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Basic Chemistry

Jason's Back

By Jason E. Kolman

The world of sports journalism is filled with a number of time-honored cliches.

"Step Up." "Learn How to Win." "Give 110 Percent."

And recently, a new contender has emerged on the scene: "team chemistry," that elusive, human element that allows a team to play above (or below) its given talent level. Champions like the Bulls have it; laughingstocks like the Jets don't.

For some reason, however, the majority of chemistry talk revolves around baseball. Maybe people figure that personal relations are more important in a game whose players spend large amounts of time sitting together in the dugout and spitting.

Whatever the reason, the advent of this new element has had a profound effect on the baseball world. Players like ex-Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly have prolonged their careers and gained the respect of millions via their reputation as "solid clubhouse presences," whose diminishing productivity is offset by leadership effects.

Conversely, superstars such as Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds and Albert Belle have been vilified in the press as self-centered millionaires whose attitude negates their talent.

Does team chemistry actually exist? Are there players who deserve roster spots (and, conversely, to be released) on the basis of personality?

No one can really answer these questions, I think, because no one really knows what chemistry is or how to predict it; they just know it when they see it.

Not surprisingly, the national sports media is not at all bothered by this uncertainty, and throw about the phrase like it had all the certainty of a statistic like batting average.

It is also important to remember that the way the media portrays a player doesn't tell us anything about his effects in the clubhouse.

Just because Mattingly was usually cordial to reporters and looked like a gritty guy certainly doesn't mean that he was a clubhouse leader; conversely, players like Belle and Henderson have been praised as excellent teammates and hard workers by their peers, whose opinion probably matters most.

But what about the many World Series where a less-talented squad pulled together to defeat a team which, on paper, looked invincible? In 1988, for instance, the mighty Oakland A's were shocked by the unheralded Dodgers, while in 1991 the Twins stunned the Braves.

Wasn't there something more than raw talent at work here? Do we dare to say that the Dodgers had better chemistry than the A's?

In a word, no. Baseball is a unique game because the best players, and by extension the best teams, don't shine on every day.

For example, you could watch Frank Thomas go 0-for-4 with a strikeout and an error, and it wouldn't seem too surprising; but if Michael Jordan went scoreless over a whole game, it would be a shock to the whole sports world.

Over the 162-game regular season, there's time for the elite teams and players to shine; in a five- or seven-game playoff series, however, any team can beat any other team. That's not chemistry; that's good luck.

Perhaps the greatest blow to the chemistry argument, however, comes when one considers the accomplishments of the above players.

Henderson has won a pair of championships (and has been to the playoffs on other occasions, including maybe this year), while Belle and Bonds have each made multiple postseason appearances.

And I'm not even going to mention Dennis Rodman.

Mattingly? The closest he came was last year's loss in the wild card series against Seattle, which the Yankees really reached in spite of him.

I don't mean to pick unduly on Mattingly, and it's certainly true that winning and losing are team efforts.

But it's clear that the road to success in sports is paved with talent, not sound bites.

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