Pundits, Politics, And Punters

It is always perilous to the mind to reckon up the mind.

—G. K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”

conservative columnist David Brooks went to a lot of trouble the other day explaining in The New York Times why it is that,

Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer.

It seems everyone is anxious to get on the soccer bandwagon and exploit its growing popularity in America. Brooks, who still supports the Republican Party, uses the we-are-playing-soccer metaphor to, perhaps unintentionally, undermine the entire libertarianish economic platform of the party he still supports. He quotes philosopher Simon Critchley, who says, “Soccer is a collective game, a team game,” and by use of that definition, coupled with saying that most of us “are really playing soccer,” Brooks offers soccerbaseballus quite an indictment of his political party.

Yet there is no indication that Brooks will ever abandon the GOP, which these days abhors the very idea, notably expressed by President Obama and Elizabeth Warren, that success is a collaborative effort. Brooks appears content to side with folks who find “collective” a four-letter word. Why is that?

Even though I disagree with his use of soccer as the best metaphor for our social life—because baseball is the perfect combination of “individual activities” that conspire to create intricate collective-team dynamics—he is right about this:

We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize.

The reality may even be worse than Brooks dares recognize. And that reality may explain why it is that Brooks, despite the evidence in his own column(s), still carries ideological water for the Republican Party.

In a great piece at Vox (“How Politics Makes Us Stupid”), Ezra Klein will ruin your day if you think you arrived at your partisan political positions through rigorous and reasoned analysis of the available information:

Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.

You should read Klein’s piece for yourself, but it based on the work of Yale Law professor Dan Kahan, who “set out to test a question that continuously puzzles scientists: why isn’t good evidence more effective in resolving political debates?” Kahan’s hypothesis:

Perhaps people aren’t held back by a lack of knowledge. After all, they don’t typically doubt the findings of oceanographers or the existence of other galaxies. Perhaps there are some kinds of debates where people don’t want to find the right answer so much as they want to win the argument. Perhaps humans reason for purposes other than finding the truth — purposes like increasing their standing in their community, or ensuring they don’t piss off the leaders of their tribe. If this hypothesis proved true, then a smarter, better-educated citizenry wouldn’t put an end to these disagreements. It would just mean the participants are better equipped to argue for their own side.

Of course, as with any social science hypothesis worth its weight in soccer balls, testing was needed. And that testing seems to have confirmed the idea that ideology trumps reason. Even people good at math, who had demonstrated that they could solve a non-ideological problem by working through the evidence to find the right answer, fell victim to their ideological and partisan biases. One test was set up to focus “on a proposal to ban people from carrying concealed handguns in public” and voilà:

Presented with this problem a funny thing happened: how good subjects were at math stopped predicting how well they did on the test. Now it was ideology that drove the answers. Liberals were extremely good at solving the problem when doing so proved that gun-control legislation reduced crime. But when presented with the version of the problem that suggested gun control had failed, their math skills stopped mattering. They tended to get the problem wrong no matter how good they were at math. Conservatives exhibited the same pattern — just in reverse.

It gets worse:

Being better at math didn’t just fail to help partisans converge on the right answer. It actually drove them further apart. Partisans with weak math skills were 25 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. Partisans with strong math skills were 45 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them.

Consider how utterly insane that is: being better at math made partisans less likely to solve the problem correctly when solving the problem correctly meant betraying their political instincts. People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right.

All that does seem insane. But it helps explain why a New York Times columnist, smart enough to know better, is still a Republican.

Finally, since Brooks started it, I will finish with a sports analogy that one of his commenters (“Matt”) supplied that tells a better story of contemporary America:

…Life in America today is American football and the 99% are in punt formation. The .01% is a 300 pound lineman, the 99% is a 140 pound punter, the referee is the government and it’s decided not to enforce the roughing the punter rule. And when the punter, bleeding and hurt and on a stretcher, cries foul over not enforcing the rules, he’s hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for arguing with the referees.

Now that is a metaphor that all thinking people should, but obviously won’t, embrace.

blind ref

[Photo: REUTERS/Patrick Smith]
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Fred White, R.I.P.

Fred White, long-time Kansas City Royals broadcaster, has passed away.

