Friday, October 20, 2006

Why Play Off, When You Can Play On?

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I never feel any pressure when I am taking a Spanish test. Sure, maybe Spanish is not my best subject. Maybe I am only able to write two coherent pages. But during any given test, I am as pressure-free as a flat tire. After all, even if things go badly that afternoon, there will still be one-hundred and sixty-one other tests to make up for it.

Playoffs are maddening things. You could not invent a more inefficient way to choose a champion (aside from, perhaps, a heated match of rock-paper-scissors). This may be especially true of baseball, but it is true for anything. Professional poker players often readily admit that on any one hand they can be beaten by a novice. If you shortened a game of “H-O-R-S-E” to a game of “H,” any mediocre rec-league warrior could take down Robert Horry with startling regularity. Even playing out the entire word, Big Shot Bob would be fully capable of losing, and losing often.

This warping of reality is the reason statisticians and analysts speak of “sample size.” When the size of the sample is small enough, strange things begin to happen. Suddenly, the predictive power of numbers evaporates. Maybe a die has a one-in-six chance of coming up “four.” But on any one roll, seeing four dots on the top of the die would not surprise everyone. If you roll a hundred fours in a row, then you’d arouse suspicion (see: loaded dice), but for that one isolated flick of the wrist, all bets are off. (Except when you are hanging out with Charles Barkley. He’d give you 10-1 on $15,000.) So the professional poker player doesn’t base anything on one single hand; instead, he plays a conservative game, confident that over the span of enough hands, the true talent will win out.

But even as totally illogical as playoffs are, everyone uses them, so there must be value in them somewhere. Obviously, playoffs are played because they suck people in, but the reason they do so is slightly less clear. Some would argue that the playoff format caters to our underdog-loving sensibilities, and there is some truth to that. We gravitate toward the unlikely, and part of the playoff allure is the fact that Rocky just might take down Apollo. We love that kind of story. Hollywood does not churn out countless movies about pre-season favorites that fulfill expectations, or about handsome, witty, intelligent guys who get the girls. Surely the Rocky Complex explains part of the appeal of playoffs, but it does not tell the whole story.

Life lacks a safety net. While a long regular season may be the best way to determine the superior team, it is also wholly unrealistic. In life, we do not get a couple hundred chances at each task to make sure our natural abilities shine through. That would be the fairest way to do things, but life is not fair. The accountant who makes one mistake—forgets to carry the three just once—does not get to keep trying in order to demonstrate his mathematical prowess. Instead, he gets investigated by the SEC.

One mistake can define a person, no matter how good he usually is. If my Spanish test comes back with a giant “F” scrawled on the top, I will be back in line to re-register next semester. So goes real life, and so go the playoffs. We find riveting drama in the fact that those athletes on the field are facing the same situation that we face every day. “Win or go home” is not just a marketing ploy, it is real. Everyone understands what it is like to face that kind of pressure, and we love watching others deal with it.

Ironically, the best example of this drama is found in a sport that does not use a playoff at all. This distinction is more semantic than anything else, however. College football’s post-season system by be arcane and opaque, but it creates the greatest twelve-round playoff in all of sport. Every single game of the college football season carries with it the pressure of a Game Seven, because one loss is often enough to eliminate a team from national championship contention. And pity the team that loses twice—you can punch their ticket to the Sun Bowl right there. By completely removing the safety net from its regular season, college football creates the most life-like drama possible: the next game is always the most important one, just as each new day is always the most important one of our lives.

The Tigers and Cardinals will play Game One of the World Series today. It is very possible that each team was the worst of their respective league’s playoff quartet. History, however, does not care. Whatever the odds were going in, the Tigers and Cardinals won the games on the field. Calling it “luck,” as some people are wont to do, cheapens their victories, but skill is not exactly the determining factor either. In that thin slice of baseball, every team is equal. Success or failure is a fifty-fifty proposition. A wise man once said that “accidental brilliance is still brilliance,” and that captures the idea of the playoffs perfectly. The playoffs are that feeling we get when we know that there will not be a second try, and whatever happens right now will be defining.

Monday, October 16, 2006


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Last week, immediately following a dominant performance by the Tigers, we watched Yankees Czar George Steinbrenner wrestle with whether he should fire their manager. We debated with him, recounting Joe Torre’s gaffes (and there were some), evaluating the team’s talent, and remembering his championships. In the end, the Yankees (and I think, most baseball fans) decided that Torre should stay

Yesterday, immediately following a dominant performance by the Tigers, we watched the Athletics Czar Billy Beane fire manager Ken Macha. This time, there was no debate, precious little coverage beforehand, and the reasons were personal. “Success of the year probably didn't have to do with it, but stuff that happened behind the scenes,” said coach Ron Washington.

For a week, we debated the definition of fairness in regard to Torre’s job. Yesterday Beane showed us exactly what fair really was, and it turns out it isn’t pretty. “Fair” is managing a team with $62 million of talent to the second round of the American League playoffs, and getting fired. Fair is managing $200 million of talent that was eliminated a round earlier and getting paid $7 million next year.

Does that sound inconsistent? It’s not. If you’re not seeing the pattern, let me give you a clearer definition: Fair is what your boss thinks of the job you’ve done.

This is a reality that most of us understand from personal experience, and though we might disagree with it in instances, most of us buy into the concept. Our boss evaluates us because they’re as close to our situation as just about anyone. They pay attention, because they have to pay attention. They define fair for us, because someone is defining fair for him or her.

It would be nice if the process was more objective, but it’s rare that most of us have truly objective criteria for our performance. Reaching that standard is usually impossible, and the results are often less than desirable. For instance, we’ll set up tests to objectively evaluate if a teacher is good or not. Then we debate the inevitable effects of those tests, many of which are contrary to a successful education.

Meanwhile, in any given school, ask around who the best and worst teachers are. 80% of all students, parents, administrators and even teachers will agree on the best and worst in each grade. Objective? No. Effective? You decide.

Subjective judgments also often reflect the culture of an organization, which is usually necessary for long-term success. That certainly played a role this week. The Yankees’ decision included balancing their culture of high expectations with the challenges of managing public perception and the media. For the Athletics, Macha suffered from a certain level of isolation from Beane, who is probably more involved with the team than most GMs. “Not to fault either side, but I felt a disconnect on a lot of levels," Beane said.

The dichotomy of the organizations, the process and the outcome highlights a simple truth; we don’t really know these managers. We can watch how they handle a game. We can infer management style from a subset of quotes or anecdotes. This probably adds up to about 15% of the job, if that.

Debating the other 85% can be a lot of fun, but the decision lies where it should. And that’s not a bad definition of fair.