Leadership and Tradition

Two games into the 2005 Fall Classic, and I keep thinking about Albert Pujols. In Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, the Cardinals needed a monster hit, and Pujols delivered. His body language at the plate said “gopher ball”; he can be forgiven for an extra slow start toward first because, well, even he wanted to see how he crushed that pitch. Yes, the Cardinals lost in six, and yes, Pujols goes another year without a World Series ring. But he does so with amazing grace and dignity, and only after assuring that NL pitchers are a bit more afraid of him that last year.

The more I think about the big A from the Midwest, the more I think about the big A from the Bronx — Alex Rodriguez. Let’s say, hypothetically, Pujols hit a grounder back to the box in Game 5. Would he have attempted to slap the ball out of the pitcher’s glove? Would he have taken an extra fast start toward first? How you lose your last game defines how you’re seen for the first game of the next season.

Having a great player on a team makes everyone better. Not because that one player can always pull you out of a tight spot; those players set the bar for everyone else. Want to know why the Yankees were watching the ALCS, not playing in it? Nobody was setting that bar. Nobody delivered when it mattered – not Jeter, not A-rod, not Matsui. The Yankees tradition of winning (or of greatness or of sportsmanship or of whatever) looked, honestly, a lot less like the highest payroll in baseball.

I’m all for tradition — it holds our dispersed families together; it creates a framework for looking back on four years at Princeton; it’s why most of us cheer for the same teams as our parents. As traditions develop and take root, they become initial points. Tradition is a cause and not an effect.

Tradition begets respect. Respect begets sportsmanship. Sportsmanship begets leadership. Leadership begets winning. In four months we’ll see how far back to the basics the Yankees have gone.