Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mr. Obama, please don't "swing for the fences"

I've been thinking a lot lately about the TV show Sports Night and how Sorkin makes sports relevant and meaningful by juxtaposing it with "real life" and showing just how similar the two often are and how sports can, in fact, offer some insight into human behavior and even the occasional "nugget of wisdom," and not just in the way of trite, saccharin life lessons and cliches about sportsmanship and the human spirit.

For instance, in one episode the show they work on is focused on an Olympic long jumper, Oscar Parrish, who's come close to breaking the world record several times, but each time before he got sidetracked somehow: his father's death, an injury during practice, etc. Finally, at 33, he makes it back to the competition at what is obviously his last chance, he's primed and ready, he jumps, and he's done it. A new world record.

And the 18 year old jumping after him lands a foot further.

The lesson for three characters, Dana, Jeremy, and Dan (in very different situations), is that you can try your hardest, and you can even accomplish the things you have control over, but you can't guarantee how long the fruits of your labor will last because of circumstances outside your control. The time you spend at the top of your personal mountain can be short indeed, so enjoy it while it lasts.

I wish Keith Olbermann would talk more about sports and less about politics, not just because I think he's a better sportscaster than political pundit, but because sports and politics share something in common that I find truly fascinating: often people in the media will use a sports analogy for politics, and in the process they typically use a misreading of sports to give a misreading of politics.

A couple of years ago, for example, there was the example of "doubling down." It was used to describe a tactical move where the president seemed to "double" the amount of effort he was investing in something (I think funding for the surge). The problem is that "doubling down" is what a poker blackjack player* does from a position of strength, whereas the president was actually working from position of desperation, giving the same idea a second go in the hope of winning. That is not "doubling down," but rather "going double or nothing" which describes a very different situation.

With this sports/politics mangling in mind, I read David Brooks' column about Ryne Sandberg's 2005 induction into the Hall of Fame this morning. From that column, a quote from Sandberg's speech:
“I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponents or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform. You make a great play, act like you’ve done it before; get a big hit, look for the third base coach and get ready to run the bases.”

Sandberg motioned to those inducted before him, “These guys sitting up here did not pave the way for the rest of us so that players could swing for the fences every time up and forget how to move a runner over to third. It’s disrespectful to them, to you and to the game of baseball that we all played growing up.

Sandberg's point obviously is as more about respecting the game as it was meant to be played, but there's a lot of practical advice in that as well. From what I gather, swinging for the fences is generally a bad thing in baseball except under optimal circumstances. If you send your players out swinging for the fences, what you're most likely to end up with is 3 outs and a very short time at bat. Similarly, when a defense has a really bad inning and allows a ton of runs, it's usually not because they suffered a string of home runs, but rather a long string of base hits. Players who always swing for the fences do so out of misplaced priorities, out of preferencing their stats and sponsorships and spot in the recaps over the success of their team. Sure, they're more likely to get home runs, but they're also more likely to pop out or strike out and, thus, to contribute to their team losing. Politics, like baseball, is a game where incremental gains can quickly lead to an avalanche, and where gaudy, selfish plays are not only unlikely to succeed but can backfire spectacularly.

George W. Bush got a massive influx of political capital after 9/11, and decided to just swing for the fences (make the Middle East democratic). He failed, and it sidelined his domestic agenda for the rest of his first term and sidled him with the bane of 20th century presidents: an unpopular war. He won re-election and swung for the fences again with privatizing Social Security. He failed again, and it doomed his agenda for the remainder of his administration. His failures also contributed substantially to his party losing everything they had won over the last 20 years.

So President Obama, go for the smart play. Don't just go out there swinging for the fences. Get a few base hits, get a couple of fast runners on base. As you've said yourself over and over, this is not about you. It's about your team and your sport and everyone who's affected by it. You've got a lot of things to fix, both big and small, and the political capital you've built up has to last. There will be opportunities to swing for the fences, and some will be early, but smart playing also involves a lot of base hits, stolen bases, smart defense, and a bunt here and there.

*: See Rene's comment for explanation of the fix. The benefit of blogs is that there's always people out there checking your work who know more than you do about the subject.

1 comment:

Rene said...

Here's something funny - in your attempt to rectify a sports analogy you still got it wrong.

just for reference, doubling down is not a poker term, but a blackjack one.

Double down: On his first two cards, the player may "double down," i.e., "double" his bet and receive only one card face "down." To do this he moves a second bet equal to the first into the betting box next to his original bet.

Now to be sure, the player needs to be in a position of strength relative to the dealer's up card for the doubledown to make sense, but because he's playing blackjack he's making a losing wager no matter what he does, so the "position of strength" he enjoys is still actual weakness.

that's just semantics though really.

Allow me to offer a quick refinement of what is a good premise based on my studies in both poker and other competitive endeavors:

In any competitive event (and we all know that politics fully qualifies) the eventual winner is determined by a his own abilities, preparation, and focus as measured against the same qualities of his opponent.

The guy at the plate will only ever hit the ball if he is physically capable of it, knows the situation well enough to anticipate what kind of pitch is coming, and focused enough to execute the swing once the realities of the exact pitch he's seeing become clear.

Because of this, swinging for the fences is only ever appropriate in baseball when the pitcher initially makes a mistake (leaving the ball over the middle of the plate). If the pitcher never does this, swinging for the fences is never a good idea. If the pitcher always does this, swinging for the fences is always a good idea.

Its all about anticipating the next move and capitalizing on mistakes.

Its for this reason that pro athletes (and pro poker players, and other professionals in competitive endeavors) are eternal students of their own games. Much more so, in fact than of the games of their opponents. When they watch game film, they start with themselves.

By limiting one's own mistakes, one limits his opponent's ability to capitalize, which in turn forces the opponent to take risks that can lead to mistakes themselves.

Politically, every president is at an inherent disadvantage in the game of politics. The reason is what poker players (and negotiators) call "positional advantage" or - the power of acting last.

The president sets the agenda - especially with his party in power. He determines the policy recommendations, and his party sets out to make those into a reality.

By acting first the president exposes all of his mistakes before the opposition has to make a move, which can be an insurmountable advantage vs expert opponents.

Of course we know now that the democratic leadership in congress was far less than expert in exploitation of Bush's mistakes politically, but we can't expect the republicans to be so inept.

With that said Obama is probably the single most skillful politician I've ever witnessed, and his moves are often very far in front of even his colleagues and the media, much less those that he's politically maneuvering against. I think that's the reason for his whole bipartisan approach and concessions given in the stimulus.

It forces the republicans to choose between supporting it, which could lead to their ouster if it works; and opposing it which could lead to their ouster if it works. The end result is they can only either hope that the stimulus fails, or otherwise try to sabotage it - which could lead to their ouster if it works.