Monthly Archive for February, 2012

Zen and the Art of Lineup Maintenance

There are essentially two types of people, we’re told by the narrator of Robert Pirsig’s bestselling classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  There are those of us who resist understanding technology because its permutations terrify us and, recoiling from the possibilities, escape into wishful thinking.  Then there are those who face those permutations, who envision the problems that face us in the future, and prepare for them.  Our narrator counts himself among the later, constantly retooling his machine, checking for problems.  His friend, John, owns a wonderful bike but does not trust himself with repairs; instead he relies on the quality of his cycle and the expertise of the nearest mechanic.  The narrator stresses that there is no malice or cowardice in John’s philosophy.  It is not stubborn or antagonistic.  It simply isn’t the way he thinks.

Pirsig pans out from the vehicular metaphor to present a simpler dichotomy: there are those who prefer to be positive and those who prefer to be realistic.  Pirsig evolves this viewpoint into the romantic viewpoint, which considers the immediate appearance of reality and its aesthetic value, and the classical viewpoint, which revolves around the systems and science by which reality is reasoned and constituted.  The chasm between these two realms is what Pirsig devotes his novel to bridging.  Baseball has its own divide, equally impassible, between its romantics and its scientists.  Though the scientific revolution is well underway, there are many whose realities cannot be touched by it; in fact, every fan has their own Platonic form for the sport that they do their best to reconcile with reality.  Fans must make these compromises, with the game and with each other, just as they do in every facet of life.

There are a couple of matters on which both sides agree, however.  One of these is Chone Figgins.

Eric Wedge recently announced that Ichiro, who has been manning the leadoff spot in Seattle since Rickey Henderson left in 2000, will be moved to the third spot in the order.  The fallout from this move is the ascension of Figgins, he of the .188 batting average and .241 on-base average, to the leadoff spot in the order.  The reaction has been mixed: from scorn on Twitter, to ennui on the local message boards, to the unabashed glee of the beat reporters.   The derision seems unilateral, felt by the romantics and the classicists alike.

Wedge defended his motives in the following quotes:

“I’m confident that Figgins can get back to his old self as a leadoff hitter,” Wedge said. “That’s when he was the Figgins that produced, that got on base, that scored runs. That was really a pain for opposing teams when he did lead off for Anaheim.”

“I feel like, to give him the greatest chance to get back on track and succeed is to give him that opportunity leading off for us.”

The classicist will immediately seize upon the fallacy of causation Wedge commits in the first statement: that Figgins was successful when he was a leadoff hitter, so he must have been successful because he was a leadoff hitter.  It’s a sentence similar to “I ate a doughnut one morning and then got pulled over for speeding; I must avoid doughnuts from now on” that any child could see through.  How could a man who is, by all accounts, proficient as a manager of human beings, commit such flawed logic?  The answer requires returning to the motorcycles.

The refusal to admit defeat, even the possibility of defeat, becomes a virtue.  One of the cornerstones of romantic thought is the appreciation of reality as it is.  Rather than getting bogged down in the invisible details and probabilities that swirl and disappear with each instant, they enjoy peace of mind.  John, instead of worrying about the potential problems with his motorcycle, can devote his ride to enjoying the scenery.  It also provides him with a singleness of purpose, commonly seen in athletics.  It becomes positivity, attitude, confidence.  The refusal to admit defeat, even the possibility of defeat, becomes a virtue.  It banishes the concept of luck as a weakness, an excuse.  It purifies winning into some created wholly from effort, something beautiful and pure.

There is no room for failure in such a philosophy.  This makes the figure of Chone Figgins all the more striking; amidst his biennial freefall, he sat wounded, amnesiac, paradoxical.   His mantra never changed.  As he told the LA Times last year after his season-ending injury: “’I’m going to be great again,’ he said in an uncommon boast. ‘The best part is I’m not worried about it. I’m keeping my head up.’”

