No Place Like Home? The Houston Astros, Washington Nationals, and When Home Field Advantage Might Hurt More Than It Helps
It wasn’t long after Sunday night’s World Series Game 5 came to an end that I sat down to write this.
Between the Series returning to Washington DC for the first time in six decades, President Trump being booed by some fans, and two Instagram models being ejected for flashing Gerrit Cole during the seventh inning, it was a game with more than a few storylines.
But the weirdest one might just be the biggest:
Through FIVE games of this World Series, neither home team has won a game.
The last time the road team won the first five games of the Series, it was the Braves and the Yankees in 1996. Atlanta jumped out to an early two-game lead, then dropped four straight to give the Yankees another ring for the dynasty.
This year the Nationals jumped out to a two-game lead in Houston, outscoring the favored Astros 17-1. Then, over the weekend, Houston returned the favor with a little something extra—they swept all three games on the Nats’ home turf by a combined score of 19-3.
Tonight, Houston hosts Game 6. They’re hoping the “home field” advantage finally shows up—but I’m not sure they should.
I actually wonder if being at home might be bad for a team’s chances.
Before you tweet me your sports hot takes, let me explain my thinking. Sure, conventional wisdom says that playing in front of a friendly crowd gives the home team a distinct advantage because of the challenges of crowd noise. I’ve been to enough stadiums in my career where the noise was definitely a factor; and if that were the extent of the “home field” advantage, then maybe I’d concede the point.
But that’s not all people cite as part of the advantage.
They also cite the home team’s ability to avoid the hassle of travel. Whether it’s avoiding planes, buses, hotels, or restaurant food, the single biggest advantage to playing at home is apparently the ability to stay firmly within your comfort zone.
I’ve studied high performance in sports for years now, and regardless of whether you’re talking about individuals or teams, one of the biggest qualities of high achievers is the ability to rally as a group and thrive under pressure.
I thought about that as the World Series narratives came into focus: before the first pitch of Game One, it was all about the Amazing Astros and their fans. The assumption was the environment that helped produce 107 regular-season wins would somehow subsume the Nationals and push the ‘Stros to victory, especially with Cole and Justin Verlander on the mound in Games One and Two.
Then, once Washington smashed that narrative like a fastball down the middle, the story became the magical season of the Nationals—how they stumbled out of the gate early but came together down the stretch and were playing their best ball in October. Add to that the fact that DC is crazy about baseball and was hosting its first Series game since 1933, and pundits were already looking past a sweep and wondering if the Capital could handle a victory parade.
And now, nobody knows what to expect. I know I don’t.
But what I do know is that when players or teams let outside noise filter in, even seemingly harmless noise like the home-field-advantage cliché, then they are in danger of forgetting what really matters. The narrative may be nice, but it doesn’t earn you an extra out or give you a free run.
I also know that many teams perform better on the road because during a period where you feel you’re in “enemy territory” you just plain feel closer to the teammate to your right and left. And great leaders know how to maximize on that narrative.
Still, if you want to win, you have to do the work. You still must go out and perform.
But if you need to pretend like your hometown hates your guts in order to gain the edge to victory, then so be it. If you need to believe your opponent in business has some kind of built-in advantage to drive you to narrow your focus, use it.
I’ve known players bound for their sports’ Hall of Fame who still held onto a negative comment when they were a rookie. I’ve covered teams that were media darlings who still insisted in the clubhouse that “nobody believes in us.”
It’s fashionable to mock those narratives, but it’s hard to argue with their results. Unless you think players like Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Serena Williams or Tiger Woods are overrated.
In the end, the stories we tell ourselves drastically impact our pursuit of Greatness. Which makes me curious—what story are you telling yourself?
Are you coasting because everyone else says you’re great? Have you settled for a narrative of comfortable platitudes?
I’ll be watching tonight to see if Houston can continue their winning ways and clinch their second World Series in three years, but I won’t be surprised if Washington pushes this to a Game Seven.
All I know is that the team who wins will come away with the better story—because they told themselves a better story in order to get there.