Saturday, September 29, 2018

Patrick Mahomes Jr and The Caveat of Sudden Stardom not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but think of yourself with sober judgment...
Romans 12:3

When I went outside the next day, my life was different.
-Anonymous child celebrity

My youth group took a canoeing trip the Summer of my seventh grade year, somewhere deep in the sticks of Missouri. It was a fun trip. Among the memories are cliff diving, a leach stuck to my ankle, much canoe-tipping revelry, and a rare personal moment in the limelight.

It was the first night of the trip, and the leaders had organized a talent show. Now you have to understand that entering into the seventh grade was a momentous occasion for a boy in my youth group, and this canoe trip a rite of passage. It was at this time that seventh grade girls and boys began to assimilate with one another, as well as with some of the older grades; it's very intimidating indeed. Seventh grade boys are, for apparent reasons, at the bottom of youth group social hierarchy. At least seventh grade girls can still be cute and/or endearing. The boys are, for all intents and purposes, annoying, smelly, uncool, and unattractive in every way; they are the lepers of youth group society.

Somehow, despite knowing full well that the cards were stacked against me, I began to consider how I might perform a "talent", in order to ingratiate myself with the abundantly cooler and cuter older guys and gals. It was 1998, and the Wedding Singer had recently been released. Aside from, in my humble opinion, being in the pantheon of rom-coms, the movie also features an enthralling 80's soundtrack that I had happened to be playing nearly nonstop on my good old Panasonic portable CD-player. In a moment of divine inspiration (for I cannot articulate why), I decided I was going to lip-sing to the song "Money", by The Flying Lizards.

The decision represented a fairly huge gamble on my part. If you don't know the song I'm referring to, knock yourself out. It's a deliciously awkward song. The primary vocalist, if we can call her that, is a woman whom I've always thought sounded of a geriatric persuasion, speaking to rhythm more than singing the lyrics "I want money...", while a dissonant banjo and chorus set the background of the song. It unequivocally does not sound good; it's just...weird. And so I paraded myself out on the stage, wearing shades and a funny hat - a disguise that served to strip my inhibitions as I lipped the lyrics to the song and attempted to provide an interpretive dance.

It was a roaring success. The youth group found it hysterical, and when I was finished, I was received differently than I was before. I was greeted with smiles, giggles, and affirming words of how funny and entertaining my act had been. It was the closest I've ever come to being famous.

What does fame do to a person? What happens when our self-absorbed nature receives confirmation that we are in fact the most important person in the room? What happens when the feeling that everyone is staring at you and observing your every moment is actually true, rather than an intrinsic, narcissistic perception of self-aggrandizement? How in the world could a person not think and feel differently when their phenomenological world - that is to say, their reality surrounding them - drastically changes due to their notoriety? How does a person remain grounded in the circumstance of stardom? 

I had an ambivalent relationship with my own moment in the sun. Honestly, I enjoyed the attention. How could I not? I think that deep down, almost all of us are hard-wired, as well as brought up to feel rewarded by another person's praise. It simply feels good to be acknowledged positively. As a words of affirmation guy, I know that this is true for me in a powerful way. Another person's positive regard is like a drug to much more so is the feeling amplified, then, when it's multiplied by a mob? But while it did indeed feel intoxicating to be received so well by my peers, there was another feeling I became aware of after the euphoria of adulation had abated - pressure. I felt, reasonably or not, that people now expected similar things from me. From now on, I had to be funny or entertaining, as that goofy kid on stage was. But I didn't see myself as funny or entertaining, not by a long shot. Sure, I could garner a laugh when given time to concoct something, but intrinsically funny - nay! I knew that I had caught lightning in a bottle. So how did I cope with the pressure I felt? I avoided people. So long as we didn't interact, they couldn't discover that I was a disappointment and a fraud. Like George Costanza leaving his office meeting after the first well-received joke, I desired more than anything to quit on a good note and allow the Legend of Funny Drew to perpetuate itself. My moment of fame, as small and ephemeral as it was, didn't suit me well.

Quarterbacks are the anti seventh grade boy. Whereas the latter are pimply-faced, smelly, and awkward, quarterbacks tend to be winsome, confident, athletic (obviously), and oozing with charisma. Seriously, have you ever taken notice of the seemingly-skewed percentage of good-looking quarterbacks when compared with the rest of the male population at large (which begs research to be done on the topic)?? They seem to be genetically-engineered to dance with fame.

So when Patrick Mahomes II took the nation by storm just within the last three weeks, by putting up gaudy, unprecedented numbers while leading the Kansas City Chiefs to a 3-0 start and becoming the toast of the country, perhaps it was more of the same for him. But I sincerely doubt it. It's one thing to be a great high school quarterback and beloved by a town, it's another thing to be a great college quarterback and embraced by a's another thing entirely to become a star NFL quarterback. What's the difference between Brogan Roback and Aaron Rodgers, you might ask? Brogan might get a free beer in Ypsilanti, Michigan; Rodgers does State Farm commercials and dates girls like Olivia Munn and Danica Patrick. 

I had no idea who Patrick Mahomes was prior to the 2017 NFL draft. That's not too surprising, given that it's been years since I've followed college football closely; still, he wasn't a blip on my radar. But the move by the Chiefs to trade up in the draft so that they could take him tenth overall instantaneously changed his obscurity. The franchise hadn't drafted a quarterback in the first round of the draft since 1983, when they took Todd Blackledge in a draft class that also featured Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino. It was a decision that will live in infamy in the eyes of Chiefs faithful. For the better part of twenty years, we witnessed Chiefs teams with exceptional defenses but featuring exceptionally banal quarterback play lose in the playoffs over and over again to teams like the Denver Broncos (Elway), Buffalo Bills (Kelly), and Miami Dolphins (Marino) - whose quarterbacks uncorked magic from their respective right arms time and time again. Perhaps it's taken the formerly gun-shy Chiefs those 34 years to get past the Blackledge debacle and to try again, this time with Mahomes.

Quarterback is undisputedly the most important position in American sports. You can win a championship without an elite quarterback, but I wouldn't recommend attempting it because it's damn difficult. The reason why Mahomes instantly became the most significant player on the Kansas City Chiefs' roster after that fateful April 27, 2017 draft day is because implicitly, the Chiefs were telling the world that they believe they had found their quarterback of the future. Every year there are teams that draft quarterbacks in the first round, hoping that they have found the next John Elway, Peyton Manning, or Aaron Rodgers, and every year, proved later by virtue of time - the unbiased arbiter of success - most of them fail. The science of drafting quarterbacks is an inexact one - a truth the 1983 Chiefs organization knows all too well. Were someone to figure out a fool-proof method of separating the wheat from the chaff, dissuading teams from taking quarterbacks the likes of JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch, Vince Young, and a bevy of other early draft quarterback fails, that soothsayer would be a very rich person.

And so the idea of Patrick Mahomes the great franchise quarterback was exactly that - an idea. Although it was believed by head coach Andy Reid and general manager Brett Veach, it was merely a theory until Mahomes officially took the field as the Chiefs' starting quarterback this season. Well, through only three games, the results have been staggering. Mahomes has outperformed even the most deluded of fanatic's pipe dreams. His thirteen touchdowns thrown in the first three games of the season are more than any quarterback has ever thrown in that span - surpassing names like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. In his second game of the season, he threw for six touchdowns and only five incompletions (!). Only two other quarterbacks had ever accomplished that feat...yep, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. His zero interceptions through the first three weeks of the 2018 season puts him in the company of Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers - both future Hall of Famers.

His meteoric ascent has coincided with a fever pitch in Kansas City. The fans absolutely love him. Aside from his play, which has been superlative on every level, he seems to have a winning personality the likes that Kansas City made in its own image. He seems self-assured yet humble, demonstrative on the field yet quick to deflect praise off it, an innocent 23-year old yet wise beyond his years. In short, he seems to be everything you would hope for in a quarterback, which has prompted Chiefs' play-by-play announcer Mitch Holthus in an interview to utter, "I hope he never changes." 

But he will change. He has to. He has become a national sensation. Locally, he is a Beatle. Take a look as he follows backup quarterbacks Chad Henne and Matt McGloin down the escalator at the Kansas University Medical Center, after having visited with several patients. His days of being unnoticed are over. People want to touch him. They want him to bless their babies. He has been trending on Twitter, and his jerseys have been selling out. The world as he knew it is over. 

What does fame - and in this case sudden fame - do to a person? In the article Being a Celebrity: A Phenomenology of Fame, Donna Rockwell of the Michigan School of Professional Psychology and David Giles of the University of Winchester attempted to conduct qualitative research on 15 different celebrities' experiences with fame. Along with some of the commonly held benefits, or "perks" to being famous, such as wealth, access to a world of influence, gratification, and holding lasting cultural impact, the celebrities interviewed also divulged the underbelly of fame, such as giving into temptations, the lack of privacy, isolation, mistrust of others, feeling the need to split from one's true personality when in public, feeling like an object rather than a person, loss of close relationships and family, and lastly, losing perspective on the important things in life, as well as losing touch with oneself. 

