' In praise of losers - Paul Greenberg

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In praise of losers

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Sept.2, 2015

  In praise of losers

There is a romance to losing, at least on a grand scale, that no string of victories can match. Who really loves the New York Yankees? Who does not sigh a sigh for the ever-doomed Chicago Cubs, who haven't won a World Series since ... when, 1908?

There would be something seriously wrong with American life, or maybe the universe, if the Cubs brought a world championship home to Wrigley Field after more than a century of defeat; the ivy on the brick walls would probably shrivel. Chicago wouldn't be Chicago any more, not in its soul and spirit. Something ineffable would have gone out of it.

Think of how much was lost when the Boston Red Sox suddenly turned into one of the winningest teams in the major leagues, ending their historic losing streak. Fenway Park is still the little bandbox of a baseball park that John Updike called it -- but something is missing these days. It's the classical sense of tragedy that made a visit there a pilgrimage, like going to Stratford-on-Avon to see "Richard III."

Losing is a much under-estimated art and fate in this nation that worships the bitch goddess Success, as William James called her, and has never had a real appreciation for what defeat can contribute to the American tradition and character. A country needs its losers, if only to make its winners complete.

For a hopeful while there, it looked as if a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies named Aaron Harang might prove the major leagues' champion loser this season. He'd been showing all the signs, game after game, loss after loss. The secret of a successful loser is not just to lose, but to do it consistently, unvaryingly, almost every day in almost every way, leaving a bare chance of winning in order to preserve some semblance of suspense.

Winning 20 games used to be the mark of a memorable pitcher. But no one is likely to forget the pitcher who loses 20 games. That takes some doing, even a touch of destiny. He's got to be doing something right, or rather remarkably wrong. For there's a point at which losing ceases to be a habit and becomes History.

The great loser has to lose enough games to set a record, yet maintain enough of baseball's air of unpredictability so fans have to wonder if this is the day he might snap his streak and actually win a game. He's got to be good enough to stay in the line-up, but bad enough to do it while almost never winning. Talk about a fine line.

At one point Aaron Harang was designated the losing pitcher in 11 of his last 12 starts since the end of May, and he's nothing if not consistent. He's been the major leagues' losingest pitcher for more than a decade now. If defeat builds character, he must have it to spare.

There's a kind of grandeur about compiling a record like that. Not since Mike Maroth (9-21) of the 2003 Detroit Tigers has a pitcher lost 20 games, but for a while there it looked as if Aaron Harang might match Maroth's record if he could only keep up his pace. He had lots of us rooting for him -- or should that be rooting against him? Then he managed to last some 7 innings against Miami as the Phillies pulled it out 4-2 the other Saturday -- but never give up hope. He still has a chance to stage a comeback and pitch a lot worse.

In our worship of Success we tend to forget the indispensable, courageous, even visionary role of the great losers of our history. They may be remembered when the delible names of those who defeated them have long since been forgotten. Who can remember who defeated a Whig congressman named Abraham Lincoln after he opposed the Mexican War and the expansion of slave territory it had to mean?

William Jennings Bryan became the last voice of an agrarian America -- the voice of the past -- in the course of losing presidential election after presidential election. Yet he would prove a prophet of the grim future by opposing American entry into the First World War, or Part One of a bloody two-part tragedy of war, revolution, carnage and chaos that lasted half a century.

Speaking of great losers, the most eloquent series of presidential campaign speeches of the last century was delivered by Adlai Stevenson in 1952. At the conclusion of that campaign, he went across the street in Springfield, Ill., to break the news of his defeat to those of his followers who had gathered there to mourn.

His concession remains a classic, and a model for all future losers. ("Someone asked me ... how I felt, and I was reminded of a story that a fellow townsman of ours used to tell -- Abraham Lincoln. He said he felt like the little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. He said that he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.")

So let's hear it for the great losers of our history. They know the kind of triumph mere winners never will.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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