Commentary: To Cardinals and Tigers, 'Mea Culpa' (Oh me, of little faith)
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 24, 2013: Pessimism is often confused with cynicism, which taints the mindset with an undeservedly negative connotation. A cynic is a person who delights in the ill fortune of others and celebrates the fallen plight of the human soul. It’s probably some form of externalized self-loathing: Being a loser is more tolerable if everyone else is one too.
We pessimists, on the other hand, share a Cassandra-like appreciation of the potential for calamity. We don’t want disaster but can see it coming. Like the poet Houseman, we believe that “luck’s a chance but trouble’s sure” and plan accordingly. The glass is seen as half-empty because — damn it — it is half-empty. Unlike cynics, however, we’re happy to be proven wrong.
I, for instance, wrote off the Cardinals after Game 3 of this year’s NLCS. The Red Birds had cobbled together two hard-fought one-run wins in St. Louis then traveled to LA where they lost the third contest of the series 3-0. When manager Mike Matheny announced he would start Lance Lynn in Game 4, I sensed impending doom.
Lynn tends to pitch effectively in the first half of the season, then slump after the All-Star break. This year, he’d suffered through August but rebounded in September with what was described in press reports as “four quality starts.”
Alas, those four quality starts came against the Cubs, Rockies and Brewers (twice). As the current editions of those teams could not have gotten into the Championship Series if they had tickets to the event, and as the Cards had managed to score a total of four runs in the first three NLCS games combined, I didn’t think Lynn’s arm was up to a pitcher’s duel with the Dodgers. I feared another loss would pave the way for a repeat of last year’s NLCS collapse.
Turns out I was wrong. Lynn won Game 4 and the Birds took the series in six. From this, I reluctantly conclude that Mike Matheny may know more about pitching than I do. In fact, if I owned a team, I’d be tempted to install bar stools in the dugout because people sitting on them always seem to know how to better manage a game than the guy actually doing it.
With local fans understandably riveted on baseball, a rather remarkable gridiron metamorphosis at the University of Missouri has garnered less attention than it normally would have.
Regular readers may recall that I was an early and vocal critic of the school’s recent change of athletic affiliation. My objections were two-fold:
Mizzou had played in the Big-8 Conference — which evolved into the Big-12 — for more than a hundred years. I both liked and respected the traditional rivalries that had developed. A dismal year could always be redeemed by a season-ending win over Kansas. In fact, the venerable Tiger-Jayhawk feud was the oldest college rivalry west of the Mississippi.
And if you had trouble trying to win in the Big 12 North, how could you expect to prosper in college football’s toughest conference, the SEC? The old poker legend has it that if you sit down at the table and you can’t spot the sucker, you’re it. The corollary to that is if you join a football conference and can’t spot Iowa State, guess who you are?
To make matters worse, I’d grown disillusioned with head coach Gary Pinkel. He’d taken over a program that was floundering and built it into one that was reliably mediocre. His non-conference schedule was padded with teams known in the trade as organ donors — small schools recruited to take a beating for a paycheck in order to inflate the larger school’s won-lost record.
This season’s opening game, for instance, was against Murray State. I’m sure that’s a fine institution of higher learning but I don’t look for its football team to vie for the national championship anytime soon. A Pinkel season would typically conclude with an invitation to a second-rate bowl game that the team would often lose.
I also noticed the coach had a tendency to refer to the team as “my Tigers” when it was winning and “our Tigers” when it was losing. All this was annoying enough, but I lost it completely when the program abandoned its classically minimalist uniforms in favor of Nike-inspired bling.
Gone was the traditional black & gold, replaced by varied shades of baby-poop yellow and charcoal. The understated “M” on the side of helmet yielded to stylized pictographs of tiger heads. I theorized at the time that the letter design might have been too literate for the modern student…
In its inaugural SEC campaign last year, Mizzou played down to my expectations. This season, however, the Tigers are 7-0 and suddenly ranked fifth in the nation by the BCS poll. The pessimist in me must note there are five tough opponents remaining on the conference schedule. But candor demands that I credit Pinkel with putting together a damned fine team that has won each of its games by at least 15 points and last week beat a perennial powerhouse, Florida, while starting a red-shirt freshman at quarterback.
Looks like it’s time for your humble narrator to once again dine on crow. To make the dish more palatable, allow me to spice it up with paraphrased Kipling:
“Tho’ my doubts and taunts have grayed you, by the livin’ Gawd that made you, you’re a better coach than I am, Gary Pinkel.”