Funeral Games and RBI’s: Metaphors of Competition

Larry Allums, Ph.D.

I want to look further at the topic of this conference through thinking about competition, especially in relation to the statistics and numbers-the indicators of quantitative measure-that competitive contests generate. My thesis is that whereas competition is a natural and even healthy aspect of human life, our current emphasis on winning vs. losing obscures the meaningful drama of the competition itself, and our focus on statistics as the sole measure of success keeps hidden or even prevents the beauty inherent in the play of the game.

As we heard earlier today from Don Cowan’s writing, we are the latest generation in a long tradition-begun in the late Middle Ages, refined in Enlightenment thinking, and perfected in the present age of high technology-of finding something to relish in measure for its own sake: the comforting knowledge of precision. But today there has arisen a strong debate about not only what statistics accomplish or don’t accomplish but also what potentially adverse effects they have if allowed, as it were, a life of their own. This debate ranges from dismay at the existence of data and profiles of individuals for credit or security purposes-a violation of civil rights?-to disagreements about what entire cities should look like-orderly, intricately planned and pre-planned, mathematically correct (the new urbanism, Andres Duany) or organic, only loosely organized, in a word, “messy” (Jane Jacobs). For my remarks, I want especially to think about the game of baseball-our “national pastime”-and the funeral games at the end of Homer’s Iliad, Book 23.

A group of powerful, widespread social metaphors comes from sports: “to hit a homerun” or “to strike out”; “to score a touchdown” or “fumble the ball”; “to deliver the knockout blow.” These derive from the fact that sports involves contests or competition and that to be a winner is preferable to being a loser. The controlling social metaphor in all athletic contests is the superiority of the victor. Vince Lombardi: “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

The metaphor only partially hiding within the emphasis on winning in competitive events is warfare: to defeat or to vanquish the enemy. In Aristotle’s architectonic description of war, every objective and activity-saddle-making, for instance, or horse-training-serves the paramount goal of victory.

But to say that victory is the paramount goal of any competition is to lose sight of the approximate nature of the war metaphor, since in war one’s very life, and the life of one’s people, are at stake. (And even then, there are “rules of war; even then, the saddlemaker or horse trainer serves the ultimate objective by practicing his own excellence.) From Iliad 22, when Achilleus is chasing poor, panicked Hektor around the walls of Troy: “It was a great man who fled, but far better he who pursued him rapidly, since here was no festal beast, no ox-hide they strove for, for these are prizes that are given men for their running. No, they ran for the life of Hektor, breaker of horses, as when about the turnposts racing single-foot horses run at full speed, when a great prize is laid up for their winning, a tripod or a woman, in games for a man’s funeral, so these two swept whirling about the city of Priam.”

To Homer there is a defining, absolute difference between war and all other human endeavors, but the metaphoric connection between war and sports is evident. In athletic competition, one’s life is not at stake, and therefore even though sports may in some sense be a mimicry or imitation of war insofar as they both involve combat, struggle, feats of strength and prowess, and even suffering, they do not place the lives of their participants on the line in the way war does, an activity in which the possibility of death is always present. Though Homer’s warriors in the Iliad speak of the “joy of battle,” from a social or cultural perspective, war is no game; there is nothing playful about it.

There is another saying, another cliché concerning sports which is frequently derided for its softness and naiveté: “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” This saying qualifies without eliminating the architectonic principle of war by emphasizing the “play” of competition and revealing competition’s more broadly and more culturally efficacious aspect.

One can see this principle of “playing the game” even among the most talented and most fiercely competitive professional athletes, for it is only in playing in this sense that they come to achieve their highest level of performance. Performance in a game, ie, when victory or defeat is at stake, along with the accompanying rewards and punishments such as honor and shame, is the result of a combination of talent (gift) and preparation (practice).

