Friday, December 22, 2006

Exploiting the Rules

I was reading the Sports Illustrated Year in Review edition (which thankfully did not name "you" as Sportsman of the Year), and in the college football section, they referred to this episode as "brilliant." It may be brilliant, but it's awful sportsmanship.

To recap, in an attempt to speed up the game, they put in a rule this year that on kick-offs, the clock starts when the ball is kicked rather than when the receiving team touches it. (I don't recall many complaints that college football games took too long, or that logging the time when a kick-off is in flight would have that great an impact, but whatever...)

Anyway, in a game against Penn State, Wisoncsin scores a touchdown with 30 seconds left in the half, then purposely jumps offside twice on kickoffs to burn that time off the clock.

And for this, the Wisconsin coaches are lauded as "brilliant."

But what does such a strategy have to do with determining who was the better football team that day?

I understand that strategy and gamesmanship are part of sports, and people exploit oddities in the rules all the time. The four corners offense, calling time-out when falling out of bounds (or throwing the ball off an opponents leg), or even fouling a player who an uncontested lay-up or giving an intentional walk to a great hitter are all ways of turning a contest from an athletic competition into a contest of who can use the rules to his greatest advantage. And, of course, the end of any close basketball game includes the trailing team commiting fouls when the opposing team has the ball to force them to make free throws.

But I wonder what impact the celebration of these "clever" strategies has on the culture.

For example, I am pro-life. Since Roe vs. Wade, the pro-life movement has had an almost single-minded obsession with overturning it. This entails electing presidents who would nominate judges inclined to overturn the decision, and get them confirmed by the Senate.

Since many Senators could not vote to confirm a justice they know would overturn the decision, this involves an odd dance where the nominees try to reveal as little as possible.

During the Harriet Miers debate, some conservative commentators thought she was a good "stealth" nominee. -- she didn't have a paper trail of opposition to Roe, so maybe she could be confirmed. (My thoughts at the time on that are here).

Then there was the "nuclear option" -- it turns out we could change the rules of the Senate so that fillibusters could be ended with a simple majority vote. Why not do that to get some of these justices confirmed?

No and No.

I do not dispute the necessity of overturning Roe. In addition to the abortions themselves, I feel it has coarsened our culture, and poisoned our politics. It cannot end soon enough.

But it must be defeated squarely and fairly, not by sneaking through "stealth" nominees, or exploting undiscovered loopholes in the Senate rules. A victory won that way would not be a victory at all. It would not prove that we had the superior arguments, any more than if Wisonsin winning by their little stunt would prove they were the superior football team.

We need to commit to not take short-cuts, to do the hard work of persuasion and cultural transformation to win public debates, rather than think we can be more clever at manipulating the intricacies of the political system.

Merry Christmas

Long lay the world
In sin and error pining
Til He appeared
And the sould felt its worth

A thrill of hope
A weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks
A new and glorious morn

This Christmas for me is a reminder that things don't always have to be this way. We don't have to live in the rut of routine, doing the same things, getting the same results.

God has inserted Himself into human history, and broken the pattern. With his help, we can do the same -- for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our nation.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Site News

I finally figured out how to get rid of that annoying indent that was in the title and paragraphs in my posts. I'm still futzing with the format a bit -- I'm not happy with the blog title format, for example, but things should be a little more stable.

With beta, we've got labels for posts. Applying labels is a bit of an arduous process, but I think I've figured out some ways to make it less so I'll try to catalog the posts with labels from time to time.

I'll probably also throw up a blog roll. It's interesting how that develops. The old standbys -- Sullivan, InstaPundit, Amy Welborn, etc. are no longer daily reads. But others have taken there place for me. I wonder if my experience is typical. It seems that after a while, you know what these folks think, and there's no point in seeing what their take is on the latest news, since you can probably guess it. But some, like Kaus, Mark Shea, and Bill Simmons remain interesting to me.

I also post some stuff over at WikiFray, which is a group blog. I'm still not entirely sure how I'll split what I post here, there, or in both places. Inside-baseball Catholic stuff will probably remain here, and general audience stuff will probably go over there.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


I think "you were named TIME magazine's Person of the Year!" will replace the commercially-driven punchlines, "I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance," and "... but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night."

