Monday, March 31, 2003
Surrounded by one brilliant mind after another
By Rob Neyer
In baseball, the most staid American game, revolutions don't come along often; roughly speaking, every 20 or 30 years.
Organized baseball's first revolution came in 1901, when the American League gave the National League its first serious competition for the hearts of the fans and the services of the best players.
Its second revolution came in the 1920s, when Babe Ruth showed everyone that baseball could be about power as much as finesse.
Its third revolution came in the late 1940s, when Jackie Robinson burst through, in spectacular fashion, a color line that had stood since the 1880s.
Its fourth revolution came in the 1970s, when an arbitrator's decision resulted in some players finally gaining the right to play for whichever team they liked.
Each of these was met with both resistance and fear, but each was eventually accepted -- sometimes grudgingly, sometimes lovingly -- and each can still be seen on the field today, every day.
Baseball's fifth revolution has just begun.
Or, rather, it's just begun in earnest.
A few weeks ago, while sitting in a Scottsdale hotel, I saw a couple of strange things. Outside, I saw an emerald-green golf course in the desert. Inside, I saw an array of incredibly bright people, nearly all of them professors (or near-professors) from some of our nation's finest universities. Included among this group were the University of Chicago's Richard Thaler (who wrote The Winner's Curse), Cornell's Tom Gilovich (How We Know What Isn't So), and a bunch of other fellows who made me feel dumber than an apprentice in a flea circus.
The golf course was strange because ... well, because building -- or, more precisely, irrigating -- a golf course in the desert would be against the law in a world that made just slightly more sense. And all those professors were strange because 1) they were arrayed to discuss sports, among all things, and 2) they'd invited me, the college dropout, to discuss sports with them. Specifically, sports decision-making (and I'll have more to say about this conference in a future column).
I should hasten to mention that it wasn't just the professors and me. Bill James was also there, and Billy Beane showed up for a few hours (and just in the nick of time, as he livened up what was becoming a tedious session spearheaded by yours truly). As you probably know, both James and Beane are employed by American League baseball franchises.
Of course, you already know that James' Red Sox and Beane's Athletics are doing things that most other teams aren't doing. If I have to read another article this spring about the Red Sox bullpen, I'm going to burn my BBWAA membership card.
Well, I would if I had one.
The problem isn't with the articles, per se. They're fine, with their "Yeah, maybe it'll work but let's be sure and consult Tony La Russa because he's the smartest man in the world" approach. Journalism by the numbers (and I can say that because I've done more than my fair share). No, the problem is that stories about the Red Sox's bullpen -- or the Red Sox's bevy of first basemen, or the Athletics' ability to reload, year after year -- miss a significantly bigger, more interesting story.
What's really interesting isn't that the Red Sox are trying something different with their bullpen. What's really interesting is why the Red Sox are trying something different with their bullpen, and what else they might try. Because if you think Theo Epstein and his growing brain trust are going to stop at bullpens and first basemen, you've got some big surprises ahead.
There are, today, baseball executives who are actively seeking guidance from brilliant men from other disciplines and professions. This is happening, in large part, because the new breed of baseball executives is both incredibly bright and incredibly educated, and so they're not intimidated by other people who are incredibly bright and incredibly educated.
I'm not suggesting that the "traditional baseball man" isn't bright. Of course he's bright. I've spoken to a dozen traditional baseball men in the last year, and I can report that not one of them wasn't bright.
But there's bright and there's bright. Knock-your-socks-off bright. Paul DePodesta is that kind of bright, and so is Theo Epstein. I'll stop there because I don't want to make a big list and miss somebody, but they're out there and they know who they are.
Do you know how to spot those guys, the ones who knock your socks off? They're the ones who tell you they still know just a tiny bit of what they want to know, the ones who think they've still got plenty to learn and aren't afraid of going out and looking for what they want to know.
Most baseball executives, even the bright ones, don't want to try anything new, because new is hard. Instead, their goal is to do things the way they've always been done ... but better. And that can work. Both of 2002's World Series teams were (and are) run by men who have little use for this newfangled objective analysis that everybody's writing about, and it's hard to argue with their results. If you do it well enough and you get lucky enough, it can work.
Which is, of course, true of just about any approach. But everybody can't be the best and the luckiest, and there's an advantage to being among the first to figure this out.
Today marks my eighth season writing about baseball for ESPN.com (or its predecessor, the ill-named ESPNet SportsZone). A few of you have been around for the previous seven seasons, and I think most of you would agree that I'm a better writer today than I was seven years ago.
But am I a better writer today than I was two years ago, or four? I'm not at all sure that I am, and that worries me. I still love baseball as much as ever. I still love going to the ballpark, I still love sitting down to watch nine innings on TV between two last-place teams, and I still love a good game of catch. What I don't love is that I find myself writing the same columns over and over again. I mean, let's be honest: does anybody really need me to tell them that it's stupid to sign mid-level players to long-term contracts for big money? Does anybody really need me to tell them that spending first-round draft picks on high-school pitchers is just this side of gross negligence?
Actually, if you follow baseball at all, you know that the answer to these questions is, unfortunately, still "Yes!" But that doesn't mean you're not tired of reading them or that I'm not tired of writing them.
Which isn't to say that I won't write more of them. Writing three or four completely original columns every week probably isn't impossible, but it's beyond the powers of most of us, and I'm no better than most.
Fortunately, a revolution is in the works. What I'd like to do this season, from time to time, is report on this revolution. Whether it's actually baseball's fifth revolution, as I argued earlier, is beside the point; maybe it's really the fourth or the sixth or the eighth. The point is that something truly interesting is happening, and we're lucky enough to be here to see it.
Now all we have to do is pay attention.
Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season. His e-mail address is email@example.com.