So, I’ve been reconsidering Jimmy the Greek. I’ve written this before: As a kid, I loved the matchup charts that Jimmy the Greek would do every NFL Sunday. Those charts are one of the touchstones of my childhood. Well, to be honest, Jimmy the Greek himself is one of the touchstones of my childhood, one of those 1970s phenomenons that would be difficult to explain to anyone younger than, say, 30, like the Nestea Plunge and the Kool-Aid man who would burst into various scenes shouting “Oh yeah!” and the “You Doesn’t Have to Call Me Johnson” guy and Minnesota Fats and Foster Brooks, whose one marketable skill seemed to be that he could act drunk.
Jimmy Snyder (he changed his name from Dimetrios Georgios Synodinos) grew up in Steubenville, Ohio — he and Dean Martin grew up together. He is probably remembered today, if at all, for those insulting comments he made about African Americans being better athletes because they were bred that way by slave owners (he also talked about coaching being the only thing left for white people — this was when he was at a restaurant when a reporter asked him about Martin Luther King’s birthday). Greek reportedly expressed regret over what he said, and numerous people, while not defending his comments, said that he had never displayed any racist tendencies. He got fired anyway, and disappeared into the ether. We’re coming up on the 25-year anniversary of those comments, if you want to feel a bit older.
But long before those comments made him infamous, Jimmy the Greek was famous for gambling. That was pretty much his whole act. He lived a life of huge bets — big highs, deep lows, peaks and crashes. He lost everything. He won everything. The story goes that his first big success was making it into Walter Winchell’s column after hitting it big betting against Notre Dame. He would claim to win almost $200,000 betting for Harry Truman to win reelection in 1948 because the heavily favored Thomas Dewey had a mustache, and women didn’t like mustaches. Something like that. He was one of those 1970s bigger-than-life characters, and every Sunday he would have his own little segment on the NFL Today where he would pick football games using primitive looking matchup charts with checkmarks.
The checkmarks were to meant to designate which team had the advantage in that particular category. So, for instance, say, the Cowboys were playing the Packers. Jimmy might give the offense checkmark to the Packers, the defense checkmark to the Cowboys, the special teams checkmark to the Packers, the coaching checkmark to the Cowboys. And so on. In my memory, he also had a home-field checkmark, which was the easy one.
And, finally, there was my favorite category: Intangibles. I’ve poked fun at this concept for a long time. How can you measure “intangibles” if they are, according to the actual word, “intangible?” It’s like weighing fairy dust or counting unicorn hairs or tallying the self-destructive cells of NHL owners. It always seemed to me that giving one team an intangibles advantage was spectacularly dumb, since the only thing intangibles really have going for them is that they are, you know, intangible. Indefinable. Indescribable. Ethereal. Even as a kid, it struck me as this beautifully illogical thing, to have this old gambler tell us which team had the advantage in intangibles and then put a checkmark next to their name.
But, I have to say: Lately, I’ve been reconsidering. The intangible, it now seems to me, has a place in sports prediction. In fact, it might be the ONLY thing that should have a place in sports prediction. See, the intangible is a gambler’s construct. Jimmy the Greek believed that what separated him from other gamblers was that he had more information than they did (he famously would collect news from every little town newspaper back in the days when that was the only way to surf for knowledge) but even more, his gut instinct.
Well, what is gut instinct? Is it a feeling? I don’t think so. I think a gut instinct is putting more emphasis on one thing than other people might. That comes from the gut. If a manager sends a slumping pinch-hitter up there against the probabilities, he might say it came down to a “gut feeling.” But the feeling was that he believed that player would get a hit … maybe because he’s been swinging better during batting practice … maybe he’s patched things up with his wife after a tough stretch … maybe he’s had some success against that particular pitcher … maybe it’s a Tuesday and the guy has this thing for Tuesdays. Whatever. The “gut feeling” still comes from some reasoning, and the manager just happens to put more stock in that reasoning than others do.
That was Jimmy the Greek on gambling. I think most successful gamblers think like that. They believe they have a slightly better sense of what REALLY matters than regular, ordinary people. Everyone knew that Thomas Dewey had a mustache. But Jimmy the Greek believed that mustache was what would really decide the election. And in the end, it doesn’t matter at all if the mustache was the reason Dewey lost. What mattered is he DID lose. Jimmy the Greek cashed the ticket.
