Exceeding Expectations vs. Being Successful

Bloggified by Jake on Friday, October 3, 2008

Sarah Palin reminds me of David Eckstein.

The Vice Presidential Debate turned out to be a complete disappointment, as I began to fear it would be a few weeks ago. Sarah Palin didn't cry and she didn't say anything crazy about evolution or gays or Jesus. The lack of direct discussion between the candidates prevented Biden from hammering her and demanding she answer the questions posed.

Let this be a lesson to all the kids out there. The next time your parents corner you with a direct question about some trouble you caused at school or a rule you've broken or a fight you picked with your siblings, just start talking about energy policy. Don't even bother to segue into it.

After the debate, there seemed to be universal praise from the pundits for Governor Palin because she'd exceeded expectations, which were historically low. Predebate analysts were openly questioning whether she might set the building on fire or just walk away in the middle of a question.

Most preposterous was that in most polls a third of respondents said Palin won the debate. Even her strongest supporters have to admit that she held her own at best. Her answers were scripted out so obviously that she actually rushed her lines several times. She couldn't go off script. She didn't answer questions and didn't follow up on statements that were shown to be false.

However, because she is an "average American Joe Six-Pack," there's a tendency to give her bonus points for trying. The fact that a man with three decades of debating on the floor of the U.S. Senate wasn't able to land a knockout blow gives some the impression that she must have done something right.

David Eckstein is a distinctly average baseball player. Year in and year out he puts up numbers that are slightly worse than half of the other players in the majors. Yet he gets as much media coverage as legitimate Hall of Famers like Albert Pujols, largely because he's built like an eighth grader.

Reporters and fans are fascinated by the fact that a guy who could curl up and sleep inside one of Jason Varitek's thighs like Luke Skywalker inside a dead tauntaun is even on a roster, much less a regular starter. He is praised for being scrappy and gritty and never saying die and coming through in the clutch. Is it coincidence, they ask, that he's played on two World Series winners?*

Instead of being satisfied with portraying David Eckstein as a fair to mediocre baseball player who has managed to defy the scouts by proving himself at least worthy of a starting role on some rosters, his praises have to be sung louder and longer with every article. Eckstein is what all Little Leaguers should aspire to be. Eckstein is the one hitter you want up with two outs and the winning run on second. Eckstein is able to elevate his teammates play through the power of his mind. Eckstein can bend reality to his will and win baseball games on other dimensional planes. When Eckstein flaps his wings, it rains in China.

The truth is that Eckstein is none of those things. If he was on your company softball team, maybe, but on a Major League roster, he is basically a place holder until you can sign someone better or develop a better player through your farm system.

When millions of Americans tuned in to watch last night's debate, they couldn't help put see the nervousness on Palin's face. Who among us wouldn't be terrified? I spent four years as an anchor and reporter for two different NBC affiliates and I still got nervous just going live to interview a high school football coach while a couple thousand rednecks watched. Even those of us who think Sarah Palin is the worst possible thing that could happen to this election and to the Republican party had to give her a "way to go" at the end of last night's showdown.

But it doesn't mean she won. She didn't hit a home run. She merely managed to not get struck out on three straight pitches.

And you have to ask yourself, if you were general manager of a struggling baseball team that was hemorrhaging fan support and losing money every day, who're the two players you'd want to sign to a four-year contract (with another four-year option): David Eckstein and Kenny Rogers (a worn down veteran who's had some good years but is best known for his short temper) or Johan Santana and Manny Ramirez (another guys who's been around and has angered some teammates, but is still one of the best in the league at what he does)?

There's a reason the Broncos don't let the guy who threw a football through a hole in the side of a giant Dr. Pepper can at halftime take a few snaps in the third quarter. It's fun to see regular people get a moment of triumph, but let's keep some perspective and not confuse exceeding expectations with genuine success.

* Yes. It's the definition of the word "coincidence."

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