In fact, one might say that performance reflects the education of one’s gifts, both during practice and during actual games. A player continues to develop his gifts as long as he continues to play, regardless of whether he wins or loses, and the playing field is a protected space on which that development occurs. When an athlete loses a contest, he is not barred from the field of play merely because he has lost. Note the limitation of this analogy to intellectual education: there does occur a point in the physical development of the athlete at which the body passes its peak, after which point the ascendancy of physical superiority must be balanced more and more by mental acuity, ie, utilizing wisdom gained in experience to limit the effects of bodily decline. Such a person is called a “smart” athlete, one who uses his physical resources, even as they wane, wisely-so wisely, in fact, that a smart older athlete, such as Odysseus in the Iliad, is superior to a younger, rawer talent such as Diomedes. No matter how wise an athlete is, however, there is a point beyond which all his wisdom cannot prevent his having to retire from the game, as is the case with Nestor in the Iliad, about whom Achilleus says, with great respect as he honors him with a handsome gift: “…never again will you fight with your fists nor wrestle, nor enter again the field for the spear-throwing, nor race on your feet, since now the hardship of old age is upon you.” In intellectual endeavors, however, learning is truly “lifelong,” a habit of the soul rather than the body.

But the athletic contest, no matter how serious, even at the professional level, never loses the aspect of play, really not unlike the leisurely play of the most casual softball game at a picnic, during which winning or losing is not only not everything but far from the only thing.

It is within such a free field of competition that excellence is practiced and achieved. This is true even at the highest level of professional sports, say major league baseball, and even in the most crucial situation in professional sports: say in top of the ninth inning of game 7 of the World Series, with runners on first and third and one out, with the best relief pitcher-the best closer-in the major leagues on the mound. The score is 2-1, in favor of the home team, which looks to be in an enviable position because the hitter coming up is, statistically, rather mediocre, by no means the best either in baseball or even on his team.

Note that I don’t present the situation you might expect: 2 outs with the score tied and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth with the best home-run hitter against the best pitcher. That is exciting, but not nearly as interesting or revealing as the situation I first described, mainly because this situation would be simple, the other more complex. Here, only one of two things would be likely to happen: the slugger would make an out or hit a home run, and there’s a great possibility that he’d strike out, as sluggers are prone to do as they go for “all or nothing.” They are in general the brutes of baseball.

My original situation, with the visiting team down 2-1 in the top of the ninth with runners on first and third, one out, with the best relief pitcher in baseball facing a relatively mediocre hitter, doesn’t seem particularly exciting. But let me add one other ingredient: the hitter coming to the plate, while statistically mediocre as measured against the whole league over the course of the whole season, has had strangely consistent success in the kind of situation he now finds himself in; in fact, his batting average in such situations (known statistically as RISP, runners in scoring position) is significantly higher than that of any other hitter in baseball. Everyone knows this: the pitcher and his teammates, the hitter’s teammates, and the fans.

In sports, this ability is called performing in the clutch; it’s a mysterious phenomenon and somehow inexplicable, as if the player’s concentration increases, his vision takes on a particular clarity, and he is able not only to shut out all external interference but to function with a kind of mental-physical integrity that is not available to him in ordinary situations. Speaking Homerically, one might say that the goddess Athene, whose name connotes ever-nearness, chooses this moment for close proximity, steadying the hand and clearing the eye. I purposely try to invest my image with dramatic elements, but such situations occur in professional sports far more often than we might think, perhaps to a lesser degree of overall importance than in the World Series but identical in kind in virtually every contest.

But the situation also demonstrates the double meaning of play in competitive contests. This hitter, with his special proven capacity for this circumstance, coming up against this pitcher, requires an enormous amount of strategizing, quick thinking, decision-making on the part of everyone involved. The home team manager must act decisively in a way that places his whole team in motion: whether the infield plays in to cut off the tying run, or plays back to get a game-ending double play; whether the outfield plays shallow or deep, shaded around to left or right field or positioned straight-away, who covers second base if the runner on first attempts to steal, what to do if there is the unlikely occurrence of a suicide squeeze bunt. The visiting manager, too, must metaphorically leap into action, by signs relayed through the first and third base coaches telling his runners on first and third what kind of leads to take off their bases, giving instructions to the hitter, and thinking ahead to the next hitters on his roster.

