The Most Blunderful Time of the Year

It’s getting to be my favorite time of year again. That’s right–it’s end-of-the-year awards debate time!

Now, while this post isn’t really about who deserves to win this year’s AL MVP (whatever it means to deserve an MVP Award), lemme quickly say that the answer is Joe Mauer, not Mark Teixiera. Readers interested in the case for Mauer are welcome to read the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 8th above links, but lemme try to quickly sum up the arguments as I understand them:

Pro-Teixiera: He is a high-profile player on a high-profile team.

Teixiera is, indeed, having a fine season, putting up his customarily impressive numbers for the best team in baseball. Anecdotally, he fields first base well, though more advanced statistic suggest that this may not be entirely true and anyway first base is pretty much the least valuable defensive position. Plus, his season isn’t that impressive. Look at these lines from five other first basemen in the AL and guess which one is Teixiera, the “presumptive” award-winner:

Player A: 20 HR, 66 RBI, .311/.424/.564, 149 OPS+

Player B: 30 HR, 86 RBI, .288/.385/.562, 145 OPS+

Player C: 28 HR, 94 RBI, .301/.388/.562, 154 OPS+

Player D: 25 HR, 76 RBI, .302/.349./.576 135 OPS+

Player E: 24 HR, 70 RBI, .329/.397/.552 144 OPS+

Hint: Teixiera is Player B. The others are, in order, A) Kevin Youkilis, C) Justin Morneau, D) Kendry Morales, and E) Miguel Cabrera. Not a lot of separation there–I’d be hard pressed to say one is clearly having a vastly better season than the others.

Still, a stud player on a dominant team, yeah sure, that adds up to an MVP in most years. But this isn’t most years.

Pro-Mauer: This isn’t most years because Joe Mauer is having the best offensive season by a catcher–while ably fielding what is widely considered the most difficult defensive position–ever. As in the entire history of the game. Honest. Better than Piazza, or Berra, or Bench. Better than Cochrane, or Pudge, or the other Pudge. Better than Dickey, or Posada, or Campanella. If that isn’t MVP-worthy, then what exactly is?

***

OK, so maybe not all that quickly. But as I said, this post isn’t really about who should win this year, and for a couple of different reasons. First, it doesn’t matter. I mean, undoubtedly it matters to Teixiera and Mauer and anyone else who has a contract kicker that pays them for winning the MVP. But look–there have been voting controversies before, and perceived miscarriages of justice in the past. Just consider these thrilling match-ups from baseballing seasons of yore:

Gordon vs. Williams!

Pudge vs. Martinez!

Vaughn vs. Belle!

Marion vs. Musial!

Yeah, sure, it seems pretty obvious now that the wrong guy took home the hardware, but that doesn’t diminish the performance of the rightfully deserving (there’s that word again) players. If anything, the apparent injustice only shines a more righteous light on the losers, transforming them into mythic folk heroes who are remembered all the more wistfully for the wrong done against them. Kinda like the A-Team.

So while Kepner’s argument may appear to have some merit, I feel pretty certain that a day will come, in the not-so-distant future, when he and those who agree with him will look back on the 2009 season and sheepishly admit that they voted for one of any number of fine first basemen instead of the catcher who had the greatest offensive performance of all-time. The historical perspective seems inescapably vindicating–they’d be aligning themselves with those who voted for Joe Gordon over Ted Williams in ’42, or gave Barry Zito the 2002 AL Cy Young over Pedro Martinez. Sure, Gordon and Zito got the trophies, but those who voted for them have to live with the private chagrin of failing to recognize greatness when it was right there in front of them.

***

I say “sheepishly” and “chagrin,” but maybe that won’t be the case. Maybe the voters who choose Teixiera over Mauer will never admit their error. Heck, maybe they’ll never even realize they made an error. And that’s what makes the awards debate my favorite time of the year.

What has me so excited is the carnival of mental contortionism that rolls into town right about now as sportswriters and fans begin to speculate about end-of-the-year awards. See, I believe that most folks decide who their personal MVP is, and then construct an argument to justify to themselves the rightness of this “choice.” Actually, I happen to believe that this is the case for many of the so-called defining “truths” of our personal identities–Republican or Democrat, devout or atheist, winged or wingless Balrog. One or the other feels right to us, and it is only after this that we then formulate a reason explaining why it is right. In that way, our effort to convince others of our rightness is really only ever an unending attempt to convince ourselves.

This process of after-the-fact rationalization commits us to positions that, once they are examined, become pretty untenable pretty quickly. To defend our decisions, we have to employ a whole Philosophy 101 syllabus of logical fallacies. Recency Bias? Teixiera just hit a game-winning home run! Availability Bias? Remember that one time Teixiera won a game with a hook-slide at home? Invincible Ignorance? Teixiera’s a great defender, I don’t care what the stats say!

One of the most consterning arguments used by Teixiera supporters is a sort of perverted Appeal to Tradition. They sidestep the question of whether they are right or wrong by citing previous years when the “wrong” player won, believing this frees them to vote for whomever they please. Hey, we got it wrong in the past, why shouldn’t we get it wrong this time?

