This Academic Life
This kind of thing is what bothers me about mainstream baseball analysis. The author -- a Post staff writer -- suggests that the 4-for-23 record of the Cardinals' 3, 4, and 5 hitters (Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds) in the World Series thus far is some kind of a blight on their regular-season record of excellence. As though the performance of the three through two games meant anything meaningful. In particular, the author argues:

"Most puzzling is Rolen's slump. He has yet to get his first hit of the World Series. Prior to the series, Schilling had said Rolen was perhaps well on his way to becoming the best third baseman in the history of the game. That designation seems unfair at this point."

Okay, hold on a second. Ted Williams -- Ted Williams, the "Splendid Splinter," the last man to bat over .400 in a season -- hit .342 during the 1946 regular season, but only hit .200 with no home runs during the World Series that year (also Red Sox-Cardinals). Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, and numerous other Hall of Fame hitters have experienced similarly dismal World Series performances in the midst of stellar careers. But no one would say that these folks weren't among the best to ever play the game. Whether Rolen does well in this World Series or not is not only no reason to change a judgment of him as one of the best third basemen in the history of the game, but it is no reason to make the opposite judgment either. In fact, performance during any series of games, or during any set of games less than several hundred in size, isn't adequate grounds either. "He had a good year" or "he had a bad year" doesn't tell you much of anything about whether or not someone is a good ballplayer; look at Roger Clemens' last year with the Red Sox in 1996, when he went 10-13 with a 3.63 ERA, and then went to Toronto and went 41-13 for the next two years and won two consecutive Cy Young awards.

The point here is that a player's greatness (or their crappiness) doesn't emerge in a single game, or series, or finite set of games. (Statistically, the number of games in a long career in the major leagues is just about the same as an infinite number of games.) Because of the genius of regular-season baseball's design, random fluctuations even out over the long haul, and we are left with contingency rather than randomness: what happens to someone over the long term is largely due to their ability to perform on the field, and can't be just a fluke. There are clutch hits and clutch performances, in which people come through at precisely the right moment, but there aren't clutch players; even the best players have bad days, bad series, bad years.

What I am leaning towards here is a notion that contingency is a function of a system of rules and procedures that shapes and processes randomness in specific ways, so as to temporarily arrest entropy and produce a standing wave in an ocean of sheer chance. Randomness -- and I am about to utter a strictly metaphysical principle here, something that is completely outside of the realm of logical or rational evaluation, and is thus strictly nonsensical, even as it forms the boundaries of the world I am sketching -- is basic. Shit happens, and it has no inherent order or sense or meaning. Chaos, not order, is at the bottom of the turtle-pile. (Note that this statement is precisely the same, operationally speaking, as the claim that there is an underlying order of nature to which we have no privileged access. In either case, the point is that we never know whether our claims touch "reality" or whether they do in fact "carve nature at its joints." But the stronger metaphysical claim may make the point better, or at least more dramatically.)

Into that chaos come human beings, with their stubborn insistence on meaning and their attachment to order and stability. Spiders spin webs; birds build nests; foxes make dens; human beings produce knowledge, both the abstract kind embodied in philosophical and social-theoretical edifices and the concrete kind embodied in social institutions and organizations. And knowledge can either embrace randomness, strive to eliminate randomness, or seek to shape and channel it. Most professional sports embrace randomness because it makes individual games "more exciting," since everything rides on certain specific outcomes; electoral systems which feature the drawing of lots (as some ancient Greek cities had) do this too. Most pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment systems of morality strive to eliminate randomness in favor of some kind of claim that is categorically true and can provide an absolute basis on which to found everything else, whether that basis is God or Reason or whatever.

But baseball -- like a functioning constitutional system in which a successful amendment has to make it through a number of obstacles before being accepted, or a well-embedded marketplace in which there are adequate start-up resources to overcome barriers to entry along with a determined refusal to commodify basic necessities of living -- occupies a strange middle-ground. Specific interactions are random in their outcome, but over the long haul that randomness is weeded out in favor of a more or less accurate reflection of the strategic soundness of the strategies and abilities of the players. Here we have what I'd call fair competition: a system based on contingency, where randomness is arrested and channelled so as to produce something relatively enduring, something that brings out excellence and ingenuity and creativity and the like. [I am deliberately setting aside the speculative question of whether or not this is the only way to achieve such a condition of "being in form." There might indeed be other ways to get here, ways that do not involve inter-personal competition. But I find myself quite unable to imagine what they would look like.]

The problem, I think, is our "Enlightenment hangover." We have not yet come to grips with the fact that Kant failed to decisively link individual freedom with the principle of pure reason, and that Hegel's grand dialectical synthesis collapsed under its own weight (and the inability of his followers to resist the temptation to either glorify the present for its inherent rationality or to vilify that present in favor of a more rational future), decisively demolished by Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and their descendants. No grand rational system has ever succeeded. No grand irrational system can survive the blows of rational criticism. So the solution to living in a post-Enlightenment world may be to stop looking for guarantees, to stop trying to found outcomes and courses of action on absolute certainties that turn out in retrospect not to be so absolute after all, and instead to embrace the randomness of specific outcomes -- so that we can get back to the business of designing systems that create space for meaningful contingency.

Note that because we are talking about knowledge here, academics have a role to play in developing their accounts of things. If we look for easy answers, such as reasoning from "intrinsic properties" directly to outcomes, or compiling data on systematic correlations and projecting them into the future, we are still operating with that Enlightenment hangover. If we toss up our hands and simply say that things happen for no apparent reason, we are abandoning the whole project of trying to explain anything. But if we instead operate with an analytical stance that embraces contingency, and then apply that stance in a disciplined manner to the empirical material tossed up by the (random?) universe, we can build worlds that preserve agency and creativity and the space for truly outstanding performances. Analyses like the one in the Post bother me in part because they miss the genius of baseball, and forward the absurd notion that perfect performances are possible -- and are even to be expected. I am not convinced that things work this way, or that it is a good idea for us to operate as though they did.

Rolen may be the greatest third baseman in the history of the game. But we don't know yet, and we won't, until we have a long-term set of statistics to compare to other third basemen. And even if he were the greatest third baseman in history, he could still very easily have a bad series. No guarantees -- that's the randomness part. Things work themselves out in the long run -- there's the contingency.

[Posted with ecto]

<< Home
"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



Powered by Blogger