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Friday, November 04, 2005

David Damiani On The Firing Of Paul DePodesta

Via BTF, David Damiani at The American Enterprise has a fine article on the DePodesta firing. Excerpt:
“Heart” in modern sports writing is the last refuge of a scoundrel who doesn’t care to make an effort to understand his topic and has abject contempt for his subject and audience. It’s a weasel word for many sportswriters’ visceral hatred, not for DePodesta, but for his fabled computer — the democratic box that allows those writers and their comfortable, smug conclusions to be challenged. It emerges when Plaschke accuses DePodesta of wearing Clearasil (in the first sentence of his first column on the man), or when the San Francisco Chronicle’s Bruce Jenkins suggests that fans who discuss statistics they don’t understand never go out in the sun. The message to fans who think for themselves is that they’re nerds who don’t play or care about sports and shouldn’t dare question the press status quo.
The importance of the phrase "democratic box" can't be overstated. Once upon a time, Branch Rickey had to pitch the unpleasant realities of integrated ball to Jackie Robinson. Rickey warned him that "There's more here than just playing, Jackie. I wish it meant only hits, runs and errors — things you can see in a box score...." The Plaschkes of the world, like the morons who kept baseball segregated before him, would have you believe that there is some special magic only they have a connection with, and that everyone had better ought to keep their eyes off the box, whether it's a score or a computer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though he may not personally harbor any racial animosity, Plaschke and his ill-informed ilk have no better comprehension of the game than the yokels who kept men like Satchel Paige off the major league mounds most of his professional career. It's not that character isn't important -- it is, else I would still be a fan of the Dodger Gary Sheffield -- but numbers matter. By ignoring them, Plaschke does violence to the history of the game he claims to defend every time he sits down at the ... computer? Typewriter?

Comments:
That is a fantastic article. I wish the Dodgers had an owner who could stand up and say "Plaschke is an idiot who hides behind trite phrases and doesn't realize statistics have their place alongside traditional scouting."

Failing that, how do we get the general public to understand this and ignore Plaschke? The American Enterprise is not exactly widely read. Do we have to wait 25 years and then look back on today as the dark ages of journalistic treatment of baseball?
 
I'm not sure you can--unless you can get them to stop reading the Times altogether. It is just a pity that a newspaper which once featured one of the greatest sports columnists of all time (Jim Murray) and another pretty decent one (John Hall) now is given over to the likes of Plaschke and Simers.
 
I want to play devil's advocate, here. Bear in mind that I strongly disagree with DePodesta being canned. But the opposition of "computer" and "typewriter" is a little off. The fact is, when you use computer spreadsheets to determine personnel moves, the perception is that humans are simply variables in an equation. This is seen as dehumanizing. And to a degree, it is, since you're answering to a computer rather than a human being.

I'm not arguing against merit or arguing for patronage, here. And to be clear, DePodesta was using the computer to quantify merit, and he was definitely held accountable (as unfair as it was). But we shouldn't blindly accept the fact that sabermetrics is essentially reducing human beings to a series of numbers. The figure that DePodesta represented to his detractors was not the computer nerd. I think it was the hotshot consultant from an outside contractor who comes in to a failing company at the behest of an executive, sets up his laptop in an empty cubicle, and proceeds to apply stuff he/she learned in business school to determine who gets fired and what positions are expendable. They apply their plans dispassionately and from a distance and have no real accountability. They upset stability, their findings tell the losers that they are obsolete and expendable.

So, if my little theory is at all accurate, let's try to understand why the backlash against DePodesta was so strong without assuming everyone who says "heart and soul" are ignorant bitgods. To beat a dead horse, fans identified with players like Paul LoDuca, who they'd grown attached to over time. I think for those who were the angriest to see him go, the end result of his at-bats weren't as important as the fact that they could identify with him.

The computer is emblematic of the fear of being dehumanized, and this fear isn't some unfounded hysteria. People lose jobs all the time based on what spreadsheets tell human resources and accounting departments. It's one thing to use a word processor to type a column, it's another entirely to refer to it as the primary tool for job evaluation.

Just my two cents . . .
 
In losing Paul DePodesta, the Dodgers lost a talent on the magnitutde of . . . J.P. Ricciardi.
 
jeongers -- I understand your point, but Plaschke makes no allowances for any other viewpoint. His first column was a personal attack, and it got no better than that. I can understand the position of the fans, but if they're not ready for the team to make trades, they're also not ready for the team to win.
 
I never doubted Depo was the right man to lead the Dodgers until I heard he was prepared to hire Terry Collins to be the next Dodger skipper. At that point, I began to have some doubts.
 
Me, too. If he was looking for a mirror, that's a problem.
 
Rob,

If you are going to criticize sports writer for perpetually reinforcing their own conclusions and mocking those with different opinons, be careful you don't fall into the same trap.
 
You miss my point, anon. It's that Plaschke refuses to look at the box score. He only cares about crap like "heart and soul", etc.
 

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