The last several detractors are what particularly concern me when considering Mahomes. They're what prompted Mitch Holthus to say, "I hope he never changes." As of right now, Mahomes appears to be incredibly grounded, but the world around him has forever changed and it will demand the same measure of dexterity he has exhibited when seemingly solving NFL defenses in the first few games of his young career in order to adapt to the fame that he now faces off the field. From this moment on for the foreseeable future, between his waking and sleeping, each day will be an exercise of navigating this starkly new environment he now finds himself in. It will take constant mental vigilance to stay grounded. One celebrity interviewed put it this way, "You try to put fame in its place because otherwise it will swallow up everything else. It will be totally out of control. It could destroy everything you have or it could make you into a monster. And I think you constantly have to reassess who you are, take fame off of you and make sure that you are centered as a person." 

In my own anecdote, I likened affirmation and praise to a drug, and undoubtedly it does trigger reward and pleasure neurotransmitters in the brain such as dopamine. One of the celebrities interviewed agreed, reflecting, "I've been addicted to almost every substance known to man at one point or another, and the most addicting of them all is fame." Unfortunately, this celebrity's experience conflating substances with fame is hardly rare. Another prodigiously talented young quarterback, Johnny Manziel, out of Texas A&M (became the first freshman ever to win NCAA's prestigious Heisman trophy award and became a first round draft pick with the 22nd overall pick by the Cleveland Browns in the 2014 NFL draft), infamously succumbed to addiction to both substances and fame. Manziel seemed to enjoy fame - clubs, money, paparazzi exposure, and rubbing elbows with other celebrities - more than he enjoyed football, and he flamed out at the professional level. 

Juxtaposed against Manziel is LeBron James - not a quarterback, but an athlete who became ultra-famous before he even graced an NBA court. With immense pressure heaped on him when he was a high school basketball player to become the next Michael Jordan, James has arguably lived up to the impossible hype surrounding him in his remarkable career thus far. He is most likely the most famous athlete in our nation, possibly even the world, and yet he has a squeaky clean reputation. Not only has James not gotten into an iota of trouble since coming face to face with his own uber-fame, but he has swung the other direction, becoming an articulate and outspoken advocate for social justice, while contributing meaningfully to society. Among a laundry list of meaningful work and altruism, just last year, his Lebron James Family Foundation set up a public elementary school that will provide education for at-risk youths in Akron, while promising to partner with the University of Akron in providing free college tuition to those graduates who finish high school with a 3.0 GPA or above. Consequently, James has been awarded the NBA's J. Walter Kennedy Award for his outstanding service and dedication to his community. 

What then, makes the difference between a person going the route of LeBron James and not Johnny Football? The answer is of course more convoluted than we could ever be able to pinpoint, and also seemingly simple when observed at the root. The factors that differentiate Manziel from James are innumerable, and an exercise comparing the two could easily devolve into a nature versus nurture debate. But when oversimplified, doesn't the difference ultimately come down to perspective and decision-making? ...things that LeBron James has managed to hold firmly to and that Johnny Manziel had at least at one point lost. 

Perspective and decision-making. Constant mental vigilance is needed when warding off the potential for fame to cause destruction, but surely it cannot be defeated alone. Authentic relationships seem crucial to remaining grounded and connected to who we are and where we've come from - something that perhaps those of us who are not famous take for granted, and that the famous lose sight of. One of the many pitfalls to stardom is that celebrities become surrounded by those who offer disingenuousness. Among the sycophants, the leaches, and the entourages are seldom found anyone who is willing to offer genuine and honest feedback or to invest in the person underneath the facade of fame. Ironic, that in a world where everyone may know their name, there exists perhaps no one who actually knows who they are. One celebrity described the process of re-establishing those constants (for all those LOST viewers), who help to tether a famous person to reality, "The biggest problem was that I had forgotten those who were closest to me. So I had to bring them back into the fold, reattach, and have a better understanding of what they went through. And then I had to build myself up again, but, in conjunction with all of them, not in spite of them. For me, it was a harsh lesson and a tough lesson." 

I am not sure how Patrick Mahomes Jr. is responding to his ascension as a superstar, or the pressure of being taxed with becoming the savior of an NFL franchise. No doubt he is in the midst of monumental character change, as he adapts to this brave new world, beset with camera flashes, pointing, ogling, hugging, accosting, and of course, 80,000 fans screaming his name on Fall Sundays and venerating the ground he walks on. Those things will change a man. Here's hoping that he maintains perspective in all of this, that he continues to make good decisions, that he places as much value in genuine relationships as the rest of us have in his golden arm, and that he can successfully adapt to his newfound fame that is sure to only grow larger once he's done eviscerating the Broncos' defense in Denver this Monday night. 

Go Chiefs!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Correspondence Between a Cubs Fan and a Royals Fan - Part 5: Champions and The End of a Curse

A World Series trophy is a wonderful thing to behold. -Willie Stargell

They say the first World Series is the one you remember most. No, no, no. I guarantee you don't remember that one because the fantasy world you always dreamed about is suddenly real. -Sparky Anderson

Dear Drew,

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series.

I can barely believe it’s real. The Chicago Cubs…my beloved Chicago Cubs…have ended their historic drought. The team I’ve been relentlessly and fiercely devoted to, the team I’ve spent countless hours, seasons, and years of my life on…has reached the pinnacle. I have literally dreamed of this my entire life. It has taken weeks of processing to even get to this point of writing. I bought tons of championship gear and watched several documentaries just to somehow make this whole thing feel tangible and real. No matter how many times I watch the replay of Kris Bryant throw to Anthony Rizzo for that final out, I still find myself in goosebumpy, numb disbelief. This is actually real.

It happened.

But let me be clear from the outset: this is far, far bigger than David Perry’s fandom. I’m 30 years old. The Cubs went 108 years without a championship. That’s nearly four times longer than my time on this good earth. Fans like my parents have waited sixty years, some have waited up to ninety or one hundred years. Some…never witnessed a Cubs championship in their lifetime at all. And that’s what makes this so special. This is bigger than me, bigger than the Cubs, and even bigger than baseball. There are obviously so many rich narratives attached to the Cubs winning the World Series, but I believe the metanarrative is this: the seemingly impossible became reality. It was a story of hope and joy that truly resonated with all people, even with non-baseball fans. It was a story that made grown men cry. It was a story that made one man watch the World Series at his father’s graveside. It was a story that inspired hundreds of Cubs fans to write messages in chalk to deceased loves ones on the walls of Wrigley Field. It was a story that inspired me to drive seven hours round trip, just to be with my parents for the special moment, and then embrace them in pure elation after the final out. Years and generations of angst and disappointment ended on the night of Nov. 2, a night I’ll never, ever, ever forget. What once seemed like only a distant dream, what once seemed impossible, became reality.

But how did it happen exactly? That’s something I’m still wrapping my mind around. The month of October (and the first few days of November) were a huge “glass case of emotion,” to quote Anthony Rizzo, quoting the legendary Ron Burgundy. I honestly didn’t get much sleep for the entire month, because not only did the games go late, but it also took me an hour or two after every game to just calm down. Obviously, the World Series games were the high point of the postseason, but I believe no games epitomized the Cubs’ October run more than NLDS game 3 and 4 in San Francisco. The Cubs lost game 3 in 13 innings, in excruciating fashion. I stayed up to about 3 am, only to watch everything unravel. I went to bed completely drained and dejected. When the next night rolled around, I just wasn’t emotionally ready. Could the Cubs really choke, and get upset in the first round? For most of game 4, it appeared that way; the offense appeared completely anemic. And then…something absolutely magical happened. The Cubs scored four runs in the top of the 9th, capping off the largest 9th-inning comeback in postseason history. How do you explain that? That NLDS-clinching game was truly the first moment of the entire 2016 season in which I let my guard down. My calloused, guarded, Cubs-obsessed heart grew three sizes that day. For the first time since 2003, I imagined what was possible.

So yes, I was an emotional wreck after only the first round of the playoffs. But unbeknownst to me, there was plenty of more adrenaline inducing, heart-pumping action ahead. Next up: the Dodgers in the NLCS. I never thought of the Dodgers as being a great team this year, but I spent the whole series in perpetual fear of Clayton Kershaw. Everyone knew he was capable of being the difference-maker in the series. And after he and Rich Hill shut down the Cubs in games 2 and 3, once again, things looked rather bleak. But the Cubs offense awoke from its slumber…and this time, it all started with an innocent Zoby bunt. Oh, Zoby...that man truly cemented his legacy into Cubs lore this postseason. The Cubs went on to win three games in a row, clinching their first National League championship since 1945. And I have to tell you: there was a profound sense of arrival and satisfaction just in that. The Cubs in the World Series…for the first time in a generation! If the Cubs had lost the World Series, I would have been extremely disappointed, but I admittedly would have been somewhat satisfied with a World Series appearance. Fortunately, the team itself clearly wasn’t just satisfied with a National League pennant. No, they knew what their ultimate goal was.

