Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

"Familiarity breeds contempt." - Aesop

How many times have we heard that Boston has the 'most sophisticated fans in baseball?' Arguably, we sometimes overestimate our familiarity with the 'inner game', strategy, matchups, and day-to-day milieu confronting management daily.

We wonder why 'our' manager sits out a player (injury or illness, bad matchup, or home problems). Players were notorious for wanting to avoid certain pitchers throwing smoke and control problems. We also have 'ownership bias' about our favorite players, overvaluing their ability or contribution potential.

Years ago a local sportscaster (I'll omit his name) told me that although Jim Rice wasn't a great interview, he respected his work ethic (particularly his efforts to improve his defense) and willingness to give interviews after poor performances or 'a tough loss'. In other words, he was a 'standup guy'. On the other hand, other players work the media, making writers' jobs easier, and appear to get a pass on performance.

We measure baseball excellence in different terms than we measure mathematicians, meteorologists, and economists. Mathematics and physical science have high predictive accuracy, medicine and meterorology are closer to ninety percent, while economics and politics lag badly. Baseball clubs winning sixty percent of their games lead the pack, three hits in ten trips might get you to the All-Star game, and fifteen to twenty wins in thirty starts might get you the contract a sheik would envy.

Baseball also affords us spectators a 'clean' look at individual achievement. Especially on television, it's tough for us to know how effective an individual might be playing in a football game because of the interdependence of individual performance on team play. Fielding a groundball or facing breaking stuff bares a baseball player's athletic soul for us to judge. David Ortiz's 2005 playoff run earned him a lifetime of indulgences, whereas Torrezian deliveries in 1978 merited him sports fans' eternal damnation.

Hard to believe, but we know only a fraction of the game, just as a good cook isn't the same as a gourmet chef. Playing stickball or 'five hundred' as a kid doesn't make us qualified to scout prospects or know whether a player has the psychological profile to deal with both success and failure, and to adjust to maintain the former.

Every player in the major leagues was the best player on his team for most of his formative years. Steve Lyons, whose numbers were pretty mediocre, boasted about having had a successful career because he earned the right to fail by outperforming others in baseball's pyramid.

We're always going to rip the manager's handling of the bullpen, bemoan baserunning, and pitch selection. Let's hope that we can't fault either the effort or the focus. We can see the difference.

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