Lingering Superstition in the Language of Baseball

I was talking with some baseball aficiandos recently and asked them to think up the most common descriptor of left-handed and right-handed pitchers. They agreed quickly on “big farm kid” for righties (runner up: “Hard-throwing”) and “crafty” for lefties (runner up: “wily”).

Jesse Wolfersberger believes that this linguistic distinction has it roots in reality. He presents statistical analysis indicating that left-handed pitchers are better at striking out batters with off-speed, tricky, curving pitches rather than straight-at-you fastballs.

You can see what you think of his analysis by following the link, but even if it holds water I doubt that is the full explanation because it leaves out the moral nuance of the contrasting descriptors.

The idea that the right side is morally better than the “sinister” side goes back centuries, and we have not fully escaped it even though we recognize that it has no logical basis. “Crafty” is not too far from “sneaky/dishonest”. Meanwhile, consider the descriptor “big farm kid” for righties. That doesn’t just imply strength; it also connotes All-American wholesomeness. Many right-handers certainly grow up in cities and many left-handers grow up on farms, yet it would feel strange to hear a baseball announcer speak of a left-handed pitcher as a “farm kid”.

Likewise, there have many been right-handed pitchers who didn’t just manfully throw a straight and true fastball down the pipe, challenging their opponents honestly like Arthurian Knights at the jousts. Knuckle ball masters Phil Niekro, Joe Niekro and Tim Wakefield all pitched right-handed. And the New York Yankees, whom all God-fearing people agree are servants of Satan, have employed many right-handed pitchers over the years.

Oh, Bears!

Time to update the amazing failing-upward saga of the UC Berkeley Intercollegiate Athletics program, because we have hit the front page of our local paper with another humiliating roundup.  Just to review, we are talking about a $70m-per-year business that loses $10m sending athletes to compete against other schools in a couple of dozen sports where they have fun, do fairly well, and mostly graduate without a lot of handholding and tutoring.  It also sells tickets and television access to people who want to watch about 150 men play basketball and football, and rights to make the usual chotchkes and sweatshirts. There are about 850 so-called student-athletes in the care of IA; our other 20,000 students are allowed to buy tickets and watch them, but IA has nothing to do with “students being athletes” in any general sense.  (Given that the average playing time for a member of the football squad is eight minutes per year, it’s not so clear that those guys should be scored as athletes either…they do get $10,000 each for those eight minutes, so maybe they should be compared to pro stars)
Nor does IA have much to do with anything else on campus, other than absorbing a Niagara of student fees and tuition money. It was once supposed to be self-supporting, like the parking garages, but the regents – the university’s governing board – fixed that silly rule for us several years ago so the chancellor can give it money that would otherwise be wasted on labs and scholarships and other frills. It even has its own spiffy web site (with a .com, not .edu, suffix).
A few years ago, it was discovered that our art museum and our stadium were too dangerous to occupy with the BO (big one) getting organized under our feet.  The museum was temporarily propped up with some awesome steel braces, we designed a really nice new museum at a downtown corner of the campus that would benefit from foot traffic and street activity, and we set about fundraising. Continue reading “Oh, Bears!”

Zadok the Champ

The origin of the anthem of the European soccer Champions League.

As I’m sure you know, tonight is the final of the European real football (soccer) Champions League club competition. It’s between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, and is taking place for some UEFA reason in Wembley, London. I’m rooting for Borussia, partly on general underdog grounds – Dortmund is a gritty Ruhr rustbelt city, without Munich’s glamour or whiffy history -, partly because they knocked out my home team Malaga. It’s always a consolation to lose to the champ.

The anthem of the competition is a surprisingly successful 30-year-old piece of skilled hackwork by British composer Tony Britten (h/t Sam Borden of the NYT/IHT).

