Leo: “Sorry to tell you this but King threw out the monologue.”
Alice: “Leo, that monologue was good.”
Sy Benson: “Check that. Perfect. I wrote it! This is where Sy Benson draws the line. … First came the word and the word was funny. The monologue stays or I go.”
Benjy: “Sy, maybe we can compromise.”
Sy: “No compromise! Sy Benson has his integrity, his pride. King does that monologue word for word or I walk. I walk!”
Sy: “King! About the monologue!”
King Kaiser: “Wait a minute! Sy! Do you smell something? (Sniff) It’s coming from the script. … (Holds script up to nose and sniffs) Ew, it’s your monologue. Ugh, what a stinkburger. … KC, pull!”
(His assistant KC throws the crumpled-up script in the air. King shoots it down. “BOOM!” Sy clutches his heart.)
King: “I hate it. It’s not funny. It’s out.”
Sy: “Hey, babe, we’re not married to it.”
— From “My Favorite Year.”
* * *
It seems to me that few people enjoy confrontation. Oh there are some who love it, thrive on it, make a nice living by sparking confrontation. But I certainly don’t. I was on a plane not too long ago — yes, this will be the story about me getting yelled at on a plane, though the concept sounds better than it is — and it was an early morning flight. I ended up sitting one row behind my actual seat by mistake. The guy who was sitting in my seat said, “Um, I think I’m in 14A” (or whatever it was) and I was thoroughly embarrassed and said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And I moved up one row. This wasn’t the yelling part.
About three minutes later, a flight attendant came back to tell me that I had been upgraded to first class … a perk that comes with flying a lot. Well, I thanked her and moved up to first class. And I was sitting there when all of a sudden a man walked up to first class — not the man whose seat I had mistakenly taken but a different man, an Army man, dressed in full camouflage — and he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, there’s something I wanted to tell you.”
I turned around. And the guy screamed, “I just wanted to tell you that you are a selfish human being. You are an extremely selfish person. I would not have forgiven myself if I didn’t tell you that before you got off the plane. You are a very, very selfish person.”
And then, before I could say a word, he walked back to his seat.
Well … now what? The flight attendant came over to ask what that was all about, and I had to tell her that I had absolutely no idea. And I didn’t. And just about then, the plane took off, and I had to sit there and try to figure out what I was supposed to do. At first I thought maybe I should go back and ask the guy what that was all about, confront him there, but I decided against it. I didn’t want to create some sort of scene on the plane. I had no idea why the guy was yelling at me. Maybe I had hit him in the head with my backpack without realizing it or apologizing. Maybe he had tried to talk to me and I had ignored him. Maybe he was a big Yuni Betancourt fan. I didn’t know. I went over about 500 possibilities in my head because this is the ridiculous kind of person I am. And I hate confrontation.
I knew in the end the right way for me to handle it was to get off the plane, wait for him to come out, and directly confront him. I didn’t WANT to do this, not at all. But I had to do it. I have friends, many of them, who would have instinctively handled this in a better way. But you have to play your own cards. And so, for the rest of the flight I thought about what I must have done and dreaded the landing.
There’s no exciting finish to this non-exciting story. I waited for him to get off the plane, he tried to ignore me at first, and then I said: “Excuse me but what was that all about?” It turned out to be some ridiculous misunderstanding … he thought I was trying to steal that guy’s seat and then had tricked my way up to first class, or something like that. I never fully understood. Whatever the case was, I told him that none of that was true, and that I may be a lot of things but I don’t think selfish really applies. After we talked for a while, he thanked me for straightening it out and we went on our ways. Like I said: The story isn’t as good as the headline.
In any case, I dislike confrontation. I would go out of my way to avoid it. I think a lot of people feel the same way. I put the classic bit from My Favorite Year (one of my all-time favorite movies) on top because, well, Sy could be me. Maybe Sy could be you too … I don’t know you.
