The end of the baseball season is traumatic for me, except for those few years that ended in Boston Red Sox championships, and those two golden glow seasons (1967 and 1975), when the team lost at the end but fought such a good fight that it felt like they had won. In my house we refer to the days between the end of the World Series and the beginning of Spring Training as The Dark Time.
On the plus side, I have about three more hours every day to do something productive.
For the second consecutive year, baseball ended with an ethics conundrum in its final game. Last night, as the Kansas City Royals battled back from a late deficit again (they had done so in the previous game as well) to take the Series four games to one,against the New York Mets at Citi Field, the topics were trust, courage, leadership, and most of all, consequentialism. The latter is to baseball as apple pie—or baseball— is to America.
Let me set the stage. The Royals, having stolen the previous game from the Mets’ grasp by an unlikely 8th inning rally (the Mets lost one game all season when they were leading in the 8th; they lost two such games in this five game series). With their backs against the wall (on the short end of a 3-1 game tally, the Mets had to win last night to avoid elimination), the New York sent their ace, the remarkable Matt Harvey, to the mound to do what aces do: win. Harvey had it all last night. After eight innings, the Royals hadn’t scored. Harvey looked fresh in the eighth, and got the Royals out without surrendering a baserunner.
All season long, with a close game after eight innings, Mets manager Terry Collins would tell his starter to take a seat and let his closer finish the game. This is standard practice now: complete games by starting pitchers are a rarity. Once, not too long ago, the league leader in that category would be in double figures. Now the top is usually about five. Moreover, nobody cares. The best teams have 9th inning specialists who almost never lose one-run leads, much less two, and the Mets had a great one, Jeurys Familia.
After Harvey’s dominant eighth, the Fox cameras recorded the drama unfolding in the Mets dugout. Collins’ pitching coach told Harvey that his night was done and Familia, as usual, would close out the game. Harvey pushed past the coach to confront his manager, passionately. Let me finish it, he insisted. The game is mine.
Managers love hearing a pitcher say these things, and since managers are older than players, they remember the time when nobody counted pitches and the greatest hurlers regarded “finishing what they started” as a badge of honor. Harvey had been dominant and didn’t seem tired; he had carried his team on his back, and had only thrown 100 pitches. He had plenty in the tank. Collins decided that Matt Harvey had a right to be on the mound when the final out of his own masterpiece was recorded and the Mets earned the chance to play another game. The manager relented.
Harvey had walked only one batter through eight, but he walked the first batter in the ninth. Then the next batter hit a screaming line drive to left field, a double, putting the tying runs in scoring position with no outs. Now Collins pulled Harvey for Familia, who gave up no more hits. Yet the two runners scored anyway—Kansas City’s players run the bases like their hair is on fire—and the game was tied. Three innings later, in the twelfth, the Royals scored five runs to become baseball’s 2015 World Champions.
You can guess the rest. This morning Mets fans and everyone else is saying that Terry Collins is an idiot, including Terry Collins. Of course he should have brought in Familia to close out the game: look what happened! “I got sentimental,” said Collins.
Collins may be an idiot, but this call didn’t prove it. If he had brought in his closer and Familia had given up the tying runs, critics would be leveling the exact same charge in different terms. THis is a hind-sight bias playground. “Why take out a starter who was unhittable in a win-or-perish game? Just because it’s what is usually done? This isn’t a usual game, it’s the World Series! Who’s the best pitcher on the team? Harvey! What pitcher do you know is at his best? Harvey! What did the Royals think when they knew he wouldn’t pitch the ninth? “Thank GOD! Now we at least have a chance.”
Collins might as well have flipped a coin. There was nothing wrong with his decision when he made it, which is all that matters. The only thing wrong with his decision was that it didn’t work. That’s pure consequentialism, defining the rightness or wrongness of a decision based on results entirely beyond the control of the decision-maker.
One could, and some have, make a legitimate critique of how Collins made the decision. He decided to pull Harvey, and let Harvey talk him out of it. Wishy-washy leadership, right? On the surface this is the kind of weak leadership that I have criticized in Rick Grimes, the alleged leader of the zombie-fighters in “The Walking Dead.” In past seasons, he has wavered or retreated after any decision that is faced with opposition (now he’s a psychopath, so that’s not as much of a problem). Collins’ duty was to his team, not Matt Harvey.
This, however, was a different situation. Collins trusted Harvey and had every reason to continue to trust him when the pitcher said, “Let me pitch, and I’ll win the game.” This is akin my favorite moment in “Hoosiers,” when the underdog high school basketball team, needing one bucket to win an epic state championship, meets with its mentoring coach (Gene Hackman) during the final time-out. The coach outlines a play using his superstar, Jimmy Chitwood, as a decoy: another player will take the final, must-make shot. Then Jimmy, after an awkward pause, looks this coach, who has has insisted in absolute obedience from his players at all times, squarely in the eyes and says, “I’ll make it.”
It shows excellent judgement and leadership to take such an assertion by a respected subordinate as new and crucial data. It takes humility and courage for a leader to accept the possibility that his initial decision was not the best one, and trust a dedicated individual to take great responsibility upon himself when he has the ability and track record to do so.
Jimmy made the shot, Harvey failed. That’s all. It could have gone the other way (except that Jimmy has a script making sure it didn’t.)
Terry Collins proved to me that he was a real leader last night. He made a good decision. It just didn’t work.