Money, just as surely as it cannot buy love, cannot buy a championship sports team. One need only look at the poor fate of many "bought" franchises over the past several years (with the conspicuous exception of the Florida Marlins) to reach this conclusion. But in recent years, teams in the Washington-Baltimore area demonstrate this point better than any other group of teams.
The Washington Redskins came into the 1998 football season having barely missed the playoffs during the past two years; in 1996, they even managed to shock media analysts by starting off 7-1 before folding down the stretch. The team's only major weakness was its defensive line, the worst against the run in the league.
Over the winter, the 'Skins made the logical move, and acquired not one, but two top-flight defensive linemen. Pro-Bowler Dana Stubblefield, formerly of the San Fransisco 49ers, was awarded a giant 6-year, $36 million contract, a fitting reward for a man who led the league in sacks last year with 15 en route to being named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson, late of the Cincinnati Bengals, was hailed as the next great defensive lineman when he was selected with the first pick of the amateur draft in 1994.
So what has become of this high-priced talent during the past eight weeks? Thus far, Wilkinson has failed to realize his potential, with 19 tackles and a measly 2.5 sacks through his first seven games. Meanwhile, Stubblefield is now out for two to four weeks after falling down a flight of steps, recording 32 tackles and 1.5 sacks during that same period. Incidentally, those seven games have all resulted in Redskin losses.
Contrast this with the near-dynasty of Major League Soccer's D.C. United. Though the team lost in the championship game this year, the United had won the first two MLS titles, and coasted easily through this past season. All of this success, despite the best efforts of the league to dismantle the team by relocating two of the United's best players from the past two years. But the United have prevailed nevertheless, under the expert guidance of Bruce Arena, likely the next U.S. World Cup soccer coach, and also thanks to terrific scouting and personnel decisions.
The same can be said of the Washington Capitals, who, with good fundamental play, no superstars, and a little good luck, made it to the NHL finals last year. The Caps took advantage of first-round losses by each of the first three seeds in their conference and rode the wave of phenomenal defense and stellar goaltending to the Stanley Cup championships. Once again, this success was achieved without a household name; admittedly, few hockey players are household names in America, but no members of the Capitals - not even Olie "The Goalie" Kolzig - could be considered household names in Canada.
See a trend developing here? It only gets worse for the big spenders. The Baltimore Orioles led the American League East from wire to wire during the 1997 season, only to lose in the ALCS to the Cleveland Indians. They acquired a few key free agents, including veteran Joe Carter, over the winter, and went into the 1998 season with high hopes and a high payroll: $74 million, the highest in the league, indeed the highest in baseball history.
Save a brief and ultimately futile second-half run at the wild card playoff spot, the Orioles were the biggest disappointment of an otherwise glorious 1998 baseball season. It is only fitting that Cal Ripken, Jr. ended his consecutive-games streak in this past season, perhaps the end of the Orioles in this incarnation.
But the suffering does not end there for the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. Oh no, perhaps the most horrifying example is yet to come. Despite having one of the most talented and expensive rosters in the NBA, the Washington Wizards once again found ways, be they injury, crime or scandal to self-destruct and disappoint yet again. Their first-round loss to the Chicago Bulls was yet another example of the team putting itself in a position where it could not win. They did this before when they acquired an unstable and oft-injured Chris Webber to team up with old Fab Five buddy Juwan Howard, forgetting that in the NBA, the two play the same position.
The list of gaffes, of freak injuries, of bad attitudes and missed opportunities goes on forever. And all this coming from one of the highest payrolls in the NBA, with one of the most disappointing results.
So why do these talent-stocked teams fail so spectacularly? One word: chemistry. Chemistry is something that no amount of money, no quantity of superstars can acquire. Though it is almost trite to say so at this point, as every sportswriter in the nation has already done so, chemistry and teamwork is what made the 1998 Yankees one of the best teams in baseball history. There are no sure-fire Hall of Fame players on the team, as opposed to the Redskins and Orioles, who each boast one of the all-time greats at a particular position. But even Darrel Green, one of the greatest cornerbacks ever, and Ripken, one of baseball's greatest shortstops ever, could not keep their teams from decrepitude.
As hackneyed as the athletic metaphor of chemistry is, it is ever more applicable in today's sports landscape. Looking past the Yankees to the Padres, even, one sees a team with one sure Hall of Famer in Tony Gwynn, but otherwise a team that was dramatically overmatched on paper by the '90s psuedo-dynasty of the Braves. With one of the greatest pitching staffs ever assembled and a dominating lineup, Atlanta went down in four games to the Padres. The Braves, as the closest thing to a dynasty in baseball today, have only managed to win one World Series in the '90s. They are, without a doubt, a collection of great players, but they are not a truly great team.
The owners of major sports teams would do well to learn from the examples of these past two years' Baltimore-Washington area teams. Despite ever-skyrocketing salaries paid to the games' top players, these salaries are often disproportionate to the players' impact on winning. As ever, teams that execute and stress fundamentals, teams with good management and good coaching, and teams who are, in the fullest sense of the word, teams, are the ones that win.
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 7, October 30, 1998
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