By the time game 1 of the World Series rolled around, the Cubs had become a mainstream, national story. I don’t know why I was so surprised by this, but it felt…different. As a fan who had stuck with the Cubs through some very, VERY low moments the last few decades, I had to adjust to the hoards of bandwagon fans jumping aboard. When you watch a team for 162 games in a season, you feel like you belong in a little subculture. So my first reaction to the bandwagon fans was to feel a little territorial. But as the World Series progressed, I began to realize that this was a transcendent story that actually brought unity and joy to so many people. What else in our society can actually do that? It saddens me to say that even religion often fails at this. So by the end of the Series, much of my territorial cynicism had melted away. Who wouldn’t want to share this kind of joy with others?

But before we Cubs fans could experience that ultimate joy, we had to go through seven games of highly-intensified anxiety. People have often asked me if I enjoyed the Cubs playoff run. And in a way, the answer is: of course. I love baseball, and I love the Cubs. But on another level: it wasn’t enjoyable, it was completely nerve-wracking. The Cubs faced several great teams in the playoffs, but the Cleveland Indians were clearly the toughest test, though they were underestimated by myself and many others throughout the whole season. I was on the edge of my seat from game 1 all the way to the last out in game 7. This series was unreal.

After Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller shut down the Cubs in game 1, I was still optimistic. Cleveland’s rotation was riddled by injuries, and I knew that the Cubs could certainly make up ground against the other starters. And sure enough, the Cubs took game 2 in Cleveland thanks to Jake Arrietta and Kyle Schwarber. That’s right…Kyle Schwarber. Speaking of disbelief and shock, this is one aspect of the Cubs championship run that still seems surreal. All season long, I subconsciously applied a caveat to the Cubs success: yes, the Cubs were awesome, but how much better would they be if Schwarber hadn’t been injured in the third game of the year? I certainly never expected that question to be answered. But it was. Schwarber pulled off one of the most improbable World Series performances baseball has ever seen. After months of no baseball activity, he effectively jumped into baseball’s biggest stage, and proved to be a key contributor. Not only did he provide an offensive boost with his hits and walks, but he certainly also boosted the team’s morale. He gave the team excitement and swagger…heck, he gave the fans excitement and swagger. So it was certainly a bummer that he had to go to the bench when the Series moved to Wrigley.

The excitement and buzz around Wrigleyville for game 3 was apparent even through television. Oh if I only could have been there…but I just couldn’t pull it off. And maybe it was ok that I missed the games at Wrigley, because games 3 and 4 were painful. After the Cubs were shutout in game 3, and scored only twice in game 4, Cleveland led the Series three games to one. I’m ashamed to admit that I mostly gave up hope by that point. I was just so emotionally distraught…how could this team lose two in a row at home? Why did the offense disappear again? Did the pressure of winning in Chicago become too much for this team? But then game 5: the Aroldis Chapman game. This is why we traded away so much to get Chapman…for him to pitch nearly 3 innings in a World Series game, saving the Cubs from elimination. That performance was huge, and absolutely worth the trade. I’m not a Chapman fan, but I’m grateful for his contributions to this team.

After the Cubs won game 6 in Cleveland, it became clear: the Cubs had a legitimate shot at being the first team to come from behind 3 games to 1 since none other than your 1985 Royals. The Cubs were one win away from the Promised Land. On the day of Game 7, I posted this on Facebook:

A melodramatic reflection on Game 7 of the World Series:

I've been dreaming about this day my entire life. Literally...I've had dreams about the Cubs winning the World Series ever since I was a little boy living in Chicago. And tonight, that dream might finally come true. I don't know how I'll react if the Cubs win tonight, but no doubt about would be a surreal, magical, transcendent experience.

Go Cubs Go. For the little kids in all of us...make our dreams come true!

This summed up my feelings perfectly. So after cancelling my church choir rehearsal that night, I drove straight from work to my parents’ house in Indiana. This was a night I needed to be with family.

The buildup and the hype leading up to the game was incredible. It really seemed like the whole country was focused on what was happening in Cleveland that night. And the game certainly started in a way that delivered on the hype…Dexter Fowler led-off with a home run, and us Cubs fans went into a frenzy. Was a beginning like that some sort of omen? By the 5th inning, the Cubs had opened up a 5-1 lead, but then Joe Maddon inexplicably pulled starter Kyle Hendricks in the bottom of that inning, for Jon Lester. I disagreed with the move at the time, because Hendricks seemed to be cruising. Unfortunately, Lester did give up some runs, but then Grandpa Rossy (just into the game to catch Lester) hit a home run in the top of the 6th…in what ended up being his final major league at-bat. I can’t say enough about Grandpa, and what he meant to this team and to the city of Chicago. I’m not sure if this would have been a championship team without his leadership and play.

Going into the 8th, my parents and I were counting the outs left. We felt the anticipation building, and it was almost too much to bear. Again, Maddon made a questionable move: he brought in Aroldis Chapman (who had just unnecessarily pitched the night before, with a big lead) to relieve Lester, who had really settled in. Chapman looked completely gassed. And then came the low point of the game, and possibly the low point of the entire postseason: Rajai Davis hit a two-run shot off of Chapman to tie the game. I was speechless. My mom said she was going to throw up and decapitate my stuffed animal billy goat. In that moment, whether we admitted or not, EVERY Cubs fan wondered whether The Curse was indeed real. JUST when it seemed the end of the World Series drought was within reach, a weak contact hitter hit a game-tying home run off our dominant closer. It just didn’t seem right. Unbelievable.

And then God had to intervene. That’s right, it took divine intervention to turn this game around…the skies opened, and a short rain delayed ensued. To the Cubs fan, this was a dark moment: the rains symbolized our depressed, accursed state. But little did we know that this moment was a turning point in Chicago Cubs history. While Cubs fans were pacing back and forth, waiting to get back to the stress of extra innings, Jason Heyward was delivering what was apparently an incredibly inspirational speech. The delay gave the team the space and emotional break it needed to come back out and fight hard. Who knows…maybe it gave us fans the break we needed too.

The rest of the game is history, and it will forever go into Cubs lore. My goodness, I’m getting goosebumpy again. In the top of the 10th, the Cubs put together an impressive rally, capped off by the one and only Zoby, World Series MVP (Although let’s not forget Miguel Montero also knocked in a very important run!) I cannot even begin to describe to you what I felt when I saw those runs cross the plate. Relief beyond comparison, redemption, unbridled joy, and hope. Going into the bottom of the 10th inning, it was all hitting me at once: the Cubs were three outs away from winning the World Series. With Chapman out of the game, the Cubs relied on Carl’s Jr and Mike Montgomery, of all pitchers, to close the game. I did not expect these two guys to be closing out a Cubs’ championship, but their names will also forever go into Cubs lore. After recording two outs, the Cubs allowed one run to score, and the Indians were threatening to tie the game.

And now it’s time to return to that moment. That moment I referred to at the beginning of my writing: Kris Bryant throwing to Anthony Rizzo for that final out. How do I put this moment into words? It happened so quickly, but also so slowly. I was fearful, anxious, and relieved all within the span of a second. And in that second, everything changed. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I had essentially been holding my breath for the last month, and I could finally, finally exhale. The moment that I had dreamt about as a kid, was actually reality…The Curse had finally been broken.

I had always wondered how I’d react in that moment. I even wondered if I should video record our reaction, to forever hold on to that moment. But I decided to be in the moment as much as possible, and not plan or script my reaction and emotion. Truthfully, I don’t remember much about those first few minutes after the final out. I remember screaming, jumping, and hugging my parents…all three of us, hugging in a big group hug. I was hoarse within seconds. It was absolutely, positively surreal. The only reason I didn’t cry, was because of how surreal it truly was…it was just too much to humanly process in a moment.

I barely slept that night, and I didn’t want to. The next day at work, my co-workers completely decorated my office in Cubs championship stuff, and I just couldn’t stop beaming. I’ve been jokingly made fun of my whole life for being a Cubs fan, but now…being a Cubs fan is cool. My dedication has paid off. This is a new reality, a new era of Cubs fandom. This is what it feels like to be a loveable winner, and not a “loveable loser.” Apparently, the rest of Chicago felt the same way…because 5 million people came to the championship parade and rally, making it the largest North American gathering in recorded history, and the sixth largest in world recorded history. No doubt about it, everyone wanted in on this experience, on this incredible feeling.

