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Hook, Line and Sinker

By Tony Hooker
“Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all-time thing. You don’t win once in a while, you don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time. Winning is habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.”
-Vince Lombardi

Last weekend, I was blessed to go to Busch Stadium for a Cardinals game. It’s been a while since I’ve been at the park during a run for the playoffs, and the atmosphere in the ballpark village and inside the stadium was truly electric.

Maybe it’s because they’ve had plenty of practice through the years, (their 11 World Series titles trail only the NY Yankees, all time) but they know how to celebrate the triumphant return of a past world series winner. At the game this weekend, they feted the 2011 championship team that beat Texas in dramatic fashion, and I was reminded of how special Cardinal Nation can be. Every former player in attendance was greeted with thunderous applause, from the lowliest bench player to St. Louis native David Freese, who was the series MVP. Even Skip Schumacher, now serving as associate manager for the visiting San Diego Padres, was greeted with a tremendous roar. This despite the fact that the Pads and Cards are mired in a desperate battle for the final wild card berth. 

As I stood there, emotionally watching the ceremonies, my brain wandered in other directions, as it is often wont to do. Why, I wondered, do some teams seemingly constantly excel, while others either never achieve greatness or are unable to sustain it? 

I think I started to touch on it a little bit in last week’s column. Sometimes expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies. For Cardinal Nation, there’s an expectation that they’ll make the playoffs every season, based on past successes. The Cardinals have made the playoffs 14 times in the past 21 seasons. They’re trying to add to that total in 2021. They’ve also played in 4 world series in that time, a number matched only by the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants since the start of the century. The Red Sox have arguably taken it one step further, as they’ve won all four of their WS appearances since 2000, including two wins over the beloved. Of course, the hated Yankees have made the playoffs an incredible 17 times in the past 21 years, but they’ve played in only three world series. 

The trick, of course, is how to create the expectation of winning among the team, especially among high school athletes. How do you get succeeding years of athletes to buy into off season conditioning? How do you get your young charges to change from an expectation of losing to an expectation of winning against certain teams? Truthfully, if I knew the answers to those queries, I’d probably be coaching the teams instead of writing about them. There’s also always the question of maintaining the aura of excellence once things slip a little bit. The Unity Rockets certainly seem to have regained their mojo after a couple of average seasons on the gridiron, for example, while SJO, their erstwhile rivals, have been on a slide toward mediocrity for the past several seasons. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are directed toward all teams at times. A positive response will come from within the team’s culture. So will a negative one.

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