Home Field Spirit

In 2002 the Minnesota finally won some ball games after years of fealty on the diamond. They won the division that season and even won a playoff series — defeating the As in five games in the division series. And so with the same core group of players returning in 2003, fans like me expected another good run of baseball. But we were mistaken. The team was a mess, and lost themselves a whole lot of ball games — to the point where their chances at repeating as divisional champs in the very weak AL Central were firmly in doubt.

Then in July of that season they traded part time outfielder and decent enough guy Bobby Kielty (I met him a meet and greet at a bar the summer previous) (he hit a game winning home run against the Tigers in 2002 at a game I was at with my brother and girlfriend — later wife — and I still remember my brother standing in the aisle pumping his fists and yelling back up at the crowd, it’s a great memory) to the Toronto Blue Jays for outfielder Shannon Stewart, and everything turned around. Stewart got on base and stole bases and scored runs. His injection into the lineup changed the whole vibe of the offense … and they started winning, and they looked good doing it.

At the time, I was working a mindless desk job at a toy company in downtown Minneapolis and I would listen to the weekday day games on a little AM radio at my desk. In August just as they were starting to win again, the Twins were losing one of those weekday day games to the Angels 5-4 late. With two outs and a guy (Dustan Mohr) on first, Stewart stepped up and cracked a double to left field. Huzzah! Mohr got on his horse and blew through the stop sign at third and headed for home. He was going to be out. The Angels had him dead to rights. He would be out and the game over. I remember the color announcer, Dan Gladden, sighing “oh no” as Mohr blew the stop sign.

But.

Instead of sliding into home and inevitably getting tagged out, Mohr barreled into the catcher, Benjie Molina. Lowered his shoulder and rugby tackled him. A perfectly legal play at the time. The ball popped out of Molina’s mitt. Mohr was safe. The ball trickled to the backstop as Molina lay in a heap near home plate. Stewart rounded third and scored easily. Huzzah again! Twins win! In a walk off! It was quite a moment. And I was super excited. It was one of those plays that can — and did! — turn an entire season around.

Lost in all this was the fact that Molina broke his wrist in the collision and didn’t play for six weeks. Lost further — and lost almost completely on me — was that Mohr’s play was dirty. It was a cheap shot. It was borderline cheating. And, yes, it was against the spirit of the game. But I didn’t care. They’d won. Mohr had done whatever was necessary to win. And that’s all that mattered. The W. Sorry not sorry.

But looking back now. I was wrong. The W wasn’t all that mattered. The safety of the players mattered. Maintaining a fair playing field mattered. Not cheating mattered. And baseball agreed, banning home plate collisions a few years back. Many fans were angry with the decision, saying it gutted the game, sanitized it, watered it down, took the “tough guy, rub some dirt on it” out of the game. But those people were and are wrong. Home plate collisions were dangerous, and they were cheating, and banning them was the right call.

Lots of people roll their eyes when whey talk about the spirit of cricket. It’s outdated. It’s nonsense. All that matters is doing whatever it takes to win. Let the players play. Don’t hamstring them. Let them take any advantage they can. Let them appeal for an edge when they know an edge wasn’t there.

And I see that side of it. I do. There is so much money involved in cricket — in all sport — and that puts a certain amount of pressure on the players. But that’s not an excuse. The spirit of cricket is important. It not only ensures a flat and fair playing field, therefore ensuring that the best team wins, but it protects the players’ safety, as well. Dustan Mohr might have won the game for the team, but is dirty play where a fellow player is injured worth it? Ever? Of course not. That’s juvenile. We’re adults. Let’s hold our athletes to same standards we hold each other.

***

Last week India were once again thrashed rather mightily by England for the second Test in a row. India looks lost, rudderless. Poor. But this is an Indian team that won 10 out of its last 11 Test series, dating back to 2015. Meanwhile England looks like world beaters, all pomp and swagger. But this is an England side that’s only won four of its last 10 Test series.

It doesn’t make a ton of sense. Until you look at where those matches were played. Of India’s last 11 series, all but two were played on the sub-continent, and one of those two was the one they lost (to South Africa this past January). Meanwhile, three of England’s wins came in England, and they had zero wins on the sub-continent.

But still. It doesn’t make it all clear. I know home field advantage is a real thing, in all sports, and even more so in cricket because of how much the weather and the wicket can affect play, but still. It shouldn’t matter that much. These are world class athletes, the best cricketers on earth — probably in all of history considering modern training regiments — good teams should be good teams no matter where they are playing. The moon, India, Manchester, wherever.

I guess what I’m saying is that we should no longer use it as an excuse. Are you a good team? Yes? Then win.

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