Thinking Short-Term

I thought I would turn my attention from my recurring concern over the death of Western civilization and the birth of a new barbarism for a moment and deal with something much more important to Americans, namely, baseball. Specifically, I want to consider the recent vote to determine this year’s All-Star teams that will play next week in Cincinnati. Surprisingly, the votes reflect a fact that adds evidence to my thesis that our civilization is weakening at the foundation, namely, one more example of short-term self-interest that seems to pervade this country. Let me explain.

The Kansas City Royals surprised everyone last year by making it to the World Series where they lost to the San Fransisco Giants. Apparently, this year they want to win it all so there was a massive PR campaign in Kansas City during recent weeks to vote as many players from that team on the All-Star team as possible. We will ignore the fact that having the fans vote to determine who the best players are is in itself a hair-brained idea to simply note that the campaign in KC worked. The team just added its fifth player to the All-Star team. Let’s think about this for a moment.

The winning team in the All-Star game can claim home-field advantage in the World Series. This is important because the American League uses designated hitters whereas the National League does not. The strategy differs and it would be to the American League team’s advantage to play at home. But if Kansas City, an American League team, has lowered the probabilities that the American League team will win the All-Star game by failing to vote for the best players, they may have just cut off their nose to spite their face, as it were. If they wanted to give their team the best chance to win that game, they should have voted for the best players in the league and not simply tried to pack the All-Star team with their own players. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

As I say, as problems go this one is tiny. But, as I also say, it provides us with yet another example of short-term thinking which has become chronic in this country and which has major repercussions (think: global warming). My own thesis is that this type of thinking — if it can be called that — stems from the tendency we increasingly show in this country to quantify all issues and then weigh costs against benefits. In a word, we have adopted the business model in all other lines of endeavor, even where they clearly do not apply, such as education and health. We seem to be incapable of anticipating consequences and thinking long-term.

As far as this particular example goes, I admit my bias. I am a fair-weather Twins fan and I was disappointed to see Brian Dozier, who is having a banner year by any standards, lose out to yet another Kansas City player in the recent fan run-off to determine the last player to be selected by the two leagues. I dare say Dozier is disappointed, because he has been having an All-Star caliber year. Mike Moustakas, the Kansas City third baseman, took his (!) place. And if I turn my thoughts to the way he might be thinking about the way he was selected to the All-Star team I recall Sandra Day O’Connor’s comment after she was elected to the Supreme Court. Asked if she would have been disappointed to discover that she was selected on the grounds that she is a woman, she replied “not nearly as disappointed as I would have been if I hadn’t been selected.” So it goes. It’s all about winning. Or is it?

Athletes as Heroes

I have written about heroes before, suggesting that heroic people are often the most ordinary folks who show exceptional courage in the face of adversity or are simply willing to swim against the tide of popular opinion. I have also mentioned the very few athletes I regard as heroes — not because of their athletic prowess, but because of their humanitarian tendencies, their desire to make the world a better place. I also wrote that I thought America’s hero, Tiger Woods, was yesterday’s news, a man who has had his day and should now disappear into the darkness.

But this has not happened, of course. While Tiger has failed to win a major tournament in years, he has recently won his second PGA event of this year and seems to have his MoJo back. He’s a favorite to win the upcoming U.S. Open. That is good for the golf enthusiasts (and the TV networks) because the man can play golf better than anyone else on the planet when he is “on” his game. But as a human being the man is a mess. And for over a year he has stumbled and lost on the golf course as well. The interesting thing is that through it all American sports enthusiasts never lost their love of the man. Even when he was losing his name appeared with remarkable  regularly on ESPN and when he appeared on the golf course — even when he was playing badly — he received the loudest applause, and the highest TV ratings. It is strange, indeed. Why do we worship great athletes who are flawed human beings? We did it with people like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe in tennis as well. It’s not new. But in Tiger’s case it is extreme, since his popularity didn’t wane even when he was struggling.

The answer comes in the form of a statement in a recent Sports Illustrated article (June 4, 2012). The comment is made by Dan Naulty a baseball player who was very much caught up in the steroid scandal and topped off his steroid use with alcohol abuse. At one point after he had been traded from the Minnesota Twins to the Yankees he was taken to jail following a brawl in a bar which took six bouncers to quell (so strong were the steroids raging through his system). Once the cops found out who he was, he was released by the men who all wanted his autograph. No charges were brought. Naulty tells the story: “I barely graduated high school. . .I probably graduated college with about an eight-grade reading level. And when you play major league baseball, society is at your beck and call. They don’t care if you have character.. .. They don’t care if you ruin your life. They care about performance.”

In a nutshell, I think Naulty got it right. Tiger Woods’ sustained popularity with golf fans is almost certainly attributable to the promise of the return of his old self on the golf course, the brilliant shot-making together with curses, frowns, violent fist-pumps, mutterings at the crowd, and the rest of his ugly performance behavior. But a new Tiger began to emerge along with the skills that seemed to be returning: a Tiger who smiled more often and even stopped and signed autographs. This was apparently the new Tiger: anxious to reward the loyal fans who knew he would be back with all his skills intact. He has learned what side his bread is buttered on.

We don’t ask much of our athlete-heroes: just that they perform at a high level. When the men themselves (it’s seldom the women) screw up we only ask for a brief apology and then it’s back to business as usual. As long as they continue to perform at a high level, or show promise of returning to that level soon (not too long, we have short memories, after all) we will continue to adulate them and keep them on their pedestal, whether they deserve it or not as human beings. That tells us something important about ourselves and our culture: we identify with success and great wealth, not with character.

In Dan Naulty’s case, he turned his life around. After retiring from baseball he went on to get a degree in applied theology (from Oxford University of all places) and is now a minister helping other people work their way around the traps and pitfalls of a seemingly meaningless life. Now that’s true heroism: doing what he can to make the world a better place. But since he no longer performs on the field, he has disappeared from the public eye; his name no longer appears on ESPN’s bottom line. Now that he is admirable we no longer hear about him. There’s irony for you!