Monday, March 31, 2008

The Whole Equation



It's Opening Day! And no, I don't know how the Tigers lost to the Royals, either, but the Indians beat the White Sox, and Jonathan's Red Sox won on Sunday, so at least a couple of good things have happened. (For snarkier takes on the day's proceedings, go to Office writer/producer Michael Schur's wonderful baseball/sports media blog Fire Joe Morgan).

Last night on 60 Minutes, Morley Safer did a piece on Bill James, the inventor of sabermetrics, who now consults for the Red Sox. Famously memorialized in MIchael Lewis's book Moneyball, James' statistical analysis has slowly remapped the way a lot of fans, reporters and even a few baseball GMs view the game. Positing, through his Baseball Abstracts, that many baseball stats (like a pitcher's win-loss record or a player's batting average) are overrated, James began looking at other aspects of the game (on-base percentage, ballpark size, etc.) to determine why teams were or weren't successful. James' work was so offbeat that he had to initially self-publish the Abstracts, until they slowly worked their way into the game's consciousness. Because of Moneyball, A's GM Billy Beane became James' most famous disciple, but the Red Sox have been the most successful, using James' methods to win two World Series in the last four years.

It seems appropriate that the James piece followed Lesley Stahl's interview with Al Gore, since Gore's global warming work shares certain qualities with James'. Moneyball is an essential book, not because of its baseball material or statistical arcana, fascinating as both are, but because of the larger question this material informs: what does it mean to rethink an outmoded paradigm? Using James' work, Beane fought to overcome a scouting staff whose insistence on "what they could see" of high school and college prospects was filtered through longstanding prejudices about body shape, cultural background, and sports tradition ("that's the way the game has always been played"), even when those prejudices kept them from seeing what was really happening on the field. The book almost acts as a training manual for how one might break the hold of these kinds of Barthesian "mythologies", and a warning about how strong such resistance to change can be, whether it's in sports, politics, or academic study.

While working in very different fields, James and Gore are both attempting to restructure the way we think about longstanding paradigms of sports and the environment, areas whose powerful interests have strong investments in business as usual, and whose details are so complex that it is often easy for a layperson to be snookered by manipulations of "common sense" (there's an echo of the baseball scout's "I see what I can see" in the gas and oil companies' obfuscations about data and jokes about "well, it's still snowing, isn't it? Global warming is a myth!"). Both men have been decried as heretics, and it has taken nearly thirty years for both men's work to become the mainstream of thought about their respective disciplines. Even the 60 Minutes pieces were similar: James and Gore would lay out their positions and get know-nothing responses from Safer and Stahl, respectvely, who used the old "some people say" canard as a conduit for conservative conventional wisdom (if Safer said "Yes, but don't you believe in the magic of the game?" one more time, I thought I'd scream).

If we take Moneyball as a how-to manual (which I think we should) about shifting paradigms, and apply it to Gore and James (and by extension, our own fields), what are the procedures it lays out?

1.Don't trust what you "know": As Obi-Wan Kenobi taught us (oddly, in 1977, the same year James' first Abstract was published), "Your eyes can deceive you-- don't trust them." There's another game being played besides the one you've been trained to see, another way of reading the weather patterns. If you take what you see as data or pieces or (in Benjaminian terms), collections of material instead of catechisms of belief, you can then re-order and re-think the patterns into which they "seem" to fit. Don't be afraid to rethink everything.

2. Write it down: James was a night watchman when he started writing his abstracts, Gore a U.S. Senator when he wrote Earth In The Balance, but having a text to refer to allowed the ideas to be spread more easily, and to find acolytes like Billy Beane and Leonardo DiCaprio. Which leads to the third point...

3.Find some important friends: Would anyone know what sabermetrics was if the Oakland A's hadn't used it extensively-- and won so many games (at a relatively cheap price) with it? Gore was already famous, of course, but as the 60 MInutes piece pointed out, he understands the advantages of coalition building and publicity, bringing filmmakers, advertisers, and political figures into his work to help spread the word.

4. Expect resistance-- and use it: Some of the best passages of Moneyball document Beane's relationship with the more conservative elements of baseball: other GMs, dopey sportscasters, and even his own staff, who keep telling him he's crazy to go against baseball tradition. A former player himself, Beane knows acutely how baseball's myths can damage players and teams, and takes the resistance as a sign he is on the right track. Similarly, as a former senator, Vice-President and Presidential candidate, Gore is intimately familiar with business-as-usual models, and scored some nice points about the foolishness of those folks in last night's interview, comparing them to "flat-earthers." Which leads to the final point...

