Monday, May 11, 2009

Doug Glanville, The $250 Million Eddie Haskell
& The 21st Century Ghost Dance  

The regularly insightful Doug Glanville usually casts new light on old subjects, and that's great. But his last op-ed for the New York Times actually uncovered a baseball technique I never ran across or read about (greater), though I've seen it a lot in business and the military. And why it seems to be overshadowed in this Moment of Manny Métier Meltdown is very illuminating about the state of our National Psyche.

But first to the practice. Glanville calls it "tipping," though it's not the pitcher inadvertently giving away what kind 'o pitch it's going to be ("tipping his pitches"), nor is it a runner on second base reading the catcher's signs and relaying them to the batter. It's related but different practice that instead of being designed to give your own team and advantage, it's a Hal Chase, designed to help someone on the opposition do better against your own team, albeit in a small way. 

Here's his explanation of the normal Baseball practice:

Tipping pitches involves watching your opponent like a well-trained code-breaker. It most often happens when there is a runner at second base, where he is in a unique position to steal any signs the catcher is relaying to the pitcher — so well positioned, in fact, that catchers and pitchers have a special set of signs for that situation. We all know the basic signs — one finger for fastball, two fingers for curve. But with a runner on second, the real sign may be the one right after an indicator: for example, it could be the first sign after the catcher puts down three fingers, or the second sign after he wiggles all of his fingers.

Apart from the pitcher and the runner on second, the two people who can see those signs best are the middle infielders — the shortstop and the second baseman. They are both busybodies, moving around, trying to pick off the runner, giving signs to each other regarding who should cover on a steal or a double play started from a ball hit back to the pitcher.

So, as he goes on to say, the infielders read the signs and subtly telegraph each other and if the batter can catch these signals, she can steal them and have a good guess of what the pitch is going to be (unless the pitcher is Edinson Vólquez, but that's a different story). But now unleash Alex Rodríguez, the $250 Million Eddie Haskell, on tipping and you get something mondo different:

...according to the latest story, Alex is connected to some pitch-tipping scheme in which he relayed signs to the opposing hitter (if he was a friend) or for someone who would return the favor when he was hitting. This was supposedly done in one-sided games where, in theory, one team had no chance of catching up. Alex was said to be in cahoots with a lot of middle infielders (my addition for clarity: on other teams). Allegedly, there was some sign he would relay to the hitter — a movement with his glove or his feet — to let the hitter know what type of pitch was coming and where.

Although I have never heard such a rumor about Alex, this may be one of the most egregious charges one can make against a player, and a rare one at that. Should a player know that someone in his own dugout is helping the opposing team, I would venture to say that all-out Armageddon would ensue. Imagine if a pitcher knew that his pitches were being given away to the opposing hitter by his own teammate no less. This spy would have to watch his back*.

* - As if he didn't have to already. 

This practice, of screwing over the employing organization for small gains is as universal as doing shopping at the PX for civilian friends or pilfering small quantities of office supplies. It happens on a larger scale, as well. 

I had a German manufacturing client a while back and HQ came to suspect that their U.S. group was fibbing about their productivity. While I hadn't done any work for them for a while, they asked me to go back East and check out the factory and the office records. Sure enough, the numbers were a bald-faced lie. Not immense, not crushing, but a scheme bigger than paperclip pilferage, designed to harvest cool, noticeable bonuses for most everyone on the floor and in the offices, and under the presumption that HQ "could afford it". And because the ownership was "foreign" the us/them effect got inflated. The U.S. management cooked it up to inflate their apparent value and the U.S. line workers were silent (if they even knew the numbers were juiced...which I think at least some did know) in exchange for a small but noticeable bonus in their pocket.

It's lazy thinking, weak ethics, but rarely reaches a level that it brings down an otherwise healthy organization. But in fact, this rarely happens in healthy organizations -- the very fact that employees are comfortable doing this either says something about them (that they're willing to undermine their meal ticket for chump change -- meaning they were bad hires, meaning it's probably an unhealthy organization), or about the organization (that it's stingy with the help out of proportion to how much it should be, meaning it's not a healthy organization).

The internal logic of this Tragedy of the Commons is the same as the alleged A-Rod practice: that it's for a friend and it almost certainly won't make any difference to his own team, but it could make a lot of difference to the co-conspirators.

Glanville, btw, goes on to say that when he played outfield behind Rodríguez he never noticed this happening, and doesn't assert he knows it to be anything more than an allegation made in a recent Selena Roberts book and Sports Illustrated story.

And that is where I am on the allegation: uncertain. Being the Eddie Haskell that he is, I could see him stealing paperclips without much guilt. But otoh, he's incredibly competitive, and coughing up an occasional hit when one might ultimately affect a game's outcome strikes me as not an act a competitive person at this level will commit, even to gain a friend. 

But to me, the more surprising thing about the story is not that it might be true. It's the reaction (or rather relative-lack-of-reaction) to it.

Allegation: Rodríguez cheats to help his performance and his team's and his teammates by taking banned (or not yet banned, but clearly cheesy) substances.
General Response: Gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair. Sophoclean dren.

Allegation: Rodríguez is in a scheme that aims to cheat his own team and teammates.
General Response: <one hand clapping>

I think under increasing cultural stress, as the U.S. has been for about 25 years, with broad, now recognized, corporate & governmental (and probably personal, too) lying, people have become so emotional and cynical about their interactions with institutions that they won't see what's in plain sight. The arm-waving is much more severe for the performance-enhancing drugs than for Hal Chase stuff. It seems like they expect their government & its corporate contractors to sell arms for hostages or torture and lie about it, to juice allegedly scientific reports to benefit friends or allies, but at the same time they can get upset about ugly but trivial peccadilloes, as though if they could just banish performance-enhancing substances different from those available Back In the Good Old Days, we'd all revert and the Earth would belch back all the lost home values and stock prices and cheap gasoline and an Octomom who didn't look exactly like Stephen Tyler.

It's pure Crisis Cult stuff.

Ghost Dance, anyone?

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