Saturday, December 16, 2006

"Christianist" nonsense

Andrew Sullivan has posted some defenses of his offensive and ridiculous "Christianist" term for those he doesn't like.

To pick of the low-hanging fruit, let's start with this reader's defense of the term:

"Christianist" is a strictly neutral term - it describes a specific political position about the relationship between Christian faith and the state. If I actually believed that Christianity is the one true religion, and that the US government should be based on my understanding of the dictates of Christianity, I'd think that Christianist would correctly describe me, and I wouldn't take offense. If you had said something like "evil Christianists," then I'd take offense.


Sullivan meand the term to sting. And he means it to sting by bringing to mind "Islamist," which is a term that descibes people who, among other things, have killed large numbers of Americans and would like to kill more.

If "Christianist" is merely a neutral descriptive term without any perjorative connotation, like, say, "left-handed," then it should be easy to find a post on Sullivan's blog where he is complimentary of either the movement or someone he describes using the term.

You'llbe looking for a while, though, because no matter how much Sullivan tries to offer non-perjorative definitions of the term, he uses it as a smear, and to create in people's minds a moral equivalence between people who want to kill Americans, and people who don't see what the big deal is about a nativity scene in the town square.

Then there's this reader's defense, which I'm not sure I completely understand -- the gist seems to be that if Islamists don't mind being called Islamists, then Christianists shouldn't mind being called Christianists, and their objection to it proves they're no better (and in fact worse) than Islamists. I think I've already given this more time and attention than it deserves.

Finally, we've got Sullivan's own defense.

First he starts with the tired, it's-just-desriptive-not-a-smear stuff that is bullshit.

But here's the core:

realize, after reading countless emails on the matter, that the real source of offense is my equating Islam and Christianity as interchangeable religious beliefs, for the purposes of politics. I see them as potentially equally threatening to freedom. History suggests that both have been deployed in the service of terrifying dictatorships, mass murder and religious war. In some ways, Christianity's record in this is actually worse than Islam's. This is not a reflection on the utterly peaceful intent of Jesus of Nazareth, but, then, he was also adamant on separating religion from politics. It is a reflection on the profound danger of fusing faith and power. If I'm right, the offense is mainly taken by Christians who simply refuse to see their faith as equally valid as Islam. They are offended that a Christian could even be equated with a Muslim. Which means, I believe, that they have not begun to understand the meaning of toleration at the core of Christianity, let alone the central insight of liberal constitutionalism. Hence our political and religious crisis.

There is a kernel of truth here -- any religious follower obviously believes his is the true faith and, thus, others are incorrect and inferior.

But I don't see why this is no antithetical to Jesus's message. I don't remember Jesus ever saying anything like, "it really doesn't matter if you believe in me or not." He said some things that are pretty exclusionary -- "Unless you eat of my flesh and drink of my blood, you shall not have life within you." So, I don't buy that Christian exceptionism is some malevolent innovation of the Religious Right.

Next, the offense isn't that Christians don't like being equated with Muslims -- it's that we don't like being conflated with a movement with which we are currently at war. And, it's baloney.

Go ahead, Andrew, pick your favorite "Christianist" bogeyman -- maybe some mix of John Ashcroft and Rick Santorum. As a gay man, would you rather live under his rule, or the rule of even the mildest Islamist regime. Would you rather be a Muslim living under Christianist rule or a Christian living under Islamist rule?

The answer is obvious, which is why your sloppiliy grouping them together is so offensive.

BTW, when he's not warning of the gathering Christianist storm resulting from people fusing religion and politics, Sullivan has been trying to drive a wedge between Christians and the Mormon Mitt Romney, and calling same sex marriage advocates who decline the opportunity to kick the pregnant Mary Cheney "closet tolerants."

The implication of the latter is that there can be no gap between what is condemned and what is socially normalized -- there is no grey area.

And there is no gap between private values and public policy. If you don't want to personally condemn Mary Cheney, then you must support same sex marriage.

But someone with a deeply held religious belief that life begins at conception should work for justice for them?

Hey - maybe conservatives aren't condemning Mary Cheney because they have a healthy sense of doubt about their views.

Truth and Beauty

Guest Volokh-Conspirator Fernando Tesón has a post titled "AGAINST POLITICAL ART."

Some excerpts...

Art is a type of concrete imagery, and as such it evokes a “fact” that may activate default theories in the audience. Those willing to challenge the political stances represented by the artifact have to overcome the suggestive power of beauty.

