Shadow Universe

Baseball is a lot like life. It’s a day-to-day existence, full of ups and downs. You make the most of your opportunities in baseball as you do in life.

Baseball is a ballet without music. A drama without words. A carnival without kewpie dolls. Baseball is continuity. Pitch to pitch. Inning to inning. Season to season.

Baseball just a came as simple as a ball and bat. Yet, it is as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. It’s a sport, a business, and sometimes almost even a religion.

Ernie Harwell

Pete Sampras gripped the ball in his left hand and bounced it against the court of Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was a late September afternoon in New York, and Sampras was battling Andre Agassi for the 2002 U.S. Open Championship.

The two men had been at the center of American tennis for the past decade. Two years earlier, Sampras had set the all-time record with his 13th Grand Slam championship, winning Wimbledon for the seventh time. Although he had won Wimbledon more times and it is tennis’s most prestigious tournament, the U.S. Open was his home country’s championship, and Sampras badly wanted to win it for a fifth time.

Sampras had made a living out of masterful control of the 21 by 13 and one-half foot service box, constantly baffling opponents with a powerful but well-disguised and unpredictable array of serves. He finished first in the world rankings six straight years in the 1990s. But his game had fallen on hard times after his record setting win. He had not won any tournaments, saw his rank drop to 17th, and although he made it to the U.S. Open Final the previous two years, he was beaten soundly by younger, quicker opponents both times.

Always a passionate though humble and dignified player, one got the impression that Sampras could soon walk away from the game without regrets. He was married and expecting a child, and looking to shift his priorities to a life after tennis. Now, at 31, Sampras made another improbable run through the seven rounds of the Open, dispatching younger opponents Tommy Haas, Andy Roddick, and Sjeng Schalken in succession to reach the final.

His opponent was the ageless Agassi, against whom he had won his first Grand Slam title twelve years earlier. Sampras won the first set and then the second. Agassi won the third but a break in the ninth game of the fourth gave Sampras a chance to win the match on his serve. At 40-15, Sampras sent another booming serve at Agassi, who managed to block that shot back and then another, but by then Sampras was at the net and backhanded the return into an open court. Sampras smiled, hugged Agassi, and acknowledged the crowd who had cheered him on for so many years. It was the last shot of his professional tennis career.

Although Sampras did not announce his retirement immediately, it was clear that this was the way he wanted to go out. Still, there is a certain finality when a great player’s career ends. Some legends know when their last moment has arrived and manage to provide us with one more lasting memory. Ted Williams homered in his final at-bat at Fenway Park. Michael Jordan scored the winning basket in the 1998 NBA Finals. (He would come out of retirement several years later, but for practical purposes, the superstar Jordan was done.) Others have their career shortened by tragedies. Roberto Clemente was nearing the end of a hall-of-fame career when his plane crashed into the Caribbean as he was transporting aid to earthquake victims. His 3000th major league hit was his last. Kirby Puckett was struck in the eye by a pitch at the end of the 1995 season. Unrelated to that injury, he developed glaucoma the following year and never played again. Most players simply fade slowly and move on. Their lives continue, but their active participation in the game is done.

In many ways, the careers of athletes mimic the lives of ordinary people. We watch young players grow and develop, fresh with exuberance but lacking wisdom from experience. We watch teams assemble and disassemble, rivalries and friendships develop, and triumphs and failures mount. Older veterans pass their knowledge down, and though their skills might be diminished, they still manage to outfox their younger brethren with cunning and instinct. And even when some are long past their prime, they hang on for nothing other than love of the game itself. When they leave, others take their place. The cycle continues; players are forever linked to their sport’s past and future.

It is easy to draw too many parallels between sports and life. Whenever two highly complex concepts are compared, one is certain to find similarities, but many more differences. Sports are not the same as life, nor is there a one-to-one correlation between the two. Sports are instead a transformed reality, a shadow universe, that, like a shadow, exhibits the shapes, patterns, and movements of its parent object but through simpler and starker means. The measures of success are more clearly defined, the behavior is regulated, and yet, very importantly, the actions are unscripted. This, I think, is what sets sports apart from other forms of entertainment. The astute observer, often subconsciously, continually responds to events by creating, altering, or reinforcing his or her perceptions on human nature. That is why watching a fundamentally similar game year after year doesn’t get old – it keeps teaching and reinforcing.

