Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Blame it on Topps

We used to scale baseball cards in summer camp, during rest hour, or before lights out, or maybe when the softball game got rained out and they hadn't figure out an organized activity for us at the rec hall.  One game was played by putting a baseball cap upside down on the floor. We'd take turns.  The first who got their card into the cap was the winner.  Another game was closest to the wall.  The card would slide a bit after it first hit the floor, so you had to account for that.  And sometimes it would bounce, especially if you scaled it hard.  Getting a leaner was awesome.  Mostly. the winning card wound up several inches from the wall.

The proper motion for scaling was a combination of a mediocre tennis backhand and a wrist flick.  Like any physical activity, you get better at it with practice.  But there was a price to pay for that.  The edges and sharp corners of the card would become dull.  If you had a Mickey Mantle or a Sandy Koufax you wouldn't use it for scaling.  You'd use a Phil Linz or a Jesse Gonder.

We did also read the backs of the baseball cards.  When you had finished your comic book and written your post card to your parents and it was still supposed to be quiet time, what else was there to do?  Lots of factoids were acquired this way.   And you'd learn about players you'd never see play.  This was before the Game of the Week and before I read a newspaper.  The only baseball I watched on TV then was the World Series.  There was so much more that was invisible to me except for the baseball cards.  So I learned about Chico Salmon this way and that one season he batted 307, really excellent for a player most people never heard of. 

Baseball cards taught us rudimentary statistics and may have been one reason why boys were better at math in school.  They built an affinity for the national pastime, one where we kids had to insert the narrative to explain the numbers.  They also distorted things in some cases.  I remember a Bob Clemente instead of a Roberto Clemente card.  And I remember that on the Bob Gibson card the nickname was Hoot, instead of Gibby.  Wikipedia says both are nicknames.  My guess is that his fellow players called him Gibby and that the Hoot named emerged as a way to make him appear less menacing to a white fan base. 

* * * * *

I've only read one piece as of late on the A-Rod fiasco that resonated with me.  The rest have felt like self-flagellation.  I tell myself not to read the next one, but then later I do, hoping to find a framing that as a fan I can live with, knowing that as an economist I've got a pretty good handle on the concept called "moral hazard."  The compulsion did lead me to read Doug Glanville's latest,  Though Glanville was a player he was a fan first, as a kid, and it's written from that perspective.

Glanville's essential point is that all our romantic attachments are analog in concept.  What we remember about baseball has a texture and feel.  So I recall the very first baseball game I went to as an eight-year old kid, at the Polo Grounds, the temporary home of the Mets until Shea Stadium was built.  We sat under an overhang and there were posts that obscured our view.  We each got a Mets baseball cap to wear.  Somebody from the deck above dropped his hot dog and mustard got onto my cap.

Or you remember near impossible excellence and not just from the star players.  In 1969 during the World Series with the Miracle Mets, Ron Swoboda laid out and made a fantastic catch.  Though it probably was Tommy Agee's defense that was the real difference maker, that play with Swoboda made you feel like the Gods favored the New York club.

And I remember that I felt I was witnessing complete stupidity with Pete Rose barreling into Ray Fosse during the All Star game, substantially diminishing Fosse's career.   (At around that time I also remember gong to Forest Hills and getting close enough to the players to hear them cursing before and after points.  I came to the conclusion that to be a winner you also had to be an asshole, especially if you weren't the most talented.)  I don't want to give the impression that all the romance is about beauty.  Some of it is about horror.  The mixture of the two is what really grabs us.

Glanville then argues that while some numbers are iconic and therefore contribute to the romance (Babe Ruth's home run records, the number on Jackie Robinson's uniform) digitizing what is at core analog creates distortions that are bad for the game.  The focus of the fans, the players, and the owners moves away from the romance in favor of what can be counted.

We see this in benign form in the endless arguments about who belongs in the Hall of Fame.  From my perspective what has emerged is a "rectangle theory,"  where longevity is the base and performance is the height, and where it takes sufficient area to get you into the Hall.  Bursts of fantastic performance don't do it, whether followed by death (Thurman Munson) a career ending injury (Mark Fidrych) or a lesser injurty that reduces performance (Ron Guidry, Frank Tanana, Don Mattingly), other debilitating causes such as cocaine addiction (Vida Blue, Daryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden), or simply regression to the mean (Roger Maris).  Each of these players was at the very top, if but for a brief period of time.  None are in the Hall.  Sandy Koufax is the exception that proves the rule, and he won 3 Cy Young awards in a four year period, during which time he was without doubt the dominant pitcher in baseball.  Paul Molitor is closer to the norm, a very good player who played for more than twenty years.  He never won the MVP while his sidekick, Robin Yount, won it twice.  But Molitor has over 3300 career hits.  That's an automatic admission ticket to the Hall.

The more pernicious aspect of the focus on numbers is using it to manipulate revenue, for the players and for the owners.  With population growth it is sensible for teams to migrate (to where markets are bigger) and for MLB as a whole to expand, which in living memory first happened in 1961.  Expansion has been accompanied by an increase in the number of games.  In 1961 they went to a 162-game season.  Previously, they had a 154-game season.  The motive for this may have been benign - keep a balanced (and therefore fair) schedule.  In an eight-team league there are seven other teams.  Playing each of them 22 games gives 154 in total and allows an equal number of home and away games between each pair of clubs.  Do note that while the American League had 10 teams in 1961, the National League only made that move a year later.  So it had a year of unbalanced scheduling.  With a ten-team league, thee are nine other teams.  Playing each of them 18 games gives 162 games.