Of course–and this is where the pro-Mauer, predominantly statnerd crowd (to which, admittedly, I belong) starts getting a bit fallacious itself–of course, they are free to vote for whomever they please. That’s why it’s a vote. It’s the prerogative of each voter to employ whatever criteria*, and to be as flagrantly, gloriously wrong, as they like. There is no “right,” there is no “wrong.” For many voters, there isn’t really so much as an opinion, not really–it’s more like a feeling, or a hunch, or an inkling. A stirring of the soul or a gurgling in the gut. And this is what the statnerd crowd–and, if I’m allowed to stretch a bit here, their like-minded brothers and sisters currently in the White House–have a tough time grokking: logic can change an opinion, but it can’t change a feeling, no matter how lucid or unassailable or inarguable it (the logic) is.

***

In the end, Kepner might be right, but (from my perspective) for the wrong reasons. Teixiera certainly resembles past winners, and there seems to be growing momentum behind his candidacy, much like there was for Kobe Bryant two seasons ago even though he was not, by the numbers, the best player in the NBA. And while I’ve said that it doesn’t really matter, that’s not the same as saying I don’t care. To misquote Bill James, baseball–and sports in general–is all about joy , and there are endless ways to experience joy. For me–and I’d wager for many of our fellow Enthusiasts, too–one of the singular joys of sports is that it gives us the opportunity to think about what we are thinking about. Being a fan means taking part in an unending dispute about what is true, but it also means implicitly agreeing that there is a knowable if elusive Truth. It’s acknowledging the basic pointlessness of sports, but celebrating it all the same, because it is in celebrating something that we give it–and ourselves–meaning. Awards-debate season, to me, is just the ongoing, muddled, communal groping** towards what exactly that meaning is.

Can I get an amen?

*OK, so yeah, sure, there is an official set of criteria for MVP voting…

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
2. Number of games played.
3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
4. Former winners are eligible.
5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

…but they don’t seem all that illuminating to me. How many games? Loyalty to what? Effort?!?

**Communal groping: Oh yeah!


Matinee Idle

For reasons unknown and unknowable, the New Enthusiast is experiencing an unprecedented groundswell of new readership of late. First off, we’d like to say, enthusiastically, “Welcome, likeminded ladies and gentledudes!”

Second, and we have this on very good authority, when it comes giving the crowd what they want, the best way to keep laissez-ing la bon temps to roulez is to post more frequently than semi-fortnightly. Unfortunately, we don’t exactly have anything of substantial substance ready to share, so instead here are a few unripened fruits plucked from our idle minds:

IDLE! The Red Sox recently celebrated their Major League record 500th consecutive home sellout. That’s great! Strangely, the fans celebrated it, too. Huh? That seems a bit…perverse. Now, revenue from ticket sales is (for the most part) funneled back into player salaries, so good attendance is tied to continued on-field success. But something tells me that isn’t exactly what the team is thanking the fans for, since it’s the sellout which has allowed the Sox to raise the price of an average ticket for 14 straight years until 2009, hiking the cost to the highest level in the majors*. Now that’s an impressive streak!

*Pre-Yankees Stadium and Citifield data.

IDLE! Ronny PaulinoRon Paul. I’m just saying…

IDLE! The harshest decrescendo of awesomeness possible in a three word span? Vacation Bible School! If you’re a kid hearing it, that phrase starts off real, real good, but gets real sucky in a hurry.

IDLE! So there is a bit of a kerfuffle about Manny Ramirez playing in the minors before his 50-game suspension is up. While it does seem like this loophole is letting Manny skirt around his punishment, TNE is more curious about whether Manny will be eligible for the Triple A All-Star Game on July 15th in Portland’s PGE Stadium.

IDLE! Speaking of Portland, howzabout a “Portland Stadium Financing Debacle Update”? In case you need a quick recap, lemme sum up:

1. Way back in 2007, megasuperrichdude Merritt Paulson buys the Timbers, a United Soccer League* team, and the Beavers, the Triple A affiliate of the San Diego Padres. The teams currently share PGE Park in lovely downtown Portland**

1. Paulson uses the promise of unimaginable windfall from a Major League Soccer team*** to extort tens of millions of public dollars for his stadium upgrade.

2. In exchange, he promises to build a new baseball stadium in the city, contingent on the city securing the land.

3. Due to civic resistance, negligent oversight, and general nincompoopery, the city drops the ball on finding a location for the new stadium.

4. Paulson keeps all the public money for the soccer stadium, doesn’t have to build baseball stadium, and…

5…is now free to shop the Beavers around the “Portland area” to see if any suburb might be willing to foot the bill for a new stadium. Hello, Hillsboro!

Well played, trusted civic leaders!

*Wikipedia informs me that this is the second tier on the American Soccer Pyramid. That is a much cooler nickname than is warranted.

**Just ask the New York Times.

***Sarcasm.


No Clear Option

So it seems some other sports blogger has noticed the recent aesthetic abasement of the NBA.

Simmons ties a lot of the game’s woes back to poor officiating, and in many ways he’s right. As he points out, many of today’s prominent officials are, well, old. Kinda really old, in some cases. He suggests that these officials might have difficulty following the action of the game, a problem which would only be exacerbated during the playoffs, when the NBA prefers to assign its most experienced, and therefore most senior, refs to the games of greatest importance.