The implication here is that the beauty of a piece of art gives it unearned credibility. I disagree.

I think truth has a certain beauty, and that the ease in which an idea can be translated into something beautiful can serve as an indicator for its truth.

Political art’s appeal to emotion usurps reasoned political argument. If you think big oil is responsible for the evils in the world, make an argument. The movie Syriana[sic] will not do.

For small questions, like whether a specific modern political party is better, or whether Saddam had WMD, or if big oil is responsible for the evil in the world, a work of art should not convince anybody. JFK was an entertaining movie, but it shouldn't have convinced anyone there was a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy.

For the purpose, I'm not considering things like documentaries. Obviously, it would not be out of line to be convinced an event ocurred by documentary film footage of that very event.

But for larger questions, like what kind of society we want to be, I think art servers a role. It can show us the perspective of people we might not otherwise encounter. It can filter out some of the complications and noise so we can see a question clearly.

But this can go wrong, too. I'm obviously biased, but in my opinon, the makers of The Cider House Rules abused their power as filmmakers by stacking the deck in favor of their point of view.

Political satire is an interesting case. One reason it is particularly effective is that it generates an additional cost for those willing to challenge its purported message, for in that case the challenger becomes the “party pooper” who spoils the fun by taking the satire seriously. So comedians like Jon Stewart not only ridicule political figures or views. Whether intentionally or not, they also preempt objections to the intended political message (“Give me a break! Where is your sense of humor?”).

This is interesting in terms of Volokh's long-running criticism of the Bushism feature. Satire can be a bit of a coward's game. If you have a point, you land a blow. If you don't, hey -- it's just a joke -- what are you getting so upset about?

Obviously, satire can be deployed substantially and effectively. But in the modern discourse, it does seem that cleverness serves as a substitute for rigor.

We expect David Letterman to throw some cheap shots. I don't think we should expect them from publications like Slate.

Thus, a novel may convince readers that their prior belief in the kindness of the police is wrong, and that in reality the police are henchmen of the ruling class. No doubt these readers may regard this novel as having transformed their beliefs on the matter, and in that sense political art may be seen as challenging their beliefs. At a deeper level, however, the novel may well have appealed to the reader’s default theories, for example by showing the role of the police in making some people rich at the poor’s expense – a zero-sum explanation that is inferior to explanations derived from reliable social science.

I'm not convinced this is a bad thing. Mostly because I think people are basically decent, but get worn down by life and some of the messages they receive. If a film can remind us of our nobler instincts, things like, "hey -- invading countries causes a lot of suffering, so we ought to be sure before we do it," and then we re-examine our positions in light of this reminder, I see that as a good thing.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Unfinished Overlong post on Mark McGwire's HOF Candidacy

Jeff Gordon takes a look at the question of whether Mark McGwire will reach the Hall of Fame, and receives some responses.

To lay my cards on the table, I was here in St. Louis during McGwire's time. I enjoyed watching him. I remember visiting my parents when the Cardinals were in Philadelphia, and arriving early at a game and watching the show in batting practice -- I was practically giddy watching him spray balls into the upper deck of left field at the Vet.

At the same time, I don't think I quite got caught up in it as much as other folks did. I have enjoyed the Cardinals' recent run of success much more than the home run chase. I won't pretend that I always suspected something was amiss -- I didn't, it's just that McGwire didn't impress me as possessing a singular talent -- he was just a bit bigger and stronger than those who came before him, which I figured was due to improved conditioning techniques. He was the next evolutionary step, rather than a virtuoso. Impressive, yes, but not fascinating as someone like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods is. So, I can't say I was devastated when he dissembled his way through his congressional hearing, as many around here seemed to be,

Also, I am one of those who think that steroids are a big deal. Not so much because I don't want sacred records to be tainted, or I think someone like McGwire can't make his own decisions, but because if steroids become tolerated, they will in essence become required, and I think that will have all sorts of bad effects. But that's a whole 'nother post

I can say with coincidence that there is almost no chance McGwire will be elected on the first ballot this time around. No-brainers, and fan and press favorites Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken debut on the ballot, and I'm quite certain the writers are loathe to mar their election with steroid controversy if they can help it.

McGwire has two things going for him:

  • Massive power numbers
  • Looking impressive racking them up.

