Men of Skill

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill …
Ecclesiastes 9:11

 

“It was a matter of chance,” says Fitzgerald, at the beginning of Gatsby—surely, even now, the Greatest of the Great American Novels—“that I should have rented a house in one of the strangest communities in North America.” The town Fitzgerald calls West Egg is “strange” first of all because it has developed so fast that the “small eyesore” of a house of Gatsby’s middle-class narrator, Nick Carraway, still sits next-door to the “imitation of some Hotel de Ville” of the fabulously wealthy Gatsby. Fitzgerald is also careful to note that the name West Egg is derived from the shape of the town’s geography: an egg-shaped peninsula that juts out into “the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound … like the egg in the Columbus story.” This detail, dropped seemingly so carelessly in the first chapter, appears irrelevant—what Columbus story?—but in fact it is a key to Fitzgerald’s design, for “the Columbus story” is just what Gatsby is: a story about just what is—and what is not—chance. Gatsby is, in other words, just like the new book ostensibly by Steve Williams, the New Zealander who once caddied for Tiger Woods back when the globe’s most famous black golfer did not have access to the nuclear codes.

Matters of chance are also just what this blog is about, in case you didn’t know—and apparently, through some oversight of the committee, many of you don’t know. Over the course of this autumn I’ve gotten some feedback from readers, such as there are any of you: one, a professional writer employed by network television on a show too well-known to be mentioned here (whose comments were relayed through a third party), said that I cover too narrow a territory; the other (a member of an historically-significant golf club in Chicago—my readers may be few, and maybe don’t like me much, but they are not inconsequential) implied that I ought to stick more to golf. Juxtaposed these comments are, to say the least, confusing: the one says I am too narrow and the other too broad. But that is not to say that each does not have a point.

I do after all stray from discussing golf (especially lately), yet it is also true that while I have covered a number of different subjects on this blog—from golf architecture to the Civil War to British elections—what I do discuss I view from a particular vantage point, and that view remains the same whatever the topic under discussion. In my defense then, what I would say is that in all of these cases, whatever the ostensible subject matter the real object is the question of chance, or luck, in human affairs, whether it be batting averages or stock market returns, elections or breaking par. The fact that I have to say this perhaps demonstrates the validity of the criticisms—which is what brings me around to the latest from Steve Williams.

Williams recently “wrote” the book Out of the Rough (golf books in general are seemingly required to be titled by pun—Williams’ title appears to owe something to John Daly’s 2007 memoir, My Life In And Out Of The Rough). The book has become a topic of conversation because of an excerpt published on the New Zealand website Stuff in which Williams complains that—aside from essentially throwing him under the bus after the notorious Thanksgiving weekend escapade through which the world learned that Tiger’s life was not so buttoned-down as it appeared—Tiger also routinely threw his clubs “in the general direction of the bag, expecting me to go over and pick it up.” Any caddie with experience knows what Williams is talking about.

Likely every golf club has a member (or two) who indulges in temper tantrums and views his (these members are always men) caddie as indistinguishable from his golf bag. (For instance, Medinah’s latest entry in this sweepstakes—the previous occupant having been tossed for his club-throwing boorishness—is a local car dealer who, as he is happy to tell anyone in earshot, worked his way up from Gatz-ian poverty, yet appears incapable of empathy to others in similar situations.) Anyone remotely familiar with caddieing in other words knows that throwing clubs, even at the bag, just is not done; that Tiger routinely did so is an argument Williams is aiming at his readers who, since they are interested enough in golf to buy his book, will take Tiger’s club-throwing ways as a sign of Tiger’s jerkishness. This should not exactly be news to anyone who has ever heard of Tiger Woods.

Yet over at the website Deadspin, Williams has become the object of ridicule by both public commenters and the website’s reporter, Patrick Redman. That is because of a further comment the caddie made about Woods’ club throwing habit: it made him, Williams wrote, “uneasy,” because “it was like I was his slave.” It’s a line that has irritated the hell out of Deadspin readers: returning to the subject of titles, for instance, one commenter remarked “Too bad Twelve Years A Slave was already taken,” while as another scoffingly put it: “You had to bend over and pick stuff up for your job? What a bummer.—[signed] Actual Slaves.” By comparing himself to a slaves, in short, Williams revealed himself as, according to another commenter, “a serious asshole,” and according to yet another “a delusional asshole.” It’s precisely this point that raises the stakes of the dispute into something more than simply a matter of men chasing a ball for money—though it’s worth taking a slight detour regarding money before returning to just what irritates people about Williams—and what that has to do with Gatsby, and Columbus.