While senescence may account for some of the problem of consistently enforcing the rules, also think about this: the rules have changed. Like, for instance, it’s hard to imagine any 1975 vintage player hacking it in the NBA of today. Doesn’t matter if that player was as kinesthetically wondrous as Dr. J or an immobile wall of sopping manflesh like Billy Paultz, any player from that era would have difficulty adjusting to the current game, and one reason is because the rules are subtly but vastly different. The three-pointer, 8-second backcourt violations, the crab dribble–it takes a lifetime of practice to perfect and embody these things at a professional level. Yet the NBA expects Dick Bavetta, whose been an official since 1975, to call the game the same way as Zach Zarba, who was born in 1975. Fans who grew up watching Oscar Robertson have a different view of what constitutes a traveling violation than those who accustomed to Michael Jordan–might not refs harbor the same sort of biases?

Another issue Simmons notes is the seeming paradox that, despite the league’s specific measures to do so, there hasn’t been an apparent reduction in excessively physical play. There are a couple of reasons this might be true, though Simmons uses a faulty analogy to highlight the league’s failures:

Finally, the logic behind “flagrant fouls” was that it was supposed to prevent … (drumroll, please) … flagrant fouls! Do you feel like that mission has been accomplished? Imagine your local police force telling you, “Since our crackdown on home robberies, home robberies have doubled in the past three years. We couldn’t be happier!”

Well, no, these aren’t exactly the same scenarios. It might be more apt to say that the police had previously dealt with burglaries by pretending they didn’t occur, and are now more aggressively combating the problem–which could plausibly result in a greater number of reported incidents.

Also, it shouldn’t be surprising that a strict prohibition actually results in an increase in the activity targeted by the prohibition. For instance, take the NBA’s new rule that if a player accumulates a 7th technical foul during the playoffs, he is suspended from the next game. As many commentators have pointed out, this puts the league in an awkward position–having to suspend, say, Lebron James or Kobe Bryant during the finals because of something they did in an earlier round. Dwight Howard was assessed his 6th technical on a call that was pretty weak sauce–and the league agreed, rescinding the technical foul after reviewing the game. Still, the NBA couldn’t be real pleased with the prospect of having to suspend one of its marquee player during the playoffs.

This is reminiscent of the illogic at the heart of nuclear deterrence. When Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles unveiled the “New Look,” they placed massive nuclear retaliation at the center of America’s foreign policy, the thought being that the Soviets would never instigate hostile activities in the face of total annihilation. As smart dude John Lewis Gaddis pointed out, this wasn’t a credible policy–the U.S. would never follow through on “less-than total challenges,” which left the U.S.S.R. free to do as it wished, like intervening in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It’s argued that in some ways the threat of massive retaliation emboldened the Soviets, as they increasingly raised the stakes while calling America’s bluff.

The NBA finds itself in a situation similar to the U. S. of A. in the ’50s. The league really, really doesn’t want to have to follow through on its threat, and one way to avoid having to do so is to be much more lenient in assessing technical fouls. Players probably realize this, too–Kobe Bryant, et alii basically have impunity from the refs throughout the playoffs. That’s one way in which stricter policing of an activity can actually increase the activity’s frequency.


Press Credentials

I’ve always had problems with fables. Like take, just for instance, “The Tortoise and the Hare.” A speed-merchant hare mocks a tortoise for clogging up the bases. So the tortoise challenges the hare to a race, which the hare naturally accepts. Then, just while he is totally cruising to a victory, the hare decides to take a nap. When he wakes up, he discovers that the tortoise, just pluggin’ along like a lil’ plugger, has passed him by and won the race. Moral of the story: Slow and steady wins the race.

Wait…what? Isn’t the moral something more like, “Don’t take a nap in the middle of a race?” The tortoise’s slow-and-steadiness doesn’t really seem like the salient bit of info in this little narrative. But that’s the thing about fables: they can be told in such a way as to impart any lesson the fabulist chooses, whether it’s the edifying virtues of perseverance or the importance of always leaving a note. And the more fantastically implausible the scenario, it seems, the less likely the audience is to notice that the conclusion is pretty much nonsense. It’s maybe worth noting here that fabulist also means liar.

I’ve always gotten a similar feeling reading Macolm Gladwell. To be sure, he’s a super-duper, glow-in-the-darkly talented writer, a keen observer gifted with sight-beyond-sight for small but important things. But, as with Aesop’s fables,  Gladwell’s conclusions don’t always necessarily follow from the stories he tells.

Gladwell’s usual brilliance is on display in his recent New Yorker article, “How David Beat Goliath,” but so are his shortcomings to a more than typical degree. For starters, and this is just personally irksome and could be considered a corollary to my complaint about fables, and that is this: the story of David and Goliath didn’t happen. Or, at the very least, it’s unlikely that it happened, and it certainly didn’t happen exactly the way the Bible would have us believe. Chances are, Goliath was not over 9 feet tall, and there is some healthy contention amongst scholars regarding David’s real age when he slew the giant. That is, if David even did the deed. Some commentators surmise that the true story involves an obscure dude name Elhanan, and that his opponent was just some generic Philistine, and that as the story was transmitted through time, it took on tall-tale qualities and was ascribed to the more famous David. Still others contend that Elhanan was actually David, but using an assumed name. Even more still others think that the Philistines had nothing to do with the whole thing, and that somehow the ancient Greeks are mixed up in it. Point is, it’s a real convolved and messy story.

But Gladwell wants to use it as a concise and firm basis for his grand thesis, which is that underdogs win to a surprising degree when they adopt the assymetric tactics employed by David to defeat Goliath. In doing so, he wants to ground his theory in a larger historical perspective, and give his observations more heft by piggybacking them on the holy solemnity of the Bible. Maybe this criticism is a bit unfair; Gladwell, after all, ain’t suggesting that underdogs would do well to literally mimic David, just to draw inspiration from his victory.

