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Sports Authority

Kramer: Live and die by chaos

| Monday, October 26, 2020

Sports champions fashion their success through sheer chaos. After centuries of what we endearingly call “organized” American sports, we find a refined sense of order on the field. Professional coaching staffs rarely offer insight that even the youngest players have never heard; their role — an increasingly compensated one across the industry, I might add — directs players through the high caliber of chaos that defines major sports. Use of video, scouting and positioning simply boils down to a tried-and-true remedy for the inevitable pandemonium that comes with freaks of nature from across the globe testing each other’s limits until time expires.

Everything that we know about sports decision-making, strategy and norms revolves around the management and dilution of chaos. Yet, in spite of the endless amount of research and modifications, our efforts to regulate chaos in sports have failed us time and again, and maybe they always will.

A mere uptick of chaotic energy in sports can completely dismantle a season, even a lifetime of development for the briefest of moments. The madness of this weekend’s World Series Game 4 proved it.

The beloved battle for October reached an astonishing climax on Saturday night when Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Brett Phillips approached the plate at Globe Life Field. Down to his last strike against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, Phillips sliced a cutter into center field, a game-tying hit that sent consistent defender Chris Taylor charging. In a stroke of luck for the Rays, Taylor bobbled the ball in a terrible judgment call, undoubtedly standing no chance at cutting off the tying run. The aggressive mistake granted Rays second baseman Randy Arozarena an extra base as he bolted past third, tumbling to a full stop just feet past the bag.

Then the real chaos ensued. Regathering himself, Taylor sent a missile into his cutoff man, Max Muncy, who finished the relay with a quick throw to catcher Will Smith. Given Arozarena’s speed, Smith anticipated a close play at the plate, mishandling the throw as he rushed the game-decisive tag. The ball haphazardly skipped to the back wall, leaving time for Arozarena to recover from his fall, sprint to the home plate circle and slide into victory untested.

This indisputably wild 8-7 end to a neck-and-neck World Series matchup proves the insufficiency of chaos theory in baseball. The 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers, arguably the most well-rounded and dangerous roster in years, put on a Little League-caliber display of ill-tempered submission under pressure that places their championship push in serious jeopardy. In one moment, the best players in the world exuded order and discipline as they brilliantly struggled through their opponent’s seemingly endless bullpen weapons. In the next, all hell broke loose through a wildly unexpected instance of human error.

Even in their worst seasons, the Rays have loomed as the greatest force of chaos in 21st century baseball. Call it sheer chance or happenstance, but their chaotic “spoiler” mentality and embrace of innovative analytics over the past decade have picked apart even the most tightly ordered teams when fans and coaching staffs alike have least expected it. Take, for example, the final day of the regular season in 2011. In the unlikeliest of comebacks, the Rays overcame a seven-run deficit against the Yankees with six runs in the eighth inning and one dramatic Dan Johnson home run in the 9th inning. Just minutes after the Boston Red Sox fell to the Baltimore Orioles and left the AL Wild Card up for grabs, Evan Longoria punctuated the comeback win with a 327-foot homer down the left field line in the bottom of the 12th inning. The final? Coincidently, 8-7.

As October winds to a close, I invite you to embrace the Tampa Bay Rays as a staunch opponent of baseball’s criticism as a cut-and-dry, painfully ordered sport. Embrace Brett Phillips and the heroes of mayhem as they play to prove that a tired, tired pastime can still chaotically surprise us.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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