Saturday, March 06, 2004

Schlock-Eyed Optimists: Hack Writers
Breathin' Outta Dennis Hopper's Canister  

April is the cruellest month, breeding
hopefuls out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull fungoes with spring rain.

--T.S. Eliot

In baseball, Management By Wishful Thinking (MBWT) is seasonal. It spikes in March and April when teams without regular-season records (all undefeated, having had the counters set back to zero at the end of the previous year) shoot out of the dead land.

Trashing all objectivity, most fans pretend the team they root for is going to improve this coming season. And in March, they haven't yet been proven wrong, so the succulence of delusion is almost inescapable . The challenge is fiercely harder for baseball writers. While fans count on their writers to keep them informed, are immersed in the American ideal of a free and fair press, baseball writers this time of year are as informative, fair and rational as if they'd just taken a hit off Dennis Hopper's tank in Blue Velvet.

We all know this intuitively, but I can prove it to you statistically.

The February 16 issue of Sporting News featured a wrap, a Spring Training Special. Each division got its own page. Each team got a little info box, and each info box had common categories. The first category in each was "Better or Worse".

Violating the laws of physics and common sense as well as the immutable, ultimate consolidated .500 record produced every season by the majors, the schlock-eyed optimists of the baseball press predicted that of the thirty teams, 18 (64%) would be better and 10 (36% worse (with two sitting in the middle).

It's unprecedented. In scanning through Baseball Reference (not a thorough study, just a half-hour walkthough), I can't find a year where 64% of the teams improved their records year to year. It would mean every one of those ten "worse" teams would have to cherry-pie time like last year's Detriot Tigers, while the wins would have to be spread very carefully and balanced between the "better" teams.


There are a few reasons worth noting.

The baseball writers who put a team profile together cover that team during the year. That gives them three reasons be be delusional about the team's prospects, or to pretend they are.

#1 - Ego. The writers can't help but want the team to do well. They are lashed, like Ahab to the Whale, to the team for seven consecutive months or more, and it's hard to avoid the dream, substanited or not, that the team will be interesting to write about and, mor importantly, an important subject. Would you rather be a beat reporter covering the Yankees or the Rangers?

#2 - The Stockholm Syndrome. Writers spend all this time with the players, coaches and staff of the team that they "bond". While they are supposed to be objective, they, more often than not, become advocates, consciously or unconsciously rooting for their travel partners.

#3 - Survival Instinct. They are counting on the good will of front office people, players and coaching staff to provide them with quotes, news and, sometimes, scoops. Moreover, their newspapers and radio/TV employers are almost always counting on the team as a source of advertising and promotion revenue. If a reporter is ssen as less of a team player than her peers, she'll be undermined comeptitively, getting many fewer scoops, incrementally fewer opportunities for interviews. And she won't win any seasonal gift baskets from her employers, either. Sometimes a reporter will have high enough standing and a grumpy enough baseline to rassle with team management or players year after year (I think Glenn Dickey used to do this), but it's pretty rare.

Baseball is lucky, though.

These delusions are seasonal. And the results make the outcomes more accoutnable.


Outside of baseball, you see the same processes. Stockbrokers who work as "analysts" get so immeresed in the handful of companies they cover, that they tend to fall in love with them (reason #2). Like baseball reporters, they count on the covered companies to keep them informed as quickly as possible, and that makes them hostage to the subject's good will (reason #3). And analysts, like reporters, have a vested interest in coming to believe what they do is important, and that is an incentive to think the subjects of their analysis are important. And it's not a far leap in most minds from "important" to "good"

Historians and biographers have the same gravitational fields tugging at them. Business intelligence analysts, CIA desk officers, too. This problem is endemic from government and business to academia.

There are no ways to eliminate it, though there are ways to control it.

In the Sporting News case, they could have rotated reporters so each was writing about a team other than the one they report on. Stock and intelligence analysts can have rotations, though you need to find a period that's long enough to gain insight and expertise but short enough for the cost of delusion to be moderated. Not much you can do about biographers.

Of course, there's the nudge-nudge-wink-wink strategy of ignoring what analysts say, or simply deflating it some proportion to where it seems believable.

In the end, though, organizations that are able to take a clear-eyed view of their own and others' prospects are at a strong advantage over the MBWT-infused others, whether it's in building schedules for project management, designing budgets, or planning an invasion. Yes, you can just let the same old flabby, delusional thinking persist and deflate the numbers (to some degree you've guessed at) and you might get close. But you're wasting overhead, time, energy, resources, massaging useless results to get less-useless results.

The lack of quality is not free.

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