Gimbling in the Wabe – Extra Innings: How Do You Play the Game?

Nick Punto

It’s not whether you win or lose
It’s how you play the game.

From 2004 until 2010, Nick Punto played for the Minnesota Twins (he now plays for the Dodgers, after a stop in Boston and another in St. Louis, where he won a World Series ring).  A utility infielder, he was a favorite of manager Ron Gardenhire but not nearly as well loved by many fans because he was never a very powerful hitter.  His batting average was always, well, average, and the most home runs he ever had in a single season was four in 2005.

But his defense!  My gosh, that man could play defense!  I have seen many electrifying infield plays in my day, many absolutely fantastic first, second, third basemen, shortstops – but Nicky was sick in how consistently focused he was, how committed to making the play, how he seemed to be able to suspend time and break the laws of physics in order to get the runner out.  Not being  an everyday player due to his struggles at the plate, he never won a Gold Glove (the defensive award given in Major League Baseball, one for each position), but he often made the national highlight reels due to his stellar glove work.

I adored Nick Punto.  He was the little engine that could.  While I concede he certainly didn’t hit for power, it sure seemed like, in a pinch, he would find a way to get on base.  When the play was close at first base, he would throw himself headfirst into a slide, risking injury in order to be called safe.  Sometimes it seemed like he ran more from his heart than his head, but when Nicky was in the game, you knew he was one to watch.

Nick Punto was also my inspiration – still is.  Sure, he wanted to win, winning was important.  But the main thing for him was to do his very best to make that win a reality.  And his very best was what he gave, day in and day out, each and every game.  You’ve heard of athletes giving 110%?  That would just be Nicky warming up.  Even when the cause was lost, even when there was no way we were going to win and everyone knew it – or even at the times when we were so far ahead that winning was a given – Nick Punto would not give up.  He’d still give everything he had; run just as hard, leap just as high, scramble just as tough as he would if the score was tied.

Because it wasn’t just about winning and losing – it was about how he played the game.

Not many of us have what it takes to be a Major League Baseball player.  Fewer still have the talent to be a Miguel Cabrera or a Derek Jeter.  But every single one us has the capacity to be a Nick Punto.

Each of us has the opportunity to live our lives, not as if they were contests to be won, but to be our very best regardless of the task, no matter who or what or whether there even was an opponent.  To reject unfair advantages, to eschew personal glory in order to strive for a common goal, to see beyond ourselves or our own circumstances – or limitations – in order to revel in what may be.  It all depends on how we choose to play the game.

How much of the stress and frustration in our lives today is brought about by that “us versus them” mentality that sets in when competition turns into warfare, that sense that winning trumps everything:  fairness, lawfulness, being polite, being respectful, listening, cooperating, working as a  team, having fun.

Our professional athletes use banned substances in order to gain an advantage, or they are given incentives to harm other players or to “get away with” anything they can in order to “win”.  Marketing teams make players into consumable gods, and we fans eat it up.  Owners and coaches and management look the other way or even encourage brutish behavior and tacitly condone cheating, or they take advantage of the enthusiasm of the crowd in order to pad their own pockets.  Championships come to “the best team that money can buy” which is fine for those who follow such teams and anathema to those who don’t.  And we care – we care so very much.

We treat our college athletes and athletics programs (especially in the larger schools) as if winning was more important than education.  A university football team’s win/loss record is written about and debated and blogged and commented on in any number of venues, via all sorts of media, and yet no one knows (or seems to care) about the number of student athletes from the same program who graduated, or who became successful in life once they could no longer be of value on the field.  Powerhouse high school programs recruit aggressively and thousands – millions – of dollars are spent on better playing fields and more plush locker rooms, fancier amenities for athletes and supporters, for nicer uniforms, better equipment, while elsewhere students go without books or basic supplies, and teachers pay for pencils out of their own pockets.

And it happens even younger.  It’s no longer news when parents use boorish behavior to bully coaches or referees if they feel their kid or their kid’s peewee team isn’t doing well enough.  Or little league coaches berate their young players, or allow other kids to mock those who don’t perform as well, all in the name of winning.  There have been obscenities used, threats made, punches thrown, even gunshots and yes, deaths, due to the importance of winning.  Just what  is this is teaching our kids about how they should play the game?

But it’s not just sports.  Politics has become even more polarized than sports.  If you think that winning isn’t everything in politics, then just look at the gridlock that has become the American political system, simply because its “red vs blue” or “Republican vs Democrat” or “liberal vs conservative”.  Issues suffer.   People suffer.  Programs suffer.  But by God, someone can declare a victory, regardless!

And we tsk-tsk, and shake our heads, or shake our fists and raise our voices when we watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but then we turn around and send out “witty” memes over Facebook or reddit or Twitter making fun of or glorifying this person because of his political beliefs, or that person because of his religious beliefs, or that girl for how she looks or, “OMG, you have to see this People of Walmart!” link.  We get caught up in arguments that may even have started out as civil but then degenerate into obscenities and barbs and name-calling meant to wound and belittle because we can’t understand how anyone could be so stupid/unthinking/uncaring/ignorant/shortsighted/wrong to think the way they do.  We point out – again, often through clever witticisms and graphics – how superior we are and how ignorant “they” are, and it’s all about our side winning.

Is this how we wish to play the game?  Is what we hope to win truly worth the losses suffered elsewhere, even if they are as nebulous as the loss of respect, the loss of civility, the loss of perspective and empathy?  There are losers in every contest, yes.  But if those losers are truly harmed in the loss, or if their belittlement exists only because they were not the ones that came out on top, have we who are on the “victorious” side really and truly won?

And isn’t it true – isn’t it true? – that if the game is fun, and exciting, and entertaining – then didn’t everyone win to some degree?  The players, the coaches, the spectators?  Maybe not everyone gets a trophy, maybe not everyone takes home a ribbon, but everyone can feel satisfaction in the pats on the back and the handshakes with a genuine “good game, good game” salutation.  If each person does their best, there should be a joy in the game being played well, even if everyone can’t hold the title of “winner”.  On the playing field and in life.  Everyone who gets in there and strives for excellence should be celebrated for a job well done, for the effort they put into it.   If we all enjoy ourselves along the way, if we all can both exult in the wins and support each other in the losses, that’s when we’ve done it right.

That’s when we’ve punto’ed it.  Because that is when it truly become not whether we win or lose, but in how we played the game.  With dignity, with fairness, with zeal, and with joy – regardless of the final score, or into which column we ultimately end.