What is the nature of this shadow universe? Most of us spend life trying to achieve some degree of success, but people define this differently, usually by some combination of happiness, power, respect, love, and money. Yet some of these cannot be quantified, nor is it always immediately apparent when they are achieved. How does one rank the achievements of politicians, scientists, or ordinary people? Time magazine picks a Person of the Year, but the selection is based on the year’s most newsworthy person, whatever that means, leading to past selections such as Adolf Hitler, Yasser Arafat, and Ayatollah Khomeini. Time picked Albert Einstein as its person of the century. Others chose the Dalai Lama or Martin Luther King, Jr. But what does this mean? Why not Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, or Bill Gates? Their achievements are diverse and not easily compared.

Conversely, every rank of baseball’s best players of all time will have Babe Ruth at number one, and Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ted Williams, and Ty Cobb closely following in some order. Success in sports is ultimately linked to winning. Individual success in team sports is measured by the amount of contribution to team wins. There are simple, easy-to-understand, and consistent statistics to measure performance. Rules and penalties for violations limit what behavior can take place. This also normalizes the potential outcomes and simplifies the interactions between participants. However, even though sports are a simplified social model, most of the fundamental trends can still be recognized, even more so, because extraneous details and complexities have been removed.

A great example of this lies in how sports are used as a socialization tool for children. Sure, kids can be taught social norms in other ways, but playing and watching team sports clarifies the lessons. One learns the value of team play; that if everyone does his or her job within the context of the team’s goals, good things (wins) will result. Likewise, rules violations are punished accordingly, either by giving an advantage to the opposing team or suspending a player from participating altogether. Actions have immediate results which are clear and quantifiable. Unfortunately, the steady stream of childish behavior exhibited by professional athletes shows that some adults still haven’t completely learned these lessons. But look more closely and one finds many principles to interest the mature adult.

There are historical implications. In Chapter 3, I wrote that watching many historical games reinforces the predictability and repetitiveness of sport. That’s only half true. While the outcomes follow trends, the play itself serves as a normalized narrative of history. By normalized, I mean that one can see the world from the same perspective, through a game whose rules remain mostly constant, at different instants of time. The columnist George Will once pointed out that the essentials of the baseball “are remarkably unchanged over nearly a century and a half. Of how many American institutions can that be said?”

However, the landscape surrounding the game – things like teams, uniforms, player appearance, media, stadiums, and even style of play – does change slightly from year to year, and is reflective of the culture of the day. No production demonstrates this better than the Ken Burns Baseball series, which chronicles the game’s 19th century pastoral origins through its expansion and integration in the mid-20th century to the multibillion dollar business it is today. The presentation of the game reflects the progression of media technology: radios and newsreels in the early 1900s, nationwide black-and-white broadcasts around mid-century, progressing to color and high definition television with in-game audience polls and flashy graphics. Uniforms reflect the style of the day, from baggy wool uniforms to bright-colored, tight-fitting shirts worn by bearded and mustached players in the 1970s. The league maps over time resemble the nationwide population movement, from a tight concentration in the Northeast until 1950 to inclusion of the West Coast and later the Sun Belt. On a local level, stadium architecture and location go hand-in-hand with the evolution of the urban landscape. Stadiums wedged into urban neighborhoods gave way to multipurpose steel and concrete monstrosities in the suburbs as the population followed, and back to new-age retro facilities as downtown revitalization initiatives took hold.

Sometimes events in the sporting world affect our social consciousness, and vice versa. Most notably, the integration of sports during the 1950s and 60s coincided with the civil rights movement in the United States. The on-field success of black athletes such as Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson certainly had some effect on the prejudices of white fans. Later, the influx of Latino and other ethnicities became a reminder of the increasing inclusion of these immigrant groups into American society. Drug and alcohol abuse by players such as Mickey Mantle, Len Bias, and Darryl Strawberry made front page news and reinforced how pervasive this problem can be. Severe illnesses contracted by well-known players, especially Lou Gehrig and Magic Johnson, helped bring their respective diseases into our collective consciousness. True, these social concerns are serious enough to receive attention independent of sports, but because of the connections fans feel towards athletes, social problems can be framed in a very personal and familiar way.

There are implications in economics and sociology. Notice the division of labor on a team. There are a few players with exceptional abilities whose labor is prized the most, and consequently get paid a substantial percentage of the payroll. Most players are of average ability relative to the league, but specialize in a certain position or game situation. Others are highly specialized, such as kickers in football or defensive replacements or pinch runners in baseball. Another class of people coaches and manages the teams. Still another sets and enforces the rules. Through their interactions, the participants play out many social principles. Practice and preparation are essential to performance. Deception can be more important than skill. More skilled teams usually win, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes success depends on factors outside of one’s control, including luck. Strong teams lose to weak teams if they don’t perform well enough in the given game. Great players have bad days now and then. Mediocre players go on hot streaks. Prospects flame-out, ungraceful players become stars, and forgotten former standouts rise again. Doing simple, fundamental things correctly many times over is the best way to achieve victory. The list goes on and on.

