Friday, February 8, 2013

Friday Baseball Post

Two big sports stories that I'm aware of this week...well, after the Super Bowl, that is.

One was the new round of accusations against Alex Rodriguez and other baseball players.

The other was accusations of massive levels of match-fixing in international soccer.

Now, what I'm wondering is: doesn't everyone consider the latter story a much, much, much...infinitely more important one?

I mean, not to the world as a whole, but within their own sports.

I don't follow soccer much at all, so I have no idea how new this story is other than the story that broke this week, or how likely it is to be true. I do know that to the extent I've had any interest in paying more attention to the sport, this pretty severely pushes me away from it. What's the point of watching a game if it's not on the level?

Whereas "cheating" in baseball with steroids or this point, when it's a clear rule, folks such as Melky Cabrerra deserve what they get, but beyond that I just don't really care about it, still. And I suppose that to the extent it harms the athletes I'm probably in favor of the ban as a way to solve the collective action problem involved. However, I'm still mystified -- absolutely mystified -- that some people feel that steroid revelations retroactively ruin games they enjoyed.

Match-fixing? Absolutely. I get that; I'd feel as if I was duped if it turned out that the reason the Giants beat the Reds in the NLDS was that some combination of Reds players and umpires had thrown the series. But people report that feeling from finding out about steroids, and I just don't get it.

Anyone want to try to convince me?


  1. Johnathan,
    I won't try and convince you. I think the A-Rod story is, if true, a way for the Yankees to possibly void the remainder of his contract. I'm a New Yorker, and a Yankee fan and I've heard a lot of fan talk along these lines. I don't have a dislike for A-Rod, but there are an awful lot of Yankee fans that don't consider him on of their own truly beloved Yanks. I wouldn't be surprised if the organization is behind the allegations. Purely speculation on my part. Don't know much about the sons of Steinbrenner, but the old man was a weasel, in my opinion.

  2. Arod probably wasn't going to play at all this year anyway. The more interesting cases are Gio Gonzalez and Ryan Braun. If Gonzalez ends up getting suspended 50 games, that could change who ends up winning the NL East and one of the NL wildcards. If there's proof against Braun, does he get 50 games or 100?

  3. I had that experience watching Major League. Here I was, rooting for the plucky, ne'er-do-well underdog Cleveland Indians against the Yanks in the big game. Didn't look like they had a chance, and then, miraculously -- they win! Amazing!! Even better, the guy and the girl get back together! And then later I find out that..... Well, it's worse than steroids. These guys aren't even real baseball players! They're all actors, or something. It was all fake!!! I'll bet even the romance was fake. Ruined the whole thing for me. :-S

    OK, so what's my serious point. I agree that there's something extremely arbitrary about hinging your fan-satisfaction on this or that bit of, um, let's say artificial enhancement. Not to go all hyper-postmodernist, but the whole thing is a constructed experience. Even if it's a "real" game and not a movie, in one way or another it's artificial through and through. I mean, the teams aren't your scruffy hometown boys from the sandlot, they're assembled groups of professionals, drawn from a national or international pool with talents expensively developed through all kinds of artificial means. When you root for one of those groups, you're basically hoping that the guy who assembled it is better than the guy who assembled the other one. In other words, you're rooting for the GMs as much as anything else. Or for the owners who authorized the salaries that attracted the players. So there's no very rational reason to draw the line at one point rather than another -- to say, well, it's a real game that I can appreciate as long as those factors are all operating, but not if this one additional factor comes into play.

    For an alternative and really stupid view that ignores all of this, I give you Leon R. Kass:

    Kass was chair of President George W. Bush's Council on Bioethics (remember W's big stem-cell speech just before 9/11?), where he went around quoting Aristotle and talking about "the transhuman" by way of making sure that cures for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's would be delayed a few extra years. I suppose in that sense it's good that he took to writing about steroids, since it makes him a lot less dangerous.

    1. Kass is also a firm opponent of licking ice cream cones.

  4. Interestingly, the article about soccer-match-fixing says how easy it is, but then doesn't tell us *how* soccer matches are fixed...

  5. The soccer story is at least a year old, maybe more. Can't direct you to anything specific, but I've been seeing articles about accusations and investigations for a while. Since mostly it involves non-premier league teams, it tends to get a low profile, though obviously it happens at the top, too. Especially in Italy.

  6. First, there's an obvious difference between PEDs and match fixing: whatever Barry Bonds *did* to have the best OPS+ season in baseball history at the ripe old incongruous age of 37, that surely had nothing to do with his team blowing a 5-run lead 9 outs from a championship.

    To understand why folks may care retrospectively, I think you need to distinguish two general types of sports fans: the soap opera fans and status fans. Soap opera fans love the storylines and the intrigue of ongoing competition; status fans want to be associated with a team that wins a prize. The difference can be seen in the immediate reactions of two recent, surprise SB champion quarterbacks.

    When Aaron Rodgers won the SB two years ago, he was a bit crestfallen in the post-game locker room. It was a great journey, he said, but its over now, and he was already thinking about next year (which would end badly, and the year after, even worse). By contrast, an exultant Joe Flacco said in the locker room last week that, no matter what, he would always be a SB champion, even if he never accomplished anything else, that could never be taken from him. Rodgers is an example of a "soap opera"-type player; Flacco a "status"-type player.