Which brings me back to my proposed metanarrative: the seemingly impossible became reality. This is a story that anyone, in any walk of life can resonate with. It is always worth holding on to hope. The Cubs demonstrated that the fulfillment of hope is one of the sweetest, most redemptive feelings a community can experience. No matter what happens in the future, no matter what happens with the Cubs in 2017 and beyond, nothing can change the fact that that the impossible truly occurred. There is no more wait until next year. The Cubs are World Series champions.

It happened.

With unabated enthusiasm (more than ever),


My Dear Dave,

The Cubs have done it. They won the 2016 World Series, giving you a precious gift that fans who have lived their entire adult lives before you were even born never had the pleasure of seeing. Cubs faithful have witnessed two World Wars, the discovery of Penicillin, the Great Depression, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Princess Diana’s tragic death, the rise and fall of the Backstreet Boys, and two airplanes crash into the World Trade Center…all while their team’s championship aspirations proved futile year after year. Their futility, along with the cute bear cub mascot lent them the nickname “The Lovable Losers”. Not so any longer. This Cubs team, characterized by brilliant play and unshakable team chemistry has earned them the title “Champions”.

As the World Series matchup locked into place with the two greatest droughts in Major League Baseball: the 108-year Cubs (the longest drought in professional sports history) and the 68-year Indians (psht! …what do they know of agony?!), we knew that no matter what, the conclusion of the Series was sure to fulfill an epic headline. But how in the world could the game play within the Series actually come close to matching the epic quality of said headline? Well, it just may have in a World Series that many will regard as the greatest of all time.

Let’s skip Games 1-4, because it’s really just an overture to what set up the real movements: Games 5, 6, and 7.

Game 5: Adagio
With the Cubs down three games to one and their backs against the wall, Jon Lester would go on to pitch six innings of two-run ball, passing it to closer Aroldis Chapman with a one-run lead for a two and two-thirds inning save to finally secure the dire win at Wrigley. Performances such as that are why Chapman was acquired, however, note the taxing workload. For morale’s sake, the significance of this win cannot be overstated. It turned a three-game behemoth of a deficit into an all-of-a-sudden two-game, “if we just win Game 6 then it goes to Game 7” scenario. Like an adagio, the game was slower, but none the less captivating, beautiful, or essential. It had an oddly calm feeling due to the implications, but it portended to the drama that was to come. The closer the Cubs got to pulling off the comeback, the nearer they also drew to the heartbreak of coming up just short.

Game 6: Scherzo
Scherzo means “I joke, jest, or play” in Italian, and in Game 6, the Cubs played with the Indians in a 9-3 blowout win. Usually written in 3/4 time, the Cubs scherzo’d the Indians early on by scoring three runs in the first and then four in the third with an emphatic Addison Russell grand slam. After the Indians scored a run in the fourth and fifth innings and Chicago reliever Mike Montgomery allowed two baserunners in the bottom of the seventh with two outs, Joe Maddon inexplicably called on Aroldis Chapman once again, for what appeared to be another 2+ innings performance, but this time with a five-run lead. Certainly Maddon was jesting! I remember texting you something along the lines of “WTF”, and you responding something to the likes of, “idk…”. Though Chapman would go on to pitch only 1 and 1/3 innings, it felt like an ominous ending to this comedy of a game when considering how an unnecessarily inordinate workload might affect this pitcher who would also surely be asked to close out a crucial Game 7 for the Cubs.

Game 7: Allegro
Game 7 certainly began “fast and lively”, as Dexter Fowler led off with a homerun for the Cubs. After scoring two runs in both the fourth and fifth innings to go up 5-1, I recall stating to my die-hard Cubs fan roommate, “They’re going to do it.” So of course it would take a bizarre play like a Jon Lester wild pitch that allows not one, but two runs to score in the bottom of the fifth to allow the Indians a glimmer of hope. David Ross’s homerun in the top of the sixth gave the Cubs some breathing room again, and the completion of this epic comeback seemed all but imminent as Jon Lester continued to cruise through the bottom of the sixth and seventh innings. But things would get interesting when Maddon would in fact call upon his overworked closer Chapman with two outs in the bottom of the eighth after Lester had given up a single to Jose Ramirez.

I’m a rational person, Dave. As such, I don’t believe in curses. I don’t believe in any mystical powers that are pulling the proverbial strings in circumstances as trivial as a professional sports game. But Dave, I will readily admit that after Brandon Guyer hit a double off Chapman, scoring Ramirez from first, and Rajai Davis, of all hitters, who chokes up on the bat for crying out loud, went on to flick his wrists on an inside pitch of Chapman’s to send it over the wall for a two-run homerun, I started to legitimately question. Few moments have the power to demolish your reasoned mental paradigm in an instant, and that was perhaps one of them.

But there was nothing supernatural about what had occurred. Chapman had thrown forty two pitches in Game 5 and was used again in Game 6. He was gassed, and consequently, couldn’t throw his fabled gas (Chapman has been clocked at the highest velocity of a pitch ever thrown, at 105.1 mph). Chapman is an imposing and formidable figure. He stands 6’4”, 200 pounds of pure muscle. He looks like a Clydesdale. It would be easy to believe that he is perhaps more than a man. But alas, he is indeed merely man. Cut him, and he bleeds. Use him too much, and his arm gets tired. Hit a game-tying homerun off him in Game 7 of the World Series, and he cries.

No, the real Paul Bunyon moment of this game came from the most unlikely person, in the most unlikely way. Following a scoreless ninth, the rains came in Cleveland that halted play for about a half hour. That’s when Jason Heyward, the seemingly underserving beneficiary of one of the largest offseason contracts in 2016, decided to make a major impact, arguably for the first time that season, albeit not on the field. Leaders come in many shapes and sizes, and leadership can be delivered in many manifestations. Most athletes lead in the only way they know how: via performance; after all, sports are performance-based and results-oriented. Throughout the entirety of the 2016 season, Jason Heyward had struggled immensely in that department. But as the rain continued to fall and the players congregated in their respective dugouts, Heyward seized the opportunity to make a contribution with his voice, rather than his bat. Legend has it that he rallied the somewhat-dejected team together and charismatically reminded them of who they were - the best team in baseball, and as long as they stuck together and played like they were capable, they were going to win that game. Ironic, coming from someone who hadn’t played to his potential all season. But Heyward wasn’t referring to singular efforts. He knew that the Chicago Cubs team was collectively better than the one in the other dugout; he knew that they were better than any other team in the world, and if they stuck to their process as a team, the night would prove true.

What came after the rain delay was the stuff of storybook. Kyle Schwarber led off the tenth inning for the Cubbies. Schwarber was in a collision with Dexter Fowler in early April that resulted in a torn ACL and LCL. Following the incident, the organization declared him out for the season. But Schwarber healed and rehabbed faster than expected - so much so that he was healthy enough to swing the bat and run by the World Series. So a man who no one thought would be in a position to play in the postseason came up to bat to lead off the top of the tenth inning of Game 7 of the World Series and proceeded to hit a single. After his pinch-runner Albert Almora adeptly tagged up on a deep fly ball to center by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo was intentionally walked, Ben Zobrist…Ben “I’m an effing awesome baseball player and quite possibly an even better man” Zobrist delivered his MVP moment by hitting an opposite-field double down the third base line. Miguel Montero would go on to hit in an insurance run with a single. And though the Indians would score once in the bottom of the tenth, it never truly felt like they were back in it. And when Mike Montgomery got Michael Martinez to ground softly to Kris Bryant, who fittingly threw to his friend and fellow MVP-caliber teammate Anthony Rizzo for the final out, 108 years of Cubs futility was extinguished, a curse was officially broken, and the great Midwest city collectively exhaled and then rejoiced like no other fan base ever has.

The Offseason: Coda
In our first correspondence, I wrote to you from the perspective of a fan who had basked in the afterglow of a championship, and I compared it to sipping on limoncello, as one reflects upon an exquisite meal. You have now been sipping limoncello, my friend, and I hope that you have enjoyed it as much as I did. I hope you have watched the highlights, I hope you have read copious amounts of articles, I hope you have daydreamed of Zobrist’s double and Rizzo catching that last out often, and I hope you continue to do so. The coda is a recapitulation of the main theme, and it helps us to look back and take in the story. The Cubs are reigning champions for the first time in over a century. If that doesn’t deserve a good coda, then I don’t know what does.

We obviously didn’t know when we set out in writing these correspondences together that this was going to happen. We didn’t know while writing them that our letters to one another essentially represented me as a fan passing the torch on to you. But that’s indeed what happened, and I’d say it was rather fortuitous…even beautiful. As I said before, I cannot think of a better person or collective fan base to graciously bestow championship honors to. You deserve it, my friend. You all deserve it.