He's got literally nothing else going for him. He won a Gold Glove at first base (as did Rafael Palmeiro in a year in which he was primarily a DH), but was at best an average defensive first baseman. He won one World Series, but that was for a team that probably should have won more than one championship, and (though this is not McGwire's or his teammates' fault) there was a damper on that World Seriese win because it came in the aftermath of the earthquake. Other than the record-setting HRs, he never really had a signature moment. He was never identified as a particularly good teammate or leader. His relationship with Sosa during the chase was endearing, but is counter-balanced by how he seemed to regard the attention he received that year as a terrible burden. One of Gordon's correspondents notes that McGwire had some other impressive non-power numbers, notably on base percentage, but that is somewhat a secondary effect of his power. He got a lot of walks in part because pitchers were afraid that if they put it over the plate, McGwire would put it in the cheap seats.

The power numbers, in a vacuum, would put him in the Hall of Fame, easily. Single-season HR record, 10th all time, easily over the 500 mark. But it wasn't just that. Hank Aaron and Roger Maris broke home run records, too, and they did so before I was born, but I don't think there was the buzz about their home runs that there was about McGwire's. There weren't thousands of people in the ballpark early to watch them take batting practice. His home runs, at least during his Cardinals days were events. They had, as my wife said, a "flow" to them.

Unfortunately for McGwire, these skills are the ones most easily associated with steroid use, because they are associated with brute strength, and there was a noticeable up tick in them during the period of heavily suspected steroid use. Which is why I don't buy Buster Olney's argument (quoted by Gordon) that it is unfair to penalize McGwire because he was given a subpeona and other stars weren't. He was subpoenaed because he, more than anyone else, rose to prominence using skills that are linked to steroid use.

This may be unfair, and is kind of junk science. You still have to recognize strikes and hit them in order to hit home runs. It's not like someone with absolutely no skill could shoot himself up to become a major league caliber hitter. Besides, we don't know exactly what steroids do. Maybe they don't really help a batter hit baseballs further. Maybe they're more helpful in allowing a pitcher to throw the ball 95 MPH or make a ball curve. Maybe they allow a fielder to cover more ground. Maybe they help a catcher make accurate throws to second base, or a base stealer to get a better jump. Maybe they help a batter to take an outside pitch the opposite way for a base hit.

But we know what we know, and that is hitters in the late 90's seemed to be a lot bigger than they were before, and that home run totals went way up. Mark McGwire was bigger and stronger than anyone else, and put up the biggest numbers. So it seems reasonable that he would be a representative for the era, and receive the subpoena.

Thus, it seems reasonable to discount McGwire’s accomplishments relative to those who played in different eras. This is not to judge that McGwire cheated; rather it is to not assume that other players benefited from the homer-friendly environment (which may or may not have included steroids), and McGwire didn’t. If all the offensive accomplishments of the last 10 years are under suspicion, McGwire’s are no exception. And since McGwire’s accomplishments were pretty much exclusively confined to those areas that were generally booming in that era, it seems especially prudent. In other words, to not apply a discount would be to in essence assume that everyone except McGwire was using steroids, which strains credulity.

Gordon recommends discounting McGwire’s home run total by 100, to 483, and then evaluating his career in those terms (I suspect this would include discounting McGwire’s individual history-making seasons, since peak performance is a part of almost any Hall of Famer’s case – there’s a reason Sandy Koufax is in the Hall of Fame in spite of unimpressive win and strikeout totals). That strikes me as a bit crude and arbitrary.

I propose that we look at McGwire’s performance relative to his peers, and compare that to other recent power hitters at corner positions who have or have not made (or are likely to or not likely to) make the Hall of Fame, and ignore the absolute numbers. In other words, Dale Murphy leading the league in home runs with 36 is equivalent to McGwire leding the league with 66. This isn’t entirely fair – 66 home runs have more impact on the team’s performance than 36, but I think this is offset by how McGwire’s high HR totals inflated his walk total, which in turn inflated his on base percentage.

Statistics come from Baseball Almanac

Mark McGwire led his league in home runs 4 times, and hit 58 dingers in 1997 split between the A’s and Cardinals, which would have led either league, so let’s call it 5. He led the league in RBI only once, in 1999. He also led the league in slugging percentage 4 times, and in on base percentage once.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Weekend Sports Roundup

BCS, NFL, NHL thoughts below...