Of course, for Figgins, there is little point in saying otherwise.  There’s little point in asking him at all, because as a professional baseball player, we can assume that he will continue to try his hardest to play as well as possible.  Baseball is after all famous for being 70% failure.  The more interesting philosophy is that of his manager, Eric Wedge himself.

The manager of a baseball team finds himself in an inherently difficult position.  He is a human embodiment of the principle of deterministic fallacy: namely, that whatever happened was destined to happen.  We as fans understand that the manager has very little impact over the course of events in a game, especially once the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand and hurtles toward the plate.  And yet afterward, it is the manager in his office that we listen to, who is accorded a healthy share of praise or blame.  We know that his job is to ensure the victory of his team, but it is also his job to ensure that his players perform to their utmost capability.

Chone Figgins is a perfect example of the deterministic fallacy in advance.  He can only succeed by believing that he can only succeed.  To do this, Eric Wedge must also believe that he will succeed, and if he believes that, he will provide him with the top spot in the lineup.  This will cause Figgins to be a good player at the top of the lineup.

Baseball works like this all the time, despite the fact that it’s pure madness.  It’s romanticism taken to its limit, turtles all the way down.  The power of positive thinking works because people believe in the power of positive thinking, which works… etc.

Which would be fine, if it worked.  But as we’ve seen with Figgins and with Willie Bloomquist and with Rey Quinones, it doesn’t work.  It’s the kind of thinking that gets men called geniuses, when they’re lucky, even though they fail to see the luck.  The worst part is that we have no way of knowing whether Eric Wedge truly believes what he is saying about Ichiro or Figgins; it’s very possible that he’s read Tango’s Book, that he knows Ichiro is being given 35 less at-bats, that he’s creating a logjam of third basemen at Tacoma.  Perhaps he’s in on the lie because he feels he has to be.

And to a certain extent, he does.  Because while we can scoff at the athlete for ignoring the potential for failure, there is another aspect to the culture of confidence that proves much more troublesome: its opposition to uncertainty.  Fans may not be thrilled with Wedge’s solution to the Mariners’ lineup problems, but it is at the very least a solution.  To have the leader of one’s ballclub announce that has no solutions, that his guess is only marginally better than ours, would be unpalatable to the average fan.

Cultures can and do change, once they have enough momentum.This culture of confidence is an inertial state, but it’s not the only possible state.  Cultures can and do change, once they have enough momentum; it was once seen as cowardly to take a walk, or pointless to limit a young pitcher’s innings.  There is a possible world in which hitters publicly accept their slumps, and the media doesn’t attribute them to the first plausible correlation they can think of.  Managers could admit that lineups don’t really matter and that an optimal lineup, that eternal talking point, is worth at most a single win per season.  Some of them do feel this way, but they would never say it.  Because while there are multiple states, the courageous figure who seeks to traverse from one to other will find himself exposed to the glare of conventional wisdom.

That wisdom will erode, and has already eroded to some extent.  One might wish that Eric Wedge were a little more progressive, if only for the sake of Kyle Seager, who will lose several months of development in the name of past experience.  But regardless of what he says, or even what he initially does, what Mariners fans can only hope is that Wedge can fix the motorcycle when it inevitably breaks down.

P&P Conversation: Location, Dislocation, and A.J. Burnett

Ted: Well, Eric, we are in the dregs of the offseason, after all of the big free agents have signed with their new teams, but before Spring Training begins in earnest. It’s the time of year when, for example, we learn that A.J. Burnett’s no-trade list of teams does include the Los Angeles Angels but does not include the Pittsburgh Pirates. That explains his “Winners are for Losers” tattoo, but does it tell us anything about anything else?