But, tellingly, just as the story of David and Goliath isn’t literally, entirely true, neither is Gladwell’s story about the power of the full-court press to allow longshot teams to defeat superior opponents . First off, in describing iconoclastic basketball coach Vivek Ranadivé’s path towards implementing the press, Gladwell describes National Junior Basketball, in which he, Ranadivé, coaches, as “the Little League of basketball.” Then, describing the mostly 12-year old girls who comprised Ranadivé’s team, Gladwell writes:

Nicky, Angela, Dani, Holly, Annika, and [Ranadivé's] own daughter, Anjali, had never played the game before. They weren’t all that tall. They couldn’t shoot. They weren’t particularly adept at dribbling. They were not the sort who played pickup games at the playground every evening.

That may all be true, but couldn’t it also be true of the competition? Gladwell notes later in the article that some opposing coaches were rankled by Ranadivé’s tactics, feeling that he was being unfair to “twelve-year-old girls, who were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of the game.” If this is true, then can we really consider the opponents to be the Goliaths in this analogy? Troublingly, Gladwell allows Ranadivé, whose players were “all blond-haired white girls,” to suggest another team was superior to his own because they were an “all-black team from East San Jose.” That aside, Gladwell never convincingly establishes Ranadivé’s team as the underdogs, or that it was their tactics that allowed them to overcome superior opponents, and not just that their opponents were inexperienced. Could a full-time, full-court press work in, say, the NBA, where the players are not just grasping the rudiment of the game? Does a tactic that works in Little League have any significance beyond the beginner-level? Perhaps, but it’s hard to make that leap without actually applying the theory under those conditions.

Next, and kinda really lazily, Gladwell says this about Rick Pitino, one of the few big-time coaches to really embrace the press the way Gladwell argues for:

College coaches of Pitino’s calibre typically have had numerous players who have gone on to be bona-fide all-stars at the professional level. In his many years of coaching, Pitino has had one, Antoine Walker. It doesn’t matter. Every year, he racks up more and more victories.

Say huh? Here is a quick list of solid NBA contributors who played for Pitino at Kentucky: Derek Anderson, Tony Delk, Jamal Mashburn, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, Nazr Mohammed, Mark Pope, and, yeah, Employee #8. Ok, sure, we’re not exactly talking the Dream Team here, but it’s a bit disingenuous to suggest, as Gladwell does, that Pitino is winning despite his personnel. Furthermore, except for Mashburn, all those players plus Jeff Sheppard and Wayne Turner, who each made an NBA roster for one season, were on the same 1996 team, which won Pitino’s sole championship. Yeah, they may have been “the greatest example of the press [Pitino] ever coached,” but it’s not like they were some ragtag band of hopelessly overmatched yet plucky dreamers–they entered the tournament ranked #1 in the country, and finished the year with a 34-2 record. Like “The Tortoise and the Hare,” Gladwell seems to be drawing the wrong conclusion–the secret to Pitino’s success, at least as it is described by Galdwell, isn’t so much due to the full-court press as McDonald’s All-Americans.

To lend his argument some sabremetric-style analysis, Galdwell turns to political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft, who “recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants,” and found that Goliaths only won 71.5% the time. Gladwell feels that it is a “remarkable fact” that in conflicts where one side held a 10-to-1 advantage in armed might and population, the underdogs emerged victorious almost a third of the time. Maybe. But just citing the results of the study aren’t convincing enough. Like for instance how did Arreguín-Toft score conflicts like the Korean War and Vietnam, where not only were there no clear victors, but the U.S.’s apparent advantage was mitigated by aid from China and the Soviet Union? Or what about the mujahideen who used David-like insurgency tactics to repel the Soviets from Afghanistan, but learned those tactics from CIA operatives? And also what about those conflicts that didn’t happen because one side held such a huge advantage, the other side opted not to fight? Certainly those countries “lost” in the sense that the larger country was free to annex the disputed territory or whatever–are these included in the study? Would they lower the weaker combatants’ Pythagorean record?

Gladwell’s larger point isn’t really about basketball as such, it’s about how undermanned, overmatched, and outspent dark horses can thrive in a competitive environment, and in that sense his thesis is unassailable: if you can’t beat them at their own game, change the game. And like him, I’m curious about why there isn’t more strategic experimentation in athletics. Sports (at least its on-field aspect) is a zero-sum game–there can be only one champion (more or less). Still, over and over, a new season begins with most teams having no real chance at winning, yet continuing to employ the same exact strategies of the overwhelming favorites. Why not switch to a four-man rotation? Why not go for it every fourth down? Obviously, calcified conventional wisdom and institutional inertia are pretty tough to overcome, but every so often a team does something truly innovative and achieves a stunning success. Gladwell may have found another example, and I want to believe he did, because there are few things in sports, or life, as awesome as some Cinderella story out of nowhere, following the same rules as everyone else but playing a totally different game. I just don’t think he’s done enough to convince me he has.

Plus, he really should’ve just written about Grinnell’s men’s basketball team.


Monorail! Did Somebody Say Monorail?!

