Watching classic sports proves artistry outperforms analytics

Nearly 20 years ago, before the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Thanos and “On your left,” Sony/Columbia represented Marvel Comics and was excited about its upcoming release of “Spider-Man.” For the generation that remembered CBS’s dreadful and short-lived 1977 “Amazing Spider-Man” prime-time drama, the timing was perfect. The blending of new computer-generated image technology and advances in special effects made it possible to finally bring the amazing wall-crawler to life on the big screen.

Less than a year before the film’s release, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the following months there was considerable discussion about the dangerous world in which we lived, and the entertainment we consumed. The attacks offered an opportunity for pause and reflection, for the country to ask itself whether our fun needed to be so violent, if the ammunition-per-one-liner ratio of buddy comedies needed to be so high. Was it necessary to kill for entertainment in a world already rife with killing?

Being sensitive to the nation’s trauma, Columbia deleted one spectacular scene from its film: Spider-Man foiling a bank heist by trapping the getaway helicopter in a gigantic spider web spun between the Twin Towers.

That kind of introspection ended quickly. As the trauma receded, Hollywood returned to business. More rounds were fired. More ammo. More jokes. More, bigger, apocalyptic, world-ending plots. The technology was improving almost daily. Before long, the endless wars began and the Hollywood machine picked up right where it left off and hasn’t stopped since. No changes. More, much more of the same. Sobriety didn’t stand a chance.

Today’s global coronavirus pandemic has stopped the clock in a way the western world has not seen since cholera and influenza epidemics kept people apart. The clock, always moving, suddenly feels frozen, and despite the urgency to get on with it, sports cannot play its normal role as the nation’s healer. Even as some states begin a nervous reopening, fans will not wantonly tailgate, rally and cram themselves 50,000 strong into one setting. Sports, like the rest of us, has to wait.

Similar to two decades ago, however, a crisis has presented an opportunity to reflect on the images and messages we see and what we’ve become, without knowing it or recognizing how far we’ve drifted from shore. While we wait, we’ve reveled in the old games. From ESPN to Tennis Channel to NBA TV and MLB Network, the classic games have been rebroadcast: Sid Bream beating Barry Bonds’ desperate, unsuccessful game-saving heave to win the 1992 pennant for Atlanta over Pittsburgh. Kirby Puckett winning Game 6 in the 1991 World Series. And of course, Reggie Jackson in the 1977 Series had the nostalgia flowing, as did, on the basketball side, the re-airing of the “Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies” 30 for 30. The ESPN/Netflix Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance,” has been the anticipated event for a nation that thought it would be getting ready for the NBA playoffs.

The old games have not only provided shelter, the comfort food for an ill nation, they also have reminded us that we watch for the pure enjoyment and artistry of the games themselves. With time to pause, this enjoyment stands in deep contrast to the live product that has been beamed into households for the past decade and a half, especially in baseball. While the country socially isolates, there are no real-time analytics for Braves-Indians Game 6, 1995, because they don’t matter. The game has long been over. There is no evaluation. There is only pleasure (or pain, if you’re a Cleveland fan). The game is what it once was, art and not science, and it has been a pleasure to enjoy it as such. We already know who won — and still the entertainment value is priceless.

There is a correlation between our heavily anti-labor, data-driven, dehumanizing capitalism culture today and the all-WAR, all-the-time statistical prism through which we digest our sports. The artistry and magic of the players is now secondary to wins above replacement, launch angle and exit velocity, no different from how the humanities is losing out to a STEM curriculum. The financial stakes are so high, it’s like being told we cannot afford to major in a college subject that doesn’t pay. Watching the game through the lens of the balance sheet tells us we cannot have stolen bases because, according to analytics, the risk is too high.

And yet, in our moment of crisis, we still tune in to watch Ken Griffey Jr.’s swing and 22-year-old footage of Michael Jordan, and discover we are here for the art, that the art is essential.

The numbers are not mere science — that it’s cool to see how far a lead Mookie Betts takes off first — but more importantly, they have become the only barometer through which baseball has chosen to sell itself to the public. Yet, the numbers and percentages and degrees do not translate to the public imagination the way Griffey sliding home to beat the Yankees did a quarter century ago. The business and science of the sport — perhaps more accurately, business masquerading as science — is the dominant lens of the game. It is designed to sell the players the way front offices see them — as units of production rather than studied and improvisational geniuses. As artists. The reductive MBA terminology is already embedded into the language of the game. Players are pieces. They are assets, undervalued or overvalued, and the implication is obvious. It is perhaps chillingly accurate when discussing an assembly line, but wholly inaccurate when it comes to the reason people watch sports. The front office must be aware of Paul Goldschmidt’s hard-hit rate, but people aren’t buying tickets because of it, nor are people watching “The Last Dance” because they long for Michael’s eFG percentage.

Before the shutdown, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association were in the middle of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. Some people in the sport have argued that what both sides are really doing is gearing up for the first labor stoppage since the disaster of 1994-95. These negotiations are not merely discussions over average annual value of contracts or the player’s percentage of overall revenues and what counts as “overall revenue,” but the very questions of science and art, and a more philosophical question MLBPA executive Tony Clark posed to me in March: What does baseball want its game to look like?

Clark believes this mechanical shift is not unrelated to the Astros’ cheating scandal, or the Red Sox’s apparently rogue replay room techs. He fears greater emphasis on technology will further imbalance the game, distance the game from the people who play and watch it, with devastating consequences — especially as gambling becomes an acceptable marketing tool.

Though neither Clark nor the commissioner’s office will discuss it directly, there is also concern in the sport about embedding technology to create uniform algorithms that determine a player’s value. Broadcast partners inundate the public with the numbers, framing players for the public the same way management does, and as these algorithmic formulas are shared by every team, baseball will be engaging in a form of 21st century collusion against the players — just by a different name. And the public, which has by now accepted the framework that only data matter, won’t know the difference.

As much as these conversations often devolve into the culture war of the Moneyball era, it is not an either/or proposition. The data and evaluation tools are essential for a multibillion-dollar industry, but not mandatory for consumers to enjoy the product — or the only (or even main) criteria for induction into Cooperstown, an election process whose overemphasis on numbers has become tedious and unenjoyable. Enjoyment is where people come into play. That’s when the artists are at their best. With no numbers to crunch, no WAR to calculate, no exit velocities to compute, the pandemic has reminded us there is room for art, and art is the reason we entered the gallery of sports in the first place. Sandy Alderson, the longtime baseball executive currently with the Oakland A’s, told me in February the analytic culture might have swung the balance too far in its favor over the past two decades and perhaps is in need of, as the business people say, a market correction.

The pandemic has provided a reminder that there is something glorious about what players can do and how they make us feel when they are doing it. When the games resume, the people who run its businesses should be reminded of this moment and not fall back into its formulae, as Hollywood did after the last global disaster. There are many ways to tell a story and many ways to calculate value and restore and respect the human dramas in the process. The game, in other words, is still the players. Perhaps while the business people are watching classic games, they will remember art through the words of Einstein, the greatest scientist: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.”

source: espn