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.

2 Responses to “Zen and the Art of Lineup Maintenance”

  • Good article – BUT – you are taking the public statements of these men as truly representative of what they actually think and believe. You do not know what they think at those key moments – like Figgins when the ball is about to be pitched could be having a fear-based thought even though he has been saying something different all along in public.

    There are plenty of studies linking performance to belief; the key is to know what the thinking is generally and in those specific incidences when performance will immediately follow.

    By the way, I love Pirsig – I think Lila is a better book than Zen in terms of his explanation of his theories.

  • Thanks for your comment, Jim. You’re correct: without having access to the internal dialogue of these men, I’m forced to rely on their public statements. But while it’s possible that Figgins’ confidence may fail him in those .45 seconds once the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, I’m more concerned with the necessity of that confidence. The trouble with the culture of confidence is that by creating a mindset in which positive thinking improves performance, it is simultaneously rendering that optimism necessary. Though I’m unaware of any particular studies, I’m tempted to argue the same with them: the “power of positive thinking” is so pervasive in today’s society that it can never really be controlled as a variable.

    If this culture didn’t exist, and confidence were ignored, Figgins would no longer need it; he would simply step up to the plate and perform to the best of his ability, every at-bat, without any residue of regret. This to me is the preferable state, free of armchair psychology.

    I’ll definitely keep an eye out for Lila in the nearby used bookstores.

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