Here it is at the start of an earlier game between Borussia and Barcelona:

Since you can’t hear it very well against the generic crowd noise, here’s the anthem performed by a proper orchestra and choir: Continue reading “Zadok the Champ”

Sports rules and laws

There’s something arguably wrong with every sport; how could it not be so? Soccer doesn’t have enough scoring for game scores to be a good indicator of relative performance, football and flat racing hurt their players, NASCAR is climate-hostile, and on and on.  The rules of life  – laws – are perpetually flawed too, but we constantly try to fix them.   I think sport authorities should be more willing than they are to fix the games from time to time, recognizing that some fixes will be mistakes (the DH in baseball was silly and remains so).  Taller and better players have reduced basketball to “the teams run down the court and somebody puts the ball through the net.  Then they run back and someone puts the ball in the other net.  Occasionally the ball doesn’t go in the net: the team that has fewest of these mistakes wins.”  The idea is on the table to raise the net, analogous to the idea (not on the table, though I wish it were) to enlarge the soccer goal by a foot or two each way, and to  banning anchored putting in golf.

The last of these is scheduled not to happen until 2016; easing transitions is often a good idea, but does it take three years for golfers to put their long putter in the attic and buy another?  The basketball idea, which makes sense, raises the interesting question, should we pick a number, say one foot, and raise all the hoops that much at once, or raise them an inch every season until we’re happy with the result?  Sometimes we change laws a lot all at once, like allowing same-sex marriage; sometimes we make small adjustments, like the inflation adjustment in Social Security payments.

Some things have to be highly quantized: for the Brits to convert to right-side driving in stages, as the joke goes (“for the first week, the new rules will only apply to buses and trucks”) would be a bad idea.  But others allow for gradual change.  A one-foot change all at once would greatly devalue the muscle memory of all players, but gradual change would keep those skills mostly in service as the transition occurred.  I don’t think the mechanical costs of converting goals to be adjustable in this way are as daunting as, say, making soccer goals adjustable.


Shooting the Messenger: Brent Musburger

Apparently Brent Musburger is in all kinds of hot water because of comments he made during last night’s BCS championship game.  When I read that it involved remarks about the Crimson Tide quarterback’s girlfriend, I really braced for something awful.

The subject was not Alabama’s 42-14 victory, but comments made during the game by the ESPN play-by-play announcer Brent Musburger regarding the girlfriend of Alabama quarterback A J McCarron. In the first quarter, ESPN showed McCarron’s girlfriend, Katherine Webb, who was sitting near his parents. Musburger called the 23-year-old Webb, a former Miss Alabama, a “lovely lady” and “beautiful,” and said to his broadcast partner, Kirk Herbstreit, a former quarterback at Ohio State, “You quarterbacks get all the good-looking women.”

“A J’s doing some things right,” Herbstreit replied. Musburger, 73, then said, “If you’re a youngster in Alabama, start getting the football out and throw it around the backyard with Pop.”

That’s it?  He says that a former Miss Alabama is a beautiful woman, that quarterbacks always get the girl, and that that is an incentive to be a football player?  I could understand an outcry if, say, the girlfriend was a Rhodes Scholar or a theoretical physicist or even a law student.  But she’s a former Miss Friggin’ Alabama.

That’s part of the culture of college football and of beauty pageants.  Jocks get the girl.  The pretty ones are Miss Whatever. Guys do what they can to date Miss Whatever.

And because of that, you might well say, “That’s right.  It’s the culture.  And that culture sucks and is demeaning to women and emphasizes idiotic masculine tropes.”  Fair enough.  I basically agree: I think pageants are dumb, and I am coming around to Mike O’Hare’s view that football is, too.

But it seems a little silly to me to blame Musburger for this.  Yes, I know: he’s reinforcing the culture yadda yadda yadda.  But don’t attack the messenger for a bigger — and really, a more important, and more controversial, and more radical point.  People aren’t attacking Musburger for going “over the line,” even if they say they are.  They are taking on college football.  They are taking a massive entertainment and financial juggernaut.  And they should.  But go after the big boys, so to speak.  Musburger is well-paid for what he does and obviously can take care of himself.  But he’s a cog in this stuff.  ESPN has apologized for Musburger’s comments and has said that he “went too far”, but why in the world was Webb on the screen to begin with?  ESPN like all networks is avoiding its own complicity in what is going on here.

Should we boycott Discover Cards for sponsoring the game?  Or FedEx for sponsoring the stadium?  Or all the other sponsors, and the NCAA itself?  Maybe we should.  But then focus on them.  Getting outraged at Musburger seems to me to be sort of cheap and safe way to avoid really making the critique that ought to be made.

UPDATE:  I don’t know why the comments have been disabled for this post, but am trying to fix it.