One day in 1983, the Mendocino Commentary, a small newspaper in Northern California, began receiving strange, playful, and erudite letters to the editor from a reader name Wanda Tinasky. Like many small-town cranks, Wanda weighed in cantankerously on the issues of the day, but she aimed most of her bizarrely eloquent vituperation at obscure local poets. Her excessive rants got her banned from the Commentary, but she eventually resurfaced in the pages of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, an even smaller small-town newspaper with a caustic worldview that more closely echoed Tinasky’s. For several years, in dozens of letters, Wanda shared the details of her life. She was, it seemed, an octogenarian bag lady who dwelt beneath a bridge, someone equally at home discussing the coiffure of Phil Donahue or the theology of the 15th century polymath Nicholas of Cusa. She was, in short, too good to be true, and her real identity was the subject of much local speculation until 1988, when Wanda fell silent.

But then, as is often the case, something happened. Thomas Pynchon, a legendary enigma of the first order, published his fourth novel, Vineland. Set in a fictional Northern California town that reminded some residents of Mendocino, Vineland displayed the vast erudition and entangled paranoia that is the hallmark of Pynchon’s work–and of Tinasky’s correspondence. Brian Anderson, publisher of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, felt sure that this was more than a coincidence, and concluded that the two authors were in fact one. The letters were gathered into a book, The Letters of Wanda Tinasky, and sent off in search of a publisher.

The story is interesting enough, but here’s where it gets real good and, I sincerely hope, relevant to the larger, soon-to-be-made point: Though Pynchon was able to use the threat of legal action to stop Anderson from making any overt links to his (Pynchon’s) name, he wasn’t able to stop the book being published. He adamantly disavowed authorship, and in doing so relinquished any control over the material, leaving Anderson free to make any subtle implications about its authorship he wanted.  But if Pynchon had wanted to kill the book entirely, he could have claimed authorship, and then denied Anderson the rights to reprint the letters–which he didn’t write*. This strategy is mindbendingly paradoxical and downright Pynchonian–to maintain your innocence, you must admit your guilt; To protect you identity, you must pretend to be someone else. Nothing is what it seems like, and every single thing is actually something else entirely.

I mention all this because of all the recent attention given to new stadiums. The Yankees and Mets moved into new digs at the combined cost of $2.5 billion. President Obama has thrown his support behind Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics and The U.S.’s effort to woo the World Cup in 2018. Even the New Enthusiast’s hometown, Portland, OR, is moving briskly down the path of converting PGE Park into a MLS-ready soccer-only facility and building a new home for the minor league Beavers. Every new venture has its opponents, people who would rather not see public money used to subsidize private facilities. Cost overruns, sweetheart deals, and tax loopholes are all par for the course in the world of stadium financing. But these criticisms don’t even begin to describe how perplexing, how preposterous, how conspiratorially convoluted–or, in other words, how downright Pynchonian–most deals really are.

For just one instance, when new owners took control of the Seattle Supersonics, they promptly broke their lease with Seattle’s Key Arena and began the process of relocating the team to Oklahoma City. In an effort to forestall the relocation, the City of Seattle sued the ownership group for $200 million, the amount they claimed the community would be deprived of if the Sonics left town. Ownership’s response? They called on a prominent economist to testify that professional sports teams have no discernible economic impact on their surrounding community. While the Sonics generate activity, he maintained, that activity is likely due to the substitution effect, meaning that if the Sonics left, the fans would just spend their entertainment dollars somewhere else in town. I’m sure the citizens of Oklahoma City were totally psyched to hear that.

Or how about this. In 1996, the San Diego Chargers intimated that they were going to pack their bags when their lease at Jack Murphy Stadium expired. To avoid this unspeakable calamity, the city agreed to spend $76 million dollars renovating the Murph while adding 10,000 seats, plus threw in a guarantee that 60,000 tickets would be sold for each game, and any shortfall would be made up by the city. Here’s where it gets weird: for every ticket sold under the existing agreement, the Chargers owed 10% to the city for rent, and then had to give 40% of the remaining amount to the NFL for revenue sharing. However, the city’s ticket guarantee wasn’t made up by actual ticket sales, just in a lump payment equivalent to the face value of the tickets needed to be sold to meet the 60,000 total. Meaning the city’s payment guarantee wasn’t subject to either the 10% rent deduction or the 40% league revenue sharing scheme. Meaning the Chargers could keep 100% of the payment. Meaning, the Chargers could make more money by not selling tickets than by selling them.

And then there’s the curious goings-on right here in the Rose City. Yesterday’s Oregonian had a howler of an article looking into the recently approved stadium financing deal. In order to pay for the soccerization of PGE and construction of a new minor league baseball stadium, the city is taking on $65 million in debt by issuing what amounts to the municipal equivalent of subprime loans. The payment plan is so risky, Portland’s debt manager isn’t convinced there will be any buyers for the bonds. Thankfully, Merritt Paulson, owner of the newly-MLS-promoted Timbers and the Beavers, and at whose behest this debt is being assumed, has personally guaranteed that he (with help from his old man, US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson) will find willing buyers. As David Logsdon, manager of the city’s spectator facilities said, with a personal guarantee from the Paulson family “it’s less important to the city how we scrub through all the numbers.” Great!

