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Commentary : Gracious Losers Appear to Be Vanishing Breed

September 28, 1985|JOE GERGEN | Newsday

"Welcome, class, to Losing 101. Now I know some of you have misgivings about this course. I can hear the snickers in the back of the room.

"That's the way it is every year. Students are concerned that people will think less of them because of their attendance here. After all, nobody wants to be labeled a loser.

"As Americans, we find the term particularly noxious. From our earliest days, we are taught to think, work, fight and even play to win. By now, you've heard all the appropriate quotations from famous persons in this regard.

"It was a football coach, Vince Lombardi, who advised, 'Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing.' And before him, we had the testimony of Gen. George S. Patton Jr., who said, 'America loves a winner. America will not tolerate a loser.' Yet even the most accomplished among us suffer occasional losses. I'm reminded that Dwight Gooden lost four times this season, as difficult as that may be to fathom.

"A problem is that we're so conditioned to think about victory, we don't know how to handle defeat. What is it we do when confronted by it? We make excuses. We mutter something about bad luck. We point the finger and say it was the fault of someone else.

"Consider the expression, 'Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser.' The implication is that anyone who accepts defeat in a rational manner is bound to inspire more heel marks than a welcome mat at the front door. We are encouraged to act like spoiled children.

"Now, it's all well and good to be competitive. That certainly is our nature, a byproduct of the free enterprise system. This country would not be in the position it is today if not for the ambition of its citizens. We all want to be No. 1 at whatever we do.

"But such an attitude can lead to excesses. It can result in a populace that will resort to any means to win. On this subject we have the example of Billy Martin, who manages the New York Yankees for George Steinbrenner, whose behavior we will examine shortly. Just the other day Martin was quoted as saying, and not for the first time, 'I would pitch Hitler and Mussolini if they'd help me win.'

"Although the statement apparently was intended to illustrate what a democratic fellow Martin is, it served to underline his unhealthy obsession. Besides, as we discovered 40 years ago, Hitler and Mussolini were two of the biggest losers in history.

"As for Steinbrenner, who has hired Martin as manager on four different occasions, he is intolerant of defeat of any kind. When his team succeeded in winning a division playoff and a league championship in 1981 but failed in the World Series, he issued a letter of apology to the people of New York. It probably never occurred to him that the winning team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, had been the better team when they met.

"But Steinbrenner is nothing if not consistent. Two weeks ago, the Yankees were gaining on the first-place Toronto Blue Jays despite a staff of starting pitchers that was two deep. The Yankees edged to within a game and a half of the American League East leaders, then lost the second game of a showdown series on the following night. During the third game of the series, Steinbrenner dictated a valentine to his team through the newspapers in which he ridiculed some of his front-line players. As usual, he had failed to note the presence of another good team on the field. His team proceeded to collapse.

"As if that weren't bad enough, a New York football coach carried Steinbrenner's philosphy into an Ivy League game last weekend. His name was Jim Garrett and he was coaching his first game at Columbia, a university where the emphasis rests on academics, and students are not paid for their football proficiency, even in the form of scholarships. This did not in the least inhibit Garrett's reverence for winning and his disgust at losing.

"Nor did it matter that Columbia was no match, physically, for Harvard. Following the 49-17 defeat, Garrett charged that his team was a bunch of 'drug-addicted losers. One adversity comes and they're back in the sewer again.' After that outburst, the coach excoriated the punter, Pete Murphy, and said the senior never would punt for him again.

"Bear in mind this person has been hired as a coach, a teacher, at one of the most prestigious schools in the nation. Unlike the case of the Yankees and Steinbrenner, these men don't owe their living to Garrett, who has spent some 20 years or more in the business and does not yet know how to lose.

"In case I've given the impression that boorishness is strictly a New York state of mind, there is the matter of Larry Holmes, the former world heavyweight champion who lost his title to Michael Spinks in Las Vegas, Nev., a few hours after the Columbia football game. Because the defeat was his first as a professional boxer after 48 victories, perhaps he was unsure what to do. Disappointment would have been a human reaction.

"Instead, Holmes lashed out at the family of Rocky Marciano, whose 49-0 record he was attempting to equal. He publicly announced that the late champion 'couldn't carry my jockstrap.' And he villified Peter Marciano as a man freeloading on his deceased brother's reputation. It was a bitter and graceless display, of a type that seems to be gaining favor in this era.

"If anyone should understand losing with dignity, it would be people involved in sports, where winners and losers are determined every day. Their reaction to success and failure, temporary as it is, sets a tone for our behavior. Unfortunately, class and sportsmanship in the arena appear to be at an all-time low.

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