Quick and Easy

In the days leading up to "The Decision," one faction dismissed the possibility of LeBron James joining Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami. Their reasoning was that James' blue-collar ethic flew against his taking part in a cheapened championship of the kind Heat owner Micky Arison and President Pat Riley were looking to buy.

The flaw in that argument was that James is entirely motivated by titles. He said so himself. They help with worldwide branding, so they're the means to a richer end. The faster and more furious they come, the louder cash registers will ring around the globe.

After all, LeBron is a product of the new millennium when American sports are all about the quick and the easy. What's more, this kid from Akron, Ohio has declared himself a card-carrying New York Yankees fan, so he's learned that a pooling of talent is the most direct road to a title. Put a little tilt in that level playing field and collect the trophies that slide into grasp.

More than ever, players, coaches, front offices, and fans alike are getting in the express line to pennants and trophies. And where this may seem a shallow accomplishment to those dyed-in-the-wool homers that still remain among us, it nonetheless serves their purposes, whether it be building legacies, putting fannies in the seats, or satisfying a need to be among the chic.

America has always been about finding the most efficient means to an end. That's what the Industrial Revolution was all about, and what pushes high tech each successive generation closer to the day when Skynet becomes self-aware and conquers the world. Doing things quicker and easier seeps into just about every aspect of our culture, but sports were always supposed to get done the hard way. Individuals achieved skills only through a youth of sweat and pain. Teams built championships by practicing and losing and figuring out what went wrong, then going back and tweaking things until they got it right. And fans were supposed to suffer through this evolution.

But someone found a loophole. Teams have shortcut the process, and rather than measuring them against that great American ethic built on the backs of our forefathers who cleared the land and erected cities out of wilderness, we as fans have embraced their cheapened means.

In 1992, the United States assembled the Dream Team by collecting arguably the 11 best basketball players in the world, throwing in one college kid, and flying off to Barcelona to pick up a gold medal. Sure, these were our guys, the products of our heartland, of our coaches and systems, of our resources. And, in light of the 1986 IOC decision to allow professionals to compete in the Games, we had every right to stock an unbeatable team and hit double-digit leads from the opening minutes of each game. But how did we come to find any sport in it?

Maybe we considered it payback for Munich in 1972 or the boycott in 1988. Or maybe it was a stinging counter-punch thrown at Eastern Bloc countries that had always fielded de facto pro athletes whose welfare was entrusted to the state. We may have even decided we did the world a favor by showing it just how high the bar really was, giving other countries something to aspire to. Regardless, no one I know was thinking about the development of Angolan or Croatian basketball when we were high-fiving each other as Bird, Magic, and M.J. conducted clinics against them on the world's stage.

Something scuffed the spirit of the American sports fan that summer. We lowered our threshold to the point where the gratification of winning could be achieved even in the absence of any jeopardy of loss. We redefined our concept of "sports" to exclude any element of competition without even realizing it, lost as we were in the beauty of the Dream Team's flawless execution. This was theatre, a sure thing. We were bent on utter destruction of the enemy no matter the means, then we fixed our hair, straightened our ties, and resumed our lives. Eventually the world caught up to us through the cross-pollination of international athletes into our own pro sports infrastructure, and our bloodlust was shelved. But it never left.

And now, it has been taken back off the shelf.

The new millennium has witnessed a construction boom in star-laden teams within its pro leagues on a scale as grand as any the Olympics have ever seen. Despite the most rigid salary cap structure of the four major sports, the NFL's Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets have nevertheless maneuvered themselves into Super Bowl contention by picking up a Pro Bowl's worth of other people's problems on the cheap. The NBA's Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics do it by selling themselves as the last chance for aging stars to win a ring — did you ever think you'd see the day when Karl Malone wore purple? — under mid-level exceptions and veteran minimum contracts. But nothing compares to the buying power in the uncapped world of Major League Baseball, where LeBron's Yankees are like Jamie McCourt on alimony day, with everyone else playing along.

Of course, they're not just LeBron's Yankees. They also belong to enclaves of Akron, half of Miami-Dade County, and practically the whole state of Montana. Just about anywhere there are folks, there are front-runners who want to circumvent the pain of 107-year droughts, so they latch on to the surest bet in all of sports, then celebrate the inevitable championships with the gusto that is rightfully reserved only for Cubs fans should they ever see a day when champagne corks pop in their team's locker room.

It's one thing to shoot fish in a barrel; it's another thing altogether to stuff and mount them on the wall over the fireplace.

And can there ever be enough bullets in the gun? After re-signing Scott Boras' biggest client, the game's greatest closer, and an all-star catcher in the same winter, the Yankees missed the playoffs in 2008, and their fan base got that kind of restless a banker gets when you're a few days late with your mortgage even though he's still holding your deed. So Hal and Hank Steinbrenner dropped $341 million on the top pitcher and positional player on the market that winter, not to mention $82 million more on a No. 2 starter. It was enough to procure another World Series trophy, which was the worst thing for the fate of parity in baseball.

Now Yankee Fan wants more championships, so that means grabbing even more talent. It started with Joey Mauer, because you've got to have the best in every position to be guaranteed a title. And when the heartbreak subsided after the Twins extended Mauer's contract, a lust built for Cliff Lee. The best five-man rotation in baseball can always use a little more separation from the rest. Now, with Lee's move to Texas comes the fans' dual realization that their team already has things sewed up without him, and that Brian Cashman will get him this coming winter anyway.

And why not, they ask. It's not illegal; nothing in the rules precludes their front office from stocking an unbeatable team. Sound familiar? It should. We were all saying the same thing back in 1992.

Warning: spoiler alert. The Yankees will win the 2010 World Series. Then again, you already know that. The Major League Baseball season is becoming just another Harlem Globetrotters tour, only with 29 Washington Generals. Everyone likes to watch the Globetrotters, even though beating the Generals is understood. It's what we used to call theatre. Today, we call it sports.

Comments and Conversation

August 3, 2010

Brad Oremland:

Bob, I agree with your larger point here, but not with including the 1992 Dream Team as an example. That team wasn’t assembled by throwing money at players or at the expense of other teams; it was simply an introduction of fairness — the best team won as easily as it deserved to. Surely no one believes the US should have sent its B- or C-team (and risked losing the gold medal) just because its team was the best by such a large margin.

The Dream Team was also about the beauty of seeing the best in the world playing together on the same floor: Magic passing to Bird, Barkley pulling down offensive boards and dishing to Jordan, etc. There was something magical about that, and fans all over the world got excited about it.

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