But scrubbing through the numbers would’ve been a little difficult, anyways. The city-commissioned study to evaluate the revenue projections for the Timbers and Beavers contained numerous basic math errors. But that’s okay, too–Logsdon said no one on his staff checked the numbers, and anyway, task force chairman Steve Maser doesn’t recall anyone discussing the numbers in committee since they reflected “what everyone was expecting.” Yeah, why bother looking at a study that’s just going to tell you what you already know? No whiff of bias here, folks! Also, helpful NB to Maser–if a study reflects what you were already thinking, but that study contains critical mistakes…well, maybe it’s worth rethinking what you thought you knew.

As is the usual tactic, Paulson claimed that the new stadiums would yield 600 well-paying new jobs in Portland (critics think the number is more like 160 ok-paying jobs, but whatever, let’s take Paulson on his word–he did make a personal guarantee, after all!). That means, when factoring in $65 million in new debt, Portland is essentially paying over $108,000 for each new job. Yikes! They would almost literally be better off just dropping the money into Pioneer Square from a helicopter.

Stadium deals, from Portland’s relatively small-beans amount to China’s $40 billion+ tab for the ’08 Olympics, are almost always uniformly bad for the host municipality. There are reasons to support your local team, though they aren’t much more tangible than plain ol’ civic pride. But don’t expect a meaningful, positive economic impact to come from the public financing of such a limited private enterprise. If you think otherwise, I’ve got a monorail I’d like to discuss with you.

*Literary sleuth (meaning that he does his sleuthing about literature, not in literature) Don Foster later identified forgotten Beat poet Tom Hawkins as the author behind Tinasky. After abandoning poetry, Hawkins moved to Mendocino County and went progressively off his rocker, wearing disguises and running petty scams with his wife. Shortly after the Tinasky letters stopped, Hawkins murdered his wife, set his house on fire, and drove his car off a cliff. The end.


Anatomy of Regret

The perennial holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life was, at the time of its release in 1946, considered a resounding flop. It struggled to recoup its production costs at the box office, and many thought that the failure signaled the end of director Frank Capra’s career, which was until then like Spielbergianly bankable.

Maybe what those initial filmgoers who stayed away in droves were responding to–or more accurately, I guess, weren’t responding to–was something that even as a young little dudelet I sensed about the movie: the world minus George Bailey, the one where everyone was Lindy-hopping it up and getting their baby boom on, the one meant to scare ol’ George into reconsidering that felo-de-se notion–it didn’t seem entirely bad.  Sure, for George and his immediates Pottersville was pretty distressing, but everyone else–no longer living under the constant, teetering threat of a possible Savings and Loans scandal wrought by one dottering old dunderhead–could afford to be a bit more profligate, financially and otherwise.

The Bedford Falls/Pottersville dichotomy in some murky but important way fails to deliver on the movie’s basic homily, which is a pretty frequently recurring one throughout recorded human history: Be happy with what you have. Maybe it, meaning the homily, requires such repetition because it is so difficult to learn. There’s an existential buyer’s remorse that, for some people, seems to gnaw at even our most inconsequential decision, a feeling that, and I almost certainly misquote here, Kierkegaard described as like “being adrift on a sea of infinite possibilities.”

This gut-level philosophy was given some scientific support recently. Advances in behavioral economics suggest that everyday decision-making has a diagnosably real psychological effect on the human brain, one that Barry Schwartz in his bestseller The Paradox of Choice argued was pernicious and anxiety-producing. Many scholars dispute the severity of this effect, claiming that most rationally behaving humans are able to pretty quickly resolve the momentary cognitive dissonance of choosing between, say, a tasty quesadilla or a sensible salad for lunch. Still, there seems to be some intuitive truth to the basic assertion–after all, as choices proliferate, the odds that we make the optimal one necessarily go down.

Making matters worse is the fact that preying on this insecurity is pretty much the advertainment industry’s bread and butter. Look, it says, here is a better world, a world peopled by implausibly attractive potential mates that can be entered (the world and mates both) by simply purchasing the correct two-in-one body wash plus skin moisturizer. In his glow-in-the-darkly good essay E Unibus Pluram, David Foster Wallace details how, as the viewing public grew more adept at detecting marketing ploys, marketers adopted more subtle ploys. The escalation resulted in the prevalent tone of the times, the ironic wink, in which advertisers co-opted the doubt that the audience felt towards advertising, and deflected it back against them, turning it into self-doubt. You’re too smart, too independent to fall for the old advertising tricks, commercials tell us. You ignore the herd and take time for yourself. And that’s why you’re sophisticated enough to truly enjoy our premium fat-free single-serve yogurt.

It’s a telling coincidence that the term of art for this strategy is “aspirational marketing;” in medicine, “aspiration” means the leakage of foreign material into the lungs. They both are a sickness. Wallace contends that this tactic has become so pervasive that it amounts to a London, 1941-level barrage on our psyche, and that the resulting national mood, the one that has driven our economy to this place of ruin, is one of constant and almost preemptive regret.

All of which is to say: I really wish I had drafted Emilio Bonifacio in my fantasy keeper league.


What’s My Motivation

A kinda recent post on kottke.org sparked an interesting discussion on the webernets. Kottke cited director Mike Leigh’s description of the processes employed by actors he’s worked with. In Leigh’s opinion, the most successful actors are those who think deeply about and make studied, considered decisions regarding a character, but still make it seem like they’ve done none of these things. In the performance, the actor is able to make the character seem not studied or considered but totally spontaneous and organic and alive.

Kottke wondered something similar happens in the sports world. A professional basketball player in the Netherlands responded that he did in fact adopt an on-court persona, one that, like his jumpshot, he had cultivated through years of practice and could now slip into and out of effortlessly.

