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Sports, moralism, and the rupture of luck

Things happen. Deserve’s got nothing to do with it

Eloy didn’t deserve it — but who among us does?
| Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Go look up quotes on luck. They always revolve around the same idea, which is couched as inspirational, but is nihilistic in a way particular to a certain rise-and-grind ethos. You know the kind I’m talking about:

  • Ben Franklin: “Diligence is the mother of good luck.”
  • Ray Kroc: “Luck is a dividend of sweat.”
  • Dave Thomas: “The harder you work, the more luck you have.”

Why two of these I picked at random are cheap burger magnates probably has meaning, but the point stands: We all are trained to believe that luck has to it a moral component and that blaming luck for anything is weak and fragile and seeped in excuses. There is a certain puritanical Alger-esque mytho-bootstrappery which gives virtue to the lives of the powerful and which the virtues of the powerful consistently disprove.

But then you sometimes find quotes that are much more accurate about luck:

  • Orson Welles: “Nobody gets justice — people just get good luck or bad luck.”
  • Werner Herzog: “Sometimes bad luck hits you like in an ancient Greek tragedy, and it’s not your own making. When you have a plane crash, it’s not your fault.”
  • Paul Newman, in my favorite quote, on why he spent so much time and money on charity: “I want to acknowledge luck; the chance and benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others.”
Paul Newman, being handsome
Listen to this guy, or to Dave Thomas?
Wikimedia Commons

These artists understand what White Sox fans already know and what burger billionaires have forgotten: All it takes is one little thing for the best-laid plans to go awry.

Now, what ails the White Sox this year is not bad luck. It’s bad planning and bad playing. But sports, like all of life, is based around amoral luck and the happenstance of inches to a degree that’s maddening to comprehend.

Think back, if you can remember, to Game 2 of the 2020 playoffs against Oakland. The Sox had been trailing Oakland, but were coming back thanks to some rough pitching by Liam Hendriks and Jake Diekman (weird). They had the tying runs on base when MVP José Abreu came up with two outs, and crushed a ball. Right at a fielder.

Think about it: the Sox were up 1-0 in the best-of-three. Imagine if José had hit that ball a foot or two over, if his bat had swung a little bit earlier, if the launch angle had been a few degrees higher. The Sox could win, win the series, and then who knows?

Wild Card Round - Chicago White Sox v Oakland Athletics - Game Three
José comes so close.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

But he didn’t. You can blame that on him, but we know it is luck. It just didn’t work out, and the wheels fell off slowly over the next two years, and now suddenly. Would things have turned around? We’ll never know, because it was just a little bit unlucky.

This is a long way of getting to Eloy Jiménez. The Big Baby has had more than his share of injuries in his career. Torn pecs, torn hammies, wear and tear that seems undue for a 26-yr-old who isn’t unusually mobile in the field. And because of this, he’s been accused of being soft, injury-prone, and somehow undisciplined. It is seen, with racial undertones mixed with puritanical moralizing, as his personal failure.

Now, of course, appendicitis is no one’s fault; you can’t stretch your way out of that. Look at the Wikipedia list of people who died from it — you have Nazis and saints, scientists and athletes. The appendix is just a vestigial timebomb, a remnant from an earlier prehuman era, something weird and unrecognizable and pointless. It’s not Eloy’s fault this happened.

An appendix
Fuck you
Wikimedia Commons

But then, none of the injuries are really anyone’s fault, per se. Sure, maybe Eloy shouldn’t have tried to rob that home run in a preseason game in 2021, but how many times have people done that exact same move? Hundreds of thousands. What happened was bad luck. Maybe he wasn’t stretched when running to first last April, but he’s not the first ballplayer to do so.

Think of it this way: Imagine you are driving, and you want to change the song. You take one second to do so, but in that moment the last California Condor runs in front of your car and it is totaled and goes extinct and you are known as “The Dipshit Condor Killer” all your life. Should you have gotten distracted? Of course not. Were you doing something that everyone has done a million times without consequences? Yup. It’s just bad luck that your moment of distraction intersected with the condor’s suicide swoop.

It’s the same thing in baseball, but we don’t recognize that, especially when it comes to injuries. We assign a moral value to it, we eschew the concept of chance, of a thousand things going exactly wrong at that exact right moment. And it is, ultimately, anti-human. It’s petty grandstanding in order to separate the good from the bad, those who fortune should favor and those who should be rejected.

There’s anthropological evidence that hunter-gatherer societies recognize and recognized more than we do the role of luck. After all, you could be a great hunter, but if a dumb bird lands at the wrong time and spooks the meat, your skill goes clattering to the ground. Life only works when we work together and recognize that bad luck is not the same as being a bad person.

But sports, which pretends to be a meritocracy, rejects this. A thousand shouting heads and a million blue-ticked suckers want you to believe that injuries — or failure at the highest level — are driven entirely by Justice. Sports alone should disprove that. Some people are born lucky, some work to get places with that luck, and sometimes their luck runs out. Imagine if Bo Jackson wasn’t tackled in that weird way? That’s bad luck. Who could disagree?

We can all be a little more humble in how we approach our judgment of athletes, especially when it comes to injury. We can come from a place of shared knowledge that bad things happen, and that we could ourselves be standing over the growing shadow on the sidewalk, having chanced by happenstance into a Piano Crash Zone. We can rail at bums, but let’s do so knowing that the line between the quick and the dead is too thin to rationally acknowledge.

After all, as noted outlaw Willam Munney said:

“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it”


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