Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Barry Bonds, Marvin Miller, & Babe Ruth
vs. Self-Limiting Observation  

"He clapped the glass to his sightless eye,
And 'I'm damned if I see it', he said.
-- Henry "Mookie" Newbolt

A correspondent reminded me I was to return to the baseball in steroids flap, as I suggested I would in this recent entry. So back to the subject -- specifically around the perception of the supplements & steroids issues and how understanding the way this is affecting Baseball is analagous to the way the same kinds of perceptions affect managerial actions.

Perception touches everything, especially the way one formulates vision. Vision is one necessary fuel that powers innovation. Human cognition is like a batter guessing what pitch she's going to get next -- when it works, you can connect big-time, but when you miss, you look like any St. Louis Cardinal not named Larry Walker or Edgar Renteria in the World Series last year. The working mind wants to find patterns it can re-use, because re-use is efficient, so it pushes us to come to if/then, cause/effect conclusions. Correct conclusions lead to success. Incorrect conclusions based on observation can prevent success.

But phantom conclusions incorrectly based on some valid observations can make it hard for the viewer to give up belief in a dud (two months later, Jim Edmonds is still waiting for Keith Foulke to throw him that 2-0 fastball he expected).


One baseball example of someone who appears to never miss the hidden or come to the phantom conclusion is Marvin Miller, the attorney who not only drove the initial success of the Players' Association, but turned it into that rarest of endeavors, a platform for adaptive success (Home Plate in the MBB Model).

Miller recently spoke out about the baseball in steroids stories in a Boston Globe article. The related highlights:

That new steroid-testing agreement for which both sides, owners and union officials, were taking bows last night? Miller has little use for it.

"If you tell me steroids help you hit major league pitching more often and farther, I see no evidence whatsoever. None," Miller said. "I think if you tell me that using steroids and bulking up like that will help the performance of a football linebacker, maybe. If you tell me it will help a professional wrestler, maybe. If you tell me it will help a beer hall bouncer, maybe. If you tell me it will help somebody become the governor of California, maybe.

"But hitting major league pitching more often and farther is a far cry. You have to have more evidence than we do. I'm not going to say I know. I don't know. I'm going to say neither does anyone in this room nor anyone else know. There never has been any kind of decent testing of the same player. For example, with and without steroids, over a stretch of time so you can judge his performance. None. And until we get some evidence of a concrete nature instead of someone's opinion, that's my view." {SNIP}

Anecdotal evidence that players are bulking up with steroids and other performance-enhancing substances? Miller waves his hand dismissively, especially when someone mentions the evolution of a slender-framed outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates to the player with comic-book superhero dimensions today for the San Francisco Giants.

"Did you ever see a picture of Babe Ruth in his youth?" said a man who as a youth had seen Ruth firsthand. "Slender as a rail, with skinny legs, which he maintained always, and [a picture of] Babe Ruth in his prime? People get older. Athletes train differently. This is what I mean by anecdotal evidence. So Barry Bonds is heavier and has more muscle at 41 than he had at 21. OK, that's a fact. Now, link it up with his ability to hit, and I don't see the evidence."

Show him that steroids are harmful to a player's health, Miller said, and he would be on the front lines of those seeking a ban. But he remains unpersuaded. The whole controversy, he said, has been media-driven, a reaction to pressure brought upon the industry by President Bush, who invoked steroids in his State of the Union address a year ago, and John McCain, the Arizona senator who conducted hearings on Capitol Hill.

"You've got a lot of players who say, `I never used [steroids], never touched them. I don't want to be put in the same category with those who did,' " Miller said. "I understand that. What I don't understand, though, is having players come forward, like some prominent players have done, and talk about how they want the testing because they want to maintain their dignity.

"That really throws me. They think it maintains the dignity of a player to be told, on command, when to urinate into a container with witnesses? If that enhances their dignity, I don't understand the word dignity."

Miller predicts both sides will rue the day they reopened the collective bargaining agreement to address the steroid issue, even in the face of public pressure. Much of that pressure was a bluff, he said. "To say that now you're going to reopen that agreement because there are outside pressures is about as unstabilizing as you can imagine," he said. "I say bluffing, because what is there that McCain could do, or what could George Bush do? Government cannot order random testing. Government cannot legislate that way. The Constitution forbids it."

Miller remembers when the use of another drug ran unchecked through major league clubhouses in the 1970s. "In most locker rooms, most clubhouses, amphetamines -- red ones, green ones, etc., were lying out there in the open, in a bowl, as if they were jellybeans," he said. "They were not put there by the players, so of course there was no pressure to test. They were being distributed by ownership. I can't remember ever having a proposal from the owners, that we're going to have random testing or testing of any kind."

