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THE NUMBERS GAME

Wising Up
By Murray Browne

Living in denial. A failure to recognize what we should have already known. The unsettling realization that what we thought to be true is false, what was fair is foul—like learning that a tasty All-American ballpark frankfurter is nothing but hog lips and snouts. In baseball, the clichÈd dream-shattering moment used to be the starry-eyed eight-year-old seeking an autograph, only to be ignored by his hero. An updated version of that same scenario might well be the favorite ballplayer charging into the stands to attack the kid's mother with a bullpen chair. Say it ain't so, Frankie Francisco.

As baseball loving adults, we know that putting a lot of faith in a baseball player isn't such a good idea. By middle age, most of us refrain from wearing a ballplayer's jersey—like we're his fat twin brother—and exercise some restraint in our blatant hero worship. Our player admiration becomes more subtle—a computer password, maybe a lucky baseball card in the wallet, or a routine check of the box score to see how "my boy" did last night. In the meantime, our baseball attentions have shifted to become more like those of Annie Savoy in Bull Durham, who prefers to worship at the altar of baseball itself. Like Annie, we see baseball as a metaphor of life itself: the toil of going to work every day and the metaphysical understanding that life is treating you well if things fall into place three out of ten times. Discussions with your coworker about the nature of the predestined hit are much more commonplace than hanging outside the locker room hoping for an autograph.

Baseball lends itself well to these shifts in maturity, and books such as Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter's Box (edited by Eric Bronson) are published to feed that demographic. In this voluminous collection, twenty-eight of the thirty-two essays are written by academics (a blistering .875 average) who intellectualize virtually all aspects of the sport. You will find topics ranging from treatises on the ethics of the intentional walk to the Zen of hitting and Social Darwinism as it pertains to the Negro leagues. It's also comforting to know that baseball enjoys the same status as other contemporary icons such as Seinfield, Homer Simpson, and Lord of the Rings, all of which are part of the popular "culture and philosophy" series from Open Court Publishing. Admittedly, this is what we like about baseball—where else can we sound like Ken Burns or George Will?

Then along comes an article from the San Francisco Chronicle by John Shea that challenges our philosophical musings on the superiority of our favorite sport and its players. Shea reports that only 42 of about 750 players on thirty Major League Baseball rosters have four-year college degrees. That's only about 5 percent of the players in uniform and well below professional football rates of around 50 percent. In other words, the game we so love for its philosophical or literary ramifications is for the most part inhabited by guys who haven't devoted much time to thinking past the next pitch or reading past the sports page. It's a deflating thing to know.

Some of the better-known "educated" players are Steve Finley (Dodgers), Mark Prior (Cubs), Jaime Moyer (Mariners), Sean Casey (Reds), and Craig Counsel (Brewers). Some of the least-known players, such as Vinnie Chulk (Blue Jays) and Jon Knott (Padres), are probably damn glad they have a diploma on which to fall back. Almost half (eighteen) of the players with degrees are pitchers, which is about what one would expect given that approximately half the players on big league rosters are pitchers. One surprise is that the most demanding mental position—catching—has only two current players, Brad Ausmus (Astros) and John Flaherty (Yankees), who are college graduates. In the recent NLCS between St. Louis and Houston, Ausmus was singled out by the color commentators (two former players) as being the only Ivy League graduate in the majors (Dartmouth). This observation was punctuated with a "har-har-har," which could be interpreted as an insider's view that having "brains in the bigs" is not necessarily a useful commodity.

The lack of college graduates in the majors can be directly attributed to the way Major League Baseball recruits players. Most sign right out of high school or come to the United States from the Caribbean at an early age. The remaining top players who do attend universities with strong baseball programs are usually enticed with signing bonuses to turn professional after their junior year. Once a player signs a professional contract, he can no longer play collegiate ball. The college players who are drafted after graduation are assigned to the minors, but more to fill out Single A and Double A rosters than because they are considered legitimate major league prospects. So who could blame a kid for taking a signing bonus and pursuing the dream of a major league position? The only disconcerting aspect of this statistic is that the irony and the joke are on us—the majority of players in the game we intellectualize so much lack a complete formal education. That doesn't mean the players are stupid; it just means that your average player probably has a limited range of conversational topics. These guys aren't Bart Giamattis in cleats.