All of this positioning and signaling takes place within a very short time, and the players on the field probably know before they are told exactly where they should be and what they should expect, because the game is both existential and traditional: every situation is unique and has happened before, or at least been contemplated and practiced for before. It is a marvelous demonstration of the play, the give, in the system that allows for flexibility and movement, intellectual and even imaginative elements along with the physical reality of the game-hunches, gambles, and guesses. The second baseman, and no one else, might suddenly sense that the batter has the leading foot in his stance opened out toward right field just a fraction more than he, the second baseman, remembered during this batter’s last at-bat, and so he delicately, unobtrusively edges 10 or 12 inches to his left, responding to something he feels more in his bones than thinks in his head that might allow the game-saving, diving catch if the ball is hit that way. A dozen such intellectual dramas are occurring all over the field simultaneously, invisible to the unpracticed eye but very much there.

And then there is the supreme contest between hitter and pitcher, the central drama ringed about by all these minor dramas, where there seems no refuge from pressure and scrutiny. Does the pitcher just walk him intentionally and avoid the possibility of a hit? No, because that would load the bases and bring to the plate an even more dangerous hitter. Does the hitter assume a defensive posture, protecting the plate, hitting foul balls, and trying to work the pitcher for a walk, thus loading the bases in advance of a more powerful hitter to follow him? Does he, a typically line-drive hitter, consciously try to lift the ball to the outfield and score the runner at third with a sacrifice fly so as to tie the game?

That such thoughts are true options at all testifies to the almost unimaginable prowess of the athletes involved. As in all other aspects of the contest, the firm and fixed rules of the game allow for amazing latitude and freedom of expression. Yes, the pitcher has three strikes and four balls, as does the hitter, but the drama remains intimately human and therefore unpredictable. All that the pitcher is and has been seems distilled into this one interval; likewise with the hitter.

And I submit that at this instant, winning or losing the game, though still and ever the utmost objective, is far from the mind of either hitter or pitcher; no more is vanquishment of an opponent the explicit concern. Those two desirable outcomes take their place behind the free expression of the excellence of the players directly involved. Both hitter and pitcher are completely immersed, we might say, in the practice of their disciplines as baseball hitter and baseball pitcher, to which disciplines they have committed their whole lives. Even in this pressure-packed situation, they are, as it were, going about their business, doing what they do, not as machines but as strong but vulnerable individuals who, for all their prowess, must exercise courage, prudence, moderation, and wisdom-the four classical virtues-in addition to summoning all their skill for the moment.

And it is in the practice, or the play, the playing out in the world of what they do so well that beauty emerges, a beauty in which all involved-the other players both on and off the field, and even the spectators-may participate. Furthermore, it is out of this making of something beautiful in the “sacred seriousness” of play, as philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer describes it, that meaning emerges as well, so that we can say that this event, this game, with its serious play, its beauty, and its meaning, changes the world. As Gadamer puts it, “In the representation of play, what is emerges. In it is produced and brought to light what otherwise is constantly hidden and withdrawn.”

Victory and vanquishment will surely occur-there will be a failure and a triumph, a winner and a loser-but it is not there that the beauty and true worth of competition exist. Neither victory nor conquest as such is beautiful, though both are prizes to be valued. In fact, professional athletes attach far less importance to winning than we might think, precisely because even in losses, they participate in the excellence of their disciplines, and I suspect that’s what a ballplayer means when he says that when the game is no longer fun, he’ll quit.

Whether the pitcher or the hitter prevails in my hypothetical baseball situation, the particular excellence of both remains, enlarged by its manifestation on this day, and there will be another game, another situation in which that excellence can be expressed and enjoyed. The loser is not banished to the darkness, nor is the winner deified; both winner and loser know this-that winning isn’t everything, far less central than the pleasurable play of the game.

The intensity of a Vince Lombardi is rare, but then he was a coach and not a player when he said that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” And although a coach or a manager is only one remove from the actual playing field, that remove is crucial, since it places him betwixt and between the field of play and the offices of the team’s owner, who all too often views winning as everything because winning is good and losing is bad. For this kind of owner, sports is a business, and the “bottom line” is the win-loss column, the statistic of statistics to those who have lost at least half the meaning of the governing metaphor of competition: that it is enacted on a field of play.