My youngest son is named Brett and if that doesn’t give you a clue as to why I would write a tribute to a guy who used to do play-by-play of Royals games on the radio, then don’t bother reading on. This isn’t for you.

When I was much younger, I spent countless—and I mean countless—nights listening to Fred White and his partner, Denny Matthews, do about three hours of what was, in those days, great Royals baseball. The team’s best years were 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, and, of course, 1985, when they were World Series champions. It’s been pretty much down hill since then, but then the Chicago Cubs, who have been around since Moses was a baby, haven’t won a World Series since, well, Moses was a baby. So, a 27-year championship drought isn’t all that bad.

In my head, to this day, are the voices of Fred White and Denny Matthews. Radio has a way of doing that to you, especially radio mixed with the greatest game in the world. Fred was always my favorite of the two, but together they made a great team, and when the baseball team was great, there was nothing like following the games, night by night, inning by inning, pitch by pitch, as they called them.

I made it a point to wait around and greet Fred White after seeing a Royals game at Royals Stadium several years ago (yeah, I know they call it Kauffman Stadium today, but it will always be Royals Stadium to me).  I wanted to tell him how much I appreciated his work, how his voice lived in my head, and to have my picture taken with him. He was out-of-the-way friendly and posed with me, something I will never forget.

To most folks, I know that sounds strange. Most people hang out at the stadium after games to get players’ autographs, and I have done plenty of that in my time, but when Fred came out, it was like, for me at least, meeting a superstar player. He started broadcasting Royals games in 1973  and was essentially fired in 1998, so he could be replaced with a “young, fresh new voice.”  The organization will never receive my forgiveness for that.

Starting in 1979, I worked nights and the radio was my connection to a better world. One of my co-workers, Jimmy McKinnis, saw to it that every night, promptly at 7:10, the workroom floor radio was tuned to the Royals pre-game show. Sure, having to listen to three hours of baseball didn’t please a lot of our co-workers, but Jimmy didn’t care. It was his connection to a better world, too.

The broadcasts throughout the Royals’ 1980 season were remarkable. Fred and Denny calling win after win (the team won 97 games that year), chronicling Willie Wilson’s great year (.326 hitter in 705 at bats, a major league record at the time), and George Brett’s famous flirtation with .400 (he ended up hitting .390), as well as the Royals defeat, finally, of the dreaded Yankees in the playoffs, and then their eventual loss to the Phillies in the World Series.

But the best Fred and Denny broadcasts were yet to come.

The 1985 championship season was, to a Royals fan, one of the most remarkable seasons of all time, considering how the team performed in the post season, first defeating the best team in the American League, the Toronto Blue Jays, after being down three games to one, and then defeating the best team in baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals, after losing the first two games at home and also after being down three games to one.

My biggest regret of that 1985 season, of the greatest year in Royals history, was that I didn’t share the impossible-to-believe Game Six with Fred and Denny. I left work early that night in order to watch the game on TV. For years after, I tried to get a copy of their call of the ninth inning of that game, an inning that will have no match for me in professional sports, in terms of the sheer joy it brought. (The bottom of the ninth radio broadcast is available on YouTube, by the way. It never gets old.)

Baseball, like life itself, is chock-full of little things that make a difference in the end. In the case of Game Six of the 1985 World Series between the Royals and Cardinals—played in Kansas City—it was several little things in the ninth inning that would lead the Royals to their one and only championship.

Things like umpire Don Denkinger’s bad call on a Royals hitter named Jorge Orta and Jack Clark’s failure to catch a popup, a passed ball by catcher Darrell Porter and, most decisively, a Royals utility player named Dane Iorg—whom the Cardinals had sold to the Royals the previous year—getting only his second at-bat of the series and then getting the biggest hit in Royals history. That inning, that most unpredictable inning, is what makes baseball the game it is, the greatest game.

And there I was, at home, watching it on TV and not listening to it on the radio, like so many games I had heard that year. Thus, I missed what Fred White had to say, as he and his broadcasting buddy looked out over a stunned but overwhelmingly satisfied crowd:

Denny, you know you go through a lifetime of being around sports. And if you ever question whether or not its worth it, all you need to do is sit and look down at this scene in Royals stadium now and see the joy that this game has brought to the fans here in Royals stadium.

