I play in a fairly competitive but unofficial softball league.
During a game last season, while playing first base, I squatted and reached to my left to try to catch a low and wide throw from third. The runner ran into me, knocking me over. The ball got away.
Instead of going after the ball, I sat on my behind and glared angrily at the umpire, incredulous that he had not called interference. He said I was in the base path and that the runner could not avoid me. None of my teammates argued, so this was probably the case. I doubt the runner knocked me over intentionally.
But I was still furious. And I made it clear to the other team that I wasn’t going to let it slide. I shouted loud enough for everyone to hear, “If it happens again, I won’t be the only one going down!”
I went hitless the rest of the game, swinging as hard as I could just to get on the basepaths and exact revenge, and managing only weak grounders. Worse, my loss of control made for an uncomfortable situation for all, in what was a meaningless game of softball. Fortunately, I gathered my composure by the end of the game—we lost—and I got up and shook hands with the other team.
But the end result of my outburst? Runners got extra bases. My hitless remainder of the day made unproductive outs. I upset my teammates. I hurt my reputation as an upbeat player who is willing to lead the team. I made uncalled for threats. I contributed to my team’s loss.
Was it interesting if you were watching? Did I show passion and desire to win? Sure. But I’m not proud of any of it.
Some NASCAR fans say they want to see more emotion from drivers, complaining that so many of them are corporate robots these days. Even Fox Sports’ Larry McReynolds has joined the chorus. This in an age when the current crop of drivers includes Tony Stewart, who is good for at least two or three post-race rants a season. Or Kyle Busch, who parks his car, gets out and lets his crew push it to the garage after a slow pit stop cost him a win. Or Carl Edwards, who went after his teammate on camera during an interview. Or Jeff Gordon, who emerged from his car after getting spun and gave a shove to the perpetrator without even waiting to take off his helmet. Or Kevin Harvick, who leaped onto a rival’s hood and did his best to put holes in it with his feet. Or Robby Gordon, who executed his own burnout after a botched official call cost him a victory.
Racing is not an endeavor where keeping one’s head is easy or should even be expected. By definition it is unnerving. Imagine driving on a congested highway full of aggressive drivers at three times the speed. Competitive fire got these guys to this level. They’re human and sooner or later they’re going to lose it with someone. It does happen.
The blowups may be entertaining to watch. They’re also—unlike the old days—nationally televised and put on Youtube for everyone to see thousands of times. I doubt I would have liked that with my softball explosion. Cal Ripken, Jr., one of the most outwardly even-keeled ballplayers ever, said he threw tantrums and bats until he saw himself do it on TV.
When Denny Hamlin lost a Martinsville win to Jimmie Johnson after Johnson went hard into the corner and shoved him out of the way, he stood in front of the camera and said to an America waiting for a diatribe that it was hard racing and he would have done the same thing, and that he will if the roles are reversed. And some folks pointed to his post-race actions and said that this is exactly what’s wrong with NASCAR. He didn’t want to upset the sponsor.
But Hamlin handled the incident exactly the way a professional should. Expect your opponents to race you hard and when they do, you don’t jump up and down and scream, you just say ok, when I get my shot I’ll do the same thing.
In 2005, Jeff Gordon wrecked Kurt Busch en route to a Martinsville victory. After the race, an interviewer shoved a microphone in Busch’s face and did everything she could to egg him on. Kurt refused to bite. I admired that. There’s something to be said for a driver who gets out of his car after getting wrecked and doesn’t question the family tree or intelligence of the driver who was responsible. If you think that’s easy, try getting on national television and talking about someone who just cut you off on the road while you have an opportunity to publicly embarrass them. Kurt won a few weeks later.
People may point to the famous fight in the 1979 Daytona 500 and say “that’s the way racing used to be”. But what made that race stand out was that you didn’t see it all that often. Such incidents weren’t happening every week in 1979 any more than they are in 2009. What made that race generate interest in the sport was a snowed in East Coast audience witnessing it all.
Richard Petty didn’t become The King because he was always ready to throw down. Dale Earnhardt was the Intimidator and the very epitome of a past that some fans seem to yearn for, but how many fistfights did you see him in? NASCAR was peaking in popularity right around 2003, the year that good ol’ dull boy Matt Kenseth won the big prize.
After Carl Edwards went after Kenseth or Dale Earnhardt, Jr., few people said that Carl was what NASCAR has been missing. To the contrary, he was called immature, punkish, entitled. Much as Kyle Busch was when he parked his car for his crew to push. Many fans claim to want more fire and desire from the competitors, and that’s fine, but whenever one boils over people look to Jimmy Spencer to point out that the driver is a wet behind the ears ingrate punk.
A driver has a choice when his temper flares. He can have an embarrassing and regrettable explosion on national television that will be put on the Internet, irritating the sponsor and perhaps the team if the driver’s own crew is the target of the diatribe. Or he can get through the interview without losing his marbles, and focus on what needs to be done to get back into the hunt. You may have noticed that that’s how Jimmie Johnson does it. It seems to work pretty well for him. Many drivers learn the hard way that they’ll be much better off keeping their emotions in check.
The sport doesn’t need more passion. These guys do get mad. It will be there soon enough and will entertain plenty. But instead of wishing for more on-camera spontaneous combustion, maybe we could allow some due recognition to Johnson and Mark Martin and Jeff Burton—and Denny Hamlin after Martinsville—drivers who make an effort to defuse rather than detonate. I don’t have any offspring yet, but if I did, I’d point to those guys as examples.
The ratings may be helped by the Kyle Busches and the Tony Stewarts and their entertainment value. I don’t argue that. But Kyle and Tony are also among the most vilified drivers in the sport today. And you might not like a driver for being sponsor-friendly, but the sponsor’s opinion does matter. They’re paying bills.
As we’ve seen many times, when a driver loses his cool he can make a costly mistake, as Kyle Busch did in Texas. Bruton Smith may want Jimmie Johnson to haul off and slap someone, but Jimmie knows better. Kyle may be more “exciting” than Jimmie, but I’ll wager that he’d rather be a three-time champ.
In racing or in any competitive sport, we should hardly hold it against a wronged participant when he asks himself, “What would the King do?”
- Slim Jim France stepping down? My prediction is that this will affect NASCAR very little with Lesa France Kennedy taking over. And that he isn’t likely to take over for Brian like some were wishing would happen. Not sure why.
- Mr. Cool Jimmie Johnson is going for four straight at Phoenix this Saturday night and to become the first driver to win four straight at any track since, uh, himself. He may have been the slowest driver to cross the Phoenix finish line last year, drifting past the checkered flag on the fumes of fumes.
- There have been some up in arms articles and comments about the deactivation of the 8 car, but as I said in a previous article about the 28, this is the reality of the sport right now. Why so much animosity towards Teresa because Aric Almirola lost his ride?
- My hometown lost one of its most recognizable icons this week. Harry Kalas was a great ambassador for the Phillies, for baseball, and for the city of Philadelphia—and that last one is no mean feat. I can’t imagine Phillies broadcasts without his distinctive drawl. You will be missed Harry.
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