These personae* seem central to high-level athletic success in a couple of ways. First, it invests the games with greater significance. In the heart of every competitor is the nagging doubt that, in the end, it just doesn’t matter what the outcome is. This sort of nihilism is 100% fatal to professional sports, and the few times a player has expressed it, he is quickly pilloried by his teammates, the media, and fans. Developing and committing to a persona creates a sort of ironic duality**, allowing players to erect a psychic barrier that keeps them from having to examine these doubts too closely.

Second, they create a kind of perceptual feedback loop. Check out Jacksonville Jaguar defensive tackle John Henderson’s pregame ritual, or as the Youtube poster calls it, “getting crunk in his system”:

It’s important to Henderson that he be fearless and invulnerable and dangerously unhinged…and so he does things that make him appear fearless and invulnerable and dangerously unhinged…and pretty soon he is thought to be fearless and invulnerable and dangerously unhinged…and this strengthens his commitment to being fearless and invulnerable and dangerously unhinged, and so on and so on, etc, with the hoped-for result being that Henderson’s actual self and his desired persona become indistinguishably merged.

Third, they extend the narrative beyond the field. A lot of the above statements could just as easily be said of LARPers–they sustain what would be an otherwise absurdly pointless fantasy world through some pretty heroic commitment to their appointed roles. But LARPing doesn’t attract a devoted fanbase separate from the participants themselves, a fanbase that pores over box scores and buys clubhouse tell-alls and whiles away workhours on blogs. Partly it’s because LARPers are geeks, sure, but maybe it’s also because LARPing is explicitly a form of escapism, an alternate reality, something that only takes place at a set aside time and place. When the Battle for Darkon ends, you’re not in the Bloody Axe Mercenary Company anymore, you’re a periodontist.***

When the game ends, an athlete’s persona persists. The drama of sports doesn’t only happen during the game, and off-field stories are as central to our fascination as the action itself. Check out this NFL Films feature on Philadelphia Eagles safety Brian Dawkins (and be forewarned if you watch this: it is 10 minutes long, it is awesome, and you will probably cry):

There are so many things to comment on in that video. Speaking in tongues? Conversing with the football?! Like Michael Jackson before he went crazy?!? The focus is on Dawkins’ gameday transformation into his alter-ego, the animalistic Weapon-X. But in setting up this dichotomy, the video also points out Dawkins’ other persona, the thing from which he transforms. His mild-mannered, clean-living “true” self is, in every way, as important to the story of his transformation as the thing which he becomes. Without it, he’s just John Henderson–with it, he’s something else entirely. As the long-time reader who sent me that link ably put it,

I think it’s true that he’s able to be as good as he is by creating a superhero for himself to inhabit completely unselfconsciously. But what I respect most about him and the whole act is that he has a meta understanding of his role in the larger narrative of sports and the lives of fans – something that seems to elude 99% of athletes who are not professional wrestlers. That it does fans a disservice for our characters to be bland cliche-machines – and that even villains like T.O., whether he takes the role intentionally or not, are completely necessary to enhance our enjoyment of the game.

I agree totally, though I’d guess that Brian Dawkins doesn’t view what he does as an act, which makes it all the more awesome and also brings us to my final point. It strikes me that one way to measure an athlete’s greatness is to measure the commitment to his or her persona. Like, for instance, Andy Kaufman was so utterly devoted to maintaining his persona of never revealing what was real and what was a joke that to this day, going on 25 years after the fact, some of his friends think he faked his own death, and he’s just hiding out somewhere, waiting to make his hilarious return. Similarly, Jon Stewart often claims he’s only a comedian and shouldn’t be expected to hold public figures to account; Stephen Colbert would never admit this, because the character “Stephen Colbert” fully believes that he is a legitimate political pundit.

Which athletes show this level of commitment? Michael Jordan was not only the best basketball player ever, he was also also was totally convinced he was the best basketball player–absolutely nothing could ever lessen his commitment to that view of himself. You could probably say the same about Sam Cassell, despite the pretty incontrovertible fact that he is not the best basketball player. Chances are Kobe Bryant believes he truly is a cold-blooded assassin, while it might take a pre-game pep talk in front of a locker room mirror for Vince Carter to convince himself of that. Maybe this is the difference between the merely gifted and the truly great.

*I debated just going with “personas” here, but the more pretentious version suits my own persona better.

**I’m talking like romantic, Germanic Irony here, a la Schlegel, who wrote, “(Irony)contains and arouses a sense of the indissoluble antagonism between the absolute and the relative, between the impossibility and the necessity of complete communication.” Ironically, Schlegel was kinda chubby.

***There are those who would argue these are one and the same thing. Rimshot!


Wherever you come from, Whosoever you be

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, to all the lads and lasses.


The Dissent of Man

It was Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday or whatever last Thursday. Today, Darwin is, of course, known primarily as the namesake of the underwater data-retrieval dolphin from SeaQuest DSV. But he also made a significant contribution to science.

This contribution was what Darwin called, in On the Origin of Species, natural selection. In retrospect, the correctness of natural selection seems so indisputably obvious–more or less–that it’s difficult to believe it was once considered so earth-shaking. After all, as Darwin pointed out at the time, your average pig farmer had a pretty strong intuitive understanding of the process by which favorable hereditary traits grow more common in successive generations.