I’ll go even further with that statement as I wrap up here. A lot of 2016 and into 2017 has been hard. It’s been hard for our nation in many respects, and it’s been hard personally for many I know. At the risk of abandoning my prose, it just seems like a lot of shit has happened, and it’s sucked. But this Cubs team and this World Series story…it was a bright spot to many - Cubs fans and non Cubs fans alike. It was compelling, it was dramatic, and it was beautiful. In the midst of everything, it was the storybook ending we needed, and it was also the one we deserved.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Correspondence Between a Cubs Fan and a Royals Fan - Part 4: The Playoffs

For such a time as this...
-Esther 4:14

Dear Drew,

It’s hard to believe the end of the regular season is already upon us. In so many ways, it feels like just yesterday that we were both in Anaheim on Opening Day, watching my Chicago Cubs capture win #1 of 103. But in so many other ways, that feels like an eternity ago. It is now five months later, and SO much has happened in baseball and in life since that night…it’s been nothing short of a magical summer. Despite a pre-All Star break slide and a losing month of July, the Cubs have dominated baseball overall, in every facet of the game. They have captured their first 100-win season since 1935. They’ve won the NL Central, and won home field advantage through the NL playoffs. The team has been a true joy to watch, and they’ve been absolute must-see TV. Throughout my various travels and vacations throughout the summer, the Cubs’ success and consistency has brought a certain stability and continuity to life. Even when I’ve missed a few games while travelling, it’s been a thrill to check on the final scores, and hear of one miraculous game after another. I’ve always been a diehard Cubs fan, but if it was even possible…this year’s team was so dominant, so successful, and so darn likeable…that I now am more invested in this team than ever.

So let’s briefly review everything that has happened in Wrigleyville since we last wrote. After the All-Star break, the Cubs quickly righted the ship and eventually went on an 11-game winning streak at the beginning of August. After they distanced themselves from the Cards and Pirates in the division, they never looked back. Despite the Cubs domination, there was always a sense that the bullpen was the Achilles heel of the team. So at the end of July, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer made a bold move, and traded top prospect Gleyber Torres and a few other players to the Yankees for dominant flamethrower Aroldis Chapman. I’m still very uncomfortable with Chapman’s ethical/moral presence on the team, but there’s no denying his supreme talent. Watching a 104 mph closer pitch for your own team is exhilarating. The Cubs definitely overpaid for Chapman, but if he pitches the final out of a World Series championship, it will all be worth it.

A significant storyline for the Cubs this year is their insanely awesome rotation. They have the 2015 Cy Young winner in Jake Arrietta. (who’s actually underperformed a bit) They have two legit 2016 Cy Young contenders in Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. Can we just talk about Kyle “The Professor” Hendricks for a second? I’ve enjoyed watching his development and growth ever since the Cubs got him for Ryan Dempster, but never in a million years did I expect a year like this for him. NL leader in ERA?! Not bad for a guy who pitches around 90 mph on average. We quite possibly have the new Greg Maddux on our hands. But then we also have Jon Lester, who’s having nearly just as an impressive season as Hendricks. In fact, Hendricks and Lester are the top two ERA leaders in the NL, and are probably THE leading candidates for Cy Young. Though this team was built around young offensive talent, it’s the depth of the starting rotation that has been key to the Cubs’ success.

Speaking of the offensive talent, I can’t summarize the second half of the 2016 season without discussing Bryzzo. While Lester and Hendricks are leading Cy Young candidates, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are leading MVP candidates. Rizzo has been solid for a few years now, (and has been my favorite player, as evidenced by the Rizzo’s cereal box now proudly displayed in my apartment) but Bryant in particular has developed into a superstar. In only his second season in the bigs, he’s put up 100+ RBI and 39 homers…and he can play nearly anywhere in the field. And wait…did I mention his dreamy eyes?

Other young guys have taken steps forward. Javy Baez is a defensive wizard, but has also dramatically cut down on his strikeouts at the plate. Addison Russell has knocked in close to 100 runs, and has developed into a clutch hitter when the game is on the line. And thank God for the development of these guys, because they’ve adequately compensated for the offensive crappiness of Jason Heyward. Sure, he’s a Gold Glove fielder, but mercy…he’s had a horrific offensive year. Overall though, the lineup is deep, just like our rotation. The position players are quite versatile, and are interchangeable amongst their fielding positions. The defense is elite. And with the Strop-Rondon-Chapman connection now at the end of the bullpen…the Cubs appear to have no weaknesses.

And now as the green ivy of Wrigley begins to fade, the season of Fall dawns and playoff baseball is upon us. It feels SO different than last year. At this time a year ago, I just felt surprised and thankful the Cubs made it into the playoffs at all. Since the team was seemingly a year ahead of schedule in its development, I almost viewed the playoff run as just a nice bonus. But this year…well, there’s no doubt that anything less than a World Series championship would be a disappointment. So consequently, I’m incredibly excited, but I’m also VERY nervous. What if the entire magical season is undone by one week of lackluster playoff baseball? What if the offense chokes like it did last year in the NLCS? What if Arietta implodes when the team needs him the most? What if the team feels the weight of the expectations and The Curse?

I first wrote to you at the beginning of the season about my cautious optimism. The optimism then turned to giddiness, then to concern…my emotions naturally reflected the normal ups and downs of the regular season. But now, I’ve come full circle, and returned to cautious optimism. But, extra cautious. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next month, but whatever happens doesn’t change the fact that this summer has been historically amazing.

I almost feel bad comparing our teams at this point. When we began our correspondence, our teams were both riding high…but over the course of the season, the Royals and Cubs have clearly gone different directions. I noticed the Royals did have a nice winning streak in August that briefly put them back in the Wild Card race, but alas…the injuries piled up, and the mediocrity in all facets of the game eventually undid them. I’d love to hear your analysis of the team. Were the 2016 Royals a disappointment? Or were the 2015 Royals playing above their heads? Or both?

I’m sure you’ll be cheering for the Cubs in the playoffs with the Royals out. But I’m not sure if you really need a vicarious experience, because of what the Royals gave you last year? At any rate, next time I write to you, the Cubs could very well be basking in their first World Series championship in over a century.

With unabated caution and optimism,

Dear Dave,

I thought long and hard about actually writing this post from a booth at Denny’s. You know, actually dining at the restaurant, ordering up a Grand Slam meal and some watery coffee, and churning out this blog with the taste of mediocrity fresh on my tongue. My Royals finished 2016 with a record of 81-81…the epitome of average. I had hopes when we began this correspondence that both of our teams would be vying for their respective pennants once the playoffs began; as such, only you can say as much. But you can keep your sympathy, my good friend. After back-to-back World Series appearances and a championship in 2015, I feel that expecting my team to be playoff-bound again would be greedy, especially taking into account that I waited my entire life just to see them make the playoffs two years ago. God help me if I ever become an entitled fan the likes of a Yankees fan. I suppose as a fan, I can sit this year out.

To answer your questions, yes, I think the Royals underperformed this season, just as they most likely over-performed in 2015. A lot went right for Kansas City in 2014-15; I suppose balance was inevitable. Still, after six consecutive seasons of improving upon their previous record, it’s hard to experience regression. The exhilarating youth movement that has occurred on Kansas City’s roster for quite some time at last seems to be tapering. After 2017, we lose control of both Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, whose play and intangibles have been integral in lifting the fog of a plagued (I won’t use the “c” word) losing franchise, and replacing it with one that absolutely has a winning culture and realistic championship aspirations. That being said, I think the overall feeling in Kansas City is that we have a one-year window to contend with the pieces that currently comprise what has proved to be an incredible team. We’d better make it count…

The second half of this season was one that featured both soaring heights and depressing lows. It’s worth noting that the All-Star Game was a declaration of the stardom represented in both of our dugouts. As you’ll remember, Kris Bryant’s first inning solo homerun was followed in the bottom of the second by a solo shot by Eric Hosmer and then a two-run bomb by Salvador Perez. In the bottom of the third, Hosmer plated one more run with an RBI-single, as he would go on to earn MVP honors in the game. All four American League runs were generated off Royals bats. Although an exhibition game, it was still titillating to see our guys produce on the big stage yet again. I must apologize in advance, however, if the home field advantage the Royals won the American League for the World Series comes back to bite the Cubs in any way.

A horrible July (in which I had abandoned all hope of playoffs) gave way to a terrific August, in which the Royals rattled off a 9-game win streak in the middle of a 16 wins in 19 games stretch and positioned themselves to within 2 games of that second wild card. At one point, Danny Duffy, who at the age of 28 has had an incredibly frustrating and inconsistent career, was lauded by national pundits in regards to a Cy Young contention. But as you know, in this game you live and die by pitching, and the same starting pitching that had been the backbone of the team’s surge imploded late in the season, and they wound up limping down the stretch towards their first .500 or below record in three seasons. But as the Giants and Red Sox have taught us, just because you miss the playoffs one year doesn’t mean that you can’t win a championship the next. We will look onward with hope to 2017!

