Friday, July 24, 2009

On the "Randomness" of Baseball

I know that yesterday was perhaps the greatest day of an otherwise somnolent baseball season (it's gotten so bad that even Bill Simmons seems utterly bored with the Red Sox), and I know that, given the recent tableau of mid-summer sports stories involving perverts, virgins, zebras and Steve Spurrier, I probably should not attempt to squelch the euphoria of a perfect game being secured by a sublime ninth-inning catch,* but I cannot help myself. Because on the same afternoon, I also read this interview with Buster Olney, who is perhaps the most respected baseball writer in the country, and who was asked to opine on the probability of a legitimate salary cap in baseball:

...I don’t think there will ever be a true salary cap in Major League Baseball, not only because the union won’t necessarily go along with it, but also because teams like the Red Sox and Yankees and Mets probably don’t want it, either.
This is why Wellington Mara’s decision to put the interests of the Giants beneath those of the N.F.L. at large, decades ago, was so extraordinary. In theory, it would be good for baseball’s parity — certainly it would be good for the Blue Jays and Rays — but a lot of rival executives believe that baseball benefits from having the Cubs, Yankees, and Red Sox serve as franchises that always generate interest in the sport, no matter where they play.

So the nation's most plugged-in baseball writer is admitting that game he covers is essentially collusive and largely pre-determined. And I know this shouldn't surprise me--this is America, after all, and, as Secretary of State Trump might remind us, our nation was built on back-room collusion--but it does seem somewhat paradoxical, given what baseball has become, given the Moneyball generation's oft-comical insistence on algebraic rationality, on precision and formulaic decision-making. I do not pretend to know the precise answer to these questions, but if the entire structure of the game is essentially a sham--if five of the teams with the top six payrolls (NYY, Bos, ChC, Bos, Det**) are at or near the top of their divisions, if four of the bottom-five payrolls (Oak, Was, Pitt, SD***) are a combined 86 games under .500--well, then why should I bother to learn what VORP stands for? Why should statistical analysis mean anything at all, if the playing field itself is not inherently level****? Why shouldn't Bernie Madoff be hired as the general manager of the Washington Nationals*****?

Which I guess means that what happened yesterday--a rare and entirely unpredictable confluence of skill and luck on the south side of Chicago--is the best baseball has left to give us. And now that it's over, I can go back to dreaming of a Penn State offense being helmed by a 372-pound quarterback.

*I heard a broadcaster claim afterward that this was, in fact, the greatest catch in the history of baseball, which seemed like a hyperbolic and short-sighted statement until, off the top of my head, I tried to think of a better catch. And I could only come up with this.
**The Mets are the exception, but the Mets fans I know seem to enjoy presuming that they are the exception to every rule. I've never really understood how the fan base of a franchise that has won two World Series, produced perhaps the most memorable team of the modern era, and competes in the largest city in America (albeit in Queens) manages to portray itself as a victim of the fates. But I'm getting there.
***The Marlins are the exception, which seems appropriate, since the Marlins don't actually have any fans.
****Insert indignant steroid reference here. Also, I am aware that there is revenue sharing, but it it hasn't succeeded in changing results: Last year was only the second time since it began that a team from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston did not appear in the World Series. (Here is a very Bill Veeck-friendly idea for tweaking it, courtesy of Michael Lewis).
*****Given my ignorance toward the goings-on of the Washington baseball club, this may have already occurred without my knowledge.

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