"No Excuses . . ."

A huge pet peeve of mine is when people fail to make the distinction between an explanation and an excuse.  An explanation is a reason why something happened.  An excuse is an explanation with the added intention of absolving a person or persons from responsibility. My go-to story when discussing this subject is this – about ten years ago, Tim and I were on a Wiffle Ball team.  I don’t want to go into the whole Wiffle Ball thing right now, but yes, it is a legit, competitive sport played by adults and our team, the Stompers, were quite good.  During the 2003 summer our left-handed starter, Dan, injured his elbow and by doctor’s orders was not allowed to pitch until he had been cleared to do so.  Our team was scheduled to play a tournament here in Maryland.  Two of our five teammates, however, lived in Pennsylvania and since a low turnout was expected for the tournament, they opted not to make the trip.  That left the team as just Dan, Tim, and myself – none of us who could pitch.  We grabbed a friend and former teammate to help out with the pitching, but he hadn’t played in several years and was never much of a pitcher to begin with.  Needless to say, without any pitchers we lost all three of our tournament games against what could only be labeled as “weak” competition.

A month or so later, we were in New Jersey for a tournament.  A player from another team – a guy by the name of Frank LoCascio – was asking Dan what exactly happened in the Maryland tournament.  Dan explained the circumstances just as I have above.  Frank – who incidentally is a Mets fan – scoffed.  “No excuses,” he replied.  Dan tried to explain further but Frank got him off again.  “No excuses.  You still have to win.”  It ticked me off at the time and obviously still irks me enough to remember it ten years later.  We were offering an excuse for sure, but a completely valid one.  I’ve never seen any team – be it in baseball, softball, or Wiffle Ball – win games without any experienced pitcher available to pitch.

There are two things that bug me about the “excuses” issue.  One, is that there is a tendency to view all explanations as excuses on some level.  If I am late for a meeting because my car would not start, I might run into the meeting and offer up the following explanation:  “I’m really sorry that I am late.  My car wouldn’t start.  My fault.”  If the person I was meeting with were to answer, “No excuses”, that would drive me up a wall.  I wasn’t making an excuse – I was offering an explanation and was, in fact, taking responsibility for my tardiness.  I hear exchanges like that quite a bit in different contexts and it drives me nuts.  We might not like the explanation, but sometimes the explanation is what it is.  The person might not be happy that I am late, but that doesn’t mean I was making an excuse.

Secondly, is when people automatically attach a negative connation to the word excuse.  By definition, the word excuse is not necessarily negative.  It is why we use the terms “good excuse” and “bad excuse”.  When a student is excused from class due to an illness, the student isn’t necessarily in the wrong.  Yet we have a tendency to say “stop making excuses” even if the excuse being made might be completely valid.  There are situations where people should be absolved from responsibility because they truly didn’t do anything wrong.  I think we have a tendency to immediately snap back with “no excuses”, even if that person is completely in the right in not taking responsibility for an outcome.

I say all of this because a lot of people have painted Brian Matusz as being a hard-luck pitcher who has not been entirely responsible for the poor results of his starts this season.  Others have fired back that these are just “excuses” (with the implication being that they are “bad excuses) and that Matusz is responsible for his own fate as of late.  After last night’s game, this topic has once again sprung up.

In last night’s game against the Mets, Ryan Flaherty and Adam Jones combined a first inning error that should have ended the inning for Matusz with his pitch count at 20 pitches.   The error lead to Matusz throwing 6 more pitches that inning with runners on second and third.  In the third, Wilson Betemit committed an error that once again extended an inning and led to Matusz throwing six or seven more pitches in the inning.  In the 5th, Brian Roberts was slow getting to a softly hit ground ball and the runner beat the throw to first.  That runner eventually scored.  Later that inning, Matusz induced a groundball off the bat of Ike Davis.  He got the desired result – a groundball – but it was hit to slowly to turn two and another runner cross the plate as a result.

All of that occurred.  None of those specific occurrences happened because Brian Matusz erred.  Could Matusz have pitched better after those events to keep runs from scoring?  Absolutely.  Could Matusz have thrown less pitches to other batters to make up for the extra pitchers he had to throw as a result of the errors?  Sure – that was certainly possible.  That doesn’t change the fact that these misplays did happen in the game; Matusz couldn’t control them and they did partially effect his outing.  Nobody is claiming that Brian Matusz pitched excellently, that all of the runs that scored weren’t his fault at all, and that not being able to make it through the 5th inning was also entirely the responsibility of others.  Matusz is certainly responsible to some degree for his poor outing.  Nobody would argue otherwise, not even Brian himself I’m sure.  However, it doesn’t mean we should ignore the other factors just because some people deem them to be excuses and therefore, inherently negative.  They are excuses, but they are valid ones.

We’ve swung too far in the other direction on the excuse pendulum.  We went from making sure that people don’t dump the responsibility of their own actions onto someone else to stating that a person should take responsibility for everything that happens to them, even if some of that isn’t under their control.  What is odd to me is that now more than ever, we, understand the role that luck and random outcomes play in baseball.  Yet at the same time, when things out of a player’s control to happen, we are often unwilling to admit that the player is not responsible for those occurrences.  We understand that Matusz can’t control his defense making routine errors nor can he help it when he induces a weak grounded that rolls too slowly for an out to be recorded.  Yet, at the end of the day, we still dump that all back on his shoulders.   It doesn’t correlate.

Brian Matusz’s final line last night looks the way it does because he didn’t pitch as well as he is capable of AND because factors out of his control worked against him.  Call that an excuse if you will, but at least recognize it is a valid one.