Miller correctly, again, observes that people are incorrectly viewing three things, coming to useless conclusions based on valid observations.

The first valid observation that most casual observers can see is that the use of supplements (legal and illegal) and steroids can build up a body's muscle-mass effectively. It's pretty obvious on both sides of the debate that that is valid in the general case (and there will be the normal range of changes that result in individuals human populations -- some people will have no useful build-up and some will go completely Rondo Hatton). But, as Miller contends, there's no evidence that that bulk makes an ineffective player an effective one. There's been no controlled split-testing of individuals with- and without supplements and with a large enough sample to provide a likely-true conclusion.

The observation is valid. The conclusion, that the resulting bulk leads to enhanced performance is a phantom conclusion.

The second valid observation is that Barry Bonds and others are bulkier and, more critical to this thinking, bulkier-looking than they were when they were younger. And since we know that Barry Bonds is the most effective hitter of this generation (and perhaps of all time), many people then decide Bonds must have bulked up using supplements. This appears to have been a correct assumption, but, as Miller points out, Babe Ruth had the exact same pattern younger to older and he was not, as asserted by some, a client of Balco.

It is normal for adult males to gain weight, to become bigger. Every athlete who gains a lot of weight late in her career isn't necessarily a supplements user.

The third valid observation is that the Federal government has the Constitutional right to force drug-testing on some populations. The phantom conclusion Miller points out is that therefore the Constitution allows the Feds to impose random testing on unionized baseball players.

Things we know lead us to valid conclusions, but not automatically. Phantoms are possible, too. And examining the logic trail of how we went from observation to conclusion is an important component of what I'll call applied intelligence.

In management & other work, it's common for someone to come to phantom conclusions based on on small samples of past experiences or unexamined logic trails. This is especially common when an effect has multiple causes (like a hurricane, which requires the simultaneous presence of multiple conditions, and missing any one of them, won't happen). Decision-makers get lazy and look for a single decision factor. Some problems get solved easily this way, but the big ones, where the decision has the most value, don't get solved very often with a single big factor. More often, as with the supplements/steroids outcomes, there are many factors that inter-play to result in a specific outcome.

I recently got a big dose of this. My car clearly had a wierd electrical problem. On damp mornings, it wouldn't start easily (or sometimes at all), and on dry ones, it'd be fine. Every once in a while, it would just conk out and not start up again. But then it would in about five minutes. It might be fine for the rest of the day or it might happen again in a few minutes. I spent a lot of time trying to nail down factors. Once, it had overheated, but not the others. It almost always happened when I was facing slightly (not steeply) uphill. ¿Water in the fuel system? ¿Fuel pump? ¿Clogged fuel line? ¿Cracked spark plug wires? ¿Distributor cap?

There were so many symptoms. I took it to a fancy AAA repair shop with the guys who wear the always-clean jump suits and have the $250,000 worth of machines that go ping and a guy who sits and the front desk and just does paperwork and doesn't actually know more about automotive mechanics than I do (though he's more opinionated about the subject).

I explained the symptoms -- they mostly ignored me. They could find nothing wrong with it, but they were kind enough to give me a list of things I should do for the car, a list of Tolstoy-an length, none of which would address my problem. They could see things that needed doing (valid observations) but had no useful conclusions. Dude at the front desk suggested that if I replaced my axles (one of the listed suggestions), it might somehow fix the problem. But overall, they counted on their machines to tell them waht was wrong, and the machines are designed to tell you one thing at a time.

To make an endless, trivial story short, it was solved at a gas station repair shop by a couple of guys in totally stained jump suits who had very few machines that go ping. They made me open the hood, they messed around, they had me do this and that. And they found the problem. There were two, unrelated, things wrong. There was a pinhole radiator leak that was spraying a small jet of hot water and at certain uphill angles, spraying it directly on my distributor cap's seam and that was shorting out the juice.

Past patterns had no use here except as launching pads for inquiry. It was multiple things, not one thing.

Managers jump to conclusions (or get paralysed and refuse to make any) the way the AAA shop guys did if the data seems to support soemthing they've already decided is right (cognitive dissonance).

People want to think Barry Bonds' accomplishments are the supplements, not him. So they conclude the supplements invalidate his accomplishments, even in the absence of serious data to support it. Wars have been committed to and lost on such processes, and the same with marketing campaigns, new product roll-outs and plans for projects.

Valid observations are wonderful, but they're a means, not an end, to the process of creating wisdom, especially when the situation is based on a number of factors, not just one.

And Marvin Miller, whether you're anti-player or pro-player, belongs in the Hall of Fame. He's especially deserving because of his ability to see those things others don't & his ability to spot phantom conclusions, an ability that allowed him to out-maneuver generations of owners' lawyers.

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