You wrote to me with the Cubs’ regular season still unfinished and their final record of a magnificent season yet undetermined. Well that number ended up 103-58 - a robust .640 winning percentage. No other team in baseball was over .600; no other team was even truly close. Both Washington and Texas ended the season with a .586 percentage. The Cubs’ overall run differential posted at +252; no other team was even close to 200. Most years you could debate who the best team in baseball was at the conclusion of the season. Not in 2016. Your Cubs were hands down the best.

The disparity between the product the Cubs have put on the field and the competition is a bit mind-blowing. Most teams would be overjoyed to have a legitimate MVP or Cy Young candidate, let alone two of each! You’ve already mentioned the emergence of the two-headed MVP monster that is Bryzzo. The similarity between their respective numbers in 2016 was a bit uncanny. They both batted .292. They both had on-base percentages of .385. Bryant’s OPS was .939; Rizzo’s was .928. Why Bryant will probably wind up winning MVP honors is because homeruns are sexy, and so is he. He hit 39 of them, while Rizzo hit a mere 32. Bryant also had a significantly higher WAR, at 6.6, compared with Rizzo’s 4.6. This must be due to defensive metrics, which I think are slightly overvalued in WAR, as there is no way Bryant was that much more valuable than Rizzo; however it may speak towards the value of Bryant’s versatility in the field, with the ability to play first, third, and outfield, whereas Rizzo is the conventional one-trick-pony at first. And Bryant does have those dreamy eyes…

You also mentioned The Professor - Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester as possible Cy Young candidates. Each of these pitchers owns certain categories over the other that would make his respective case compelling. Hendricks possesses the better ERA (2.13 to Lester’s 2.44). Lester, however, has more strikeouts (197 to 170), more innings pitched (202.2 to 190), and more wins to boot (19 to 16). This year’s race feels different from the last in that last year’s featured three candidates with otherworldly numbers, each of whom would’ve won this year’s Cy Young going away. Despite both Hendricks and Lester being deserving, I think Max Sherzer of the Nats will probably wind up winning, given that he bests both pitchers in terms of wins (20), strikeouts (284), and innings pitched (228.1). He also possesses the better WAR (6.2 to 5.0 and 5.3).

But enough about regular season exploits; that is all merely to get one’s team in position for the postseason, and two games into the Divisional Series against the Giants, things couldn’t look much better for the Cubbies. Though Madison He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named continues to be untouchable in the playoffs, that has not affected the Cubs, since he used his 119-pitch shutout against the Mets in the Wild Card Game. That is the beauty of this new playoff format, as it truly places value on winning your division versus making it in as a Wild Card. If San Francisco had not had a crappy second half and had taken care of business, they would’ve won the NL West, played the Nationals rather than the Cubs, and saved He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s gem to get ahead in Game 1. As is, now He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named has to pitch another beauty just to simply keep the Giants in the mix of things, and he will only be pitching in one game this series,  as opposed to two. These are not trivial details but factors that could end up deciding the fate of this series.

But I don’t want to depict the Cubs’ 2-0 lead as falling into a fortunate scenario. Far from it! The Cubs very much deserved to be in this situation due to their regular season dominance. And in those first two games, the Cubs still had to outperform their opponent, who by the way threw another ace against them in Game 1 in Johnny Cueto. Cueto was brilliant, but Lester was better. And when unlikely hero Javy Baez hit the go-ahead homerun in the bottom of the eighth, it was time for Joe Maddon to release the Kraken in the form of the most dominant closer in baseball - Aroldis Chapman, whom the Cubs had traded for earlier this season for such a time as this. Chapman has already converted both save opportunities presented to him, including a perfect ninth with two strikeouts on Saturday.

This sets up a compelling, must-see matchup for tomorrow night, as Madison He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named will face off against last year’s leviathan and Cubs’ own mountain man Jake Arrieta. The pressure now rests decidedly on the Giants. My hope is that the Cubs can be the first postseason team to find a chink in MadBum’s armor, and they can finish this thing tomorrow night, thereby putting an end to this stupid “Giants win every even year” bullshit. When the Mets beat the Cubs in the second round of the playoffs last season, my Royals avenged you. The last team to beat the Royals in the playoffs was of course the Giants. Please return the favor, my friend.

The next time we correspond, for better or for worse, the baseball season will be over. We will either be singing the Cubs’ praises or offering up a dirge. I will be cheering for them every step of the way. If we as Royals fans have to let go of the championship scepter, I can think of no better fan base to place it in the hands of than yours. Go Cubs, go!

With vicarious enthusiasm,

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Psychology of Confidence: Tiger Woods and the Curse of Extraordinary Talent

Golf is a game that is played on a 5-inch course - the distance between your ears.
-Bobby Jones

For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
-Matthew 23:12

"Golf is Damn Difficult"

Golf is a funny game. Within it, a stark dualistic contrast exists between the beauty and serenity of the external factors versus the entropic inner turmoil that resides within each golfer’s mind.

Many have derided the golf course’s place with regard to its 

"natural beauty", however one need only view Pebble Beach's 18th,
flanked by Northern California's majestic pine forests and Carmel Bay's curved ocean shore, or Augusta National's 12th, featuring its lush hues of green foliage, placid glassy creek traversed by a quaint, cobbled bridge, finally giving way to a perfectly-manicured green and picturesque backdrop of the pink and violet azaleas, in
order to concede that, though engineered, golf courses can offer us some incredibly stunning scenery. 

For many of us amateurs, the beginning of the round represents the day’s apex, with a blank scorecard offering limitless amounts of hope and delusional ideation of how the round will unfold. A picture of a cool, crisp start in the morning with a mist rising from a nearby body of water tends to confound the dramatic irony that every golfer is either consciously or sub-consciously aware of…the club-throwing and cursing chaos that is soon to blemish the pretty trees and their puffy little cloud-friends on the Bob Ross canvases sketched within our minds. The dew that gently rests atop each blade of fairway grass is as a siren of false promise, and will in time, much like the golfer’s confidence, have evaporated into thin air, into the place where dreams lay waste to reality…the reality that golf is damn difficult. 

It’s a mental game. You hear that idiom uttered often in sports, and as cliche as it may sound, its overuse doesn’t make the phrase any less true. But if it were ever true, in its truest sense, then it would have to be true foremost of golf. Anyone who has ever played knows this, because no game toys with the mind like golf does. On any given 400-yard hole, you may have four shots or so (and that’s if you’re pretty good) with all the space and time in the world between them to either dwell upon your last shot or fret about the one to come, right up until your backswing.

The speed of other sports necessitates that the players react to what is happening through instinctual mental processes and muscle memory. Think about Klay Thompson’s catch-and-shoot from the three point line. Think about Tom Brady reading the defense and quickly firing a pass as the pocket collapses around him. Better still, think about a baseball player trying to hit a baseball. Is there a better example of making a million computations in one’s head while not even having the time to really think about it? Hitters literally have a microsecond once they see the baseball leave a pitcher’s hand to answer a whole host of questions: There is the ball. But where will it end up? How fast is it traveling? What is the rotation and movement? Will it be a strike? If it is a strike, is it a strike that I should swing at, or is it one I should pass on for a better strike later in the at bat? These are all questions a hitter needs to process in order to make the ultimate decision - do I swing, or don’t I? - paradoxically without ever truly having time to think.

Not so in golf. In golf, there is an abundance of time; it becomes an exercise of meditation. You are hitting a little stationary white ball that sits there on the grass with a seemingly wry smile, mocking you the more and more until the instant your club collides with it, implicitly insisting that this should be the easiest thing in the world. But then, you swing, and the shot that follows often betrays the lie the ball just telepathically conveyed. Sometimes if it’s bad enough, the ball might vanish into oblivion - a disappearing act that no amount of squinting can reveal the secret to. Sometimes the orb sails left, and when you line up right the next time in order to correct its waywardness, it then spasmodically curves even further right. Sometimes you get under it, and the ball is popped up and hardly advanced (once I literally hit a ball behind me, for negative yards). Other times, you top the ball, and it sputters down the fairway thirty or forty yards, with nothing but its topspin to give it any kind of distance. Yet still, sometimes the heavens open and anoint a well-struck shot, with the head of the club flush to the ball and the plane of your swing perfectly aligned. The ball goes straight, and it goes far, and seeing the beautiful shot that ensues is euphoric. You may have a handful of those amidst the hundred you shoot all day, but their memory is enough to make you love the game (while of course still maintaining hatred for its far-more-consistent insolence) and return to it again and again, with hopes of improving that ghastly ratio.