But baseball fans have been in denial about this phenomenon for a long time. We have been slow to realize, for instance, that the immortal gems of renowned baseball philosopher Yogi Berra (such as "ninety percent of the game is half mental" and "if you come to a fork in the road, take it") are funny, charming perhaps, but hardly illuminating. Baseball's current "genius" in residence is probably Cub pitcher Greg Maddux, who won his three hundredth game this year and set a record by compiling seventeen consecutive fifteen-win seasons. In contrast to his future Hall-of-Fame contemporaries, the hard-throwing Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens, Maddux—with his "movement over velocity" mantra—is considered the thinking man of the game. In interviews, however, he betrays no thoughts beyond game preparation and pitching to the weaknesses of the batters. And a glimpse into Maddux's worldview was provided last season when the future Hall of Famer chided Mark Prior for going back to finish his degree at USC this past spring. According to newspaper accounts, Maddux told Prior good-naturedly that he was now "over-qualified for the job." Maddux's ribbing reminds us of the trials of Moe Berg, the much-publicized weak-hitting, intellectual catcher who played for a number of teams in the 1920s and 1930s. One of Berg's rube roommates once told the catcher, "I can drive in more runs in a month than you smart guys can think across the plate all season."

These guys are right, you know. How educated do you have to be to play baseball well? After the hand-eye and physical skills, the batter's biggest mental function is recognizing and reacting to what kind of pitch the pitcher is throwing in less than a couple of seconds. And the pitchers? Pitchers are not paid to think—the "uneducated" catchers are supposed to do that for them. Moreover, knowing what base to throw to or performing the cutoff properly isn't too hard to master—it's instinctual for all but a few players.

Hard to admit—especially in a literary baseball magazine—but one could make the argument that football requires more intelligence to play. Sure, football players are bulky, over-muscled gladiators (just like baseball players), but if you read about the complex defensive schemes of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, for example, one can't help but wonder which sport requires more quick thinking at the pro level. Take Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts. Before every snap of the ball, he has twenty-five seconds to analyze his personnel, analyze his opponent's personnel, call a play, change the play at the line of scrimmage, and snap the ball. Then he has about three to four seconds to execute the play properly—or else get buried beneath a three-hundred-pound defensive lineman. One may question the smarts of a quarterback putting himself in such a situation to begin with, but that doesn't change the reality that quick analysis is required to perform well at this skill position in professional football.

So how should a thinking fan react to the realization that ballplayers are not inclined "to live in their heads," so to speak? It's not the ballplayers' fault that they are not as cultured and insightful as we might want them to be. It's time we stop imposing our own fantasies and start realizing that when the World Champion Boston Red Sox (who banned reading in the clubhouse) refer to themselves as "idiots," they aren't speaking entirely tongue in cheek. Sure, baseball is a great game that seems to lend itself to philosophical meandering, but when you think closely about who plays the game well at its highest level, maybe we are guilty of what might be called "smoking our own dope." Perhaps our only recourse is to admit that when we intellectualize baseball, we're just engaging in our own fantasies, much like that eight-year-old kid before he realizes that his hero might stand in the batter's box with clay feet. Over time the chagrin fades away, and eventually one realizes that athletic ability and intellectual curiosity are not often found in the same ballplayer. But should we find that rare scholar "who can put up some numbers," that's the time to embrace a ballplayer as truly worthy of our adulation.

—EFQ

MURRAY BROWNE lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He continually waffles between wishing he were a better student or a better athlete while growing up.

© 2005 Murray Browne

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