|ESPN.com: ESPN||[Print without images]|
|Phil Mickelson wasn't happy at missing a putt. It's been a common American reaction lately.|
• Women's basketball: Lost in the semis of the World Championship.
• Men's basketball: Lost in the semis of the World Championship. • Baseball: Crapped out at the World Baseball Classic. • Men's soccer: Didn't sneak out of group play at the World Cup. • Men's tennis: Lost in the semifinals of the Davis Cup. • Men's golf: Europe 18½, United States 9½ at The K Club in Straffan, Ireland. Another Ryder Cup romp at our expense. A comeback rally for an upset victory wasn't out of the question after Friday's fourballs and foursomes play -- and don't you just love that, the notion that the U.S. would have to pull an upset to win? And now the Euros have captured five of the last six Ryders, including two defenses. The Americans, Tiger, Lefty and all, were not favored. In fact, it is in international "team" play that Tiger has struggled, almost in inverse proportion to the rest of his staggering success of a career.
The U.S. as international underdog is a posture we'd best get used to.
We are becoming the world's great semifinalist. We don't finish anymore -- we can't close the deal. And even when we excel on at least an individual level, we are either dogged by rumors (Lance Armstrong) or buried under test results, interpretations and protests (Floyd Landis, Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones et al). It's as if America has lost its closer's mentality. You saw the men's basketball team the U.S. sent to the Worlds; you tell me. Any reason why a group that talented ought to stand on the low podium at the medals ceremony? But it's hardly the first time.
And sure, I'm spoiled. I'm stupidly spoiled. I grew up in an era in which the only possible global sporting outcome, besides a U.S. victory, was a U.S.S.R. triumph. (Communist China or the East Germans would sneak in once in a while, but it was all the same to us -- other side of the proverbial wall.) It was the Americans or the Soviets, generally speaking. We even used to trade off whole Olympics: Them in 1980, us in '84. The rest of the world was playing for bronze unless one of us didn't show.
Of course, the Soviet Union is no more, and "superpower" doesn't mean what it used to, either. Sheer population does not guarantee results, if it ever did.
There may well be an elevated conversation that relates to all this. It could be something about America's collective sporting malaise as the athletic rich get richer, or a new generation's willingness to accept silver rather than gold since it's all pretty bankable (I see little evidence of that myself, though others do).
Beyond that, it is possible that no single explanation really works. Maybe we're looking at a calendar year's worth of coincidence. We've always been playing catch-up in soccer; other countries have equaled us in basketball as they embraced the game we so aggressively exported; our baseball guys were barely into spring training when the WBC went off; even a good tennis team can have a Davis Cup turn on an individual match.
All fair, but it doesn't change the weird result: We don't cross the line first much anymore. We spend more time than ever, as a country, watching the other guys hoist the trophy. Sort of makes one glad the NFL is still around. It may not be global, but it sure is ours.
Mark Kreidler's book, "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland," is available from HarperCollins in 2007 and can be preordered on amazon.com. A writer for the Sacramento Bee, Kreidler can be reached at email@example.com.