BCS "Mess"
I'm convinced that the BCS exists to give sports columnists an easy target to fill column inches. Here's my local example -- I'm sure your local newspaper has a column about what a travesty it is that the national football championship is being decided based on style points and computer algorithms rather than the novel ideal of being settled on the field.


First of all -- it will be settled on the field -- Ohio St. will play Florida, and the winner will be the national champion. Michigan had their opportunity to make it to this game, and the lost it on the field!!!! I'll agree that it is hard to say that Michigan is not the No. 2 team in the country after they lost on the road to the No. 1 team by only 3 points, but they were aware of the stakes, and didn't get the job done.

Second, it's not like the BCS is spitting out a completely nonsencial championship match-up. Really, there were two reasonable outcomes -- Ohio St. - Michigan or Ohio St.- Florida (I suppose someone could make a case for Ohio St. - Boise St.), They're not deciding that, say, Louisville should be in the champioship game in spite of their loss to Rutgers because their average margin of victory was so large.

Finally, I don't know when we decided that the object of the college football season is to determine a national champion. College football used to be about rivalries and tradition, and now it's about positioning yourself for the national championship game. Michigan gets to go to the Rose Bowl and take on USC -- that used to be a dream, but not anymore. I think it says something about our society that we've made this shift -- maybe it's not anything bad, maybe just the nationalization of the media with ESPN. Before ESPN, a Big Ten fan wouldn't know much about the SEC or Big 8 (now 12), and probably wouldn't care to. But now we do.

Anyway, it's always good for a cheap column -- the BCS tries to fit a round peg in a square hole -- to determine the two teams that will play for the championship, when there aren't always 2 clear contenders. It makes for easy pickings.

UCLA defeats USC
If you're a senior at UCLA, you must have been getting damn tired of hearing about the Torjans across town, so that victory must indeed have been sweet.

And that tip and interception in the 4th quarter was one of the best plays I've seen.

Rutgers loses in triple OT
And so instead of the Orange Bowl, the Scarlet Knights head to the Texas Bowl. Can't like that.

I do hope this was not a fluke. It would be a great thing for the Northeast to have a college team to get behind, and going into Morgantown and taking the Mountaineers to 3 OT's proved they were not a fluke.

No. 16 to be retired
The Blues will retire Brett Hull's No. 16 tonight, it what may be their only sell-out of the season.

I went to what I think turned out to be Hull's final home game in the playoffs against the Red Wings. He left the ice to a chorus of boos, and that always bothered me. So he didn't get along with Mike Keenan -- who did? This guy was The Franchise, and he gets booed out of town.

In any instance, I hope the Golden Brett gets a warm reception tonight, and that this is the beginning of a renewed partnership between the Blues and their greatest player.

Cowboys defeat Giants
So, I guess putting Tony Romo in was the right move, huh?

Say what you want about Jeremy Shockey, the guy goes out there to play, and gets the crowd going. That's more than you can say for then hangdog Eli Manning.

Cards defeat Rams; Bulger rips team
It seems that since Orlando Pace went down, the Rams' offensive line has pretty much packed it in. And Marc Bulger is getting killed back there. I'm surprised he's made it this long. When he trotted out there with 2 minutes left and the Rams down by 21 and took a sack, I was screaming at the TV for Linehan to take Bulger out of the game before a stretcher does it for him. I don't see how he'll last through next Monday night's game against the Bears.

So, I can completely see where he's coming from.

I think the team misses Marshall Faulk in a lot of ways, which is why I was excited to hear that he wants to come back, and wants to come back as a Ram.

I'm not expecting him to put up 2500 all-purpose yards again, but I think he would help the culture of the offense. His rant on Sunday aside, Bulger isn't really a rah-rah guy. Torry Holt and Stephen Jackson don't strike me as leaders, either. But if a rookie offensive lineman sees a guy like Marshall Faulk, with his place in the Hall of Fame already secure, going out there every day and working his tail off, I think it would make a big difference.

Eagles defeat Panthers
Didn't see this one coming -- the Panthers are the hardest team in the league to predict, and have been for some time. And now the Eagles have playoff life.

Coming attractions
Brace yourselves for my upcoming series on Mark McGwire's Hall of Fame candidacy.