More Zen: In Search of Quality in Baseball

Continuing the Chatauqua I began a few weeks ago with the examination of the now-rejuvenated Chone Figgins, I’d like to ride along with Phaedrus, the protagonist of Robert Pirsig’s novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The first part of the novel devotes its attention to the seeming schism between the romantic view of life and the scientific, the sensory and the logical world. Though very much a scientific person himself, the narrator continues down the road of scientific absolutism to its inevitable endpoint: an emotionless, insubstantial realm of Platonic forms. Everything becomes categorized and understood, but no longer felt. Everything is a number.

To compare this phenomenon to Moneyball is as unfortunate as it is necessary, and so I’ll be as brief as possible. At the core of its well-worn story, Moneyball hides a contradiction: it is the heartwarming tale of a small-market team that succeeds, in part, due to its dehumanizing corporate ideologies. Devalued are the flawed aesthetic input of the scouts, the human but inefficient loyalties to the washed-up veterans. Billy Beane serves as Aristotle, creating and honing systems of thought, cataloging, categorizing. His ability to do this is beyond reproach. His methods bring success, and are thus modeled and reinvented. Those who reject the process are branded as luddites.

Meanwhile, 2,400 years after Aristotle and 20 before Beane, Phaedrus lives and teaches as a professor at the University of Montana. He’s asked one day whether he is teaching “quality” to his students by a passing administrator. He quickly becomes consumed with the notion of quality, what it means and why it matters. Quality is often misconstrued as beauty, the field of aesthetics, but the idea of studying quality itself in some way its own contradiction: to analyze beauty, even to define it, is in some way to bastardize it. Phaedrus continues this line of thinking and decides that Quality not only should not be defined, it cannot be defined. This leads us dangerously close to the precipice of relativism, where everyone’s concept of beauty is internalized and incomparable, meaningless to anyone but ourselves. But quality, whatever it is, avoids the plunge; we all still recognize it in some fashion. We see it by comparing C.C. Sabathia to Sidney Ponson.

It turns out that we have it somewhat easier than Pirsig, in a way. He’s searching for quality in the messy, expansive world of real life; ours is neatly confined to a small diamond. And we have another advantage: we have a shared goal. We all agree on the rules, for the most part. Certainly, there are a few discrepancies: the catcher blocking the plate, the phantom tag at second, or the whimsy of the official scorer. Ask the romantic baseball fan and the scientific baseball fan alike what the ultimate goal of baseball is, and you get the exact same answer: to win. Only the method changes. For the romantics, you win by playing the “right way”. For the scientists, you win by playing the optimal way.

However, quality is not bound to winning as a direct result. The sharp liner caught by a diving first baseman is of greater quality, we would likely agree, than the weak grounder muffed by the shortstop. The result of the play, however, still meets with dissatisfaction (assuming one is rooting for the batting team). The aestheticians and the statisticians both have methods for accounting for this; the former revels in the beauty of the swing, the latter recalculates the batter’s line drive rate. Both are essentially making the same argument: current results may not be indicative of future results. We must reject our initial inclination and think of the long-term.

And yet the divide continues, and will continue. We still argue over the measure of quality. The fault lies in the sport itself; rather, in winning. Take the winning away from baseball and you’d be left with abstract self-expression; there would no longer be constraints on whether to shade your outfielders toward the corners or steal when up by five. Essentially, what you’d have remaining would be bar-league softball, where there’s a score but everyone is too busy playing to remember it. It’s a game where people are walked to set up the triple play. It’s fun.

Baseball can be fun, even for the players whose livelihoods and legacies depend on it, but it’s not meant to be fun. The game is designed to be won or lost, and won at all costs. Phaedrus would have rejected it as a false dichotomy, no real expression of life at all. After all, there are plenty of franchises that are forced to define themselves in some manner other than victory. Excellence, in this case, is the destruction of style and individuality, the reinforcement of conforming to the right and the optimum. This is, of course, what happens to every person in real life, though the forces and the teams are myriad and subtle.

In Pirsig’s novel, Phaedrus rejected both Aristotle and surface emotions. His idea of quality was bound in neither subject nor object, line drive out or ground ball error. Instead, he divorces himself from both and, at the same time, the rules of the game. Quality, he states, is found in the ancient Greek concept of arête, translated loosely in English as excellence. It encompasses respect for the game, and caring about doing well, but leaves the interpretation of greatness to the individual.

Arête is self-excellence, self-reliance; it is not beholding to the world in obedience, nor trying to enslave it through analysis. It is to be part of that world, as well as to be yourself within it. It is Jose Valverde’s celebrations, David Ortiz’s bat flip, and Stan Musial’s somersault. It’s what keeps us (and, really, baseball itself) in business. And it’s what makes it matter.

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