The more I watch sports, the more this idea of “intangibles” appeals to me. The reason: Most predictions are incredibly dull and unimaginative and vapid. Most of the time they are not only based on what has already happened, they are based on the most OBVIOUS ASPECTS of what already happened.
Take Tim McCarver’s checkmark chart before this World Series. The chart broke down the Series in the most obvious ways — it was something like starting pitching, relief pitching, offense, defense, base running, power. This is exactly the sort of chart you will often see in the daily paper. McCarver gave Detroit the checkmark for “power.” And he gave the rare discount double-checkmark to the Tigers for starting pitching. The rest of the stuff he gave to San Francisco, but it was pretty clear — the rest of the stuff didn’t really matter. You got power (check) and starting pitching (double check!), you pretty much have it all.
There was every reason, based on past performance, for McCarver to give those two categories to the Tigers. Power was easy — the Giants finished dead last in all of baseball with 103 home runs, while the Tigers hit 163 homers and had the Triple Crown winner. And as far as starting pitching goes, the Tigers have the best in the game, Justin Verlander, and a couple of guys, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister, pitching lights-out in the postseason. Meanwhile the Giants were forced to start Barry Zito in Game 1 … the same Barry Zito whom the Giants famously left off their postseason roster just two years earlier when they won the World Series. Two checkmarks. Easy to see.
Well, both checkmarks* were in the wrong column. The Tigers have hit one home run in this Series — San Francisco’s Pablo Sandoval hit three in the first game — and have not scored a single run in the last two games. And while the Tigers’ starting pitching has been good since Verlander’s rough outing, the Giants’ starting pitching has been other-worldly. Zito, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong have allowed one run in 18 1/3 innings — that’s an 0.49 ERA if you like to figure such things. And the Giants’ best starter, Matt Cain, doesn’t even make his start until Sunday night, in what could be the clincher.
*Well … all three checkmarks.
This is not to say that McCarver’s checkmarks were misplaced — it was just a prediction, and you understand why he put them where he put them. No, it is to say that they were bland, predictable, conventional. And like so many bland, predictable and conventional things, they were wildly wrong. If sporting events actually went according to prediction, we would have stopped watching sports long ago, not only because the games would be unsurprising, but because the scenarios we invent are so bleeping boring. This quarterback will outplay that quarterback. This shooting guard will have a good shooting game. Tiger is ready to emerge because he’s been hitting the ball well on the range. Ugh. Sports would absolutely be unwatchable if all this stuff happened like that.
Maybe that’s why I find myself missing the Jimmy the Greek “intangible” check box. If you had said before this Series began that “The Giants are going to win this World Series because Panda is just 50 shades of awesome and because Maddy Bumgarner totally rocks,” you might have sounded insane, but you would have been right. Short series — like single football games — are not predictable. Oh, you might pick who will win. Maybe. But how? Why? What will be the decisive moment? We are inundated with these pregame inanities like “the team that doesn’t turn the ball over will win,” or “the team that controls the line of scrimmage will win,” or “the team that gets the big hits will win.” Whatever truth these clichés hold is countered by how much they lack in ingenuity and magic and all the reasons we care about games in the first place.
The Giants are on the brink of winning the World Series for the second time in three years. Why? Well, you could say that it’s because for the first three games, they played better than the Tigers. They have pitched better, fielded better, hit better. They did not try to score their 300-pound behemoth of a first baseman from first on a double with nobody out, they have not hit into as many double plays, they have not disappointed quite as often in scoring situations. Already, you hear people trying to come up with reasons for this, tangibles… maybe it’s that the Tigers’ layoff before Game 1 was too long (ugh) or that the Giants have momentum from their comeback victories (bleh) or even that the Tigers, having tied St. Louis for the worst record of all the playoff teams, aren’t actually that good.
I prefer to believe that it has come down to intangibles. What intangibles? Don’t know. Can’t know. They’re intangible. The Giants just have them for this World Series, at least so far. Put the checkmark next to their name.