The Runaround

Second place is the first loser. Which makes this column — with one more column to go before the end of the year-a potential heap of poop.

But as tragically possible as that last sentence is, at least it helps me to understand the plight of several sports teams.

For instance, this past weekend was the first for interleague baseball in 2005. And there were quite a number of interesting matchups. Three in particular caught the attention of the country, and all three pitted inter-city teams against each other.

With city-wide bragging rights at stake, the White Sox, Yankees and Angels all got the best of their municipal brethren, winning their series two games to one.

To realize the hurt of finishing second, one needs to look no further than the Cubs, Mets and Dodgers — the losing teams on the inter-city rivalry. Sure these major league teams make millions of dollars, and they have all had their own share of success at one time or another. But when it comes down to it, they are the second best teams in two-team towns. In other words, they are losers. Yet, even though finishing second is such an awful thing, we are generally raised to accept losing as youngsters.

During my formative years, I was constantly reminded that it was more important that I played my best and had fun than where I finished. My mother told me this; my coaches told me this; the Bernstein Bears told me this, and pretty soon I started to believe it. In tee-ball and soccer and piano recitals, grown-ups reminded me that "there are no losers when everyone plays by the rules" and "we’re all winners despite the scoreboard" and "when you miss a note you don’t only embarrass yourself but you embarrass your entire family."

Keyboarding aside, I had grown quite accustomed to hearing these egalitarian words, but I began to notice a disturbing trend: winning actually mattered.

My parents were exponentially happier the higher I finished. We went to Pizza Hut when my team took second. I shared Bagel Bites with my brother when my team was last.

My dad promised to buy me a GameBoy game if I hit a home run. He promised to pitch to me in the back yard until the sprinklers came on if I struck out. And oddly enough, I got the same size trophy when I finished second as I did when I finished last.

I only wished I could have seen what it was like when I won something, but poor hand-eye coordination cost me a chance at ever achieving that.

Since realizing just how important winning is in this day and age, I have made it my goal to avoid finishing anywhere other than first as often as I can. I made blue my favorite color and gold my favorite precious metal. I stopped asking for "seconds" at the dinner table and began asking for "an additional round of firsts." I demanded the number one on all team jerseys I wore (although somehow I always ended up with a number in the 50s and the coach’s sons had all the single-digit ones).

And I’ve seen professional sports teams do the same thing. There is such an emphasis on winning it all that every portion of the season is played with this in mind. The media read into preseason games. Coaches watch tapes as if they are "24." And players come early to practice and stay late, not only because they are paid millions, but because they care.

With such an emphasis on winning, it is far easier to finish in second than it ever was. The preparation and the competition for that coveted top spot are fierce, and for many, it can be too much.

That is why some players and teams have found a way out. In order to avoid the top-spot rat race, they have eliminated competition altogether.

It’s pretty easy to be a winner when you are the only game in town…or the only … sports … columnist … in … the … sports section.

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Title: The Runaround | Author: Kevan Lee | Section: Sports | Published Date: 2005-05-25 | Internal ID: 4561