This article is about who the A’s should hire as their next manager, but it starts out several light-years away in the world of politics. Now don’t run away just because of that; I won’t be telling you whom to vote for. I’ll trust you to make up your own mind on that, if you’ll trust me to get to the baseball in the end.
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A couple of years ago, the American left-wingers were all excited about the theories of George Lakoff. Lakoff is a linguistics professor at UC Berkeley, who specializes in metaphor. His thing is that all language, and possibly all human thought, consists of metaphors built on other metaphors built on other metaphors…built on the basic functions of the human body.
The metaphor approach to human thought is a scientific idea worthy of discussion, but the science discussion got quickly drowned by politics. Lakoff wrote a book called Don’t Think of an Elephant, which explains that Democrats use a “nurturing mother” metaphor as the foundation for all their reasoning, while Republicans use a “strict father” metaphor instead. All the differences between the parties are logical consequences of slightly different premises. The book described how Republicans manipulate metaphors to win elections, and how Democrats should use metaphors to fight back.
Lakoff went from a guy sitting in a small office with papers and books stacked to the ceiling (or so my possibly faulty memory pictures him from back in my college days when I roamed Dwinelle Hall) to a political lightning rod.
I was willing to consider, if not accept, the metaphor argument to human thought. But because Lakoff took sides, effectively deciding that he likes the
Liberals’ Democrats’ Progressives’ starting metaphor better, the whole discussion surrounding it became worthless. The right-wing blogs predictably found all sorts of flaws in his arguments, and the left-wing blogs predictably praised them.
If both sides reason from the exact same type of starting point, only slightly altered, how is one metaphor superior to the other? The choice seems rather arbitrary to me. Something is missing.
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Earlier this year, Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham from the University of Virginia published a psychology/sociology work called When morality opposes justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize. You can read the pdf document here. It’s a good read, not overly burdened with academic jargon. Here’s the main point:
Our thesis in this article is that there are five psychological foundations of morality, which we label as harm, reciprocity, ingroup, hierarchy, and purity. Cultures vary on the degree to which they build virtues on these five foundations. As a first approximation, political liberals value virtues based on the first two foundations, while political conservatives value virtues based on all five.
The thing I find most interesting about this is that it does not contradict Lakoff’s scientific theory, only his political theory. In this scenario, humans still reason via metaphors based on basic human psychology, but the metaphor isn’t Mom and Dad. It’s a set of basic human emotions/instincts:
We like kindness and compassion. We dislike cruelty and aggression.
There’s a set of emotions that promote altruism: guilt, anger, gratitude, justice/injustice. (If you think injustice isn’t an emotion, watch a two-year-old sometime.)
Humans are social creatures, and instinctively protect their own group. We like loyalty and heroism, and dislike betrayal.
Respect, duty, obedience, reverence: we have evolved these emotions because humans are naturally hierarchical in their social groups. The alpha male phenomenon is not an illusion.
I’ll let Haidt and Graham explain:
The move to meat, which may have included scavenging carcasses, coincided with the rapid growth of the human frontal cortex, and these two changes (meat eating and a big cortex) appear to have given humans and only humans the emotion of disgust.
Disgust appears to function as a guardian of the body in all cultures, responding to elicitors that are biologically or culturally linked to disease transmission (feces, vomit, rotting corpses, and animals whose habits associate them with such vectors). However, in most human societies disgust has become a social emotion as well, attached at a minimum to those whose appearance (deformity, obesity, or diseased state), or occupation (the lowest castes in caste-based societies are usually involved in disposing of excrement or corpses) makes people feel queasy.
Liberals tend to value the first two categories far higher than the other three, while conservatives tend to value all five categories somewhat equally.
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Let’s add one interesting fact to this mix: studies have found that people with certain types of brain damage lose the ability to feel certain emotions, and along with it, the ability to make rational decisions. These people can make step-by-step rational analyses, but are unable to complete the process and make a decision. You can’t decide anything without your emotions.
Here’s what I love about the combination of these ideas: all rational thought must begin and end with emotions.
Oh, the irony! God has a great sense of humor.
* * *
I once heard Fessler give a presentation, and it was quite interesting. There were several points he made about emotions that I hadn’t considered before:
- All emotions evolved to produce survival advantages.