Even the semantics of golf’s scoring seem derisive. “Birdie” - or one under par, is innocent, sweet, and whimsical, just as it symbolizes something difficult to catch. “Par” is the insidious word used to indicate an unreasonable standard for how one “should” score on any given hole. Par for the course is the mainstream phrase meant to convey that something is normal. But every golfer knows that actually achieving par is challenging, and for most amateur golfers, uncommon. Inevitably when you don’t reach par, the word is there serving to mock you and your incompetence. “Bogey”, coincidentally the slang Brits use for boogers (as anyone who has read Harry Potter is well aware), describes one over par. Personally, I’d be elated if I had eighteen boogers in my round of golf.

The Tragedy of Tiger Woods

Taking everything about the game into account, golf is certainly not for the mentally weak. This brings us to our case study, Tiger Woods. Everything I just got done describing applies to earthlings.
Woods is for all intents and purposes from another planet.

He began learning golf before the age of two. At age three, he shot a 48 through nine holes.That’s better than I can do presently, which makes me want to dramatically throw myself off the beautiful cliffs of Torrey Pines. By age five, word of his precocious skill had already made him a child star, finding himself putting with comedian Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show, and featured in Golf Digest magazine, as well as on ABC’s show That’s Incredible. He would go on to win the Junior World Golf Championships six times. He first defeated his father, Earl Woods - a skilled amateur golfer in his own right - at the age of eleven, and would never lose to him again. At age thirteen, Woods played in a national junior tournament that featured pairings with professionals. In the final round, he was paired with Jon Daly, who would eventually go on to become an extremely successful golfer, albeit mercurial off the course in his own right. Daly had to birdie three of the last four holes in order to beat Woods by just a stroke. In 1994, Woods would go on to play golf at Stanford, where he was voted Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year.
He turned pro in August of 1996 and won his first major championship, The Masters - perhaps golf’s most iconic tournament - in April of 1997…by twelve strokes (that’s not a typo). It was his first of fourteen majors he would claim during an eleven-year stretch between 1997 and 2008 - an average of 1.3 major championships (there are four of them) per year. With well over 100 professionals entering tournaments, along with the capricious nature of golf (unlike a predictable sport such as tennis), that is simply remarkable. Since his fourteenth major championship in 2008, however, Tiger has failed to win another.

That is just a cursory glance at Tiger’s meteoric ascent, but as you can probably surmise, that ascent didn’t feature very many dips. Since his birth, Tiger’s life arrow had trended only in one direction - up. Up and up and up.

Tiger Woods was different; for so many reasons he was different, and he quite simply changed the game of golf. Sometimes in life, the perfect combination of nature and nurture in a human being’s genetic code and development collide to produce someone transcendent in their respective niche. What Shakespeare was to writing, Thomas Edison to invention, and Martin Luther King Jr. to orating, that is what Tiger Woods was to golf. He was a savant. To me, a golf club is a cold, titanium object, both terrifying and volatile. To Woods, it was as reliable an appendage as his own feet and arms. He was unlike anything we had ever seen before. For starters, in an Anglo-originated sport dominated by the White upper-class, Tiger represented a break from that homogenous mold. Previously, golfers had been thin and ordinary in terms of stature. Woods was tall, svelte, and powerful, and his drives of over 300 yards proved the merits of his rigorous work out regimens. He was cool, too. Whereas golfers before him largely adhered to the “gentlemen’s game” persona of a stoic and reserved behavior, Woods broke from that mold as well. He was fiercely competitive and unapologetically demonstrative on the course. He injected youth and style into an otherwise stale game for the middle-aged. He appealed to everyone - White, Black, old, young, rich, or poor. You wanted to emulate everything about him, from his chic black Nike hat with the white swoosh, to his signature fist pumps after
drilling a long putt. All of that, combined with how otherworldly good he was at golf made an otherwise boring sport suddenly compelling to watch…the same way you might feel compelled to watch any event in which one human being is so far superior to the rest of the field - like Usain Bolt running, Simone Biles jumping, Michael Phelps swimming, or Lance Armstrong cycling. I didn’t give two shits about the Tour de France before Armstrong, but I started paying attention because every year I expected him to do something spectacular…something that would push the bounds of human capabilities.

Along with his special ability and unique attributes, Tiger also became rich. Heavens to Betsy, he was rich. Of course he became plenty wealthy from his earnings on the course, but the bulk of his worth came in the form of endorsements. Tiger Woods became the most marketable athlete on the planet. Beginning with his ascension to the professional tour, Woods began to endorse General Motors, American Express, Buick, TAG Heuer, Gillette, and Gatorade. If you wanted your product to sell, all you had to do was slap Woods’ winsome smile next to it. He was most known, however, for his relationship with Nike. Although Nike was not a major player in the world of golf before Tiger Woods (far from it, actually), they had the prescience to recognize that the first brand to become associated with Tiger would win the sweepstakes. Indeed they did. The swoosh and Tiger Woods became an unbeatable marriage, and Nike Golf became a veritable juggernaut in the sport largely because Tiger made them appear legitimate. In 2000, Tiger signed a 5-year, $105 million contract extension with Nike - the largest endorsement deal signed by an athlete at the time. By October 1, 2009, Forbes had declared Tiger the first athlete billionaire.

During 2001’s British Open Championship, Woods was introduced to Swedish
golfer Jesper Parnevik’s model-nanny, Elin Nordegren. Nordegren was apparently the apple of many single golfers’ eyes, but Tiger, the alpha male of the bunch, went on to win her and her hand in 2004. They instantly became an endearing celebrity couple and would go on to have two lovely children together - daughter Sam in 2007 and son Charlie in 2009. Even Tiger’s personal life appeared to have a Midas touch.
But Tiger’s wholesome persona was in reality a house of cards, ready to topple at any moment…

On November 26, 2009, Woods and Nordegren were hosting Thanksgiving with Woods’ mother at their home in Windermere, Florida. The newest edition of the National Enquirer had just been released, with a headline that read Tiger Woods Cheating Scandal. The story chronicled what was ostensibly a months-long affair between Woods and a New York City night club hostess Rachel Uchitel. Woods denied the accusations and even put his wife on the phone with Uchitel for a half-hour conversation, in an attempt to placate her. Astonishingly, the strategy would prove to be ineffective.

On Thanksgiving night, Woods, an insomniac, had taken an Ambien sleep pill and some Vicodin, and had passed out asleep. Meanwhile, Nordegren confiscated his phone and began to scroll through the contacts. Posing as Woods in order to catch them in their lie, she texted Uchitel, writing, “I miss you. When are we seeing each other again?” Uchitel wrote back immediately, expressing surprise that Woods was still up. Nordegren then called Uchitel, saying, “I knew it was you. I know everything.” “Oh, f—k”, Uchitel replied, and promptly hung up.

At this point, Nordegren finally lost her stoic Swedish cool and began screaming, waking up a stupefied Tiger in the process. She threw the cell phone at him, chipping his tooth, and proceeded to chase after Tiger with the nearest weapon she could find - ironically, a golf club. A dazed and petrified Woods then bolted to his Escalade and attempted to extricate himself from his ballistic spouse, who was in hot pursuit in a golf cart - again, ironic…and hilarious to picture.

Now, I’ve taken Ambien once in my life on the night my dad passed away. It is a gnarly thing. It doesn’t just make one incredibly drowsy; it causes vertigo as well. I remember turning off the TV in the living room and stumbling upstairs to my room. The effects must be similar to what the immediate aftermath of a concussion feels like. Needless to say, driving a large vehicle while under the influence of this powerful drug would be ill-advised.

Woods did just that and pulled out of his driveway, quickly accelerating to thirty miles-per-hour, proceeding to hit about everything he could have - a nearby hedge, the curb, a fire hydrant, and finally, a tree. Not Tiger’s finest moment.
The neighbors would go on to call 911, and Woods was admitted to a nearby hospital in “serious condition”.
It wouldn’t be long before news of Woods’ domestic incident became a ubiquitous storyline and Pandora’s Box would be opened on his personal life. It would become clear that Rachel Uchitel was not an isolated incident; she was merely the first domino to fall. Following Uchitel, fourteen other mistresses came to the fore with allegations of having ongoing relations with Woods. He would eventually admit to being a sex addict and confessed to sleeping with over 120 women, for which he checked himself into rehab for.

The reality that a super wealthy and famous sports star would be so promiscuous was not the surprising, nor appalling storyline. One might say precedent had already been set for that, with Hall of Fame basketball player Wilt Chamberlain famously bragging that he had slept with over 20,000 women. No, it was Tiger’s infidelity as a married man at the pinnacle of “The Gentlemen’s Game” that turned his sexual exploits into a full-blown scandal. National sports radio personality Colin Cowherd said, “The only thing that makes Tiger Woods any different from Derek Jeter are two words - I DO.”

