On Opening Day And Getting Better

Note: we interrupt our normal Monday Morning Quarterback series to offer this annual post on the opening day of baseball season. 

Today is the beginning of the baseball season. I had trouble sleeping last night so I watched the last episode of Ken Burns’ marathon documentary on baseball late into the night.  My day will revolve around a 1:00 pacific start time to my team’s first game. I may even wear my team’s cap into the office. Baseball’s opening day is a big deal for me, and I make no apologies for it.

Yet I know it will end badly. My team isn’t very good. It hasn’t been for nearly three decades. It is among the least successful operations in all of sports.

These days, baseball and the fate of my team is a stand-in for measurements of value. This is for baseball an age of tremendous enlightenment, when fans have access to as much statistical data on teams and players as do the General Managers and owners, data fans can analyze themselves for the sake of long blog posts condemning the decisions of men who are paid millions to make them. This Sabermetric community within baseball has brilliantly re-framed the notion of value when it comes to a baseball player, lifting from obscurity undervalued skills (like this) and packaging valuable player contributions into novel statistics like OPS and VORP. Naturally, this community has elevated the celebrity of the guys spending teams’ money on these players and their skills, which is good if you’re name is Billy Beane but bad if it’s Dayton Moore.

More and more of my life and vocation is taken up with the question of value: where does value really reside and how is my work contributing value to the world? Here, potential is a curse. Potential is only valuable once it’s realized. In my work with youth, students’  potential for a strong faith and a compelling witness to the love of God is far less valuable to me than their actual faith–weak and confused though it may be–and their actual stammering witness to something closer to fairness on God’s part. The latter is theirs, something they can be held to and challenged to grow. The former is my projection, a thing that asks nothing of them and so gives them nothing.

My baseball team is a fitting backdrop for these kinds of considerations, especially on this opening day, because after years of drafting and developing dugouts full of potential, the team traded much of it away last winter for some proven real world value, and the bloggers went crazy in protest. “Why,” they demanded, “would you trade away six years of team control over a player who could be a superstar for two years of a player who’s only a regular star?”

The team’s rationale is simple: trading away the consensus top amateur player to get a star commodity makes the big league roster significantly better today, and six years is a long time. The opposition is fueled by an ideological purity that prizes rationality and analysis over hoping for things to “work out.” Things, they correctly point out, “work out” in increasingly predictable patterns, and if you ignore the pattern, nobody’s going to feel bad for you when it plays out to your detriment.

I have read almost every damning word aimed at my team and nodded my head in dignified agreement with many of them. Likewise, I compulsively read condemnations and dire projections about my church. Those, too, make skillful use of data and eloquently lampoon the decisions of decision makers as badly informed or, worse, immoral. I nod in agreement at some of those as well.

Yet on this opening day I take my stand on the side of measurable improvement and the risky, ill advised move that willingly disappoints ideology for the sake of the good we know we’re getting right now, which, everyone can see, improves what we are immediately. It’s older. It has less potential. It may leave us for greener pastures in 24 months. But it makes us better now. Perhaps not better enough. But better.

Today, I’m for better.

Play ball.

10 thoughts on “On Opening Day And Getting Better

  1. You just gave me a new maxim. I will file it after “Now is always the time.”
    Potential is a curse. Potential is only valuable once it’s realized.

    good one

  2. I second Murphy’s statement: great piece on potential, Rocky. Especially in regards to youth ministry. I needed that reminder, thank you.

    As for baseball (my top sports love as well), that KC Star report is fascinating. More detail there about the trade’s background than anything I’ve ever seen about either Chicago team. I’m a bit surprised by the backlash to the trade.

    I mean, I know almost all baseball fans love a top prospect. He gets lots of love, like a 2nd string quarterback. But all baseball fans must know that, too often, top prospects don’t pan out. It seems to me KC fans should know that as well as any right now. To this outsider, it seems like Gordon, Hosmer and Moustakas are all underperforming their potential. (Yes, I’m a White Sox fan, but I really don’t mean that to be cruel. But we’ve been hearing about KC’s out-of-this-world farm system for seemingly forever. As you say, where’s the real world value?)

    The White Sox have been the epitome of a team trying to win almost exclusively through free agents. They haven’t groomed a true star since Frank Thomas. Now conventional wisdom is to vastly improve the farm system. Maybe the pendulum has swung too far back to the farm. Maybe Rany’s rational (and compelling!) argument is missing this nugget I hear on our best sports radio show: Sabermetrics are amazing at telling us what is, but their predictive abilities are less impressive. Rany’s right though, we can only really evaluate a trade a few years down the line.

    Anyway, good pitcher’s duel to start the season yesterday. Who knows what happens next? Since today is an off day, I think I’ll go look through my 2005 World Series paraphernalia. 😉

    1. Dave, your assessment of Gordon, Hosmer, and Moustakas is apt. Gordon has developed into something very, very good as an outfielder, which is not what he was heralded to be. Moustakas is blossoming. Hosmer, though, is troubling. He regressed big time last season.

      Royals fans have heard for about three years now about “the process.” Maybe there is no process. Maybe you don’t have time for a process and instead need to develop the ability to respond to opportunity when it presents itself. Trading Myers abandoned a major piece of “the process,” but I’m okay with that. You’re not trying to prove a point. You’re trying to succeed.

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