Eric: Has a single top free agent landed at his expected destination this year? Jose Reyes maybe? Nobody saw Pujols to Anaheim or Fielder to Detroit. Yu Darvish had no choice in the matter of which team bid up for his services. What I’m getting at is that for all of our projecting, we have no idea what a given player is thinking at a given time. Maybe A.J. Burnett is a really big fan of the Steelers. Or maybe he’s saying “I’ve had enough with all these high-pressure pennant races and playoff starts and I just want to play baseball.” This brings me to a broader question: If a player is effective — not to say that Burnett is effective — can we begrudge him for choosing to pass up winning and instead being content to swaddle himself in pleasant, low-pressure mediocrity? Baseball players can have different motivations; to reduce them to mercenaries out for fat Borasian paychecks and late-career World Series rings seems silly.

For instance, maybe Albert Pujols didn’t leave St. Louis because of a lack of perceived “respect.” Maybe he left because he was tired of all the obligations and stresses that went along with being ALBERT PUJOLS CIVIC ICON AND HEIR TO STAN MUSIAL. Maybe he just wanted to live in a nice subdivision with his family and have nothing more expected of him than dingers.

Ted: FYI, I have reported your last question to the House of Unamerican Activities, so please ignore the funny buzzing in your smartphone every time you answer a call from one of your commie friends. You see, Eric, professional baseball is about winning. The money, the swag, the buzz; it’s all about winning. I won’t accept any arguments that winning and losing are really just feeble constructs derived to delineate other statistically insignificant entities from one another for the sake of gambling or self-congratulation. I’ll leave that to This American Life.

Really, though, the insanity of this offseason proves that players’ decisions are driven by unseen forces like everything else in this Gladwellian world. A lot of it is about money, but there are subtle changes afoot. For example, Jered Weaver took a pay cut to play in Anaheim, and players now go on the DL for psychological issues. Those are but small fissures in the monolith of money and winning.

That said, isn’t every baseball player an itinerant worker spending half his days in hotels no matter where he signs? Does geography even matter?

Eric: Let’s never use the term Gladwellian ever again. (Talk about Tipping Points, if ya know what I mean). Despite the fact that players spend half of their time in-season on the road, and the fact that they often live elsewhere during the winter months, I do think geography matters. Geography is part of brand. The charm of the Cardinals is not just the pretty birds on the uniform or the history of winning or the echoes of Jack Buck, but the fact that once upon a time they were this frontier team whose radio broadcasts reached entire swaths of America that no other team was reaching. The very location of St. Louis matters. The same goes for the Dodgers moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and the Giants moving from Harlem to San Francisco.

I think players are aware of brand and what it means to be a member of a certain franchise. A.J. Burnett might not have okayed the Pirates specifically because he likes rivers or wants to play in the city of Roberto Clemente, but Hiroki Kuroda certainly chose to sign with the Yankees because they are the Yankees. And the Yankees are the Yankees in part because they play in New York City. We’ve talked before about Pujols’ suburban nature and how well that fits in with the Angels brand and the Angels locale. Here in Seattle, you can’t go a week in the offseason without some story breaking about how Free Agent X doesn’t want to play in the Pacific Northwest.

Location matters. But so does dislocation. Maybe geography in baseball is best understood as negative space. The map remains still while the baseball professional (player, coach, scout, journalist) moves from his offseason home to his Spring Training home to his in-season home, and then criscrosses the country on a jet for six months only to return again to his offseason home.

Besides being hell on relationships, all that moving around has to have some kind of grand effect on the collective baseball psyche right?

Ted: A baseball fan today can travel at the speed of light to any point on baseball map, via MLB TV. For that and other Gladwellian reasons, geography is less important to the fan than ever. It’s not to say that cities and stadia are unimportant, but there’s not doubt that a dislocated fan has far fewer barriers to his or her community. If St. Louis was a clearinghouse for all points West, today no single place can command its citizens. Note, for example, the number of baseball bloggers who are able to follow their team as well as some journalists…from across the country.

As for the players, there’s little doubt that city and state matters, though I’m sure it’s personal and there are just as many mercenaries that could care less where they play. Seattle may well be the most difficult city in the nation to attract players to with it’s brisk stadium and atropical meteorology.

Is there a difference, then, between the fan who lives near its team, and those who track from far off lands?

