A Chemical Reaction

Do teams have bad chemistry and good chemistry? A nonscientist explodes a myth
July 07, 1991

I was never much good at chemistry. My teacher in high school was an extraordinarily disheveled codger whose white lab coat bore the telltale stains of too many experiments gone haywire. But I can't really blame my almost total ignorance of the subject on this slipshod educator. No, the fact is, I mistakenly regarded chemistry as more of a game—its beakers and burners merely toys—than a serious intellectual pursuit.

Until quite recently I never considered this vacuum in my education to be a handicap in my line of work. Now I discover that chemistry is just about the most important thing there is in sports.

"I don't think any team can win without it," says Dallas Green, who managed the Philadelphia Phillies to a World Series championship 11 years ago. "I don't think there is any championship club that doesn't have some kind of chemistry." Xavier basketball coach Pete Gillen even sounds like a chemistry teacher: "The first practice, we [the coaches] meet with the kids and emphasize that great team chemistry is super important." Says University of Miami football coach Dennis Erickson, "The more chemistry you have, the better off you are."

In fact, about all you hear in sports now is chemistry this and chemistry that. The New York Mets' loss of Darryl Strawberry to the Los Angeles Dodgers set off a transcontinental chemical reaction. "Maybe some new chemistry won't hurt this team," said Mets general manager Frank Cashen, bidding the Straw a none-too-fond adieu. In Los Angeles, Strawberry countered by proclaiming "a new chemistry" for the 1991 Dodgers. George Bell, the former Toronto Blue Jay slugger who joined the Chicago Cubs last winter as a free agent, scolded his old team by saying, 'There was bad chemistry on the Blue Jays."

Apparently a team's chemistry is so delicate that the introduction of one bad element can gum up the works. Buffalo Bills center Kent Hull worried about this last season. "There are a lot of great athletes in the National Football League who I hope don't show up in Buffalo," he said, "because I think they would disrupt the chemistry we do have." And recently retired Cleveland Brawns tight end Ozzie Newsome summed up his team's problems with this terse scientific analysis: "The missing clement is chemistry."

Now, what in the name of Sir Humphry Davy are these people talking about? Has this noble science, the life's work of Faraday, the Curies, Lavoisier, Pauling and Seaborg, been reduced to just another athletic buzzword? Buffalo linebacker Ray Bentley thinks Albert Einstein must have been "the first who thought about team chemistry," ignoring the fact that Al was a math major who probably never got close enough to a Bunsen burner to singe his mane. Maybe Emerson started it all when he wrote, "The world has a sure chemistry by which it extracts what is excellent in its children"—a ballpark remark if ever there was one. A successor to the Sage of Concord, Frank Sinatra, crooned these lyrics from the love song How Little We Know: "Who can say what chemistry this is? / But with your lips on mine / How ignorant bliss is." Professor Blue Eyes seems closest to the mark, for when chemistry was originally taken out of the laboratory, it was employed to describe the tingling sensation young lovers experienced.

I suppose this interpretation could be expanded to include any sort of instant rapport. Former President Reagan apparently thought so when he wrote in his memoirs of his first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, "There was a chemistry that kept our conversations on a man-to-man basis." It's a bit of a reach to extend this feeling to an entire team, but if by chemistry sports people are referring to a grouping of like-minded spirits, then we can make some sense of it. That apparently is what Joe Thomas had in mind when, after being named the San Francisco 49ers' general manager in 1977, he said, "I want my own people, my own mix, my own chemistry." Alas, Thomas's experiment failed as abysmally as some of those tried by my old high school teacher, and he was soon replaced by an alchemist, Bill Walsh.

But old Joe's meaning of the word is now hopelessly lost. What present-day coaches are referring to when they natter on about chemistry is what was once commonly called either morale or esprit de corps. And if this is truly what they mean, then chemistry can't be all it's cracked up to be, for nobody ever accused Charlie Finley's Oakland A's of the 1970s of having esprit de corps, and they won three straight World Series while fighting among themselves like inmates at a reform school.

So I think what we have here is just another example of inflated sports usage. Pitchers no longer throw hard and have good control; they have velocity and location. Batters don't just swing hard; they have extension. And how about notoriety? That's something, in proper usage, that Lizzie Borden and Charles Manson had in spades. But to a ballplayer's ears, notoriety, as in notorious, sounds more important than mere fame, so that's what he's after.

But chemistry is already getting a little stale. One San Francisco sportscaster used the infernal word twice in three sentences the other night while analyzing the NBA draft. Maybe it's time to try something else. But please, not physics, as in "This team has great physics." That's a subject I blew even worse than chemistry.


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