Disgust evolved to prevent people from eating bad meat that could make them sick. Our ancestors who felt disgust were less likely to get killed by food poisoning than those who didn’t, and survived to reproduce.
- Emotions produce both physiological and psychological responses.
When you’re disgusted, you not only enter an unpleasant state of mind, you also contort your face and body in a predictable way. You pull your head back, press down your eyebrows, wrinkle your forehead, tighten your jaw, and stick out your tongue.
- Humans have evolved many unique emotional changes.
Disgust is just one. Many of the human emotional changes happened as a result of humans becoming able to project in their own minds the contents of someone else’s mind.
Take shame, for example. If your fly is open, and you’re home alone, you don’t feel ashamed. You only feel ashamed when you think that somebody else knows your fly is open.
- Emotions have a logic to them.
- I do something to violate a societal norm, and
- I know I violate that norm, and
- Someone else witnesses my violation, and
- I know that someone else witnesses my violation, and
- They display disapproval of my violation, then
- I feel ashamed.
- Some new human emotions build on more ancient ones
Sometimes, two separate logics produce the same psychological/physiological response. As evolution often does, it takes an existing building block, and repurposes it. A lot of human emotions have this characteristic: the original pure, survival purpose has been repurposed for sociological reasons.
Disgust was originally an emotion of pure survival: avoid bad food. In modern humans, it still serves that original purpose. But there’s also a separate, sociological kind of disgust, which has a different logical structure, but the same psychological/physiological response.
The speech I saw Fessler give was not focused on disgust, but on shame. Shame makes you, among other things, avoid eye contact, curl up the body to seem smaller, and avoid social interaction. Shame is not a uniquely human emotion. For example, you can make a dog feel shame, too. A shameful dog will avert its gaze, curl up its tail between its legs, and slink away.
Like disgust, Fessler argued, there two kinds of shame. In addition to the logic outlined above, there is a second logic which produces the same psychological/physiological response. That logic goes like this:
- I regard another person as more important than me
- I interact with the other person in a context where that difference is relevant
- I feel (this second kind of) shame
This second kind of shame is an emotion of hierarchy. Have you ever “felt small” in the presence of a great person? This is that emotion.
It also works the other way, I think. The opposite of shame is pride, the primary physiological response of which is to straighten your back and stand up tall. Tall people get chosen as leaders far more often than their talents dictate. It’s probably because tallness projects this form of “more important than you” pride, and the smallness projects a “less important than you” response. A short person has to do a lot more things right to overcome their size to become a leader than a tall person does.
* * *
And now, finally, to baseball.
A couple of years ago, I went to the A’s offseason FanFest. This was shortly after the A’s had traded away Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. I was between sessions of a couple of events, so I went up to the second deck, picked a seat and sat down. I pretty much had the second deck to myself.
A few minutes later, Dan Meyer, the prospect the A’s had traded Tim Hudson away to acquire, walked by. Our eyes met. Meyer said, “Hey.” I said, “Hey.”
Now you can look at those words, and think that nothing of substance was communicated between us. But when I looked into his eyes, looked at his face, Meyer communicated something that no other professional baseball player I’ve ever interacted with communicated with me:
I was the top dog in this relationship, not him.
Most professional athletes know they’re more important in the social hierarchy than any fan. When you interact with them, they’ll let you know, if not in words then at least in body language, that if they’re not the top dog, they are at least your equal. I had never met an athlete where I immediately felt higher in the social hierarchy than him until I met Dan Meyer.
Now this was only an instant, and first impressions could easily be wrong. But in Meyer’s youthful face, I sensed an insecurity, a lack of self-esteem, an “I don’t belong here” look that I had never encountered in an athlete before.
A couple months later, Meyer went to spring training, and hurt his shoulder. He was afraid to tell anybody about it, and just kept on throwing. That made things worse. Meyer has now basically lost two years of development because of his bad shoulder.
Meyer had surgery on the shoulder in June, and maybe next year, he’ll be able to recapture his previous top prospect status. But even if he does get back to throwing 93mph, I will always have my doubts about him, just from that blink of interaction. I hope he proves me wrong.
* * *
The pure statisticians in the audience might chastise me for judging a player just by “looking into his eyes.” And perhaps they’re right. When you look into Billy Beane’s eyes, you see a leader. Beane’s ability to project social standing didn’t make him a good ballplayer, though. And a pitcher’s job doesn’t depend too much on how well he projects in the social hierarchy.
