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In the summer of 1980, the Seattle Mariners hired Maury Wills as their new manager. Wills was an outstanding shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ championship teams of the mid-1960s; in 1962, he was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player after stealing 104 bases, which broke Ty Cobb’s modern record. Wills had spent time over the previous eight years as a broadcaster and as a manager in Mexico, and he’d been angling for a major-league managing job for nearly all of that time. And then he got that job, and it quickly became a disaster.
In 1980, the Mariners were a struggling team with a disengaged fan base who played in the generic concrete monstrosity known as the Kingdome. They’d gone 39-65 under manager Darrell Johnson when Wills was hired in August, promising a new way of thinking, an emphasis on speed, and a diligent ethos. Wills had spent years preparing for the opportunity, but when he actually got the job, he appeared shockingly ill-prepared. The pressure, the media attention, the scrutiny—all of it got to him, and he began acting entirely without logic.
During a September game against Milwaukee, Wills tried to summon a left-handed pitcher from the bullpen…except there weren’t any pitchers warming up in the bullpen. He reportedly held up a game for 10 minutes while trying to locate a pinch-hitter, and left a spring-training game midway through to catch a flight to California. At the winter meetings in 1981, he boasted of his new center fielder, Leon Johnson, without realizing that Johnson had been traded to the Texas Rangers. And in April of 1981, Wills instructed the grounds crew at the Kingdome to extend the batters’ boxes by a foot for a series against the Oakland A’s, so that they could have a better angle to hit the A’s pitcher’s plentiful breaking balls. That earned him a suspension.
A few weeks later, in May 1981, with the Mariners languishing in last place, Wills was fired. (Amid the depression that enveloped him afterward, he turned to cocaine, and became an addict for several years.) Wills is widely regarded as one of the worst managers of all time, in any sport. Baseball writer Rob Neyer called Wills’ incredible variety and frequency of gaffes as “unparalleled” in baseball history, an arbitrary and capricious catalogue of ignorance and confusion and contentiousness that proves how much, even in a passively managed sport like baseball, competent leadership truly matters.
The other night, I watched a college basketball game being contested in the state of Florida, which has long existed in its own unique reality. There were a number of fans in the stands, which was peculiar enough given the moment we’re living through and the fact that basketball games are contested indoors and that large indoor gatherings of strangers are generally considered a poor idea in the midst of a pandemic of respiratory disease. But it wasn’t just the fans; there was also a full pep band in attendance.
Now, in normal times, I am a well-known advocate of the influence of the college band. But, in case your only media filter is the Twitter feed of reactionary talk-show hosts, these are not normal times. And because these are not normal times, this pep band struck me as perhaps the most blatantly idiotic thing I had seen in at least…well, at least a few hours. To employ a pep band indoors during a basketball game that perhaps shouldn’t have even been played, in front of fans who had no reason to be there, in the midst of an entire college basketball season that feels like a desperate attempt to plow through a pandemic in order to contest an incredibly lucrative NCAA tournament in March—the same tournament that was cancelled last spring, thereby costing the NCAA millions of dollars?
What the hell is wrong with us?
“For the good of the game and for the good of the safety and mental and physical health of players and staff, we need to constantly look at this thing,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “…I don’t think it feels right to anybody.”
Now, maybe you could say that college basketball’s odd reality stands out more because A.) College basketball’s regular season has been in a slump for many years now, as attention has turned to the NBA, and the pandemic has only made it seem that much more frivolous; or B.) College basketball is attempting to start its season at the absolute height of the pandemic, with a vaccine on the horizon, a premise that is so deeply flawed that even its most iconic figure seems to realize its a hopeless cause.
Yet you can also feel that same uneasiness in college football, a far more popular sport which is limping toward the end of a season that feels as if it will be forever marked with an asterisk, a season in which certain coaches have acted as if they somehow understand science far more than the scientists do. In a way, I’m almost more respectful of the coaches who seem to have gained a sense of perspective, who are trudging half-heartedly toward the end of this season, knowing the pain and suffering that’s occurring all around them and recognizing that, in moments like these, something that normally seems important to them doesn’t actually mean a goddamn thing—that maybe the president and a few loudmouth sycophants were the ones who tried to wedge a football season into 2020 in the first place, but that they could never make it feel anything close to normal, thanks in large part to their own denial and incompetence.
Who can blame these coaches and players for giving up? Right now, we live in a moment where the current leadership of our country appears to have completely given up. It is not just bad management; it is perhaps the worst management we’ve ever seen in America, and the variety and frequency of the gaffes we’ve been subjected to over the course of the past four years may someday take on more of the feel of a farce and less the feel of a tragedy. But we’re not there yet. We’re stuck in a moment when nothing makes sense, when a pep band is trying to play a happy tune to cover up the fact that we’re trapped in a barren and depressing purgatory. And the pep band is not helping. The pep band is just the absurd soundtrack to this, the tail end of one of the most ridiculous eras in American history.
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