Friday, October 21, 2011

This Isn't Chess: A La Russa Rhapsody

Apart from a bizarre attempt at pardoning Mark McGwire's very public use of androstenedione, I can't think of any time Jayson Stark has written something objectionable or especially silly. True, he might have, and I might have missed it. Otherwise he comes off like a good guy who loves talking about trades and spring training, and mostly he seems to get things right. Yesterday, not so much:
Maybe he's a long-lost relative of Anatoly Karpov. It's possible he grew up with Boris Spassky. Or maybe he just ran into Garry Kasparov at a chicken dinner someplace.

But once again Wednesday night, that noted grandmaster of the emerald chess board, Mr. Tony La Russa, checkmated his way through the World Chess Championships of October, at his Karpovian best.
Analogies like this are tempting, especially with La Russa, who probably does everything he can to suggest them to sportswriters, without overtly making a recommendation or editing their notes. His aloof, baseball traditionalist-craftsman image invites the analogy, drawing twerp satellites like George Will spinning on axes of doggerel into his orbit, reflecting light back at him. The only problem with the analogy is that it's really dumb.

A baseball field resembles a chess board in the same way it resembles a roulette table or a cormorant or a show with everything but Yul Brynner. It doesn't work on a practical, probabilistic or physical level. On the first, obviously two guys in chairs moving marble figurines at each other have nothing to do with 18 guys who are expert at handling balls and big wood.

On the second, La Russa might study his opponents as intently as Spassky did Fischer, but he has a lot more opponents to contend with. While two chess masters can feel out each other's habits and style, La Russa's decisions as a manager — even taking into account only his team's at-bats — have to account for his batter's habits, the pitcher's tendencies and what the opposing manager, pitching coach or catcher might signal or have already told him. Add multiple batters, previous at-bats and pitching changes, and all those happy little note cards on which he's written the history of the game in the indecipherable characters of Linear T are reduced to something that's a little better than guesswork but at least sounds a lot smarter.

Hell, even the physical level makes a complete hash of the chess notion. When Anatoly Karpov picks up a bishop and moves him, the bishop moves pretty predictably and tends to stay where he puts it. Baseball is a sport in which someone swinging his arms in an irregular arcing trajectory tries to hit a spinning orb moving at over 80 miles per hour with a tapering cylinder whose structure has just fractions of an inch from which it can drive something purposefully forward. The comparison could work if Fisher and Spassky had played each other with each piece hovering over the table and oscillating at a hundred miles per hour, then tried to strike them with tiny conductor's batons in ways that might make them move properly or might cause them to veer wildly into each other's faces. Even under the most ideally anticipated circumstances, a struck ball can wind up goddamn near anywhere.

That's a roundabout way of saying that BABIP exists, which accounts for St. Louis' Game One win over the Texas Rangers as much as anything else. The go-ahead hit in the sixth inning was delivered by scrappy white fellow Allen Craig — who probably owes escaping a flyout, by just inches, to a matter of an oblique millimeter on the bat where it struck the ball. Compare the serendipity of that alleged chess mastery to last night's game, in which La Russa made two decisions that directly impacted the game in more immediately consequential and less serendipitous ways than "putting in a gritty pinch-hitter who suffered from injuries this season but might be 'due'."

First, he put his outfield in a no-doubles defense that allowed an Ian Kinsler bloopy — and, yes, BABIPy — ball to fall for a single. Second, he took out his best reliever, flamethrowing Jason Motte, to play classic La Russa lefty-lefty MATCHUPS, bringing in the thousand-year-old Arthur Rhodes to face the lefty Josh Hamilton. Later, La Russa explained the move by saying that he "went with Rhodes because Hamilton is a good fastball hitter." That might sort of make sense, if Motte weren't a much better pitcher at this point, if Hamilton hadn't gone 0-for on every preceding at-bat in the series, and if Hamilton weren't so injured that he'd:
a. admitted he would be on the disabled list, if this weren't the World Series;
b. spent time earlier in the day trying to figure out how to hit without using his legs for power;
c. make a prime candidate for being victimized by a bunch of inside fastballs.
You can hardly blame Stark for wanting to inject a bit of drama into Game One, to see it as a time capsule for a beautiful career. Ideas like that feel good; they read better, too.

Even Will Leitch, who made his bones demystifying sports-journalism narrative fell a little susceptible to the same impulse yesterday. Leitch called this postseason La Russa's "Pietà, for better or for worse for the rest of baseball. This'll be the one they remember him by." Or not. Joe Posnanski and others will probably remember La Russa's "Mona Lisa." And cranks like me will remember two World Series sweeps, one near-sweep and an earthquake delivering two more starts from Dave Stewart and Mike Moore. Plus that thing about being a drunk.

Still, while sabermetrics illustrate beautiful concepts whose abstraction and reliance on numerals make them feel inescapably less majestic, they can keep us from getting carried away. Game One was, after all, only a single game. And the fragility of sentimental prose tends to get stomped with the addition of an extra day's results. Consider, again, Stark's Game One piece:
"It's like [La Russa and his coaches] know exactly what's going to happen before it happens," Schumaker said. "I'm telling you, he's so prepared. He's got like three different charts that he looks at. I try to look at them, and he hides them. I don't even know what they are. They're like little [notebooks] that have all kinds of stats and matchups and all kinds of stuff. … I've tried to sneak a glance, and he puts it in his pocket. So I don't know if he knows I'm looking or what. But I'm sure he's had these things for years and years."
Schumaker in this instance is Skip Schumaker, perennial — uh — not-good hitter with a career rating of +85 Ecksteins (adjusted for postseason play). What he probably doesn't know, at least apart from an instinctive understanding of watching the ball come off the bat, is how something like BABIP works, how all the charts and matchup graphs can't make Craig's go-ahead single fall where it does. What Stark doesn't know is that, less than 24-hours later, Schumaker's bad throw from right field [this is incorrect, click to see below] — where La Russa installs him as a defensive replacement for the ninth inning of Game Two — will miss the cutoff man and help to put the winning run on second base.

All the chess mastery in the world can't account for that, because this ain't chess. So while Stark closes out by intoning that"we're sure that if Bobby Fischer were alive today, he'd tell you: Don't bet against the legendary Anthony La Russa," it's far more likely that he'd say something like:
The Jew-controlled media of the Zionist Occupation Government uses baseball as a tool of distraction to keep white American protestants from realizing their manipulation and exploitation in service of the Zionist State of Israel. Tony La Russa is a reptiloid. What do you think that fucked-up thing was on his face at the beginning of this season? Did any of you assholes watch the original series of V? How many clues do you need? Also, grittiness is a myth, just like the Holocaust.
But, you know, that's Bobby, and he was a crazy asshole. Let's dig him up a second time and have the Marine Color Guard fire into him to start Game Three.