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The Demise of Humility

Selflessness gave Cincinnati the edge in the World Series

THE scribes and commentators and thinkers of the game insist that the 1990 World Series defied reason, and then they offer one. There has been no shortage of pseudo-logical explanations for the improbable thing that the Cincinnati Reds did to the Oakland Athletics in four straight games. The theories pertain to everything from pitching to the curse of Pedro Borbon. (Borbon was a high-spirited Dominican relief pitcher who, upon being traded by the Reds in 1979, placed a hex on his old team, which, he said, would prevent it from returning to the World Series. He lifted the hex this summer at a club reunion.) Retrospect, of course, is the cabbage of wisdom's cole slaw, but perhaps, thinking deeper, we might have seen this coming. The Reds, who issued a powerful statement by leading their division from wire to wire and then casting aside Pittsburgh for the National League championship, had the wherewithal to win the world championship if Oakland could be persuaded to part with it. Which brings us to Oakland.

If the A's had won the Series, they would have qualified as a modern baseball dynasty. Recent history informs us, however, that a dynasty is not likely in the modern arena. Which brings us to why.

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That is a deviously complicated matter, and one about which millions of inconclusive words have been written. Let us here add a few more on the subject of humility.

In all of the physical, technical, and strategic departments, the A's and Reds appeared to be a good match. The one and only area in which Cincinnati decisively outclassed the defending champs was selflessness.

This became increasingly apparent as the Series wore on. When the A's were two games in arrears, their Most Valuable Player candidate, Rickey Henderson, noted that the team had plenty of stars - himself included - to rally it back. The Cincinnati players, meanwhile, were ever vigilant in dismissing their own virtues and referring to each other as equals. When a CBS announcer lavished praise upon Reds third baseman Chris Sabo during a post-game interview, Sabo shrugged uneasily and said, ``I'm OK.''

Later in the Series, when Oakland's mega-star outfielder, Jose Canseco, was held out of the lineup because of various injuries and other failings, his wife called the manager a punk and said she hoped the team would be swept. This was in vivid contrast to the attitude expressed by Cincinnati pitcher Jose Rijo, who, after being relieved in the ninth inning of the fourth game despite having retired 20 batters in a row, said that he couldn't object because the manager was only trying to win.

Perhaps, if they put away another pennant or two, the Reds will become as me-oriented as the A's have in their three-year domination of the American League. Perhaps that's why there are no more dynasties in American sports.

In this age of overexposure, a champion's humility is challenged by every minicam. The more he wins, the more he loses. It is a degenerative cycle that erodes the core of what makes a team or athlete great.

There are those who claim that egotism is fundamental to a sports champion - but not if it obscures his vision. When an athlete forsakes humility, his sights turn inward and away from the task at hand. The passion for achievement is tackled from behind by the obsession with self.

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Canseco stands out as a conspicuous example. It has been written that, of the present players, he is the one who has a chance to eclipse Hank Aaron's all-time record for home runs. But to believe that is to miss the point.

Having recently had the privilege of studying Aaron while co-authoring his autobiography, I've come to realize that Aaron's was not a record of power. It was a record of perseverance and durability. Canseco has already hit at least a dozen home runs farther than any of Aaron's 755, and yet, he has not shown a glimmer of the genius that set Aaron apart. Aaron was a gifted batter, of course, but what made him unique was his brilliant sense of pace and self-preservation. He possessed sufficient arrogance to be a great hitter, but understood where and when to shut it off before it undermined him.

Canseco, on the other hand, has demonstrated a tiresome predilection for self-destruction in his mere six-year career. He has become the prototypical TV-generation superstar, fully aware that image pays better than humility.

Humility has its rewards, however. The Cincinnati Reds proved that in four games.

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