Where Have You Gone, Ernest Hemingway? Of Baseball, Tanking, Winning, Trying, And Life…

This essay is only incidentally about baseball, but like so many things that sieve through my brain, it was sparked by a conversation about baseball. On the satellite radio MLB channel, one of the interchangeable hosts—I really have trouble telling them apart: some are ex-general managers who nobody will hire, some are ex-players, and a few are sportswriters, but they all seem to say the same things, though one says them with a bilateral lisp—was interviewing a New York sportswriter. That alone would normally prompt me to switch to the Beatles Channel (or the weather), but as I reached for the dial I caught one of the writer’s comments. He was talking about the fact that the New York Yankees’ opponent at the time, the Tampa Bay Rays, were almost a .500 team, and were competing despite a tiny payroll, unlike many other teams this year, which have adopted the controversial strategy of fielding cheap and crummy teams (called “tanking’) in the hopes of getting high draft choices as a reward for  miserable won-lost records.

“I guess you have to admire the Rays,” he said, “though in this day and age, it makes no sense to try to be a .500 team.”

What a nauseating, unethical position, and how characteristic of the downward trend in American values and spirituality!  It makes no sense to try be a .500 team? This sentiment warps so much in American life today. It translates into the envy, resentment and anger that typical, normal, healthy Americans lug around on their souls all day because they aren’t rich like the people they see on TV, or the neighbor down the street who had wealthy parents and left him a bundle.

It makes sense for the Rays to try to be a .500 team because it means the team is doing the best it can, despite limitations beyond its control, to give its fans something to cheer and care about. It makes sense to try to be a .500 team for the same reason it makes sense to aspire to be the kind of steady, honest, hard-working middle class American who raises happy and well-adjusted children in a stable home but will never win any major awards or be the subject of features in their local newspapers. It makes sense to try to be a .500 team for the same reason it is right to work hard and well no matter what your salary, or whether you are being paid at all.

Ambition is a great motivator, as long as one understands that achieving one’s goals is often as dependent on chance and chaos as it is on industry and talent, and if you prepare yourself to be bitter about that, bitter is how you are likely to wind up.

I learned to love baseball passionately following a .500 baseball team–indeed a sub-.500 baseball team— that seemed like it would never be anything but. This was in an era where the New York Yankees literally won the pennant every year, with a rare exception now and then. The system was rigged to favor them, and had been for decades. The Boston Red Sox began every season knowing that getting to the World Series was a pipe dream, and their fans knew it too. Nevertheless, they tried. As an almost good team, they had a chance to win every game—not a great chance, when they were playing the Yankees, but a chance. Often the Sox made a good fight of it while going down: our hopes were raised, and there was that wonderful-horrible moment that is the beating heart of baseball where anything can happen from a miracle to a tragedy as the ball is hurtling toward the plate and fate’s resolution. Life is like that, and the sooner you realize and accept it, the better off you are.

The best hitters make outs 60% of the time, and the best teams still lose at least 35% of their games. The typical players and teams do worse than that, just like the typical American, indeed human being, loses a lot more often than he or she wins. The important thing, the thing that undergirds ethics, and integrity, and responsibility, and honor, is that you do the best you can, and pick yourself up when you fail, and try again. It’s not a bromide. It’s the only way to live without going crazy, becoming a serial killer, or surrendering to despair. Continue reading

Ethics Lessons From The Baseball Playoffs: Joe Madden’s Confirmation Bias

Joe Maddon...victim.

Joe Maddon…victim.

Confirmation bias is the most pernicious of all biases, the most natural, and the hardest one to deal with, since it is hard-wired into everyone’s brain. It is nearly indistinguishable from wisdom and experience, you see, but it is a bias nonetheless, and like all biases, makes us stupid. Confirmation bias prevents us from accepting and processing new information objectively, and leads us to see it in the light most favorable to what we already believe, sometimes when that light is decidedly dim or even non-existent.

Baseball is full of vivid ethics lessons, and the post-season, with such high-profile games and thick media coverage is annually an ethics smorgasbord, if you look hard enough. Saturday, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, widely regarded as the smartest manager in the game, showed us how confirmation bias works, and the damage it can do. Continue reading

When Your Genius Is A Dunce: The Depressing Self-Outing of Rays’ Manager Joe Madden

I trusted you, Joe. You broke my heart..

Organizations and institutions tell us a lot about themselves by the individuals they hold up as exemplary. To cite an example much on my mind these days, the conservative blogosphere’s canonization of the late Andrew Breitbart, master of the intentional half-truth, makes me dubious about its reliability and integrity. On  the other side of the spectrum, the fact that so many Democrats, and especially Democratic women, worship Bill Clinton reflects horribly on their values and tolerance for hypocrisy. Now, in the wake of Roger Clemens’ well-deserved acquittal for denying under oath acts that he almost certainly did, we have strong confirmation that a prominent individual Major League Baseball holds up as exemplifying, in the immortal and irritatingly pretentious words of “Terence Mann” about that corn field in Iowa, “all that once was good and it could be again”* is in truth an Ethics Dunce, and a big one at that. His name is Joe Madden, the American League’s 2011 Manager of the Year, and I am disappointed and depressed. (Yes, I have named Joe an Ethics Hero in the past.) Continue reading

Ethics Hero: Yankees Manager Joe Girardi

I don't believe I'm posting this.

It has come down to the final day of the season, with the (or as they are known in these parts, MY) Boston Red Sox tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the final spot in the American League playoffs. The Yankees have been dominated by the Red Sox, their long-time rivals, most of the season, while the Rays have been easier pickings. Lo and behold, it is the Yankees playing the Rays, in a game that could determine who will be the Yankees’ opponents in the League Championship series.

The game is otherwise meaningless to New York, which has already clinched a play-off berth. At this point, a play-off bound manager’s job is to decide which marginal players will be on the post-season roster, to line up his pitching, and to steer clear of injury. Asked if he was bothered that Yankee manager Joe Girardi was surely not going to oppose the Rays with his best team, Boston Manager Terry Francona shrugged. He had earned the right to use the game to prepare for the play-offs, Francona answered.

Yet here was Girardi, starting a team made up of most of his regulars, replacing his pitchers as soon as they were in peril, and generally managing the game against the Rays as if it were the final game of the World Series. Continue reading

Ethics Hero: Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon

Joe Maddon, fulfilling his duty to confront racist jerks

During a Sunday Spring Training game at Charlotte Sports Park in Florida, Tampa Bay Rays  manager Joe Maddon heard a fan berating Rays centerfielder B.J. Upton with a racial insult. Maddon summoned stadium security and had the fan thrown out of the park.

This may have happened before, but I can’t recall a similar incident. Racist catcalls and epithets are rarer at baseball games than they once were; they are far from gone. Baseball players have to endure a certain amount of abuse, true, but not this kind. Heaping racist insults on an athlete from the safety of the stands is cowardly as well as uncivil, and the First Amendment doesn’t extend to “fighting words” in a private venue.  Every manager, coach, usher and spectator should follow Madden’s lead.

The fan, by the way, denies Maddon’s account. Since baseball managers are not in the habit of ejecting fans for nothing, I find the denial less than credible.