5. What will your tale be?: James offered a wealth of statistics in his Abstracts, but also framed them as a story, a series of conversational arguments that functioned as a counter-myth to conventional baseball wisdom. An Inconvenient Truth's combination of slide show and self-deprecating humor offered Gore a useful filter for his dry scientific data, and reminded people that this material could be presented in an entertaining way. By offering their own stories, James and Gore reminded viewers and readers that the long-held "truths" they were counteracting were also stories, and no less provisional.

None of this is new, of course; in his piece, "How To Start An Avant-Garde," film theorist Robert Ray noted that all avant-gardes follow a similar model: rethinking patterns, finding a mythology to work against, looking for analogies or models in fields outside their own, crafting their own new tales that then become the dominant models. One of those avant-gardes, oddly, was classic Hollywood: what would become the most dominant and powerful media mode in history was also structured counter-intuitively, basing itself on the car industry. Searching for a model to counteract what he felt were the excesses of a director-centered independent production (and to turn out the needed one film a week to maintain overhead), MGM head Irving Thalberg turned to Henry Ford's "assembly line" model for guidance: each person doing a specific task instead of one; repetition of form and function, genre and role, instead of artisinal change with every new product; a central producer overseeing everything to achieve maximum efficiency. With this streamlined business model, MGM was able to become the biggest studio in Hollywood within a decade, and established the model for the "studio system" that would dominate American film production for the next twenty-five years.

Of course, not every film fit this model (any statistical model has to account for abberations): Casablanca, for instance, was a famously chaotic production. Based on the flop play Everybody Comes To Rick's, the movie went through casting changes, ongoing script rewrites, and the difficulties of making a glamorous melodrama under wartime rationing conditions. The most famous anecdote concerns star Ingrid Bergman asking screenwriters Howard Koch, Phillp Epstein and Julius Epstein who she would end up with (Rick or Victor?), as they were supposedly rewriting the ending of the script several times on the set. Epstein said in an interview fifty years later, "Warner had 75 writers under contract and 75 of them tried to figure out an ending!...We were driving to the studio. It came to us while we were driving!"


Like many Hollywood myths, this one is only partially true, as later film historians would discover memos and drafts of scripts that suggest the ending was in place, in one form or another, early on. But our desire to believe it's true suggests that the "magic" Morely Safer insists on (for however anti-intellectual a reason) in baseball has an even greater power in movies, whose mythologies are even more sensual and alluring than a double play. What's needed, then, is a paradigm shift that allows for a rethinking of what we "know" while maintaining the magic that's drawn us in the first place.

The Red Sox seem to understand this, using Jamesian analysis while still offering the bright personalities, historical nostalgia and humor that baseball fans have long loved. Even more than the A's (a small-market team), the Sox seem like a Hollywood studio: able to take risks because their large payroll allows for financial security. For all that, though, they suffered for 86 years without a Series win, until they hired a bright young James disciple and Yale grad as their GM. He had grown up in Brookline as a Red Sox fan, later worked for the Padres and Orioles, and was determined to use sabermetrics to finally lift the fabled Boston franchise out of its longtime funk. Within two years, he'd succeeded, as the Sox won the 2004 World Series.

That GM was Theo Epstein, great-grandnephew of Casablanca screenwriter Julius Epstein and great-grandson of co-writer Phillip. It's the kind of twist his relatives might have written: the scion of Hollywood chaos brings order through rationalizaton and analysis. And it's a reminder that the "whole equation of pictures" that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of in The Last Tycoon (memorializing men like Thalberg) didn't eliminate mystery, glamour or strange coincidence, but merely gave it a clearer palette on which to reveal itself. How might our writing do the same, to invent new equations for our own analysis?

4 comments:

Jonathan Lapper said...

Brian - Whatever you started eating for breakfast recently keep it up. This was a superb piece. Terrific in it's form and analysis. Really, just a damn fine piece of writing.

Brian Doan said...

Hi Jonathan,
Glad you liked it, thanks! Actually, I was running on very little sleep, due to the long day of traveling, so maybe I need to keep up this sleep deprivation thing. (:

Jonathan Lapper said...

Or start drinking heavily. I've found near-stupor states of drunkenness to simulate very little sleep quite well.

Brian Doan said...

*Hiccup* I'm sorry, did you something say? *Hiccup*