    Presumably, how one's favorite team gets to the finish line matters little to the status-type fan. If their cleats are secretly retrofitted with rocket-boosters, and their arms are injected with whatever-is-the-opposite-of kryptonite, that doesn't matter as long as we won. The soap opera fan is more likely to worry about the detail of the narrative.

    Actually, another recent SB is a great illustration of the difference. Its only been five years, but already David Tyree's helmet catch is one of the four or five best plays in NFL history. Its fraught with storylines: the toppling of the undefeated, the beginning of the late-career futility of Belichick and Brady, Eli Manning as Joe Namath (regular season bum/clutch hero) and on and on and on.

    Suppose Tyree's helmet was secretly retrofitted with a frikkin laser that made it a foregone conclusion he would "catch" that pass. Heck, suppose Coach Coughlin walked down the field and glued the thing to Tyree's helmet. Would that matter to the "status"-type fan? Not at all! A win is a win is a win, and either you're happy cause the Gints are the champs, or you're mad cause you hate the New York Football Giants.

    However, if you're into the soap opera of sports, if the narrative matters, then the fraught implications of the helmet catch dissipate if it didn't happen organically. Who cares if Tom Brady or Bill Belichick are late career failures if it didn't happen naturally? How much of a hero is Eli if his success is inevitable? And so on and so forth.

    So the retrospective problem with PEDs is not that they're illegal or bad, its that they ruin the story, and thus the fun. Anyone can look at Bonds' late-30s OPS+ result and say, without much statistical knowledge, that didn't happen naturally. The problem did it happen? What did he do? A drug? Lots of drugs? Who knows?

    To bring the soap opera argument full circle, remember that cliff-hanger on Dallas 30 years ago, where Bobby Ewing was dead and then at the end of the season he was in his wife's shower? Like Bonds' 73-homer season, that was initially startling, and then fans revolted, cause, what is he supposed to be Jesus or something? It made no damn sense and so it was bad tv.

    That's the problem with stat-bending PEDs.

    1. I dunno, CSH. I like this distinction, but I wonder whether it might not work just the opposite way. That is, if what you care about is the story or soap opera, then you're OK with the artificiality and constructedness of the thing, because all stories are constructed, and who ever thought soap operas were "real"? OTOH, if the attraction is victory and "status," then it would matter to you whether your victors were truly the superior athletes or merely had superior taste in PEDs.

      But you may be right. Honestly, it's not an issue I've thought enough about to have a clear opinion.

    2. Jeff, that's a great point: not all "soap opera" fans are similarly motivated. As you note, some like the "win-at-all-costs soap opera" (e.g. Yankee fans and pre-Jerry-Jones Cowboy fans) and would presumably not worry about PEDs or anything else.

      As you said, all stories are constructed, but aside from the fringiest science fiction, all stories must pass a giggle test. This is presumably why the soap opera Dallas paid a price letting its fans spend a summer thinking Bobby Ewing had been resurrected. That just doesn't hunt.

      Frankly, imo this is why baseball is so haunted by PEDs. The NFL has a PED problem too, but who cares? Shawne Merriman got two extra sacks because he took artificial testosterone? What story that I care about does that impact?

      The problem with Bonds' late-30s huge OPS+ data is not the immorality of it or "steroids" (whatever that means), its that fans can't make any sense of it. There are virtually no other players who were so much better than their prime selves as they aged; none of those were the best ever in their prime like Bonds. What do we make of that? He took steroids, say the scolds. But its not like steroids are subjected to a federal monograph like OTC medicines; we have no idea what he took, assuming indeed he did. So Bonds leaves us with the most garish OPS+ data in baseball history, and our contextual explanation for it is a giant blank. That's not good tv.

      Here's another way to see this point: suppose that, after waiting 37 years for someone to break Maris' record, rather than the big-head explosion of home run power, only Mark McGwire had hit, say, 63 homers, and suppose further he only did so once. Even assume that McGwire later went through his wretched mea culpa post-baseball period.

      Would fans have cared? I actually doubt it; McGwire's single 63-home run season would have fit the narrative for which many fans had waited four decades.

    3. I just don't know enough about the psychology of most fans to know which of them care about what and for what reasons. So I defer to you and others on that (although not Leon Kass, who seems to me to have overlooked even the most obvious counterarguments). I will say this, though: Last season I watched a few ancient rerun episodes of "Home Run Derby," a half-hour game show circa 1950 that pitted two sluggers of the day against each other in a home-run contest. Like, Mickey Mantle vs, Ernie Banks. Wow, compared to what we're used to now, did those guys ever look scrawny! Forget PEDs, they didn't even look like they'd been eating their Wheaties.

    4. Typo: make that circa 1960.

  7. Steroid use didn't retroactively ruin games for me, and I see how it's different from match-fixing. It's like corking bats or throwing spitballs: if lots of people do it undetected, players at the margin will have to choose between also cheating or not making it in the majors. The difference is that creating incentives for others to doctor the ball or cork bats doesn't shorten their lives.

  8. The match-fixing would certainly be a big deal if it was happening in big and important games, but right now it sounds as though it was generally happening in lower leagues or with relatively bad national teams. So if it's not happening in the Premier League, the Spanish League, Euros, etc., that's why it isn't as big a deal.


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