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March 6, 2013

Pebble Hunting

How Baseball Returns Our Investment

by Sam Miller

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In 2010, a writer named David Bentley Hart wrote an essay about baseball for the theological magazine First Things, in which he argued that baseball “captures traces of eternity’s radiance in fugitive splendors here below.” That is to say, as I understand Hart’s piece, baseball reflects God and is Godly. It’s a beautiful piece with big and hopeful ideas, but that’s not to say that it isn’t also pompously romantic. For instance:

What could be more obvious? The game is plainly an attempt to figure forth the “heavenly dance” within the realm of mutability. When play is in its full flow, the diamond becomes a place where the dark, sullen surface of matter is temporarily transformed into a gently luminous mirror of the “supercelestial mysteries.” Baseball is an instance of what the later Neoplatonists called “theurgy”: a mimetic or prophetic rite that summons (or invites) the divine graciously to descend from eternity and grant a glimpse of itself within time.”

No—seriously.

No—seriously.

Baseball writers, and serious non-baseball writers, love to write grandiloquently about why baseball is great. You’re already thinking about George Will, aren’t you? George Will is the Grand Old Geezer of the genre. His description of baseball as “heaven’s gift to mortals” has echoes of Hart’s essay, and at some point, he has touched on many of the standard explanations for why we like the thing:

The uniqueness of it:
"It has no clock, no ties and no Liberal intrusions into the organized progression."

The daily ritual of it:
"Baseball is a habit. The slowly rising crescendo of each game, the rhythm of the long season--these are the essentials and they are remarkably unchanged over nearly a century and a half. Of how many American institutions can that be said?"

The metaphor of it:
“Correct thinkers think that 'baseball trivia' is an oxymoron: nothing about baseball is trivial."

The failure inherent in it:
“Baseball's best teams lose about sixty-five times a season. It is not a game you can play with your teeth clenched."

Bart Giamatti explained its meaning in the context of its schedule (“The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone”) and Ken Burns said we love it because it embeds so much history (“Nothing in our daily life offers more of the comfort of continuity, the generational connection of belonging to a vast and complicated American family, the powerful sense of home, the freedom from time's constraints, and the great gift of accumulated memory than does our National Pastime") and Branch Rickey attributed our love to baseball’s glorious math (“A game of great charm, in the adoption of mathematical measurements to the timing of human movements, the exactitudes and adjustments of physical ability to hazardous chance.”)

Those are all excellent descriptions of why baseball is great, but is that the same as describing why we watch baseball, and why we watch so much baseball? Occasionally you’ll hear some factoid about how much time you’ll spend in your life brushing your teeth. Seventy days of your life, just brushing your teeth, you hear, and it seems like an incredible amount of time doing, basically, nothing. Try not to do that exercise for baseball. Or do it, and then just go ahead and die: If you watch 100 regular-season games a year (obscenely low estimate) and you spend an extra hour a day (obsceeeeenely low estimate) on fantasy teams, pre-game shows, Baseball Tonight, checking box scores, reading books, magazines, blogs, and the occasional extra-inning affair, and you watch all the World Series games, and you do this for (God willing) 80 years, you’ve committed 2,134 days to this stupid sport. And it basically just repeats itself over and over and over. And it’s all pretend. You’re doing that, and it’s just a guess but I don’t think you’re doing it because you’re figuring forth the heavenly dance within the realm of mutability.

What if we watch baseball for none of those reasons? What if we watch baseball for the same reason we do nearly everything in this world: Cold, heartless self-interest?

I started following baseball when I was six. By the time I was seven, I had memorized the back of every card I owned, a set of flash cards that quickly multiplied from dozens to thousands. The other day I came across 1986 Topps #276, the Yankees team leaders card. The image of Willie Randolph on the front barely registered, but the tables on the back fluttered my nostalgia neurons: Don Mattingly’s 35 and 145, Ron Guidry’s 22 wins, Dave Righetti’s 29 saves. Any grownup who knew me at the time knew how much I loved the game, because I’d spend most of my time making them ask me who led the Twins in doubles the previous season.

I did love the game; like many of you, I put my uniform on first thing Saturday morning, even for a 4:30 p.m. game, and like many of you, I listened to night games until my dad made me go to sleep—at which point I snuck a Walkman into bed to listen some more. Including the post-game show.

But in retrospect I also profited from the game, and looking back I can’t separate the love from the profit. As a seven-year-old kid, an especially small one, and as the youngest in the family, I understood that adults didn’t take me very seriously. I couldn’t talk about most of the topics they talked about because I was seven, and I didn’t know many things they didn’t already know, because I was seven. But I knew baseball, and I could talk about it even better than they could. In the summer, my dad’s non-profit organization would hold a weekend retreat in the mountains of Northern California, and it was baseball that (from my view of things) earned me a seat at the adults’ table while the rest of the kids were being babysat. I remember among my dad’s co-workers Rudy the Dodgers fan, and Mike the Twins fan, and Terry the early roto-baseball adopter, and I remember having something to offer to them all.

