recession. Like Commissioner Manfred, our government was able to put new controls in place and punish some, but not all, of the perpetrators.

Today, pharmaceutical companies profit by using pricing metrics to make generic drugs unconscionably expensive. 

Patients are like the pitcher who is throwing pitches that are certain to be hit. Health-care profiteering forces consumers to direct huge amounts of their income to pay medical bills. 

But technology is not the sole means to gain an unfair advantage. Mitch McConnell has changed the Senate rules to ensure that the Republicans win. Doing so has won political support from his base, but whether the ultimate result of those rules changes is good for America remains to be seen. There is no debate on legislation, or even worse, the Senate does not even consider legislation that passed the House. 

A qualified Supreme Court nominee failed to get a confirmation hearing because of an unprecedented action by Sen. McConnell. I won’t mention the impact of his actions on the impeachment process. 

At some point the Democrats must feel like the Dodgers do. McConnell, like the Astros, is not remorseful for his behavior. Unfortunately, the Republicans do not have a monopoly on this behavior; Harry Reid set the stage for McConnell when the Democrats controlled the Senate.

When partisanship (doing what is popular for your political base) transcends citizenship (doing what is best for America), the best ideas are not brought forth. Yet the politicians inevitably declare that the ends justify the means. 

History is replete with examples of societies where common folks rightfully felt they were unjustly treated. Typically such situations occurred because those in authority misused their power to achieve short-term victories by manipulating or ignoring rules and norms. The long-term consequences of those actions generally proved detrimental to their governments and societies. 

Just as baseball fans may become disillusioned by cheating and follow other sports instead, the collateral damage associated with this behavior in other venues is that many Americans will lose faith in their government and either withdraw or become part of movements that adversely affect the institutions that make America great.

For example, millennials who have not been able to achieve the financial success of their parents are more open to embracing socialistic concepts. 

Perhaps the mantra should be changed to say, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s how you played the game.” Playing in a manner that enhances our institutions should be the paramount ideal for which we strive.

That is true for baseball as well as for our other foundational establishments.

Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident.

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