Eric: The fan experience is different if you’re in diaspora. People around me in Seattle aren’t talking about the Dodgers. The games aren’t on in the background at bars. I can’t casually flip to them on television. For me to be a Dodger fan I have to go out of my way; I have to be conscientious about it. In diaspora, it’s hard to maintain passive fandom.

But you’re back in Houston now, back with your Astros. If there’s a difference you’ll be the person to discover it in the coming moths.

A True Nightmare by Ross Allen

Ross Allen is a Cubs fan and former second-rate Division I tennis player.

I awoke several weeks ago from the most searing nightmare. It brought me back to my teenage years when I would awake from horrible dreams involving Craig Biggio, Shane Reynolds, and an antiquated dump known as the Houston Astrodome.

However, this dream was more horrifying than any before because it involved my favorite player, Chicago Cubs slugger Carlos Zambrano, instead of my most hated. Zambrano has been my favorite ballplayer for a decade. I saw his first major league start, the second game of a double header in August, 2001, and have been transfixed by his passion and energy ever since. A man who could develop tendinitis in his elbow from furious online communication with his family is a man I must believe in.

The nightmare began in a half-empty Marlins stadium. At first I thought this was any other regular season game, due tothe general apathy and limited number of spectators. It was the bottom of the 8th inning and the Cubs were leading by three runs. This game, I quickly realized, had much greater significance. The normal post-season banners were out and the chalkboard voice of Tim McCarver* came on. It was just like I was listening to a portable radio at the park. As I continued to curse McCarver and everything he stood for to the random guy sitting next to me, the jumpotron showed infuriating replays of the 2003 National League Championship Series. Eventually the play-by-play man informed me that this was game 7 of the National League Championship Series and the Cubs were nearing their first pennant since 1945.**

The bottom of the 8th rolled by without any incidents. The first out was an easy ground ball to short and the second was a routine foul pop to left field. After the third hitter walked, Cubs skipper Dale Sveum came out to settle Kerry Wood down, and he struck out the final batter on a great curveball away. The top of the ninth went by similarly without incident, my confusion and stress only increasing. As the TV cameras kept moving to Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen, who had the weirdest and cruelest grin on his face, I figured something horrible had to go wrong.

The bottom of the ninth started like any other Carlos Marmol save opportunity. He hit the first batter and walked the second. Every count went to 3-2. Marmol’s slider was unhittable, but it also couldn’t hit the plate. A strikeout, a walk, and a strikeout later I was shaking in my seat. The Chicago Cubs were now one out away from heading to the World Series.

What strode to the plate next was something so disgusting and repulsive that I can barely stand to describe it. It was Carlos Zambrano. My Carlos Zambrano walking to the plate in a garrish Miami Marlins uniform. He was the starting pitcher. It was his turn in the batting order. I was conflicted. I had never before been in a situation where I was rooting for him to do anything but hit it straight out of the ballpark. This is the man with most home runs by a pitcher in the DH era. This is the man who could break Wes Ferrel’s all-time mark someday. What is more exciting in baseball than seeing a pitcher help his own cause? What is more exciting than seeing a pitcher win a game with both his arm and his bat?

The at-bat was like any other Carlos Zambrano at-bat ever. It was not long or climactic. There is a reason his slugging percentage is a career .395 and his on-base percentage is .251. The run was never going to be walked in and it wasn’t. The 1-0 fastball, right in the middle of the plate, left his bat so much faster than it left Marmol’s arm. As the ball traveled through the blue Miami air, my dream popped, punctured by the ball I never saw land.

*Imagine for a second how horrifying it is to hear Tim McCarver’s voice in a dream. I haven’t recovered.

**The play-by-play man must have been someone other than Joe Buck, because Joe Buck would not have provided me with such useful information without a million clichés that forced me to rip off my headphones and throw them at the redneck Marlins fan in front of me, who still was asking his friend to explain to him who those six individuals in black were on the field.