And I think confrontation has taken on big role in sports — not in PLAYING sports (where confrontation has always been a big part of the action) but in watching sports, in analyzing sports, in talking about sports, in THINKING about sports. Take the postseason baseball awards. I noticed Monday that one of my e-migos, Will Carroll, was taking a beating on Twitter because he said that if he had an American League Cy Young vote (he does not) he would vote for C.C. Sabathia. And I noticed that on the same day, my co-worker and friend Tom Verducci put out his awards choices, and said he thinks Felix Hernandez will win, not only because people have a better feel for how little pitcher wins really mean but also because of “how fast and wide groupthink travels these days.”
I actually DO have an American League Cy Young vote and out-of-respect for the process I will not reveal my vote … though if you are a regular reader here, I suspect you already know my vote. I have not exactly hidden my feelings on the subject. My point here is that it seems there is a black-and-white, up-and-down, Democrat-and-Republican, yes-and-no, right-and-wrong feel to baseball arguments these days. And it seems to me that sports used to BE like that … and I really don’t want to go back to those days.
I remember thinking about this hard in 2008 when Alex Rodriguez easily won the MVP award. I thought A-Rod deserved the MVP Award; in my mind, he was pretty clearly the best player in the league that year. But you might recall that year that Detroit outfielder Magglio Ordonez got two first place votes, the only two A-Rod did not get, and both from Detroit writers. Well, there was quite a bit of screaming about it, about the Detroit guys being homers, about A-Rod being jobbed from a unanimous MVP choice and all that. But more to the point, there was quite a bit of screaming about how the Detroit writers WERE WRONG … like A-Rod was the ONLY viable MVP choice.
I thought Bill James hit the subject hard and well in the 2008 Gold Mine: “I see absolutely nothing wrong or remarkable in the two MVP votes for Magglio Ordonez … Yes, A-Rod had a fantastic season, but Ordonez’ season is … well, Al Kaline was the same kind of hitter, and Kaline never came close to those numbers: 139 RBI, .363 average, 54 doubles, 28 homers. It was well above the standard of your average MVP season.
“Yes, A-Rod created more runs than Ordonez, but not that many more (159-146). Since when did a 13-run separation in offensive performance become a prohibitive barrier to sportswriters taking a broader view of the issue?”
A broader view of the issue. Exactly. I feel sure I would have voted for A-Rod … in fact, I might have voted for A-Rod, I don’t remember if I had a vote that year. But these things in sports are not crystal clear, aren’t without ambiguity, aren’t without nooks and crannies and subtleties and difference of opinion. There was a viable argument to be made for Ordonez (A-Rod’s one offensive advantage — and it was a big one — was in home runs. But Ordonez led A-Rod in some other stuff — including on-base percentage, doubles and RBI minus homers (they scored the same number of runs minus homers). And whether I AGREE or not with Magglio for MVP argument, I would very much like to HEAR the argument. I wouldn’t want that argument shouted down before it was ever made.
But I think that’s where we are going again. I do think we are getting back to the point in sports where arguments are being shouted down before they are made, that in this stats vs. scouts world of baseball that people are simply not even listening to the other side, that baseball is being turned into a game show like Do You Want To Be A Millionaire, where only one answer can be accepted as correct.
And it bugs me. Let me take this in a different direction for one second: You know why I love baseball statistics? Because they help me look at the game in a way I never had before. That’s all. I don’t love NUMBERS (though, I’ve always had a crush on the number 573 — but who hasn’t?), I love the way those numbers can spark in the imagination. It is true that for years and years in baseball we were hammered with the same empty platitudes — pitching is 75% of baseball, some hitters are better in the clutch than they are the rest of the time, a great shortstop can save you 100 runs a year with his defense, players are in their primes from 27 to 32 or so, you don’t want a guy in the middle of your lineup who walks a lot, bases are stolen off the pitcher, the best fielders were the ones who made the fewest errors, the most important thing is to have players on your team who are gamers … and so on. For a long time, you were told to believe those things, and disagreeing meant confrontation. Few people like confrontation. And so we kept getting fed the same baseball meals.