In his piece, Redman asserts Williams’ complaint is ridiculous first of all because “picking up clubs and putting them into a golf bag was Williams’ job,” and secondly because the Kiwi caddie “was paid handsomely for his services, earning at least 10% … of Woods’ earnings.” Before getting into the racial politics that is the deeper subject of Redman’s ire, it’s worth asking whether his assertions here are true. And in fact, as someone with some experience as a professional caddie, I can say that the idea that Woods’ paid Williams 10% of winnings is ludicrous on its face, because at best, tour caddies earn 10% on wins, not week-to-week earnings; even assuming that Woods paid Williams at that rate on wins, which is questionable (it’s more likely that Williams was paid a—generously extreme—salary, not a percentage) that’s nowhere close to an overall 10% figure on earnings. To put the point in Hollywood’s terms, this is like claiming a character actor (whose credit comes after, and not before, the title) could get a percentage of a film’s gross, not net, revenue. In other words, Redman is not very knowledgeable about either golf or economics—a riposte that, to be sure, doesn’t address the substance of his criticism, but is significant in terms of what Redman’s piece is really about.

The point I think can be illustrated by retelling the story Fitzgerald alludes to in Gatsby: the story of Columbus’ egg. First related by the Italian Girolamo Benzoni in his 1565 bestseller, History of the New World, the story goes that after returning from the Americas, Columbus was at a dinner party when someone said “‘Sir Christopher, even if your lordship had not discovered the Indies … [someone] would have started a similar adventure with the same result.’” In reply, Columbus merely asked that an egg be brought to him, then dared anyone present to make the egg stand on its end unaided. No one could. When they finished trying, Columbus “tapped it gently on the table—breaking it slightly—and, with this, the egg stood on its end.” Benzoni draws the point—nearly literal in this case—of the story thusly: “once the feat is done, anyone knows how to do it.” Columbus was saying, in effect, “hate the game, not the player.”

Like the Spanish nobles, in other words, Steve Williams—by disliking Woods’ habit of club-throwing—was asserting his equality with his boss: just because his story did not happen to develop in precisely the same way as Woods’ story that does not mean that, in principle, Williams deserves any less dignity than Tiger Woods does. But Woods’ defenders, on Deadspin, read Williams’ remarks differently: they view him as not understanding that his circumstances as a white man were, just as much if not more than Tiger’s, fortunate ones. Williams in other words was one of chance’s winners, even if—in Williams’ mind—he is a kind of Columbus, or Gatsby: a self-made man who has gotten where he is despite, not because of, chance.

It’s just here, the astute may have noticed, that matters of golf and chance intersect with politics in general, and in particular the battle between those who assert, as Penn State English professor Michael Berubé has put the point, “that class oppression [is] the most important game in town,” and those who indulge in supposedly “faddish talk of gender and race and sexuality.” Williams’ memoir, in other words, seems to implicitly take the view that (in Berubé’s words) “the real struggle” has “to do with capital and labor,” while on the other hand his detractors seem to take the position that the whole discussion—even down to the very terms of it—is simply an effect of what Berubé calls “tribal identity.” “Class oppression,” they seem to suggest, is a white people problem.

Yet, as I have said before in different ways in this blog, considerations of the role of chance will not, and can not, go away merely by wishing them so: while it may be, as those on Berubé’s side of the aisle maintain, that factors we might consider “social” or “cultural” may play a larger role than we might suspect in the outcomes of our respective voyages to the New World, nevertheless there will also remain some portion of every outcome, however small, that is merely due to chance itself. Or to put it another way—as Berubé does—it is simply true “that anthropogenic climate change is real, that vaccines do not cause autism, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and that Adam and Eve did not ride dinosaurs to church.” For some time, what’s been called the Cultural Left has been busily asserting otherwise, suggesting that what appear to be matters of chance are, somehow, actually within human control. But what that perspective fails to understand is that such is, after all, just what Columbus—and Jay Gatsby—argued. What the story of Tiger Woods tells us, however, is that time and chance happeneth to us all.

