In the spring of 2001, my Iowa State basketball team became the fourth #2 seed ever to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This result came as quite the surprise to our fans and the national media. I was a little different. Oh, the loss devastated me—it was my last college basketball game and it ended in the same humiliating way it had ended the year before, with me in tears on the court and in the newspapers—but I wasn’t surprised.
“I’m so tired of you m****f*****s. I can’t wait for this to be over.”
These were the words our head coach, Larry Eustachy, had greeted us with, the day before our ignominious loss.
On its face, Eustachy’s tirade was a curious one. We’d just won back-to-back Big XII championships and, the previous year, had come within a weird foul call of the Final Four. Our roster included future first-round draft pick Jamaal Tinsley, several other players who would go on to long professional careers, and the sort of upperclassman-heavy team that usually does well in the NCAA tournament. Conceivably, we should have been riding high, not listening to our coach tell us how awful we were.
But while Eustachy was unhinged and abusive and undoubtedly in need of psychotherapy, his read wasn’t a bad one. We couldn’t stand each other anymore. We were tired of practicing, tired of each other, and extremely tired of Eustachy, whose tactics were effective in the short-term, but less so in the long-term—the horsewhip of basketball.
And so, despite the fact that we’d gone 52-10 in the two seasons’ worth of games leading up to that last one, we were cooked, ready for the season to be over, and ready for the next thing.
Now, imagine how easy it is for things to go sour when you’re used to losing.
It seems to me that the Kansas City Royals are better than their record would indicate. The offense seems to be functioning, maybe even excelling. The starting pitching seems at least OK. And the bullpen—source of much frustration in the season’s early days—seems to have stabilized.
There’s a reason I overused the word “seems” in the above paragraph: I don’t actually know any of this. I’m a biased Royals fan and I know far more about getting screamed at by unstable basketball coaches than I do about baseball. Which is why I consulted a statistic that, I’ve learned, does a good job of predicting a team’s actual worth: aggregate run differential.
Before Wednesday’s blowout loss, the Royals were just -3 runs for the season, landing them 17th out of 30 teams. This -3 run differential also lumped them together with six other teams, all of whom were clumped between -10 runs and +10 runs for the season.
That’s good news for the Royals and their fans. It means that we could be in for a late-season treat, when luck and weirdness comes back around to help the Royals.
Except, possibly, for one thing: the same thing that haunted my Iowa State Cyclones so long ago. Psychology.
In an era of predictive statistics, it’s easy to forget that the humans playing the game are just that: humans. And humans are prone to telling themselves stories, like that they can’t take another day around each other. Or that, because they’ve lost a lot, they’ll probably keep losing. This baseball season doesn’t exist in a vacuum, the Royals roster is constructed largely of players who were around for last year’s 104-loss season.
So the Royals might keep losing. And this might be because they’re bad at baseball. But it also might be because they’re good at being human. The tricky part is that there’s almost no way to know which it is, unless Ned Yost tells us he’s so tired of these m****f*****s and that he can’t wait for this to be over.
That seems unlikely. But, then again, so did Iowa State losing to Hampton in the first round of the NCAA tournament.