Still, you wonder, if an A’s scout had looked Meyer in the eyes and saw what I saw, would they have traded Tim Hudson for him? Should we ignore that piece of data as irrelevant?
Depends, I suppose, if you’re a stat or a scout. Or a liberal or a conservative. Do you value these things or not?
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And so now the A’s are trying to choose a manager. Should they stick to their philosophy, and simply choose the man who best understands the statistical philosophy you want to implement the best?
Of course not. Management is a political job: you need to be able to look at your leader and believe he is a leader. A baseball manager needs to master the same “Ingroup” and “Hierarchy” values that Conservatives values in politics. A manager needs to instill loyalty, respect, and obedience in his players. They need to be able to look him in the eye and believe at a glance that in this social group, he is the top dog. Those things might not matter as much in a player as they do in a manager.
But you can’t simply choose the man who projects leadership the best, either. Because then you’d just hire Dusty Baker, and to heck with your philosophy.
The A’s need to ask each candidate in detail about his philosophies, and also look him in the eyes to see if they see a leader of men. Then they should choose the man who best fits both criteria.
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The A’s general philosophy can be summed up in Paul DePodesta’s phrase, “Be the house.” In other words, be like a casino; put the odds in your favor, and over time, you’ll end up on the winning side of the ledger.
If there’s a problem with that philosophy, it’s this: the house never wins big. The house only wins small, and makes up for it by winning small often.
Perhaps the A’s should move to Lake Wobegon instead of Fremont. Because what we see on the A’s these days is a direct result of that low-risk, low-reward philosophy: a team full of people where everybody is above average, but nobody is great.
* * *
My general philosophy is this: I’d rather try for greatness and fail, than try not to fail, and succeed.
Why do I prefer my philosophy to the A’s? I have no reason, just an emotion. Ask George Lakoff why he chose the Mother metaphor instead of the Father metaphor. It’s an arbitrary choice.
On the published list of A’s managerial candidates, the least safe bet is probably Ron Washington. There’s no question Washington has a brilliant baseball mind. You watch him coach third base, and there’s nobody better at instantly assessing the context of a baseball play: who is the runner, who is the fielder, what is the game situation, should we risk taking the extra base? He makes the right decision nearly every time.
Washington is also a great teacher who understands the fundamentals of the game. He seems to know where every body part on every player on the field is supposed to be at all times. You never know until you give him a shot, but I think there’s a good chance Washington could turn out to be a brilliant tactician in the dugout. I’d love to see what happens if he gets a chance to manage, even if he gets that chance for a rival team.
The question marks with Washington, I think, are twofold:
- Does he believe in Billy Beane’s statistical philosophy?
- Is he a leader of men?
I’m not sure about either of those two questions. Washington was quoted in Moneyball as complaining about the A’s reliance on statistics, but he has at least played lip service to the philosophy in the press since then. But you get the sense he might be a better fit on another team with a different philosophy than the A’s. Plus, a high-risk/high-reward manager might be a better fit on a team stuck in mediocrity than a team that has already had some recent success. On a winning team like the A’s, perhaps a low-risk manager is the better choice.
On the second account, Ron Washington has some odds stacked against him in landing a job. The racial bias is an obvious thing to blame, but here is the list of managerial candidates, ordered by published heights and weights:
- Jamie Quirk, 6’4″, 200
- Bob Geren, 6’3″, 221
- Orel Hershiser, 6’3″, 192
- Dusty Baker, 6’2″, 187
- Bud Black, 6’2″, 180
- Ron Washington, 5’11”, 163
- Trey Hillman, 5’10”, 178
Ron Washington is a small man for a baseball player. Of course, Earl Weaver was a small man too (5’7″), and no one questioned Weaver’s leadership ability. But Weaver was also a spitfire. One look at his face, and you’d instantly back off. By contrast, Washington strikes me as a much more calm, gentle soul. Can a calm, short man get a chance to lead?
Like anyone else who is on the wrong end of a prejudice, Washington has to be far more successful at his job far longer than anyone else to overcome those prejudices. If Ron Washington were Dusty Baker’s size, would he already have gotten his chance? Washington has a long track record of great success as a third base and infield coach. What else does he have to do to get a chance?
One thing, I suppose: look a GM in the eye and make him believe that Ron Washington is the top dog.