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The Oldest Mistake

Monte Ward traded [Willie] Keeler away for almost nothing because … he made the oldest mistake in management: he focused on what the player couldn’t do, rather than on what he could.
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

 

 

What does an American “leftist” look like? According to academics and the inhabitants of Brooklyn and its spiritual suburbs, there are means of tribal recognition: unusual hair or jewelry; a mode of dress either strikingly old-fashioned or futuristic; peculiar eyeglasses, shoes, or other accessories. There’s a deep concern about food, particularly that such food be the product of as small, and preferably foreign, an operation as possible—despite a concomitant enmity of global warming. Their subject of study at college was at minimum one of the humanities, and possibly self-designed. If they are fans of sports at all, it is either extremely obscure, obscenely technical, and does not involve a ball—think bicycle racing—or it is soccer. And so on. Yet, while each of us has exactly a picture of such a person in mind—probably you know at least a few, or are one yourself—that is not what a real American leftist looks like at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In reality, a person of the actual left today drinks macro-, not micro-, brews, studied computer science or some other such discipline at university, and—above all—is a fan of either baseball or football. And why is that? Because such a person understands statistics intuitively—and the great American political battle of the twenty-first century will be led by the followers of Strabo, not Pyrrho.

Each of those two men were Greeks: the one, a geographer, the other a philosopher—the latter often credited with being one of the first “Westerners” to visit India. “Nothing really exists,” Pyrrho reportedly held, “but human life is governed by convention”—a philosophy very like that of the current American “cultural left,” governed as it is by the notion, as put by American literary critic Stanley Fish, that “norms and standards and rules … are in every instance a function or extension of history, convention, and local practice.” Arguably, most of the “political” work of the American academy over the past several generations has been done under that rubric: as Fish and others have admitted in recent years, it’s only by acceding to some version of that doctrine that anyone can work as an American academic in the humanities these days.

Yet while “official” leftism has prospered in the academy under a Pyrrhonian rose, in the meantime enterprises like fantasy football and above all, sabermetrics, have expanded as a matter of “entertainment.” But what an odd form of relaxation! It’s an bizarre kind of escapism that requires a familiarity with both acronyms and the formulas used to compute them: WAR, OPS, DIPS, and above all (with a nod to Greek antecedents), the “Pythagorean expectation.” Yet the work on these matters has, mainly, been undertaken as a purely amateur endeavor—Bill James spent decades putting out his baseball work without any remuneration, until finally being hired latterly by the Boston Red Sox in 2003 (the same year that Michael Lewis published Moneyball, a book about how the Oakland A’s were using methods pioneered by James and his disciples). Still, all of these various methods of computing the value of both a player and a team have a perhaps-unintended effect: that of training the mind in the principle of Greek geographer, Strabo.

“It is proper to derive our explanations from things which are obvious,” Strabo wrote two thousand years ago, in a line that would later be adopted by the Englishman who constructed geology, Charles Lyell. In Lyell’s Principles of Geology (which largely founded the field) Lyell held—in contrast to the mysteriousness of Pyrrho—that the causes of things are likely to those already around us, and not due to unique, unrepeatable events. Similarly, sabermetricians—as opposed to the old-school scouts depicted in the film version of Moneyball—judge players based on their performance on the field, not on their nebulous “promise” or “intangibles.” (In Moneyball scouts were said to judge players on such qualities as the relative attractiveness of their girlfriends, which was said to signify the player’s own confidence in his ability.) Sabermetricians disregard such “methods” of analysis in favor of examination of the acts performed by the player as recorded by statistics.

Why, however, would that methodological commitment lead sabermetricians to be politically “liberal”—or for that matter, why would it lead in a political direction at all? The answer to the latter question is, I suspect, inevitable: sabermetrics, after all, is a discipline well-suited for the purpose of discovering how to run a professional sports team—and in its broadest sense, managing organizations simply is what “politics” is. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for that reason, defined politics as a “practical science”—as the discipline of organizing human beings for particular purposes. It seems inevitable then that at least some people who have spent time wondering about, say, how to organize a baseball team most effectively might turn their imaginations towards some other end.