But you know what? Bill James liked confrontation. He and a few others started testing some of those platitudes by the numbers, by logic, and they began to suspect that some of these platitudes … most of these platitudes … really about all these platitudes were overstated at best, pure nonsense at worst. How could baseball really be 75% pitching? We were supposed to stuff hitting and fielding into the remaining 25%?
And by studying that pitching is 75% of baseball thing (and mocking it, yes), people came up with some pretty fascinating and new thoughts about pitching, some of them cutting hard against what the mind had been led to believe.
Wait a minute, Bill and others said: Pitchers don’t win games, not by themselves. We know that … why do we keep denying that point?
Wait a minute, Bill and others said: You can’t judge a pitcher without considering the ballpark where he pitches.
Wait a minute, Bill and others said: Strikeout generally pitchers DO NOT burn out faster than finesse pitchers … quite the opposite.
Bill and others weren’t always right. But the point wasn’t being right. The point was making the argument, questioning everything, refusing to accept something because it SEEMED so. One of the most fascinating baseball topics of the last few years has built around this question: How much control does a pitcher have over hits allowed? It’s easy to tell from the stats that some pitchers strike out more batters than others, some pitchers walk fewer batters than others, some pitchers give up fewer home runs than others. These are repeatable skills.
But how much control does a pitcher have if the plate appearance is not a strikeout, walk or homer.
Well here are some assorted pitchers’ career batting average on balls hit in play:
Andy Messersmith: .243
Mike Norris: .249
Jim Palmer: .251
Mario Soto: .257
Sandy Koufax: .259
Mariano Rivera: .263
Larry Gura: .265
Bud Black: .266
Eric Show: .267
Steve McCatty: .268
Nolan Ryan: .269
Orlando Hernandez: .270
Woody Williams: .280
Tim Belcher: .283
Mark Portugal: .283
Eric Milton: .285
Greg Maddux: .286
Steve Trachsel: .288
Kirk Rueter: .289
Brett Tomko: .291
Randy Johnson: .295
Tim Lincecum: .301
Zack Greinke: .310
Even now, I have a hard time believing a pitcher has NO control (beyond Ks, walks and HRs) over a hitters’ ability to get hits — I know instinctively that batting-practice fastballs will yield more singles than Tim Lincecum sliders — but the stats have certainly convinced me that a pitcher has FAR LESS CONTROL over hits than I ever would have suspected on my own. I mean Brett Tomko has a lower career BABIP than Lincecum. Mark Portugal has a much better BABIP than Randy Johnson. That’s what baseball stats can do for me as a fan … they can expand my scope, give me new things to think about, pull back curtains, create beautiful arguments.
And I worry that we are beginning to lose those arguments again — ironically, at least in part, BECAUSE of the proliferation of baseball stats. I cannot tell you how many people have sent me emails quoting one of my favorite statistics, Wins Above Replacement, as if that’s an argument ender. No! To me WAR is an argument STARTER. That’s what’s beautiful about it. The fact that (according to Baseball Reference) Felix Hernandez has a 6.0 WAR and C.C. Sabathia has a 5.4 WAR doesn’t end the Cy Young debate for me. It starts it.
As it turns out, while I hate confrontation in my personal life, I don’t mind it when it comes to baseball. I don’t mind people thinking I’m an idiot … I think that about myself anyway. But I do think there are some people out there (and I cannot blame them) who would rather just conform to stuff they don’t think or believe rather than get blitzed on the Internet or barraged on Twitter. I do worry about what Tom calls group think.
Yes, absolutely, I do believe that if Felix Hernandez wins the Cy Young, it will be a breakthrough — even more than Greinke or Lincecum last year — and proof that the voters didn’t just fall back on wins the way they often did in the past.
But I really hope anyone who believed C.C. Sabathia had the better year voted for him and will make the argument for him. Sabathia had one hell of a season. He pitched for a Yankees team that, for much of the season, did not have a viable second starter. New York won 23 of the 34 starts he made. He pitched under some intense pennant pressure. There’s an argument to be made. I’ve always thought that was one of the best things about sports. There’s always an argument to be made.