Friday, July 17, 2009

Baseball as Religion: A flawed concept especially if you are a Kansas City Royals fan; Posnanski sees this, too -- Hey, you gotta' believe

Baseball as religion. Hmmmm.... I've often thought of a pristine baseball field (I have one in mind but I'm not sure I still have permission to be there... so it shall go unnamed) on a cool Sunday morning under an achingly blue sky as a cathedral.

But, that's as far as I'm willing to push the comparison, for a variety of reasons. And, I'm more convinced than ever, watching the machinations of the Kansas City Royals, that baseball and religion -- like politics and religion -- don't mix.

Kansas City Pitch writer David Martin pushed this idea as far as it would go recently and his thoughts are highly recommended here. He compares the Royal's organization to the Bush administration and, surprisingly, this comparison is dead on. Even I wouldn't have thought of this, and most people who have to deal with me daily would tell you they are sick and tired of the comparisons I see between everything and baseball.

Star writer, Sam Mellinger, put together a fine analysis in today's paper of the problems this hapless franchise faces under the headline "What we've learned and still need to know about the Royals." Mellinger's piece looked at the Royals from primarily a statistical perspective. His conclusions made sense. They might even have been revealing to fans and management. Of course, management might respond in its usually thin-skinned manner and just freeze Mellinger out, as history suggests. Again, see Martin's piece on this subject. Here's one link to the Royals' recent reaction to media criticism.

The problem is this. Life doesn't always respond to linear, rational thinking., at least not to the sort of 1 + 1 = 2 thinking we like to imagine runs the world. Physicists like Mark Buchanan, author of The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You, make a strong case for a much more complicated physics of human behavior challenging the economic model that people will ultimately do what is good for them. And, because people run organizations, his analysis sugests organizations often don't do what is good for them, which brings me to this question:

What role does religion play in this organization's decision-making criteria?

Did the general manager select the manager because he thought the man exhibited all the right qualities for a manager the franchise could afford to hire? Or, did the comfort of the manager's similarly fundamental religious beliefs enter the equation, consciously or unconsciously? Are scouts chosen in the same manner? (If the Royals need to expand payroll, the money should be used to hire the best scouts away from Tampa Bay and New York, Boston and Philly. The reasons are just too numerous to list.) Are players selected, consciously or unconsciously, for the comfort of their religious beliefs (or short-changed for the same reason)? Do religious beliefs make a difference in how a player moves through the farm system?

And, interestingly, do religious beliefs affect the decisions the general manager and the manager make on the field. Strongly religious people obviously live by strong faith in positive outcomes for positive beliefs. It's hard to imagine such a deeply held mindset might not enter every decision a man makes in his life, even the decision to keep sending a tired pitcher out for another inning (if he believes in that pitcher) or to stick by a light hitting catcher with strong religious beliefs or to hope against hope and what's good for the ballclub for the redemption of an outfielder working on his third career strike.

Frustration with this Wal-Mart team, I'm afraid, leads to such cockamamie questions.


PPS: Allow me to add this on Saturday morning from Joe Posnanski's blog decrying the looney Yuniesky Betancourt trade. First, he provides all the statistics which strongly suggest this trade will rank up there with Nefi Perez :

The Royals, obviously, believe this is entirely wrong. The numbers I have chosen to see are wrong. They believe Betancourt is actually a very good defensive shortstop with a chance to be the best. They believe that his problem is that he can be inconsistent but that he has tremendous ability and that with a new start, a stable environment, a firm but encouraging group of coaches and teammates, he can shake off that inconsistency and pull out that remarkable talent.

Notice here how many times Joe uses the word "believe." He's seeing essentially the same thing. He has nailed an essential element of the Royal's philosophy: A blind faith in the power of redemption. Well, even if you believe in redemption, baseball has a lot more to do with the ability to react to a 95-mile-per-hour fastball than it does with character. Just make a list of the Royals' redemption projects across the years. I'm trying to think of one who was redeemed as a player. The Royals may have saved a few souls, but not many games.

1 comment:

  1. "Baseball as religion" is interesting too when viewed through the lens of these great baseball novels we've been reading. "Shoeless Joe" is an example of the author using baseball as a way to ACCESS religion... "The Universal Baseball Association" would truly be "baseball AS religion," or at least J. Henry Waugh's form of baseball with Waugh himself as God. Mention of religion is largely absent from the Harris books, but to Henry Wiggen baseball is the only thing in his life worthy of religious devotion. (Funny how the main characters in the Wiggen series and in "Universal Baseball Association" are named Henry.)
    --Matt Kelsey