It's that time of year, boys and girls, when pundits get out their crystal balls and dust off their Ouija boards; when they reshuffle the tarot cards, read the tea leaves, and hold their fingers to the wind prior to making their annual predictions of what will happen during the coming year in sports.
In other words, they'll be playing the yearly guessing game, "Who Knows?" The truth is that no one really knows what's going to happen in the year ahead. Whenever someone does, by some stroke of luck, stumble across something that actually turns out take place, we'll be reminded of it for years to come. Some old-timers have been dining out for years on having once said. "This Cassius Clay kid might turn out to be a pretty good boxer some day." On the other hand, no one, absolutely no one, had the foresight to predict that the 199th player picked in the 2000 NFL draft would turn out to be the greatest quarterback of all time.
All we have to do is go back a year to see how flat-out wrong the prognosticators can be -- and usually are. As the 2018 regular NFL season was drawing to a close, no one was predicting that the Patriots would go far in the playoffs. The offense was sputtering; Gronk was playing hurt; the league was populated by mobile young quarterbacks, and the Pats had one who couldn't win a foot race with Moms Mabley (and was about as old); a wave of innovative coaches was coming of age. Time, it was agreed, had finally run out for the New England dynasty. Fast-forward five weeks to the first Sunday in February and ... who are those guys standing on the stage waving the Super Bowl trophy? Could it be? By golly, it is! It's the New England Patriots, back again for the sixth time. But wait a minute, there's another stage off to the side with absolutely nobody on it. And there's a sign; it says, "Reserved for the know-it-alls who predicted that the Patriots would win yet again."
As for the Red Sox, a year ago this week, they were being wildly applauded by the baseball wiseguys for having the vision to retain the same personnel who had made them the best team in baseball of 2018. With Dave Dombrowski, the genius who had put together that juggernaut, still at the helm, what could possibly go wrong? They were by acclamation the odds on favorites to romp and stomp their way to a back-to-back championship in 2019. But when the end of September came around, the Sox had won 24 fewer regular season games than their 2018 counterparts and didn't even make the playoffs. The only games they were planning for October were on the golf course. They had the same players they had the year before, but it sure wasn't the same team. As for Dave Dombrowski, the genius of 2018, he had somehow morphed into the doofus of 2019, and before the season was over he was among the unemployed. As for the pundits, they did what they usually do, picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and hurried along to their next set of predictions.
A year ago, the Celtics were having some trouble putting things together but the experts were sure they would find their rhythm with Kyrie Irving leading the way. They managed to stagger into the playoffs, but were gone before long, and it wasn't long after that before Irving was gone, too.
The Bruins, everyone agreed, were a good, but not a great hockey team, with the potential to go deep into the playoffs. Once those playoffs began, though, the Bruins became the best team in all of hockey and remained so until the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals, when they suddenly became just an average team. Who saw that coming? Not you or me, and certainly not the pundits.
The key to achieving prominence in predicting the future in sports -- the same holds true for politics, weather forecasting, and other guessing games -- is not accuracy (no one really expects that), it's attitude. Predictions must be made with conviction, confidence, and cocksure certainty. When they turn out to be in error, just forget that you made them in the first place, and hope that everyone else will do the same.
Pundits who have some experience in guessing wrong -- and that means all of them -- have learned to couch their predictions in a way that gives them an out when they miss the mark, as they inevitably do. You'll often see predictions with the disclaimer, "Barring any unforeseen circumstances." In saying that, prognosticators will be able to blame any of their mistakes on predicting the future on those aforesaid "unforeseen circumstances," an extreme example of which might be a ground ball rolling between Bill Buckner's legs; or it could be something more run-of-the-mill, like Chris Sale having, for whatever reason, a lousy year. One thing is sure: unforeseen circumstances will occur in the year ahead.
It's hard to tell in advance just what they'll be. After all, that's why they're called "unforeseen" in the first place. Who knows what will happen? An important player might break his leg; an unheralded rookie might burst upon the scene as a full-fledged star; an average player might make a great play at a key moment; or, a ground ball could roll through the legs of a really dependable player.
Of one thing we can be certain, prognosticators will keep prognosticating on what will happen, even before games are held and even before entire seasons are played out. We can also be sure that if they happen to be right once in a while, the prognosticators won't let us forget it.
As for my own prediction for the year ahead -- please keep in mind that this is being made by the pundit who, in 2016, was the first to predict that President Hilary Clinton would not seek a second term in office -- this is what I have to say about the year 2020:
Your guess is as good as mine -- barring any unforeseen circumstances, of course.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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