It is unfortunate that winning and losing have in many areas of our lives become the mother of all metaphors. Certainly this is true for American business, in which boards of directors and stockholders not only love but demand a winner every day, month, and year. P and L reports, available on the web virtually minute by minute, denude the environment of capitalism of every color but black and red, and without excusing their choices, one can feel genuine sympathy for those who at moments of pressure and crisis, like my hypothetical pitcher and hitter, feel compelled to practice fraud rather than suffer failure, gain a false victory rather than accepting an honest defeat.

Statistics in and of themselves can become the most culturally numbing, even dangerous aspect of our society’s competitive atmosphere. In their intended context, statistics are informative, enlightening windows into the human aspects of a situation. Detached from that context, however, they come to be seen as self-contained entities rather than ancillary reflections of those from whom their existence derives. Mere statistics as measures and predictors are vampirish, sucking away the lifeblood while remaining essentially dead themselves. At best, statistics are meant to accompany and illuminate the particulars of the human drama. One cannot, for instance, study Michael Jordan’s statistics, amazing as they are, and say that one knows perhaps the greatest athlete of the 20th century. On the other hand, one need not have seen Michael Jordan in action in order to experience his prowess. In fact, one might well argue that seeing Achilleus in action would not be as revealing as reading Homer’s poem about him. But we cannot profess to know Achilleus by counting up the number of Trojans who fell before his spear and sword. Michael Jordan has a statistician, but he needs a poet.

Statistics are inherently reductive, even when they are utilized in a benign way. The psychologist Stephen Jay Gould, whose work we are considering in this conference, wrote also about baseball, and in an essay entitled “The Streak of Streaks” once wrote about what most knowledgeable fans consider to be the most impressive record in professional sports. Using his standard research psychologist’s terminology, Gould wrote that of all exceptional sequences in sports, there was “one sequence so many standard deviations above the expected distribution that it should not have occurred at all: Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941.” Talk about the streak.

It’s a clever essay designed to put statistics in perspective. After taking the reader through circumlocutions (including exponential equations) that one quickly realizes are ironic, he gets to his point: even the “mythic statement” that DiMaggio did the impossible by hitting safely in 56 straight games is deceptive, representing an assumption that the statistic is the whole story. Gould says that the number 56 itself in no way reveals the essence of DiMaggio’s accomplishment, something of which is more nearly gotten at in the continuing discussion among baseball fans and writers of five questionable hits during the streak-two benefit-of-the-doubt judgments from official scorers, one fly ball misjudged and dropped untouched that was by rule scored as a hit, a dribbler down the third base line that he beat out because the third baseman was playing out of position, too far back, and the most interesting fifth instance: when, in “game 38, DiMaggio was 0 for 3 going into the last inning. Scheduled to bat fourth, he might have been denied a chance to hit at all. Johnny Sturm popped up to begin the inning, but Red Rolfe then walked. Slugger Tommy Henrich, up next, was suddenly swept with a premonitory fear: suppose I ground into a double play and end the inning. An elegant solution immediately occurred to him: why not bunt (an odd strategy for a power hitter)? Henrich laid down a bunt; DiMaggio, up next, promptly drilled a double to left.”

Gould’s point is a little like Gadamer’s assertion that play brings to light what otherwise would remain hidden: the dynamic emergence of meaning among and within the players and spectators, who also “play” by participating in the beauty and meaning of the event. The statistic alone of DiMaggio 56-straight keeps hidden from the imagination the drama of that fifth instance, for example, which is poetic when told or written about, akin to certain episodes in the Iliad. Those who can quote the statistic but don’t know the stories are like those who know the Greeks won the war but haven’t read Homer’s epic.

More to the point here is my previous contention that whereas statistics serve a good purpose, they are of themselves inherently reductive. At their best, they themselves serve metaphorically, telling us something about whom or what they pertain to, but deceptive if allowed to stand on their own. Statistics don’t tell the vital story, and when we rely too heavily or exclusively on them, or think that they give us the whole story, or that we recognize in them something other than what their nature can give us, then we make a dehumanizing mistake. More particularly, exclusive reliance on statistic excises from the drama of human endeavor the excellence of competitive play, within which virtue is exercised and beauty and meaning emerge.

