Thursday, October 2, 2008

Palin v. Biden: This is why they play 162 games.

There is no professional sport that takes longer to determine a regular season winner than professional baseball. The "marathon" slate of 162 games dwarfs the 82 played by the NBA and NHL, and it obliterates the 16 played by the NFL. It's one of the reasons people who love baseball love baseball, and why people who hate baseball hate baseball...finding it insufferable and interminable. But there's a very specific reason why those of us who love the "interminable" sport take great pleasure in seeing all 162 games played out. Quite simply, you can't fake your way to a pennant. A team might get hot for awhile and play beyond both its talent and its expectations, but as the summer wears on and the rigors of a long schedule take effect, the cream always rises to the top.

As a Texas Rangers fan, I was both stunned and thrilled to find my hapless Rangers in the thick of the wild card race in the middle of July! They were young, fun, energetic, scoring in bunches...and had the worst starting pitching in almost the entire history of the sport. It was a mirage. An attractive mirage, but a mirage nonetheless. They eventually went in the tank and performed as one would expect them to perform---inconsistent, with moments of both promise and reminders of why it's so damn hard to be the best at anything. They'll be better next year, and better the year after that, but after 162 games it was clear they were not worthy of a spot in the playoffs. And yet, if the season were about 80 games shorter, the Rangers would have been almost as valid a playoff team as anyone else! And that's why I like the long season. They didn't deserve it, and the 162 games they played left no doubt about it.

Baseball is an enduring metaphor of American life, and tonight's debate between Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska provided yet another perfect opportunity for its metaphor-rich application. In short, Palin had no pitching. She hit a few bloop singles, hustled and scrapped her way to an early lead, and managed to both surprise and energize her fans. But as the game wore on, and as this political season wears on, the mirage of her initial "success" became evident. The more talented and more experienced Biden eventually decided to stop looking at pitches passing him by and start taking his whacks. He did, and now she's out.

She is not without talent. She is not without charm. And she is not without intelligence. She is, however, out of her league. There will be brighter days ahead for Sarah Palin. She will learn more. She will experience more. She will train harder, and she will not go away. But she was, basically, promoted from A-ball to the big leagues overnight. And like any rookie not ready for prime time, everything moves a bit faster at that level. Fastballs zip by a bit faster, curve balls curve a bit steeper, and that strike zone which was so friendly in Wasilla becomes a bit larger, a bit less forgiving. As it should be. We don't tolerate mediocrity from our sports heroes, so why should we tolerate (or celebrate!) it in our leaders? Obama may have made the jump from AA-ball himself, but he can hit that curve. He can hit that fastball. And he's adjusted to that unforgiving strike zone. He's gotten better as the long season has worn on.

In this now-lengthy metaphor, John McCain is the entire NY Yankee franchise (sorry, Romy). He has a proud and storied history. He has had many, many successes. He has his detractors, but he lets the results do most of his talking. But...the Yankees sort of suck right now in case you didn't notice. And these Yankees of 2008 are not the World Series Yankees of 2000. They're old. They're slow. They foolishly trade away future success to cling to mediocrity in the present. They need to rebuild. They need to honor the past while looking to the future. Palin is part of that future, but promoting her from the minors and then expecting her to be an immediate star is a fan-pandering move that only George Steinbrenner could think was a good idea. John McCain is George Steinbrenner. George Steinbrenner is your President.

Biden is the grizzled veteran ballplayer who may not make it to the Hall of Fame, but he's the guy that every successful winner needs on its bench. He strikes out a bit too much, but he's clutch. He's skilled. He's a player/manager. Obama is the hot-shot rookie exceeding all expectations. We knew he was good, but we didn't know he'd be this good this soon. He's been in the league for only a short period of time, but he's already challenging for MVP. Sure, he could probably stand to gain a bit more experience, but he'd be wasted in the minors. He's proven he's ready. Put'em in, coach---he's ready to lead.


Blogger Jeff said...

You need more comments. Here's one to prime the pump.

What about the umps? This is the mainstream media, except they didn't hesitate on the first call because they already knew what their fellow NYC crowd wanted:

Hey, is that Olbermann or Sullivan behind the mask?

October 3, 2008 at 4:14 PM  
Blogger Kraig Smith said...

Hi Jeff!

