Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ironic baseball-fan gifts

Here is a timeless lesson in Fact vs. Faith, wrapped inside a baseball debate, wrapped inside a very funny gift from my company's director of marketing:

Joe Morgan was one of the all-time great baseball players, there's no doubt about it. And as a baseball commentator on TV, he makes good observations about the minutiae of the game. This is all to his credit. But unfortunately, he also represents an irrationality and willful blindness that makes him an enemy of reason everywhere.

Because when debating the qualities that make a baseball team good or bad, Morgan soundly rejects empiricism, science, and demonstrable fact. He doesn't want to hear about statistical research; he just wants to know whether a team has "character," "chemistry," or (my favorite for its vagueness) whether it's "playing the game the right way." He's a subscriber to an age-old baseball ideology that says "find guys with the right character, and you'll find a winning baseball team." He trumpets this on every broadcast, usually taking a moment to denigrate the new trend toward Ivy League-level research into what really provides the ingredients of winning baseball.

To make a long story short, it turns out that the single best predictor of victory is the simple ability of hitters to get on base safely, by any means. The easiest and most sustainable route to getting on-base is to not swing at bad pitches and thus earn a walk. It's the No. 1 thing a team can emphasize in order to help their chances of scoring runs. This much is agreed-upon in the (admittedly nerdy and not-very-dateworthy) academic circles where baseball is studied in-depth.

Joe Morgan has a big problem with this...namely, he thinks it shows a lack of "grit" or "aggression" when a hitter is at the plate trying to earn a walk. He hates it; despises it; curses it on national TV every week of the baseball season. To him, that's not "playing the game the right way." He wants to see you swing -- and if you're not swinging at every pitch in your ZIP code, it's because you hate America. Never mind the data, he says; data is the realm of compu-dweebs, not baseball men. "Stat-head" teams are not playing to win, as far as Joe is concerned. It's like arguing evolution with a creationist.

This all makes Joe Morgan a frequent butt of my jokes, especially in work meetings where arguments are being made strictly from assumption. Co-workers usually know what's coming when I fire up my Joe Morgan speech, especially the baseball fans among them. (Cue: "This is about more than baseball, man. This affects us all, man.")

Which is what makes Shawn Roberts' recent gift so brilliant: out of the blue, he gave me a giant stack of Joe Morgan baseball cards.

That's my new collection in the photo above. (And that's not even all of it, just as many as I could fit into one frame.) I'll keep them in plain view in my office, because the old saying goes -- Know your enemy.


mom said...

oh no son, i'm afraid i'm going to have to lean on mr. morgan's side. setting aside the fact that i find baseball to be the most boring of sports (for the very reason that it has been killed by strategy and pinch runners/hitters/spitters) and stats and fact aside; earn a walk? how unoriginal, how unfun - unfun for the fans, for the batter, for the outfielders meandering out there with naught to do! Anyone can stand there and let the ball whizz by.........i want the unexpected, the passionate, the take your best shot and be happy with the try kind of game. earn a walk? PHFFFSSSTTTT i'd rather see them go down swinging and running.

Daniel Morris said...

"pinch runners/hitters/spitters" :)

I'll concede that there is an awful lot of needless spitting in baseball. It's plenty enough reason to avoid the game entirely.

mom said...

it that case i'll concede that having a good eye is definetly a requirement to be considered a great player. so, not swinging at balls within the whole ZIP code is permissable. but they better take a whack if it's a nine-digit zip.