Reason, repetition and baseball.by Joshua Fisher
December 29, 2009
My earliest days as a baseball fan were marked by repetition. My first major league game was a July 3, 1993 contest between the Twins and the Orioles at the Metrodome. The Orioles won 5-1, and I could have sworn Cal Ripken Jr. batted 27 times. Of course, he did not; he had two walks in five plate appearances.
Childhood memories are funny that way. Undeterred by the Baltimore Ripkens' triumph over the homestanding Twins, I begged my oldest brother to take me again the next day. It's clear to me now that my impression of Cal coming up every inning in the first game resulted from the second game's events. He had a hit and two walks in four trips to the plate. He also contributed a sacrifice fly to the Orioles' 9-2 win.
Ripken's final tally for my first two games as a ticket-holding fan: one hit and four walks in nine plate appearances. One day, many years later, I learned about Runs Created and its per-27 variant. I immediately thought back to those '93 Twins, who truly did turn the Orioles into a team of Cal Ripken Jrs. At least that's what it felt like.
The next game that stands out in my mind was my first at Dodger Stadium: April 8, 1994. The Braves' Kent Mercker threw a no-hitter that night, missing a perfect game by just four walks. Okay, so that's not really that close, but give me my sentimentality. Remember how I said baseball, to the younger me, was about repetition? What could be more repetitive than a no-hitter? Looking back, I wish I had understood what I was seeing, but it makes for a decent story now.
I have learned a great deal more about baseball since then, and look forward to sharing some of it with THT readers in this space each week. But before we dive into discussions on tactics, strategies, transactions and business plans from a fan's perspective, I'd like to walk you through a few events that shaped my baseball worldview.
After those first games, baseball would keep on repeating itself. For instance, I attended maybe a dozen games in '94 and '95, and it felt like every one of them was against the Cincinnati Reds. This was much closer to the truth than my perception of Cal Ripken Jr. in 1993. As it turns out, my uncle's clients did not care much about Dodgers-Reds games, which explains why I was able to go to Dodgers games at all. Much to my mother's chagrin, my friend Patrick and I discovered that the gates opened for batting practice 90 minutes prior to the scheduled first pitch. Those Reds were an interesting lot. I have more Eddie Taubensee and Hector Carrasco autographs than I know what to do with, but Barry Larkin, Deion Sanders and my old Twins hero Frankie Viola couldn't be bothered. Larkin, in particular, seemed particularly generous with the ink to the female fans—what were my friend and I to do?
By this time I'd started playing baseball. I was a catcher for the Pirates, Cubs and Marlins (in '97!), and then switched to middle infield when everyone but me grew. I'd go on to play for the Indians, Phillies and Yankees. Naturally, that Yankees team didn't lose a game, and we won the championship on the strength of a perfect seven-inning outing from our pitcher, a friend of mine who threw about 90 mph as a 14-year old. Seriously. You know that instant speed conversion they do for the Little League World Series? I'm pretty sure the major league equivalent of how hard Andy was throwing is 112 mph. It just wasn't fair. I understand Yankees fans, though. Winning every game is fun. Being bigger, faster, stronger and generally better at baseball than the other team is fun.
That became my goal in baseball video games. I enjoyed playing the actual games, of course, but I quickly came to prefer the roster management side. I'd simulate seasons on end, stacking my team from the outset with young can't-miss prospects like Darren Dreifort, Juan Encarnacion, Jeff Zimmerman and Eric Milton. Looking back, I wish I had known about Strat-o-Matic. On the other hand, though, my less-interested friends could tolerate nerding out on Playstation. Dice might have been a different story entirely.
I suppose it's important to let you know that I've always appreciated the walk. Not because of Ripken, or Mercker's not-so-near miss. Rather, I came to love the walk because on-base percentage made me look better than batting average. Walks and singles I could manage. I had a winter league coach who would buy the whole team lunch if no one struck out looking. That, combined with my personal affinity for the free pass, gave me quite the discerning eye. If I'd had the power to hit the ball out of the infield at that age, I'd have been quite the baseball player. Sadly, I didn't grow until later. And no amount of slow-pitch softball home runs can make up for my homerless youth.
I didn't start to develop my appreciation for the numbers side of baseball until much later. When I was young, I always figured a walk was as good as most hits, and that was the extent of my sophistication. It took some particularly traumatic years as a fan to understand the other side of the game.
The thing about being a Dodgers fan in the 2000s is that the marginal value of a win was irrelevant. The club was going to draw three million fans regardless, so what's $55 million for Dreifort or $105 million for Kevin Brown? After I graduated from high school, though, I left for the University of Kansas, and so began my secondary allegiance to the Kansas City Royals. The free-spending Dodgers, they were not. Details are irrelevant here, but suffice it to say that I cut my sabermetric teeth watching the Royals attempt to construct a baseball team.
My worst memory as a Royals fan came some years later, at the beginning of the 2008 season. You have to be a fan of an organization as dismal as the Royals, Pirates, Clippers, Timberwolves, Raiders or Browns to truly understand how hard a human being can squint. That spring in Kansas City, if you turned your chin past your shoulder, breathed deep, sucked on a peppermint, and clenched your eyes as hard as humanly possible while still maintaining a sliver of blurry vision, you could begin to make out some semblance of hope. There was the supremely talented but enigmatic Donald Z. Greinke. Alex Gordon was, and still is, firmly on the precipice of being, well, above average. And there was Billy Butler.
That spring, the Royals re-debuted (?) the powder blue jerseys, albeit tragically paired with white pants. But what's important here is that to celebrate the jerseys, the club was to give away 20,000 powder blue Billy Butler No. 16 replica jerseys the night of April 12. This was pumped up by radio guys all week, and I don't think I exaggerate when I say that Royals game was an event. Naturally, Kauffman Stadium sold out, and nearly 40,000 fans journeyed to the Truman Sports Complex.
It doesn't take a mathemagician to figure out what happened next. We can talk later about Yuni Betancourt, Mike Jacobs, Brett Tomko, Horacio Ramirez or Bruce Chen. That night, 20,000 angry people reaffirmed my hatred for everything illogical, irrational, and unreasonable in baseball. Stadium operations, organizational decision-making, game management—the Royals won the bizzaro Triple Crown.
Fandom perseveres. I am still a fan of the Royals. And the Dodgers. And the Twins. But more, I'm a fan of baseball. I'm a fan of young players full of potential. Veterans who defy the aging curve. Managers who stay out of the way. General managers who zig with purpose and never zag for the sake of zagging. Transactions that make sense. Game outcomes that don't.
In this space going forward, you'll find a reason-based approach to the game of baseball. Everything's in play: single games, individual transactions, roster construction, business operations, public relations, history, and the meaning of the game in the cultural context. I'm a fan of baseball for its imperfections, not in spite of them. When it comes down to it, I believe baseball can make sense. Spotting logic and reason through the fog of chance, irrationality and human nature is fun to me, and I'm excited to share this space with you.
Josh is a lawyer in the Kansas City office of Bryan Cave LLP. He created the website DodgerDivorce.com.