The Blessing and the Curse

Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

Few things in life are more frustrating than unmet expectations.  We see it all the time in the sports world–a team comes into a season as one of the frontrunners to win a title, only to come up woefully short for one reason or another.  This season, for instance, the Chicago Cubs are coming off their first championship in over a century, returning a team largely intact and about as strong on paper as last year’s club.  Yet, halfway through the season, the team sits merely one game above .500 and trails the Reds 3-0 as I type this.  And they’ve remained within four games of an even record all year long, pretty much marking them as the epitome of an average team.

The silver lining to this cloud is that the rest of the Cubs’ division hasn’t really been any better.  Entering play today, the Cubs are somehow just one measly game out of first place, and the assumption by most is that they will eventually catch fire and run away with the division.  But if the Cubs are indeed the sleeping giant that many of us figure them to be, they sure are taking an awfully long nap.  Despite their impressive collection of young talent that first launched the Cubs into title contention two years ago, practically everyone on the team has had a sub-par first half.  It’s fair to wonder whether enough team members will rebound in the second half to actually take advantage of their eminently winnable division and resemble a legitimate contender come playoff time.

Frustration over the mediocrity recently spilled out into the open, as backup catcher Miguel Montero committed the cardinal sin of airing his grievances publicly, largely blaming his team’s pitching staff for their relative inability to prevent stolen bases by opposing baserunners.  His claim is not without merit, but it does conveniently ignore the blatantly obvious fact that Montero no longer has the capability of throwing out would-be base stealers that he once had.  The complaint occurred in the aftermath of a game in which the Washington Nationals had stolen a whopping seven bases within the first four innings, taking full advantage of both pitcher Jake Arrieta’s slow delivery to home plate and Montero’s weakened throwing arm.  Montero, who had also infamously complained about a lack of playing time just after the Cubs won the World Series, was immediately released from the team.

As a Cubs fan, it’s hard to be too disappointed in this season, considering that the team did, in fact, win the whole thing just last year, an achievement that countless Cubs fans went an entire lifetime without ever being able to experience.  Right now, we simply need to remind ourselves that the team is still incredibly young and is likely to compete for several more titles over the next decade.  Not to mention the fact that it’s also incredibly difficult to win back-to-back titles at the professional level in any sport, for a multitude of reasons.  In all likelihood, the first half of the 2017 season will just turn out to be a surprisingly bumpy stretch of an otherwise longer and smoother road.

What was much more disappointing for me personally was the 2014 season of my favorite football team, the New Orleans Saints.  The team had finished the previous season with an 11-5 record and its first-ever road playoff win, and presumably made a few solid moves in the offseason to improve an already strong roster.  Needless to say, they were a trendy pick by many to win the next Super Bowl.  Instead, their defense put up one of the worst statistical seasons in the history of the NFL, and the team limped to a 7-9 finish overall.  At one point late in the season, I complained to a friend of mine that this was the most disappointing season I’d ever watched as a Saints fan.  She insisted that the Saints weren’t that bad–which was true, but it also missed the point.  Sure, I’ve witnessed some truly terrible seasons from both the Saints and the Cubs, but those didn’t seem as bad to me, since I came into those years with lowered expectations anyway.

 

While this particular topic has centered largely around the current Cubs season, it has also recently revealed itself on a more personal level.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post or two, my girlfriend Mia and I are both karaoke singers that most would consider to be well above-average.  We’ve each competed in numerous karaoke contests and taken home prize money on several occasions.  A typical contest will usually offer prizes for the top three singers, and anytime we’re involved in the competition, there’s an excellent chance that at least one of us will place somewhere in the winner’s circle.  You might even say that it is a real surprise, and a letdown, when we don’t.

It’s worth noting that judging a karaoke contest is a highly subjective, and oftentimes very difficult, thing to do.  There are a number of different criteria used to determine a contestant’s overall grade–singing ability, stage presence, song difficulty, and crowd response should all factor into the decision–but all kinds of variables exist that can prevent someone from grading such things accurately.  Being the first singer up is an unenviable position, for instance, as one’s performance can be largely forgotten by the end of the contest.  And from that position, even a strong showing may merely serve to establish a higher bar for the remaining competitors to clear, causing some to raise their games accordingly once that standard has been established.

But there are other factors that can unfairly affect a contestant’s grade–ones that call a judge’s credibility into question.  Granted, it’s unreasonable to think that someone grading your local karaoke bar’s low-stakes contest is going to pick apart a performance with Simon Cowell-esque precision.  In fact, judges can often be desperately chosen from among a very small pool of people whose only real qualification is a willingness to do it.  Unfortunately, this inevitably leads to problems such as not paying close attention at all times, showing favoritism to friends in the competition, or allowing one’s opinion of a chosen song to matter more than how well it is (or isn’t) being performed.

 

Our most recent competition occurred at a dive bar this past Saturday night.  Somewhere around 20 people battled for three prizes, none of which were terribly enticing, but still would’ve been nice to win.  During a contest, I tend to size up the competition and measure it against my own performance, and then estimate which three individuals should be walking away victorious.  Sometimes I believe myself to be among the winners, and sometimes not.  In this particular instance, I felt that two people had clearly outshined the rest of the pack, and that there were about 6 or 7 of us who were pretty comparable and should be in the running for third.  I considered myself to be one of those 6 or 7, having given a solid, though not quite outstanding, performance of Third Eye Blind’s mega-hit “Semi-Charmed Life.”

But one of the two clear winners–in my book, at least–was Mia.  She chose one of her go-to songs–Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet”–and performed it very well.  It’s a strange and lesser-known song that alternates between slow, quiet verses and louder, upbeat choruses, and it sounds like it came straight out of a musical.  There are a number of shushes throughout the song, which both encourage crowd participation and add a real sense of uniqueness.  The typical crowd reaction to her rendition of the song is some initial confusion, which is eventually followed by widespread captivation.  Of course, one of the things that really makes the song work is that, like most songs from musicals, it offers up plenty of opportunity to demonstrate legitimate singing ability.

Half the bar agreed with my assessment that Mia was a clear winner, coming up to her to say so–if not first place, then surely second or third.  And, as we would later find out, four of the five judges thought so too.  Unfortunately, like the man who gets bitten by a squirrel in that Trident commercial to exclaim, “NOOOOOO,” thus explaining why 4 out of 5 dentists recommend the chewing gum, this particular panel contained one ridiculous outlier that somehow wielded the power to single-handedly alter the entire outcome.  According to one of the judges we spoke with, he frequently voted contestants way down based solely on his personal opinion of either the song chosen or the person singing it, with virtually no regard to whether the performance was any good.  The rest of the panel even tried to get his scores completely thrown out, but no luck.  And thus Mia, who was clearly one of the three best performers that night, walked away with nothing but anger and tears.

 

Elevated expectations should still be seen as a positive thing overall–it’s a lot more exciting to watch or enter a competition when either you or your rooting interest has a serious chance of winning.  And ultimately, it most likely took a good deal of work to reach a position where victory has become the expectation, which is a credit to any competitor who has gotten that far.  But no matter the venue, you just can’t win ’em all, and the defeats get harder to swallow when winning becomes the norm.  Sometimes you have no choice but to travel the bumpy stretch of road until it smooths out again.

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