Must We Win?

Tim and I have each spent time challenging the uses and abuses of the English language. Josh, for his part, has highlighted words the make him cringe. It’s not unfair to say that we are sticklers for linguistic precision here at NPI.

So it is with this in mind that I take umbrage with the overuse of the phrase “must-win” in sports parlance. When the Yankees lost Game 1 of the World Series, people started calling the next game a “must-win” for New York. Except that it wasn’t. “Must” means that something has to happen, from the sheer force of necessity. The Yankees were down one game in a best-of-seven; they didn’t need to do anything.

Now, I concede that losing is never ideal, especially in the playoffs. Only 11 of 50 teams that have lost the first two games of a World Series have gone on to win the Series, and only three teams have won after dropping the first two contests at home. Game 2 was certainly an important game for these reasons, but it wasn’t a “must-win.”

Calling something a “must-win” implies that it is your last chance—that there is no other option. But it is entirely possible to win a series when you’re down 2-0. The Yankees did it in 1996. In the NBA, it happens somewhat routinely; the Heat did it against the Mavericks three years ago in the Finals. It’s hard to do, but by no means is it undoable.

Of course, the sports lexicon is given to hyperbole in a lot of instances; we talk about “legendary” performances and “mammoth” home runs and “perfect” teams, etc. Most of the time it’s perfectly acceptable. The problem with abusing “must-win,” though, is that there are some circumstances that are “must-win,” and abusing the term demeans those circumstances.

All elimination games are obviously “must-wins,” but there are acceptable figurative uses. Prior to the 2004 ALCS, Game 3 of a series in which you were trailing 2-0 was considered a “must-win” because no team had EVER overcome a 3-0 deficit. You can call something a “must-win” if it sets up an elimination game that seems overwhelmingly one-sided, such as facing a pitcher who appears unbeatable (like Cliff Lee), or playing a home team that appears unstoppable at home (more common in the NBA, where a team like the ’86 Celtics can go 40-1 at home).

If every game in which a team is trailing in the series is a “must-win,” however, it takes away the drama and mystique of these types of situations. Had the Yankees lost Game 2, Game 3 really would have been a “must-win”—but that phrase would have little impact, after having just been used.

The odds of winning a series after losing the first two games are literally infinitely better than the odds of winning after losing the first three—the situations are clearly not the same, so let’s not use the same word to describe them.

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