Frequent readers here know that I often inveigh against consequentialism in its various forms, from labeling sound decisions “mistakes” when they don’t pan out due to uncontrollable factors, to pronouncing unethical conduct as ethical because it chanced to have some beneficent results. This particular hydra seems to be a tough one to kill, and one of the reasons is, I realize, the pervasiveness of sports in our culture.
Reflecting on sporting contests, particularly those involving teams, routinely generates hindsight bias on the part of fans and sports commentators….for one thing, it’s fun to second guess managers and coaches from the safety of an armschair or from behind a computer screen. Unfortunately, the practice endorses consequentialism. Decisions that result in a win are seldom criticized, no matter how moronic or misguided they may have been; tactics that ended in defeat are always called “mistakes,” or worse.
The baseball post-season began yesterday. We won’t see a World Series game until October is almost over, but there was a time, children, long ago, before divisions and the designated hitter, before steroids and ESPN, when in major league baseball, the World Series was the post season. This was the case 45 years ago, in 1968, when the Detroit Tigers, who had clobbered the American League competition on the way to a 103-59 record, including the last 30 game-winning season by any pitcher, turned in by Denny McLain. They were about to face the reigning baseball champions from 1967, the NL’s St. Louis Cardinals, led by future Hall of Famers Lou Brock, Orlando Cepeda, and Bob Gibson. Both were veteran teams and well-balanced; there was every reason to believe that each had a good chance at victory. Certainly, neither was in need of any last-minute overhaul.
Nonetheless, Tigers manager Mayo Smith decided to take a gamble. After the Tigers had locked up first place in the 10-team AL (no divisions in 1968, the last such season, as expansion loomed for 1969), Smith took his excellent centerfielder, Mickey Stanley, and moved him to shortstop for the final 9 games of the season, with the intent of playing the outfielder in the most important defensive position on the field in the World Series, though Stanley had never played the position before. You will read retrospective accounts that the manager did this with confidence because Stanley was a good athlete, as if that’s an explanation. It’s a ridiculous explanation—it makes no more sense that saying someone should be made President of the United States because he was an effective community organizer.
Outfield to shortstop switches are never tried—literally never, before 1968 or after—because they never work. Infielders are sometimes switched to the outfield, because the outfield is easier to play, but the other direction (unless it’s to first base, which can be mastered by most outfielders) is universally regarded as a recipe for disaster. In 1973, for example, the Boston Red Sox tried perennial Gold Glove left fielder Carl Yastrzemski at third during a pennant race out of desperation—the team had nobody to play there. Yaz had played shortstop in the minors, and was at least the athlete Mickey Stanley was in 1968, but he flopped terribly—and third base is an easier position than short. Outfield to short? Unheard of. Outfield to short for the most important part of the season with only 9 games of preparation? Insanity. Malpractice, in fact.
You will read various explanations for Smith’s decision. Admittedly, Ray Oyler,the Tiger shortstop in 1968, was a certifiably pathetic hitter, though he could field at short with the best of them. Oyler hit only .135 that year, which tells you something about how good the rest of the Tiger line-up was. He needed to be replaced, but it was obvious that he needed to be replaced by June; the fact that Oyler was still the regular shortstop in late September is further confirmation of Smith’s managerial ineptitude. 1968 was the modern nadir for offense in baseball, but even in that freakish season (Yaz was the only .300 hitter in the American League ), finding a competent shortstop who could field adequately and hit over .200 would not have been difficult….the minor leagues had several of them, and so did the benches of teams inferior to Detroit. If Smith thought–as he should have—that replacing Oyler was a priority, the time to do it was when it became first obvious that the man could not hit, not at the end of the season, not in the World Series, and not with a neophyte taking over the position.
The reason usually given for Smith’s switch, however, is that he had four regular outfielders, and only three places to play them. This was true, because the one future Hall of Famer on the team, right fielder Al Kaline, had been injured for the middle months of the season, when the Tigers were running away with first place. But the point is that the Tigers did run away: the team’s offense was by far the best in the league, and there was no pressing need to stuff the line-up with an extra hitter at the price of playing an amateur shortstop and replacing him in center with a rightfielder, which is where 1968’s regular on the Tigers, Jim Northrup, was pushed when Kaline took over his usual job in right.
The third rationale for the Oyler-Stanley-Northrup-Kaline merry-go-round, and I believe the predominant one, was that Mayo Smith was an old softie, and believed that All-Time Tiger great Al Kaline deserved the chance to finally play in a World Series at his usual position, every game, and if he had to disrupt a winning line-up and scar team defense to do it, so be it: Al was special. It was sentimental, idiotic, rash and irresponsible reasoning. Smith’s duty was to win the World Series, not to make Al Kaline feel good. In distorting his winning formula to accommodate Kaline, Mayo Smith put an individual player’s interests above those of a team, a league and a city.
Evaluated at the time Smith moved Stanley to shortstop, the gambit was indefensible. Going up against the best team in baseball (other than the Tigers), Smith placed risky, inexperienced and inferior fielders in the two most crucial defensive positions on the field, to bolster an offense that didn’t need bolstering. Perhaps worse, he didn’t make his decision until it was too late to adequately test it under game conditions, before the most pressure-packed and difficult test of all, a World Series.
History shows that Mayo Smith lucked out. The Tigers won the 1968 Series in seven games, thanks to the heroics of #2 starting pitcher Mickey Lolich. As a result, Smith, who was anything but brilliant, was and is hailed for making a brilliant managerial move. An ESPN pre-21st Century list of the “Greatest Coaching Decisions” of the 20th Century had the Stanley to shortstop move listed at #4, only a couple of slots below the New York Yankees’ decision to make an outfielder out of a chubby left-handed pitcher named Babe Ruth. This is classic consequentialism. The Tigers won in 1968 in spite of Smith’s boneheaded ploy, not because of it. If Northrup had failed to catch a crucial ball that Mickey Stanley, the superior center fielder, would have snagged, or if Stanley had botched a double-play because of his unfamiliarity with the position and it had led to a Series-changing rally by the Cardinals, Smith’s “great decision” would have been remembered as an epic example of incompetence….which it was.
His reputation was rescued by luck, a remarkable performance by Stanley, Lolich, and consequentialism. As a result, he made our culture just a little bit more unethical. Don’t bet against another managerial decision this October doing the same.