There are even implications in biology. It is clear that sports are generally derived from human ancestral behavior. They are games that simulate hunting dangerous animals or battling rival tribes in war. Much of the language of sports, especially American football, is derived from war: attack, defend, battle, bullet, rocket, shot, strike, fire, triumph, assault, shield, thrust, fight. Most common mascots or nicknames bear the names of predatory animals or societies known for prowess in battle: Bears, Lions, Eagles, Hawks, Tigers, Trojans, Warriors, and Spartans. Since males did almost all of the hunting and fighting, they evolved skills that were useful for these tasks, such as strength, agility, spatial recognition, and working as a team to defeat an opponent. Therefore, sports today are especially popular among men. True, cultural barriers have in the past kept women from participating. As discussed in Chapter 4, it will take time for women’s sports to grow in significance and attract a following. However, even with Title IX mandating an equal number of men’s and women’s teams, schools have frequently been unable to persuade enough young women to fill their teams. Women’s sports will grow in popularity, and someday the world’s best female athletes might regularly compete against and beat men, but for biological reasons, I believe sports will always have more appeal among a male audience.

A second biological principle that sports is great at demonstrating is natural selection. Obviously, players are competing against not only opponents but their own teammates for playing time. A player not having enough skill relative to his peers will soon be out of a job. The author Jared Diamond pointed out for a gazelle to survive against a predatory lion, she doesn’t need to outrun the lion, she just needs to outrun most of the other gazelles. Similarly, we should judge athletic performance relatively, not against a historical standard. A starting pitcher who can consistently pitch six innings and post an ERA of 4.50 is today is in high demand among major league teams. A century ago, in an era typified by low offense and complete games, that pitcher would have a hard time finding a job. For this reason, I think it is silly to use absolute benchmarks, such as 500 home runs, for election into the Hall of Fame, because 500 career home runs is no longer an incredible feat relative to one’s peers.

The overwhelming historical trend is for overall performance to improve. For a simple example, look at world record times in running and swimming over the past century. Among all sports, better nutrition, training, and technology directly lead to better performance. Coaches invent new offensive systems that work for a few years, but other teams eventually respond with defensive systems and recruit new players who can negate the offensive innovation.

What would happen if we could travel through time and arrange a game between a legendary team of the past, like the 1927 Yankees, and a mediocre or even poor present-day team? Think of the improvements in physical training, medicine, and game preparation (things like video scouting) that today’s players can utilize. Or try to imagine chubby Babe Ruth trying to hit a Francisco Rodriguez slider in the ninth inning while wielding a 42 ounce bat. In Ruth’s time, relief specialists wouldn’t appear for another 40 years, and Rodriguez wouldn’t have even been allowed to play because of baseball’s color barrier. I believe that the modern team would almost always win these fictional contests.

Specific innovations also transform games. Football kickers used to line up behind the ball and toe-kick it; now they kick it farther by approaching at an angle and kicking it off their shoelaces. Slapshots have transformed hockey. Christy Mathewson described how he used to pace himself while pitching, saving his best for the late innings. As the ball became more lively and hitters got stronger, pitchers could no longer do this. So they developed forkballs and screwballs and sliders and pitches that could dive and dart every which way. And teams started using relief specialists who could throw very hard for only one or two innings at a time, since starting pitchers need to throw much harder now to get hitters out, and usually can’t keep up that pace for the entire game. The first teams that employed these new strategies probably had a temporary advantage. But soon after, everyone else adopted it. Teams and players who did not or could not adapt were naturally unselected. The overall level of play increased, but everyone was just as well off relative to everybody else. The biological theory that describes this phenomenon is called the Red Queen, after a mythical chess piece in Alice in Wonderland that keeps running but never gets anywhere. Evolution itself is an unscripted game; the winners are the survivors. Compressed into a timeframe that can be witnessed within a lifetime, and clarified into simple outcomes, we have sport.

I’m sure that one could continue find relationships between sports and other disciplines. Studies of athletics might also be found to reveal useful information about new scientific theories. For now, they continue to demonstrate many simple truths for those who are willing to carefully observe with an open mind. Simple truths are just that, easy for children to understand, too often ignored or forgotten, but, like a routine play, they will usually take us the furthest.