Sports dynasties are impressive, but dark horses capture the imagination

Yankees, Blue Devils, Manchester United: A sports powerhouse is fun to watch. But motley crews of underdogs have a special place in our hearts.

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Bryce Walker shoots baskets in a city park, Sunday, April 4, 2010, in Connersville, Ind. Connersville is the hometown of Butler University basketball player Matt Howard. Butler plays Duke for the NCAA championship.

One of the most memorable experiences most people have is being part of a team. What often starts as a group of strangers eyeing one another warily can become a journey of mutual support that ends with a group hug.

While individual performance is inspirational, teamwork is where magic happens. Heroism, after all, is hard to clone.

Babe Ruth was a great player on the Boston Red Sox, but he was carrying a mediocre team. Traded to the New York Yankees, he anchored Murderer’s Row with Lou Gehrig, Earle Combs, Bob Meusel, and other greats. The Yankees became a dynasty.

Execution and precision by a team like that is magnificent to behold. It is also a little scary. There’s a fine line between success and domination, which for almost a century has made the Yankees both loved and hated.

The dream team for many people is the ad hoc, no-name crew. Even better if they are scruffy, have oddball nicknames, and a problem with authority. Best of all is if they pull out a miraculous win in the final seconds because of inspired teamwork. (Disclosure: Like many people who never made varsity, I have a special place in my heart for a motley crew, even if miraculous wins are vanishingly rare.)

Misfits who become greater together than alone are a common theme in pop culture, from the rebel alliance of “Star Wars” to the mutants of “X-Men,” the hapless kids of the “Bad News Bears” to the bickering cheerleaders of “Bring It On.” Which brings us to another ingredient in the motley-crew cliché: the inspirational speech. Henry V delivered what is arguably the greatest of these at Agincourt (“Once more, into the breach”), but William B. Travis’s line in the sand at the Alamo and Winston Churchill’s stirring words that braced Britain for its “finest hour” weren’t bad either.

Americans have a special fondness for a motley crew. The embattled farmers who bested the redcoats in Concord 235 years ago were ragtag and poorly armed, but they changed the course of history. Or at least nudged it. Closing the deal still took the tireless George Washington six long years. He had to forge surly, malnourished farmers into a battle-hardened army before he could corner the British at Yorktown. Even then, the victory wouldn’t have been won without the professionals of the French Navy running a blockade offshore.

Which is why a motley/pro partnership is what you really want. On their own, scruffy squads can’t get much done. And without an appreciation for diversity and outside-the-box thinking, a group of like-minded professionals can make colossal mistakes. Put the two together, however, and you have an idea factory at the heart of a superpower.

In business, an R&D operation is usually where the motleys live. You can tell by the funky toys on the desks and the irony-laced patter. Google, Apple, and every other cutting-edge company has a geeky playpen that dreams up new products and applications. It takes a disciplined workforce, however, to convert R&D into goods and services that bring in revenue, generate jobs, and help a company prosper.

The risk of teams is that they can become tribes. Every kid excluded from an in-group knows what that means. Every group that gins up an archrival knows how easy a trap it is to go from team spirit to bullying. That probably explains another American love: the underdog.

The career arc of many sports teams runs from the early days of a miraculous win by a no-name squad to a can’t-lose powerhouse that fans of rival teams dream will get its comeuppance. The players don’t have to be wearing blue pinstripes with a “NY” logo on them, either.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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