Still, even were that so, why “liberalism,” however that is defined, as opposed to some other kind political philosophy? Going by anecdotal evidence, after all, the most popular such doctrine among sports fans might be libertarianism. Yet, beside the fact that libertarianism is the philosophy of twelve-year-old boys (not necessarily a knockdown argument against its success), it seems to me that anyone following the methods of sabermetrics will be led towards positions usually called “liberal” in today’s America because from that sabermetrical, Strabonian perspective, certain key features of the American system will nearly instantly jump out.

The first of those features will be that, as it now stands, the American system is designed in a fashion contrary to the first principle of sabermetrical analysis: the Pythagorean expectation. As Charles Hofacker described it in a 1983 article for Baseball Analyst, the “Pythagorean equation was devised by Bill James to predict winning percentage from … the critical difference between runs that [a team] scores and runs that it allows.” By comparing these numbers—the ratio of a team’s runs scored and runs allowed versus the team’s actual winning percentage—James found that a rough approximation of a team’s real value could be determined: generally, a large difference between those two sets of numbers means that something fluky is happening.

If a team scores a lot of runs while also preventing its opponents from scoring, in other words, and yet somehow isn’t winning as many games as those numbers would suggest, then that suggests that that team is either tremendously unlucky or there is some hidden factor preventing success. Maybe, for instance, that team is scoring most of its runs at home because its home field is particularly friendly to the type of hitters the team has … and so forth. A disparity between runs scored/runs allowed and actual winning percentage, in short, compels further investigation.

Weirdly however the American system regularly produces similar disparities—and yet while, in the case of a baseball team, that would set off alerts for a sabermetrician, no such alarms are set off in the case of the so-called “official” American left, which apparently has resigned itself to the seemingly inevitable. In fact, instead of being the subject of curiosity and even alarm, many of the features of the U.S. constitution, like the Senate and the Electoral College—not to speak of the Supreme Court itself—are expressly designed to thwart what Chief Justice Earl Warren said was “the clear and strong command of our Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause”: the idea that “Legislators represent people … [and] are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.” Whereas a professional baseball team, in the post-James era, would be remiss if it were to ignore a difference between its ratio of runs scored and allowed and its games won and lost, under the American political system the difference between the will of the electorate as expressed by votes cast and the actual results of that system as expressed by legislation passed is not only ignored, but actively encouraged.

“The existence of the United States Senate”—for example wrote Justice Harlan in his dissent to the 1962 case of Baker v. Carr—“is proof enough” that “those who have the responsibility for devising a system of representation may permissibly consider that factors other than bare numbers should be taken into account.” That is, the existence of the U.S. Senate, which sends two senators from each state regardless of each state’s population, is support enough for those who believe—as the American “cultural left” does—in the importance of factors like “history” or the like in political decisions, as opposed to, say, the will of the American voters as expressed by the tally of all American votes.

As Jonathan Cohn remarked in The New Republic not long ago, in the Senate “predominantly rural, thinly populated states like Arkansas and North Dakota have the exact same representation as more urban, densely populated states like California and New York”—meaning that voters in those rural states have more effective political power than voters in the urban ones do. In sum, the Senate is, as Cohn says, one of Constitution’s “levers for thwarting the majority.” Or to put it in sabermetrical terms, it is a means of hiding a severe disconnect in America’s Pythagorean expectation.

Some will defend that disconnect, as Justice Harlan did over fifty years ago, on the grounds of terms familiar to the “cultural left”: that of “history” and “local practice” and so forth. In other words, that is how the Constitution originally constructed the American state. Yet, attempting (in Cohn’s words) to “prevent majorities from having the power to determine election outcomes” is a dangerous undertaking; as the Atlantic’s Ta Nehisi-Coates wrote recently about certain actions taken by the Republican party designed to discourage voting, to “see the only other major political party in the country effectively giving up on convincing voters, and instead embarking on a strategy of disenfranchisement, is a bad sign for American democracy.” In baseball, the sabermetricians know, a team with a high difference between its “Pythagorean expectation” and its win-loss record will usually “snap back” to the mean. In politics, as everyone since before Aristotle has known, such a “snap back” is usually a bit more costly than, say, the price of a new pitcher—which is to say that, if you see any American revolutionaries around you right now, he or she is likely wearing, not a poncho or a black turtleneck, but an Oakland A’s hat.