That natural selection was earth-shaking was due not only to what Darwin proposed, but how he arrived at the proposition. Naturalists before Darwin held a certain ideal in their minds, and then scoured the globe to find examples of that ideal. Flora and fauna was sorted and sifted according to how closely they resembled the preconceived ideal. The more naturalists focused on cataloging similarities, the more orderly the world seemed, and the more orderly the world seemed, the stronger they believed their initial ideal to be true.

Darwin’s singular insight was that variations are much more important than similarities. In fact, Darwin realized, what others considered the most basic taxonomical unit of nature–the species–didn’t really exist at all. There was no firm, constant category called “finch,” there was only a fluid, variable “finchness.”

Point being that Darwin was paying attention to something everyone else–again, more or less–disregarded. While others focused on the purpose behind an adaptation, Darwin was interested in its function. It was this shift of conceptual focus that enabled him to eventually deduce the biological mechanism at the heart of evolution.

All this came to mind–really, it did!–while reading The No-Stats All-Star, Michael Lewis’s profile of Shane Battier. Lewis has built a career investigating those people who, like Darwin, achieved some unlikely success by valuing what others ignore and ignoring what others value. It’s come to be known as the Moneyball approach, but it’s apparent in The New New Thing, The Blind Side, and his recent articles uncovering the origins of the financial crisis. Lewis typically writes really, really engrossing narratives that do a good job making you, the reader, interested in the nerds featured therein while still remaining faithful to the essential nerdiness that motivates their pursuits.

I say typically because, in the case of Battier’s profile, Lewis kinda misses his mark. For a story about the hidden truth of overlooked stats, Lewis seems to play it a bit loosey goosey with the facts. Lewis suggests that Battier, an unsung role player, confers on whatever team he plays for “some magical ability to win”, and cited as evidence the improvement of the Grizzlies over Battier’s first to third season with the team, and the 18-win gain the Rockets experienced the year they acquired Battier in exchange for the draft rights to Rudy Gay. Lewis totally omits the fact that Battier’s playing-time steadily declined over his first three years in Memphis, and that the “improvement” in Houston was more likely just a return to form after a disappointing year in which the team’s two best players, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, combined to miss nearly 40% of the season due to injury.

Lewis did something similar in Moneyball. In extolling Billy Beane’s sabremetric-influenced scouting and drafting philosophy, Lewis downplayed the effect that Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson–all hitting their peak at the same time–had on the A’s overall success. The omission wasn’t that damaging to the book, though–in a way, it actually ended up further underscoring the constraints Beane operated under, and the brilliance of his response. Even with three Cy Young-caliber pitchers, he still needed to maximize the usage of his scant resources to even compete. It suggested that any apparent advantage is so temporary and ephemeral–so random–that adopting a strategy that merely maintains that advantage is no better than squandering it.

The No-Stats All-Star doesn’t overcome Lewis’s oversights or manipulations or whatever. It seems like, for once, Lewis has fallen into the trap of the pre-Darwin naturalists: He first constructed a story, and then found facts to support it. In making the argument that the traditional box score hides a player’s true value, Lewis ends up doing the same to Battier.

This isn’t to say that Battier isn’t a good player. He is pretty clearly useful, and a fuller understanding of his usefulness could be of great value to the league. One of the most interesting aspects of the article is the examination of Battier’s extreme unselfishness. Professional team sports are plagued by what I’m told economists call the Principal-Agent Problem. The problem arises whenever a principal–let’s just say, the Knicks–contracts an agent–call him Zack Randolph–to execute the principal’s agenda. The Knicks (presumably) want to win, so naturally they pay for the best players they can. But Zebo knows he is judged by individual stats, not wins, so he has no incentive to help the team unless it also helps himself. The principal and the agent’s interests are incompatible.  Developing a more robust statistical vocabulary for a player’s usefulness may go a long way to bridging this gap.

Another thing of note from the article was the brief mention of the Rockets’ scrutiny of other teams’ strategies. If the Rockets notice that another team’s tendencies mirror the ones the Rocket’s have identified as valuable–like three-point shooting from the corner–then the Rockets are given a clue that that team shares their approach. This solves one of the shortcomings of the statistical analysis of sports–small sample size. By recognizing and paying attention to likeminded teams, the Rockets are increasing the data points with which to test their theories. It also gives them a sort of distributed research tool–the Spurs, for instance, might not share their data with the Rockets, but they can’t hide their on-court tendencies. A smart team should be able to discern the Spurs’ philosophy, and in essence reverse-engineer it.

So yeah, the Rockets–or at least the Rockets as portrayed by Lewis–don’t seem to have the keys to the kingdom just yet. But the real lesson to be learned, the one that Lewis when at his best explains better than anyone, is that those who think they have the key to the kingdom usually use it to lock themselves inside. The secret to competitive advantages is that they are in a way subject to a kind of uncertainty principle–as soon as they are identified, they disappear.  By the time Moneyball was published, OBP was more properly valued in the baseball community, and Beane had to move on to some new undervalued asset–defense, youth, moustaches. There is no end to the search.


Thanks?

When asked, usually by Craig Sager and his weaponized haberdashery, what makes All-Star weekend such a special event, to a man every player said it was the chance to do something meaningful for the fans.

Which is so nice, you know? That these guys would take time out of their busy schedules to play a basketball game just so we could watch? I mean, that’s really, really thoughtful.


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