And, yes, there are more important things on this earth than sports I guess, but I dare say tonight, nothing can bring more joy to Kansas City than a little single into right field that gets this thing to Game Seven. This improbable little team, doing improbable little things, now has pushed this thing to the brink.

I missed that moment when it happened and, as I said, I regret it to this day. I shared so many great moments with Fred and Denny, but I missed that one, the team’s greatest one. I wished I would have heard in real time Fred’s neat little summation, his attempt to make sense of what had happened, his attempt to put in perspective what that incredible World Series game meant to so many of us.

Of course, Fred was right. There are more important things on this earth than sports. But there are not many things more important than joy. Every time, every single time, that I go back and listen to that 9th inning, I tear up. I know it sounds crazy. I know it sounds absolutely nuts. But I do. I can’t help it. Joy does that to you, even joy over a baseball game played more than 27 years ago.

And despite my not sharing in real time that moment of joy with a guy on the radio named Fred White, there were others, many other moments of joy, that I shared with him.

And his voice will live on in my head.

Sunday Evening

Sunday evening, before the onset of the cruel aftershocks that continue to pummel our devastated city with remorseless storms and rescue-impeding rains, my youngest son and I undertook a journey to a destination he—a high school student and baseball player—seemed desperate to see.

He wanted to go to his school.

He had heard it had been destroyed and he wanted to see for himself, see if his home away from home—the school and the ballpark—were still there.

Just an hour after the historic tornado hit, we began our walk to Joplin High School. We stepped over thick, once-pulsating power lines; we listened to a natural gas main hiss an awful hiss as it filled the air with that unmistakable odor and imminent danger;  we stepped on and over shards of civilization—the wood, glass, and other fabric that make up a life-home; we passed by pummeled, twisted sheet metal no longer confined to driveways or cowering in garages, but like wildly wounded or dead tin soldiers on some strange and dreadful battlefield, they testified to the power of a fearsome and formidable opponent, in this case a monstrous whirlwind of nature.

In short, we walked through the rubble—how terrible it seems to call it that—and we watched the landscape, once so familiar, disorient us with its new unfamiliarity, the product of an appalling but natural disregard for our pattern-seeking and sense-making needs as human beings.

And that smell.

The stale smell that no CNN report can convey, no matter how detailed or how crowded with images. That wet-wood, musty, gassy smell that democratizes the neighborhoods, the poor and the middle-class and beyond, as it wafts through the scene.

And the sounds.

The unrelenting sirens, of all kinds, with their Doppler effects and with their piercing seriousness.  But the most amazing sound of all was the quasi-silence, the eerie effect of the shocked and shaken as they made their way to loved ones, or to be loved.

And then we turned the corner and there it was.  Our Hiroshima.

The school, and the surrounding landscape, was now a victim of nature’s Enola Gay, which dropped a Fujita-4 tornado in the middle of our city, and in the heart of the familiar, and in the education commons, the place where rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black and white, came together to learn, to socialize—and to play high school baseball.

From the elevated soccer field that overlooks the ballpark, the inspired geometry of the diamond was still discernible, even though the place had been leveled and the ground was littered with pieces of the neighborhood.  A four-wheel drive pickup made its way across the outfield to get to the street beyond, the fence no longer an obstacle, no longer a fence.

To the west, the houses were gone.  The houses whose windows and roofs had been the targets of years of foul balls, duds bounding off the bats of too-hopeful Major League aspirants. Those familiar houses were gone.  All of them, and all behind them, and behind them. 

And to the south, all gone.  And to the east.

And the boy, becoming by necessity that moment more manly, spotted a figure below, standing near the field, behind what used to be the visitor’s dugout.

“Coach Harryman!” he shouted.

And the stunned coach, whose attachment to the field and school is measured not just by years but by a career, turned around and greeted us, making his way up the hill to where we stood, his tearful wife soon by his side.  We shared our disbelief, exchanging inquiries about loved ones, standard practice around here these days.

Then it was time to get back home, before streetlight-less darkness made getting back home even more dangerous, the getting back home now even more necessary, after the sights we had seen.

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