The fallout for Woods was catastrophic. He went from being golf’s golden boy and hero into America’s villain. He was vilified by the media. His story was covered nonstop, which met the demands of a nation transfixed by good gossip. The paparazzi were incessant. The toll it took monetarily on Woods was also not insignificant. Just as his paramours came forth initially one after the next, so Woods’ sponsors began dropping like flies afterward. AT&T, Gatorade, General Motors, Gilette, and Tag Heuer all completely severed ties with him. Consequently, his endorsements dropped by about half. In his divorce with Elin in August of 2010, she was awarded over $100 million in palimony.

What happens when someone who has only ever experienced monumental success seemingly comes into contact with colossal failure for the first time? Tiger Woods had only known one feeling in the conquest that had been his life: unadulterated confidence. The dominance he exhibited in his livelihood no doubt inspired confidence in his personal life also. The victories of his personal life then yielded further success on the golf course. It’s a cycle of prosperity. Tiger Woods began to believe in his own invincibility - the proof of which lies in his impetuous decision making of the time - decisions that men who understand well the limitations of life tend to steer clear of.

Money, fame, talent, and good looks can cover a multitude of sins in the celebrity relational world, but they cannot supersede the conventional rule that if you cheat on your spouse, there will be hell to pay. His image suddenly tarnished and his family slipping away before his very eyes, Woods now had several chinks in his seemingly unbreakable armor.

To that point on the golf course, Tiger Woods had been known as the consummate closer. Entering the last day of a tournament, if another golfer was tied or slightly behind Woods on the leaderboard, playing out the last day was a mere formality. For all intents and purposes, the tournament was over. In those moments of primal mano a mano competition, Woods would reach down deep and find his very best. As with all of humanity’s transcendent competitors, Woods would rise to the occasion, rather than shrink in it. The more that was at stake, the greater Woods would channel his unparalleled determination and focus. In those moments, he was very much the predator, whatever poor bastard he was paired with the prey.

On August 16, 2009, shortly before Tiger’s scandal, he found himself in the very familiar position of possessing a lead on the final day of a major. The tournament was the PGA Championship, and his foe this time around was Y.E. Yang - a relatively unknown Korean golfer. I remember watching that day, waiting with eager anticipation for Tiger to continue separating himself from the pack and never look back en route to victory. But that never came. Woods would shoot a +3 on the day and go on to lose to Yang, thereby assuming the perplexing title of runner-up.

Since then, Woods has by and large failed to contend in another major tournament. His golf game has become unsightly at points…a far cry from the golfer who was widely proclaimed as the greatest ever. Jack Nicklaus’ record of eighteen major championships, which prior to 2009 seemed all but imminent, now seems impossible.

Professional life affects personal life, which then affects professional life again. Only this time, the inverse occurred - the cycle of destruction.

Recall on that infamous November evening that his wife chased after Woods with a golf club. To be sure, it’s ironic, but it’s also symbolic. When Tiger Woods’ personal life imploded, so too slid his professional career. When Elin wielded his golf club, the tumult of Woods’ personal life invaded his golf haven.

The Pillars of Confidence and How They Turned on Tiger

1. Unrealistic Optimism

Optimism and performance appear to be inextricably linked. Researchers Shelley Taylor and Jonathan Brown have concluded that “overly positive self-evaluation, exaggerated perceptions of mastery, and unrealistic optimism are characteristics of normal individuals, and that, moreover, these illusions appear to promote productive and creative work.” (2004). An individual who approaches a pursuit with unrealistic optimism is likely to outperform someone with correct perceptions and realistic expectations. Overly optimistic ideation results in the individual taking on more risky endeavors - often things they “should not have”; however, paradoxically, within that risky endeavor, they have a higher probability of success because of their perhaps unwarranted sheer and indomitable belief.

Unrealistic optimism is a euphemism for overconfidence, and it takes a very large ego to incubate the kind of mindset that our society’s largest risk-takers possess. That is why some of the most arrogant and narcissistic pricks enjoy the loftiest rises and also experience the steepest of downfalls. For such people, it’s win huge or don’t win at all, and their legacy ultimately is chiseled by the results while the rest of us look on and judge them from the ivory tower of prudence. We venerate them when they succeed; we cast stones at them when they fail. We call the behavior bold when it works and reckless when it doesn’t. But there is no mistaking that we are fascinated by them and the things we would and could never do.

To say that the greatest golfer in the world was overly optimistic seems a little ludicrous. We’ve been through his laundry list of successes on the course. But who is to say that Tiger, before he was the greatest golfer in history, didn’t innately exhibit this kind of unrealistic belief in himself that propelled him on early in his development towards victory after victory? No golfer in the world could have believed in himself more than Tiger Woods, and belief is a powerful success agent indeed. Tiger Woods the golfer took more risks than the field, and because he was so otherworldly talented and believed in himself so unwaveringly, he more often than not succeeded.

At what point Tiger’s brash confidence began to manifest in his personal life would be impossible to know, but it is clear that Tiger took many risks in his personal life also. Each extramarital rendezvous was a risk - a reckless decision, we might say, and Tiger’s risky behavior caught up with him that Thanksgiving holiday in 2009. And the same way the feeling of invincibility had traversed his professional to his personal life, the feeling of mortality also crept into his golf game from his injured love life.

Unrealistic optimism devolved into realistic parameters. Cut Tiger, and he actually bleeds.

2. Mood

As obvious as it may sound, mood is a key contributor to confidence, and by means of association, success. Mood affects performance, quite literally. Research conducted on test subjects reveals that when a negative mood is induced, the subjects become physiologically slower, and consequently, score lower on tests involving kinesthetic speed (2004). Conversely, mania, or a prolonged state of euphoria, is associated with ultra-productivity, just as it is with reckless and risky behavior.

True, moods are ephemeral and can shift like shadows, but anyone who has ever been through life’s ebbs and flows understands that mood is largely associated with whatever circumstances you find yourself in. Ergo, it is entirely conceivable that Tiger Woods, before his extramarital affairs were unearthed, was a mostly happy individual. But following those events, after Tiger had lost his marriage, his relationship with his children, most of his sponsors, and his public perception, he may well have been quite a sad chap. Mood affects blood flow. It affects body movement. It affects a whole host of our physiology. A sad Tiger Woods on the golf course is far worse than a happy one.

3. Inventory of the Past

Also affecting confidence is one’s perception of past empirical successes (or failures) (2004). Perceived success triggers confidence, while perceived failure triggers anxiety - one of the major mental road blocks to success. Whether or not we succeed in an undertaking informs our belief. If the first time I play a game of soccer I score a goal, I am likely to take inventory of that success, which will then inform my belief that I am good, and finally, inspire me towards confidence and commitment in becoming a great soccer player. In that sense, developmentally speaking, it can’t be overstated how significant our first experience with an undertaking is.

Tiger Woods’ inventory of golf success was silly. He had more reason than anyone by far to look at what he had accomplished in the game and allow the empirical evidence to inform him that he was fantastic. And he absolutely was. But in the 2009 PGA Championship, he took a two-stroke lead into the final day and wound up losing to Y.E. Yang by three strokes. That result had quite frankly never happened before, and suddenly, Woods had to work to reconcile that failure being a part of his past inventory. He has been conspicuously quiet in the world of golf ever since.

Unrealistic optimism, mood, and inventory of the past…they were all severely wounded that Thanksgiving holiday of 2009, and Tiger Woods has not won a major championship since.

Golf is indeed a mental game, whose success is bolstered by confidence - something that Tiger Woods had limitless reserves of. But on August 16 at the PGA Championship and Thanksgiving night in his own home, seeds of doubt began creeping into Woods’ seemingly impervious mind. And during those large spaces of time in between shots that make golf such a rich mental pursuit, the script running through Woods’ head may have changed - subtly at first, but noticeably. Instead of the ego that had always served in assuring him of his imminent victory, perhaps Woods began to wonder the thought: if my personal life can undergo disaster, perhaps I can miss this putt…bogey this hole…lose this tournament. In the preeminent mental game, confidence is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. A golfer without confidence is like Thor without Mjolnir. Perhaps Tiger, too, was unworthy to wield the otherworldly power bestowed unto him.

I’m not sure what exactly to take away from the story of Tiger Woods, or how exactly to wrap a bow around this blog. I’ve lambasted Woods in the past, but I can’t quite come to judge him in the present. I’ve never walked a mile in his shoes, but I’d imagine that being thrown into the cosmic gifting that he was allotted is a much more onerous position than I would’ve cared to admit. Is it a blessing or a curse to be given such incredible talent? In my experience, I cannot say. The first time I swung a golf club I shanked the crap out of it, and I'm beginning to see the silver-lining in that result.


Compte, O. & Postlewait, A. (2004). "Confidence-Enhanced Performance." American Economic Review, 94 (5), 1536-1557.