UPDATE UPDATE: Comments now back on.  Fire away.



A word about Alex Karras

Most reports of Alex Karras’s death noted that he had dementia, but not that he attributed his dementia to his years playing in the NFL. Nor did they mention that he was one of the players suing the League for concealing what it knew about the long-term effects of concussion. These omissions do a disservice to Karras, to his family, and to all of us who love football.

I grew up watching the Colts, by which I mean the BALTIMORE Colts of the 1960s, of Johnny Unitas-Ray Berry-Lenny Moore fame. (If you don’t recognize the names, just trust me: we shall not see their like again.) That team included the tight end John Mackey. So when I saw a bit of news tape showing Mackey sitting in a nursing home while his wife tried to help him recognize himself–himself!–in his football jersey, I was sickened by the damaging effects of the sport I love to watch. Later that year Mackey died of fronto-temporal dementia; but still I kept watching.

Six months before, a member of my beloved 1985 championship Chicago Bears had killed himself, leaving behind a plea that his brain be autopsied. Dave Duerson too proved to have had extensive brain injury, in the form of chronic traumatic encephelopathy; but still I’d kept watching.

I thought of both men when I heard of Karras’s death, and it finally took. No matter how exciting and graceful the game–and, having been taught to watch it by my father, I’ve relished both the excitement and the grace for nearly 50 years–their lives are too high a price to pay. It’s time to stop watching.

Io triumphe

The ecstasy of winning.

Jessica Ennis crosses the line to win the final 800m race of the heptathlon, and the Olympic gold.

Photo source: AP

The transformation of her pretty-girl-next-door face at her Pindarian moment of triumph reminds you of something else, doesn’t it? Gian Lorenzo Bernini  got there first, in his audacious Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Rome: Continue reading “Io triumphe”

On the Olympian necessity of flags

The modern Olympics can’t survive without flag-waving.

Michael objects to the flag-waving of the modern Olympics:

I think the Olympics would be improved by potting down this insistent angle in medal ceremonies and coverage. Some events are reasonably national competitions, as there doesn’t seem any other way to make up a league of, say, basketball teams for a one-off tournament that would be of any interest. But the endless reporting of medal counts by country, and flagraising for someone who wins an individual event, which nearly all are, is crosswise to the original spirit of the modern Olympics and feels a lot like a cold war leftover, East Germany’s steroid-soaked ghost.

I beg to differ. Pierre de Coubertin was an idealist and internationalist, but a French patriot as well, in an era imbued with Social Darwinism and militarist nationalism. One of his early arguments for introducing physical education in French schools, as in British public schools, was to better fight wars with Germany. You can argue about this. But it’s quite clear that the success of the modern Olympic movement lies in in a Faustian pact with nationalism. The jettisoning of the amateur principle, which de Coubertin got from English Victorian practice not Ancient Greek, has reinforced this pact, as the Olympics are no longer a contest within an international upper class.

Consider the survival problem of the International Olympic Committee.

The IOC is a co-optative Leninist oligarchy of geriatric sportsmen. Continue reading “On the Olympian necessity of flags”

Strategy and tactics

Olympics Badminton is organized so that a team can improve their odds of winning the tournament by losing the odd early match, which changes their seeding in the final rounds. Badminton rules also forbid “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”  If your best efforts to win a match reduce your chances of winning a medal, the players are in an impossible position under the first rule.  Today, four teams were expelled for going for the medals as well as they could, even though they didn’t make the rules; in fact, it’s the organizers who should face punishment under the second provision above.

Whatever the rules are, and they have to be consistent, playing strategically rather than tactically is central to excellence in lots of sports and more.  A sacrifice bunt in baseball, all kinds of tactics in bicycle and auto racing, and losing a piece on purpose in chess are part of those games and make them interesting.  “Cannae” is military shorthand for a classic strategy in which a general tactically retreats the center so the enemy will advance to be flanked on both sides and lose the battle.

The players didn’t cheat; this isn’t like doping or putting a roll of nickels in a boxing glove.  It’s the competition designers’ job to make rules in which the incentives for players at each stage match how they want the whole event to unfold.  If motivating dogging early games is a problem, fix the rules, as the wise neighbor did when two farmers had each bet that he had the slowest horse and the race to settle it dragged on into the evening: “change horses!”