As I got older, my knowledge gave me something to talk about with boys my own age—boys who seemed to have a strong and physical masculinity that I couldn’t pull off, but whose approval I could earn by changing the subject to baseball. As I got older still, my knowledge gave me an edge in fantasy baseball leagues, and the ability to win arguments when I still thought winning arguments was worthwhile. As I got older still, it got me a job. Now it gets me compliments from strangers, and as much as my self-esteem has improved since I was a skinny seven-year-old, I have to admit that this train still runs on compliments. Most of those aren't literal profits, but they were self-serving. So too, for that matter, is the desire to win.

All the things that those writers up there cited: yes, they make baseball resilient, meaningful, and edifying. But I'm not sure they motivated me to watch, over and over, thousands of days until eventually I'll die. I think I do that because I think I get stuff out of the deal.

So I enjoyed Joe Peta’s new book, Trading Bases: A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, And Baseball (Not Necessarily in That Order), published by Dutton and on sale tomorrow . Peta—a Baseball Prospectus reader and, as I learned in interactions with him last postseason, a brilliant generator of fake MLB.com headlines—is a former Wall Street trader who was hit by an ambulance, broke his leg, lost his job, moved to the West Coast and watched a bunch of baseball. Inspired by the Baseball Prospectus 2011 Annual, he started doing his own research into the ways that results can be misleading; armed with what he figured were inefficiencies in the public perception of team talent, he decided he could beat Las Vegas.

His book chronicles his year running what was essentially an investment fund in which the investments were his daily bets on baseball. It’s part memoir and part play-by-play, and there are pop-culture references alongside tables charting his ROI. His ROI, incidentally, was pretty strong, stronger than you’d expect and probably stronger than you’d think anybody is capable of repeating.

Peta’s book is different than the typical baseball poem because at its core it is less romantic about what we’re all doing; it's explicitly about watching baseball for personal gain. “I’ve always felt a bit isolated,” he writes at one point. “I never will own a baseball team, nor will I work in one’s front office. I’m less interested in the hours of tedious work required to dominate a fantasy baseball league when the payoff is basically pride and maybe a couple hundred dollars. Nor, when it comes to differences of opinion, am I interested in intellectual arguments, per se.”

As his self-interest in the sport becomes explicit, it drives his interest, curiosity, and consumption. “I used to equate hearing about someone’s fantasy team with being subject to a discussion about their latest round of golf, but now I found myself relishing our daily discussions about team construction. I hadn’t cared this much about leaguewide happenings in baseball since I was a teenager.”

The book does occasionally wander into a tweener zone: its statistical explanations won’t be novel to the average BP reader, while its day-to-day accounting of a baseball season could bore a non-obsessed baseball fan. For this average BP reader, the Wall Street parts were more interesting than the baseball parts; Peta taught me more about risk management than about pythagorean records. The basics of his baseball modeling aren’t much different than you’ll find embedded in our Playoff Odds reports—mostly variants on DIPS theory and third-order wins—but the methods he uses to distribute risk and capture small advantages were new to me.

To really enjoy the book, the reader must care about whether Peta makes money; to really, really enjoy it, the reader must get swept up imagining himself using Peta’s methods to win money. In that sense, I wasn't a great target for it. I don’t have a particularly high regard for gambling winnings, and I don’t have any plans to systematically try to beat Vegas. But I did appreciate what Peta was doing: Trying to wring some value out of something that I’ve invested thousands of days in.

It’s not exclusively a beating-the-house how-to. There are plenty of memoirish recollections of his own romantic moments with baseball, and ponderings on how baseball has been woven through his relationships with friends and family. Even a numbers-driven bettor like Peta can appreciate that all that stuff about eternity's radiance and slowly rising crescendos and generational connection is also true. In one of the book’s strongest passages, Peta gets awfully close to getting to the larger significance of the thing:

For my mother, baseball, the game around which her all-male household revolved, has turned into an unfortunate yardstick that measures my father’s declining mental capacity as he succumbs to Alzheimer’s-related dementia. As his physical health has worsened and his energy has waned over the past decade, he has slowly but irreversibly become housebound. Still, she could always count on his anticipation of that day’s Phillies game. Sadly, in the past few years, that changed as well.

Ultimately, George and the rest aren’t wrong about baseball. It is romantic and mysterious. It does reflect our creation. It does capture the human condition. It does have order. It does have chaos. It’s so dense and expansive that it can mean anything you want it to mean. I don’t suspect any of those reasons are why most of us watch; I suspect we watch because we feel richer for it. This shouldn’t surprise us; we’re a selfish species, and the high-minded explanations for baseball’s value give us way too much credit. But just because we do it for our own gain doesn’t mean there isn’t a reflection of heaven within it all, redeeming baseball from our selfish motives.  

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Baseball,  Gambling

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