Thursday, October 28, 2010


Many people I knew... shared a habit of mind usually credited to the very successful. They believed absolutely in their own management skills. They believed absolutely in the power of the [] numbers they had at their fingetips... I had myself for most of my life shared the same core belief in my ability to control events... [Yet] some events in life would remain beyond my ability to manage or to control."-- Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

For this Yankee fan, the end of a season invariably tinges the days that follow with an inconsolable emptiness. For six months the game's daily drama and the team's unfolding fate weaves its narrative into the fabric of life, and then, with the abruptness of death, defeat rends the thread, familiar faces recede, and the vivifying tonic that brightens the evening and crowns the day suddenly evaporates. No mourning rituals, No redemptive meaning, No residual solace. Only an aborted plot -- a deus ex machina ending to an unfinished novel.

But this year I can't but wonder whether defeat, in the end, might not serve a greater good; whether, for some within the Yankee hierarchy, it isn't justly deserved.

No, not the players, of course; their season came to a premature, unceremonious, and ill-favored end. Too many sprouted and flourished this year; too many battled and excelled; too many suffered through injuries and persevered through pain not to achieve a success short of their aspirations. The star arrival of Robinson Cano; the budding efflorescence of Hughes and Gardner; the grizzled marvels of Pettitte and Mo; the steadfast yeoman mettle of Tex and A-Rod; and the redoubtable, 300lb Atlantean pillar holding it all up, the double YES, Si Si: would that they received accolades equal to their pluck, tenacity, and splendor and to my gratitude.

In the franchise's upper reaches, however-- from the manager up to the highest echelons of its business department-- Yankee Pride, recently, has meant something more like Yankee Hubris. And if the financial executives don't account for the team's latest defeat, they certainly could benefit from the chastened reflection and withering self-scrutiny rarely stirred in its absence.

Reevaluation ought begin with the 1.5 billion dollar Colosseum and its unintended yield-- exorbitant ticket prices inflated beyond what many can pay or the market will bear; a permanent supply of vacant seats; lower tiers filled with passionless, fickle dilettantes, a permanent corporate gentility ringing the field whose luxury box amenities and royalty suite perks a Prateorian guard has to protect against the descent of the ardent, demonstrative, raucous Pinstripe faithful now confined to remote bleachers and nosebleed grandstands and treated like an unwelcome hoi polloi.

In the new Stadium, Yankees have erected the modern equivalent of an Elizabethan Theatre or Metropolitan Opera House. Class hierarchy and status symbol abide everywhere and personify the very caricature the Yankees' spiteful rivals ordinarily have to cite a 200 million dollar payroll to portray. Only with a World Series to inaugurate their luxury Palace, none but the churlish could complain. This year, however, no championship trophy will silence the objections. Season ticket-holders will vote with their feet. Fading novelty, grossly inflated prices, and PSL contracts' imminent expiration may deliver a reckoning Randy "Shlayger" Levine and Lonn "them eat" Trost hadn't bargained for-- the law of diminishing returns. And the usual blend of strident defensive broadsides and smug Olympian rationalizations to which they've resorted when the subject has arisen in the past won't save them.

May they reap what they've sown-- a drought followed by the whirlwind.

More worrisome however than the financial department's arrogance is the dogma that has gripped the team's baseball operations. Manager and GM, it seems, have turned statistical analysis into a theology, and with it, they've fallen prey to the blindness which afflicts the converted in his zealotry.

In an interview Michael Kay conducted on his New York radio show, he recently asked Brian Cashman, "Do you have a problem with Joe [Girardi] going strictly by the numbers? Would you rather he go by the gut?"

To which Cashman responded, "I definitely don't want people going by gut. I wanted people to make informed decisions. It's about being educated and being informed... If you can set yourself in a position to have a rational process in place, then you'll put yourself in a position to succeed more than fail. And I think gut is just irresponsible."

It must comfort the GM to imagine that he and his skipper can manage events on the field according to a "rational process." Unfortunately, the game no more unfolds according to an empirical formula or yields to collective control than do financial markets, international relations, or population growth. Too much human enigma separates statistical probabilities from scientific certitude.

Now, one hardly expects a GM to know much about history or philosophy but had he read Rousseau or Freud or simply studied late 20th century Russian history, he might have recognized in his worldview what we might call "the fetish of reason". After all, the Marxists, too, thought that they could isolate the laws of history and deduce from them the future.

Likewise has sabermetrics seduced Cashman and Girardi. From them, it seems, they've forged a crutch from what best serve as a tool and in the process, have forgotten that intuition and instinct are at least as integral as reason and logic to sound judgment. One problem with placing too much faith in them is that statistics illuminate what has happened more clearly than they forecast what will. Even inside the Diamond, heart and emotion, desire and will, singularity and contingency, chaos and luck, too often, still prevail. The fastidiously prepared and studiously memorized "match-ups" contained within a black book do not determine the outcome, even if one somehow could choose the metric most applicable to the situation at hand.

With a one-run lead in the 6th inning of Game 4 of the 2010 ALCS, for example, which statistic should the Yankees manager heed? With David Murphy at-bat and Benjie Molina to follow, should Burnett's complete history against Murphy and Molina, respectively, control? Or is it Burnett's performance against them in 2010 that matters? Or is it perhaps his overall performance this year in similar middle-inning predicaments? Or rather, is it how he fares after a 100 pitches; or with 2 outs; or at Yankee Stadium; or in the post-season; or if you walk Murphy, with men in scoring position? Or how does one weigh any of Burnett's figures, moreover, against the corresponding numbers Boone Logan, a reliever limited largely to lefties and one or two innings, has compiled?

Even if Girardi bases his decision on the numbers, he still has rely on an educated guess-- on inductive reasoning-- for the right statistic to choose. A "gut" decision isn't "irresponsible". It's inevitable.

Now, would the Yankees would have won the 2010 ALCS had Joe Girardi discarded his black binder and ignored the statistics and chosen more wisely in the situation described above? Probably not. The numbers may not forecast the future but they don't lie about the past. When his team bats .100 points less than his opponent's over six games and his pitching staff yields, on average, three and half more runs, even the canniest of managers isn't likely to stave off defeat. Still, Girardi's decision-making in the series certainly didn't help. Whether it was intentionally walking Murphy in Game 4-- putting the tying run in scoring position and the go-ahead run at first-base-- or whether it was his folly of repeatedly opting for Logan, Robertson, Mitre in critical situations-- most notably, Robertson, in Game 6, despite batters' .440 average against him -- meanwhile shunning Joba or saving Wood until too late, his discretion eluded him. Instead, much like last year during the postseason, pressure seemed to paralyze the manager so that rather than allowing the game's situation to dictate his decision, he fell back on some preconceived notion the statistics had inscribed.

Which suggests that the manager's fixation with the numbers actually indicates a failing more fundamental and more troublesome-- it implies either an incapacity to learn from mistakes because of a worldview so circumscribed it can't recognize or assimilate error and a character so rigid it cannot adapt or grow. Indeed, because past proficiency does not guarantee future success, on the probability that Girardi lasts another 3 years I wouldn't hazard a bet.

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