EDITOR’S NOTE: This column also appears in this week’s issue of TimeOut Chicago, as part of our weekly web-to-print partnership.
Michael Lewis, the author of “Moneyball” and “Liar’s Poker,” gave this year’s commencement address at Princeton. His subject was luck.
“People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck—especially successful people,” Lewis said in his address. “As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.”
Watching the replay on YouTube, Tiger Woods came to mind. Then Mark Zuckerberg. Then Tom Ricketts and Theo Epstein. I wondered if Ricketts and Epstein realize how lucky they’ve been. If they don’t, I think the Cubs could be in trouble—and I don’t mean last-place in the Central Division trouble; I mean real trouble.
For those living under a rock, “Moneyball” tells the story of how Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics, outmaneuvered big-spending teams like the New York Yankees by digging up little-known statistics that mattered more than home runs, RBIs, and other metrics that the old-school baseball brass swore by.
Most readers of the book come away thinking Beane succeeded because he used new data models—sabermetrics pioneered by Bill James—before other general managers caught on. But the role of luck in Beane’s success is often overlooked. In fact, many of the stats used by the Athletics were effective simply because they factored for luck. A pitcher’s wins and losses, for example, turned out to be a very ineffective measure of his talent.
Professional athletes are scrutinized these days just as carefully, if not more carefully, than publicly traded corporations—like, say, TD Ameritrade—and yet even the most talented baseball executives can’t always distinguish between good and bad.
Theo Epstein was 28 when he was hired to run the Red Sox. I don’t care how smart you are, to get that kind of job at that age, there’s luck involved: getting into the right school; knowing the right people; finding the right mentors; a job opening up at the ideal time, etc. Epstein was also lucky because the GM he replaced had done a pretty good job acquiring players such as Manny Ramirez.
Epstein did well in Boston. He signed David Ortiz and drafted Dustin Pedroia. But he also made mistakes, such as signing Daisuke Matsuzaka and Carl Crawford. Same guy, same computer programs, opposite results.
There’s no stat for luck.
There’s is no stat for karma, either, but you sure can feel it when it comes back around. I think that’s what Lewis tried to point out to Princeton grads. Ricketts and Epstein would be wise to take stock.
When Tom Ricketts took over the team, he presented himself as a fan first—a fan who, thanks to the success of his family business, TD Ameritrade, found himself owning his favorite team. He told us he was a bleachers-and-beer guy and he was in it because he loved the Cubs and wanted to win.
Score one for good karma.
First came talk of Wrigley redevelopment. I’m cool with upgrades. I’m cool with maintenance. I’ve been a season ticketholder for 12 years. I may be a Yankee fan first, but I much prefer Wrigley to Yankee Stadium. In fact, there’s no ballpark in the country I like better than Wrigley, and that makes me at least something of a Cubs fan.
Now there’s talk of a “Fenway Plan” for Wrigley. Don’t push it, OK? Wrigley doesn’t have to be anything but Wrigley. Mess with the ballpark by adding a big electronic scoreboard, mess with the surrounding neighborhood by closing off streets, mess with the everyman vibe by installing more high-priced special seating areas (which go empty at Yankee Stadium for most games), and you mess with the very soul of the team. You mess with me.
Go ahead with your “Fenway Plan,” but score one for bad karma.
Then, just as Cubs fans were processing the possible changes to their ballpark, and as the city began negotiating with the Cubs for $300 million to help with the job, came news that Joe Ricketts, whose money allowed his kids to buy the Cubs, hated Barack Obama enough to consider funding a $10 million attack campaign.
More bad karma, and this time it was political. Have Epstein and Ricketts forgotten how lucky they are to have a ballpark that everyone loves to visit, even when the team’s a stinker?
In his commencement speech, Lewis told the story of a psychology experiment. Students were randomly assigned to three-person teams to solve some kind of moral problem. One student in each team was randomly picked to be the leader.
Every half hour, the groups got cookie breaks. Four cookies were delivered. Four cookies for three students. What would the students do? With remarkable consistency, the same thing happened: the appointed leader of the group grabbed the extra cookie and ate it with gusto, as if he’d been entitled to it.
Theo Epstein and Tom Ricketts are smart, young, and wealthy. They make their livings hanging around a ballpark, and they’ve got some of the world’s most patient, passionate, and forgiving customers anyone could ever ask for.
Maybe they’ll get even more lucky and produce a winning team. But if they behave like guys who think they deserve the extra cookie, I’m not going to keep paying to watch.
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