With further expansion there was a move to a division structure that necessitated playoff games.  The season remained at 162 games.  Some of this must have been for revenue reasons.  When there were two six-team divisions in each league, one gets to 162 games by playing 18 games with each team in the division (playing each of the five teams 18 games gives a total of 90 games within the division) and 12 games with each team in the other division (playing each of the six teams 12 games gives a total of 72 games outside the division).  But, for example, instead they could have moved to 20 games with each team in the division and 10 games for each team outside the division, retained balance and shortened the season by two games.  Or they could have made the schedule unbalanced in some ways, as the NFL must do out of necessity.  A couple of the revenue considerations that I'm aware of are other teams liking when the Yankees to come to town, as their presence tended to boost attendance, and any reduction in games for teams that don't make the playoffs obviously lessens their revenue.

Layer on top of this a view of players as a type of capital, which can depreciate with overuse.  PEDs can then be taken as a kind of maintenance, one that increases the ROI for the owners.  For this reason alone I believe the owners' attitude early on was a wink and a nod to PEDs, part of the cost of doing business, nothing more.  I believe that if the fans had a more benign view of PEDs, this would continue to be how the owners think of the issue. 

Before Jose Canseco, the two ballplayers I remember as really muscular were Dick Allen and Reggie Jackson.  Hank Aaron, Willi Mays, and Mickey Mantle all were quite strong, obviously, but they didn't convey an image of a body builder.  Harmon Killebrew was muscular but also kind of chunky.  Allen and Jackson were muscular and trim.  Moreover, Allen started the trend of wearing a long sleeve black undershirt even when it was very hot out - both to keep his muscles limber and to intimidate the opposing pitcher.  Jackson followed in this practice.  I believe Jim Rice was another guy who did this but George Foster did not.  And I don't think strength training became a big deal in baseball till Canseco and McGwire. (Frank Thomas was another guy in the Allen and Jackson mold, and supposedly did not take PEDs, so the old approach coexisted with the new one.)

But I believe PEDs was a big deal in other sports earlier.  For example, Efrem Winters, star forward of the 1983-84 Illini Basketball team, added "30 pounds of muscle" for the following season.  He looked much bulkier and one suspects he used PEDs that summer.  He was never as good again, though the had an ankle injury during the NCAA Tournament in 1984 and that might have been the cause for his diminished mobility later.  And in football, both the NFL and college, where strength training has long been part of the game, my guess is that PEDs use was rampant and still is.  The point here is that it is not at all surprising the PEDS entered baseball, more or less at the same time that strength training became an important part of player preparation.

What was less predictable is how fan attitudes about PEDs have changed over time.  In the summer of 1998 most fans were implicitly for PEDs, in the sense that they cared about player performance first and foremost.  That was the year of the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.  It saved baseball in bringing fans back to the ballpark after having the strike from a few years earlier.  Fans had been disgusted with the strike and attendance suffered afterward.  McGwire and Sosa brought a new fascination to the game.  Yet the fans must have guessed at the role PEDs were playing in this.  For his part McGwire did not make a secret of his use of Androstenedione, which was sold over the counter.  And McGwire had been a player in the Harmon Killebrew mold, pretty much from the get go.  Sosa didn't have the history with home runs.  But Wrigley Field has a special place in the hearts of most fans.  So when something magical was happening there, most of them were willing to overlook the inconsistency.  Further, both McGwire and Sosa played it perfectly with the media by enjoying each other's performance.  Everyone had fun with it.

I think fan attitudes started to change with Barry Bonds.  He had been a 30-30 guy and a perennial All-Star before PEDs.  So the change in his performance after was much more startling than with Sosa.  Further, it appeared he moved to PEDs as a reaction to McGwire and Sosa and all the attention they were getting.  Bonds wanted the spotlight for himself.  So his manipulation was much more overt to the fans.  Then he was surly to the press and generally not likeable (unless you were a Giants fan).

For me I think the turning point was learning that Rafael Palmeiro had used steroids.  He did not look "puffy" like Bonds or McGwire.  He looked built like an ordinary guy.  If that could happen, fans would have no way of knowing.  The duplicity could then be entirely covert if not for an effective drug test.  We fans may not mind the beahvior if we're in on it.  It only becomes cheating in our minds if we don't know about it in advance.  Ken Caminiti may have also contributed to my disillusionment, though I don't recall when I learned he had taken steroids (well after his MVP season in 1996). 

Now let's bring in the big money that players can get when they are free agents and yet think of Glanville's romantic vision of the game at the same time.  If you fall in love but then feel jilted the resulting emotion is anger, lots of anger.  The same behavior that once saved the sport now appears like the straw that broke the camel's back.

And with A-Rod, in particular, all this has coalesced into a monstrosity.  The unsaid reason why the Yankees originally took him was because he had a reasonable chance to break Hank Aaron's careeer home run record.  The Yankees were already loaded with power hitters and Joe Torre seemed to have more affinity for Gary Sheffield, who was acquired at approximately the same time.  So the Yankees didn't "need" A-Rod to win on the field.  Rather, in the House that Ruth Built they wanted to make more history.  So the Yankees were clearly chasing the numbers.  A-Rod understood completely that his market value was tied to this and why he was able to obtain a ridiculously long contract when it was renewed in December 2007.   Implicitly, the Yankees did not want to get into a bidding war if and when A-Rod neared Aaron's record.

There is a question, if only the money mattered to A-Rod, why he didn't go cold turkey on the PEDs after that contract was signed.  If you believe in rationality then either he thought he could completely manipulate the reality as perceived by the fans or, even if he felt there was some risk of being caught, he couldn't bear the idea of seeming to be just an ordinary player.  Of course, if your normal practice is to delude others it may very well be that you end up deluding yourself, so a rationality assumption should be brought into question. 

Romance emerges from serendipity.  In using the numbers to recreate some semblance you get Frankenstein's monster instead.  It is not a comforting lesson.  But maybe it will keep us from making the same mistake, at least for a while.

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