I should by now have already given a definition or idea of what I perceive excellence to be. In his brilliant book Unbinding Prometheus, Don Cowan says this about it: “The term excellence is to be taken as signifying a quality-a recognizable quality that raises the intellect to a high plane of action; it is not a mere rank in ordering, a first place in the competition of attributes. Something excellent does not so much surpass other things as it joins a company of excellences above the degrees of comparison, existing in a realm where one is free to consider things as they are. It is like goodness in this respect: the more there is of it the better.”

I take from Dr. Cowan’s definition the notion that excellence is a quality that is neither purely aristocratic nor purely democratic but is suited to play a role in both. Given a pursuit such as baseball, everyone can play, but not everyone can play professionally, and of those who play professionally, only a fraction ever play in the majors. And assuredly, among major league players, there are rankings and orderings. But from another perspective, when one makes it to the “show,” as Kevin Costner refers to the major leagues in the movie Bull Durham, one has entered the arena in which everyone is excellent-it is a realm in which every player by virtue of his presence is excellent, participates in excellence as Dr. Cowan describes it.

In the matter of baseball, or any other physical endeavor, most of us have to participate in its excellence as a spectator, as one can certainly do. But there are other endeavors in which one can directly participate in excellence in the sense that “one is free to consider things as they are.” Specifically, I’m thinking of what we might mean when we as teachers say, “I had an excellent class this morning.” I doubt we mean that everyone made 100 on his or her test or that everyone was well behaved; rather we mean that circumstances or conditions were such-perhaps we don’t altogether understand why-that everyone was in pursuit of something together, even as one, as a community. And of course that something is the true, the good, the thing to be learned. Such classes may be rare, but they are always the goal of the teacher.

In fact, the moment (or moments) of learning in such an experience of excellence have beauty and meaning in much the same way similar qualities unfold and emerge during a baseball game. And although a class may be tested on the material-the text, the issue, or the theory-explored during that interval of excellence, the results of the test, which become the statistics reflecting the experience, can never be the measure of the experience itself. As Ishmael in Moby-Dick says of his wonderfully inscrutable South-Sea-island friend Queequeg, the place of his origin is not on any map: “true places never are.”

In my last few minutes, I want to take a brief look at a single competition, the chariot race, in the funeral games in Iliad 23, in terms of the following points:

–background: Achilleus’ former wrath and his softening, his wise leadership here.

–Achilleus designates the prizes.

–Achilleus marks off the course, away from the ships and back.

–Part of the statistical account of the chariot race is the lineup at the start after the participants choose lots: Antilochus in the post position, then in order Eumelos, Menelaos, Meriones, and on the outside Diomedes.

–Nestor gives advice to his son Antilochus.

–The chariots start.

–The statistical results are: Diomedes 1st, Antilochos 2nd, Menelaos 3rd, Meriones 4th, Eumelos last.

But if one reads Homer’s narrative, the statistics are rendered their proper place in the competition even as their accuracy is born out.

–Eumelos vs. Diomedes and Apollo vs. Athene.

–Antilochus fouls Menelaos.

–Idomeneus argues with Aias among the spectators, and Achilleus steps in as peacemaker.

–Achilleus takes pity on Eumelos, and Antilochus objects; Achilleus smiles, the only time in the poem.

–Antilochus gets the mare; then Menelaos gets it from Antilochus, but he gives it back.

–Finally, Achilleus honors Nestor in his old age.

The play in the chariot race allows hard competition, winning and losing, but at the same time the emergence of magnanimity and the suspension of immoveable justice; the competitors, one might say, get more than they deserve from a Hobbesian, accounting standpoint, but just enough from the standpoint of community, in which abundance is always the goal. Statistics achieve their ultimate dominance when our reliance on them as predictors of behavior leads us to create instruments for the purpose of their accumulation and use. The statistics of professional sports are in effect historical records, even if that history occurred only minutes, hours, or days before. That is, we don’t play our serious games for the purpose of then translating them into statistics and as it were deleting the games themselves from memory and experience. But when we believe that we should devise and construct contests of competition for the fundamental purpose of gathering statistics in order to make decisions based on those statistics, then we have shifted the focus of the competition from the excellence possible within the serious play of competition to winning and losing as the prime value and goal of competition itself. Emphasizing winning over all else, we run the risk of losing sight of what is most important: our humanity.

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