On the uncomfortable certainty of uncertainty
Chuck Tanner used to say, “Baseball’s just an opinion.”*
* He also used to say, “Really? Half the guys on my team were snorting cocaine every day?”
I’ve never been a fan of Tanner’s Dictum, because it might seem to suggest that nobody knows anything; that nobody can know anything, in which case there’s little point in even trying. You think Omar Moreno’s just as good as Chet Lemon? Hey, baseball’s just an opinion. You think Jack Morris was the premier big-game pitcher of his generation? Hey, baseball’s just an opinion.
But don’t worry, friends. This column, my first (but not my last) in this space, isn’t about Jack Morris. It’s about humility, and the limits of our knowledge and our wisdom.
In my business, sometimes it seems that there’s little room for nuance or equivocation, let alone nuanced equivocation. For a long time, I blamed this on the business. You know what, though? It’s not really the business’s fault. Wait. Equivocation Alert. It’s the business’s fault, but not just the business’s. The business is just trying to give us what we want, and what we often want is certainty. Often a certainty that merely reinforces our passionately held opinions.
I’ve been reading Jimmy Doolittle’s autobiography. Doolittle, as you probably know, led a famous bombing raid on Japan just a few months after Pearl Harbor; in the movies, he’s been played by Spencer Tracy and Alec Baldwin. The Doolittle Raid was immediately hailed as a smashing success, due to its impact on the morale of both Americans and Japanese, and it might have helped spur the Battle of Midway, a turning point in the Pacific War.
Some of you reading this, but especially some of your grandparents and great-grandparents, will be offended by the suggestion that the Doolittle Raid was ill-advised. That while the actions of Doolittle and the other 79 raiders were certainly heroic in a traditional sense, it’s far from obvious that the gains justified the costs.
Every airplane was lost — plans to land on Chinese air fields went for naught — but the great majority of crewmen survived the raid, with most receiving assistance from Chinese civilians. The Chinese civilians weren’t so lucky. The Japanese destroyed dozens of Chinese airfields and, by one measure, killed as many as 250,000 civilians in pursuit of the American fliers, or simply as retribution and warning. In "Forgotten Ally," Rana Mitter’s recent book about China during World War II, he writes, “What went down very well with the American public had a hugely negative effect on the Chinese war effort.”
My point isn’t that Doolittle wasn’t heroic, or that he and his superiors lacked good judgment. But it’s hardly clear that the war was significantly shortened because of the Raid, while it seems highly likely that many thousands of Chinese civilians died who wouldn’t have otherwise. Which isn’t a part of the story you’re likely to see in a Hollywood movie. From one perspective, the raid was a huge success; from another, it was a terribly misguided disaster. What’s more, the arguments about the Doolittle Raid will never end, because perspectives change and new information keeps coming.
Fortunately, baseball’s not war and Bud Selig’s probably never killed anyone. My point is that there’s no such thing as a simple story, and yet we seem programmed to prefer our stories simple.
I’m prone to that same desire, but usually I fight like hell against it. Usually I consider how difficult it is to “look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not.” Or (if you’ll permit another quotation) as Voltaire observed, “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.”
There are very few things that I’m certain about, except that we all make mistakes and nobody knows everything about anything.
Which doesn’t mean we don’t know anything. We actually know quite a lot of things. We know how hard Clayton Kershaw throws his curveball, and how much it curves. We know how many bases Jacoby Ellsbury stole last season. Knowing these small things allows us to wonder about some big things in interesting ways.
Now I’m going to write about Jack Morris. For just a moment. We live in a world populated with humans, and humans write things like this about Jack Morris: “I saw a ton of his games, as I did two hurlers who did get the nod for the Hall yesterday, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. Let me tell you something: if I (had) to pick one of these three to win a game that my life depended on I would pick Morris in a heartbeat.”
Proof, as someone said, “is the elementary courtesy that is anyone’s due.” Merely saying “I saw a ton of games” and “Let me tell you something” doesn’t constitute much proof.
In a recent 10-part series, Bill James came up with a definition for “big game” and then looked at every pitcher from the past 60 years. This was the very end of that 10-part series, just after Bill acknowledges that yes, of course Morris pitched brilliantly in October of 1991 …
But other than those four starts in the 1991 post-season, there is nothing there. His record in Big Games, other than the 1991 post-season, isn’t good; it is actually very poor. Yes, he did win some Big Games; every pitcher who has a real career does, even Frank Tanana. Jon Lester has won far more Big Games in his career than Jack Morris did, in a career that isn’t yet half as long. Doyle Alexander was 0-5 in the Post Season—but he still won more Big Games than Morris did.
If you want to advocate for a pitcher being in the Hall of Fame based on his performance in Big Games, advocate for Ron Guidry, or Jim Kaat, or Mickey Lolich, or Mike Mussina.
You might, after reading that, continue to argue that Morris was an incredible BIG-GAME PITCHER. It’s just that none of the rest of us have any reason to believe you, if you’re not willing to define BIG GAME in a meaningful way, or bring other pitchers into the discussion. Yes, that’s a lot of work. But if you’re not willing to do that work, your opinion about Jack Morris is … well, it really is just an opinion. Chuck Tanner was talking about you.
And about me, sometimes. Nobody’s rigorous every time. But in this space, when asking for your time and your attention and maybe a bit of your trust, I owe you the elementary courtesy of proof … and yes, also the admission that I am often uncertain and uncomfortable.
We’ll never know everything about anything. But if we’re honest about what we don’t know, we can keep inching closer to where we’d like to be.