Glad you decided to visit here. This is my pale imitation of John's vastly superior blog, but I'll distinguish myself by being void of humility or class. That'll show him.

I'll grant that there are other factors at play in the baseball metaphor that help to shape and influence certain outcomes. And I'll grant that the media, to a certain degree, is one such influence. Let's face it--umps blow calls. The strike zone is an imaginary box subject to the subjective whims of one person at one time. That said, the main point of the metaphor still holds...which is that over 162 games (18 month-long political campaign), the influence that these "umps" have is diminished in importance by the underlying talent of the athletes. You might be a victim of a bad call here and there, and it might even, in an extreme case, cost you a game along the way, but the great players eventually adjust.

Frank Thomas never believed he took a real called strike. That man argued over EVERYTHING that didn't result in him getting a hit or a walk. Sometimes he was right, sometimes he was wrong. But what he DID do, was eventually wise up to what the strike zone happened to be that particular day. Bad umps couldn't keep Frank Thomas from being one of the best hitters of his era. Likewise, it's not the media who is keeping Sarah Palin from realizing her potential. Some of them might make it harder for her, but the great ones don't just whine...they keep hitting. I'm not fan of hers, obviously, but I'll freely admit that I don't know what her ultimate ceiling is. She might become a great leader one day, but that day is not in sight right now. She's the rookie who the manager is protecting in the #9 hole. The rookie who throws a fit when she gets a bad call. She needs to go back to the minors for now.

I know you dislike the media's handling of Palin, and this is something you and I can discuss until the cows come home, but the salient point is that she is ultimately responsible for how she is perceived. Great politicians rise above obstacles more challenging than the meddlesome media. And I happen to agree with Sullivan that it's beyond ridiculous that she's not held (or showing any intent) a press conference. To me, this is like a manager taking his team off the field because they don't like the way the umps are calling the game.

Glad you're here!

October 3, 2008 at 4:58 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I look forward to reading your blog. I like John's blog, but sometimes he uses big words that confuse me. I am just an unfrozen caveman lawyer living in the backwoods outside NYC and LA, where we frequently mispronounce words like nuclear. We may be bitter, but we don't all cling to guns and religion.

I think your post makes a lot of sense. But I'm not upset about blown calls. There's a difference between honest mistakes and a rigged game.

Nevertheless, your point has a lot of merit. Reagan handled a hostile press; so did Clinton at times.

If I were Palin, I would not do a press conference or any more sit-down interviews with the mainstream media. She needs to find a way to get past the media filter. To the extent possible, she needs to talk past the media to the American people rather than through the media. She should selectively choose some of the reporters' shouted-out questions that she wants to answer to make a particular point. Otherwise, walk past them as if she can't hear them like all the other politicians do.

Who's the political equivalent of Manny, baseball's idiot savant?

October 3, 2008 at 5:37 PM  
Anonymous Jim said...

Great post, Kraig. Would've made an excellent extemp intro. :-)

October 4, 2008 at 10:21 AM  
Blogger Kraig Smith said...

Thanks, Jim. Coming from you that means something!

October 5, 2008 at 12:33 AM  
Blogger Kraig Smith said...


One of these days we're going to have to do a head-to-head blog about the role of the media in a democracy. While I recognize the media is imperfect, and while I think the overall quality has steadily declined over the last twenty years, there is perhaps nothing more important to the vitality of American-style democracy than a free press with access to our leaders. I get very worried when I hear people espouse the idea that politicians should be able to bypass the press. One of the things I like most about Obama is his belief in transparency. Even if you're cynical about such promises, it's pretty hard to argue that McCain would be MORE transparent than Obama. McCain has devolved from the press-friendly straight-talker that endeared me to him many years ago to a paranoid control freak who thinks the media is out to get him. The media shouldn't always get what they want, but after eight years of an administration that went to unprecedented lengths to limit media access, I think the next President absolutely must permit the press to do their job and help the American people keep him honest and on task. Perhaps Obama would clam up if the light that shined on him was a bit harsh, but when the media got tough on him with issues like Rev. Wright, he didn't go into a bunker and ignore the issue. He took it head on. The media should not be seen as our next President as some tool to manipulate to help achieve his agenda.

October 5, 2008 at 12:48 AM  

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