Is baseball a metaphor for life?

We’re all coming off a three-day fall weekend; here’s a very brief post prompted by the season and the occasion, to help us with the transition to the (shortened) workweek.

Large numbers of people see “baseball as a metaphor for life.” Doubt this? Just google the expression. All kinds of stuff pops up. A sample: one writer saw in a late-season comeback rally by the Red Sox to beat Tampa Bay 8-7 in one of the ALCS playoff games back in 2008 a somber portent for Barack Obama, who was leading in the presidential race at that same time.

A little more than a year later, dawgcasa wrote:

“It’s not always fair, get over it already. There’s a bit of chance involved.  Embrace the idea that not everything is in your control.  Dwelling on yesterday’s success or failure only distracts you from today’s purpose, so let the past go.  Your most important asset is an absolutely unshakable belief in yourself.  There’s no pre-determined time limit, the game’s not over until the final out, and until then ANYTHING is possible, so don’t ever give up.  You can strike out yet still hustle your way on base and help your team. Very small things can have a very large impact on outcomes, so pay attention to the details…”

And, more recently, back on March 30 of this year MLaumakis wrote:

“…I grew up in Philadelphia and have been a lifelong Phillies fan (phan). Unless you have no interest in baseball and/or you live under a rock, you’ll know that the Phillies have been very good for past 5-6 years. This year they have constructed a starting rotation that could be one for the ages — Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and Joe Blanton (the requisite fifth starter in the rotation)…

So, here’s what I’m thinking. This could be a historic year for Phillies baseball. It would be a blast to chronicle the 2011 season as it unfolds. I’ll use this blog to do so. To make it even more interesting, however, I won’t just write about baseball games. I’ll do that on occasion, but I thought I’d try to do something more interesting here: I want to use baseball as a metaphor for life. I want to tie baseball into what is going on in my life and in the world more generally…”

 [Note…as far as I can tell, the author made one more post, following the Phillies win of their opener…and that was it.]

You get the idea.

So here’s my Columbus-Day weekend contribution to the question. Two caveats: first, the thoughts here are not founded on data. They almost certainly would not hold under detailed statistical scrutiny. Second, it may be that baseball makes a metaphor for nations, not just for our individual lives.

Very quickly…

Those Phillies mentioned in that short-lived blog above? They indeed proved to be dominant throughout the year, winding up with baseball’s best won-lost record for the regular season. The Yankees? Pretty good themselves. Second-best record in all of the majors. The Boston Red Sox – in the same division with the Yankees – looked like a wildcard lock-in for much of the season.

These three teams had the highest payrolls in major league baseball: $173M, $203M, $162M respectively.

All three are gone – not even making the playoffs (the Red Sox) or defeated in the first round (Phillies and Yankees).

The four teams still in it? Texas, Detroit, and Milwaukee won their respective divisions. The Cardinals were a wild card. Their payrolls rank from 10th to 17th out of the 30 teams…in the middle.

We see this phenomenon in other sports as well.

Averaged over many, many seasons, and many sports? Those teams with the fattest payrolls and commanding the best raw individual talent will often boast the best records during the regular season may well also tend to enjoy the best playoff records.

But often those teams that win had to struggle a bit to do so. They had to overcome some adversity. They arrived at the actual playoffs having had the playoff mentality for weeks. At the end of the regular season, they had to win. They might lose in the playoffs, but they don’t tend to choke in the playoffs. By contrast, those teams with well-padded leads at the end of the season have to recover the hungry attitude they had at the beginning of the season. Somewhere, during that second half of the season when they were shoe-ins they lost an edge. When they needed the fierce drive to win, they could no longer summon it at will.

When a team’s only aspiration is not a forward-looking goal yet to be achieved, but nothing more than an anxious desire to protect what they have already, they often lose it all.

It may be that nations do this. In recent years, nations and the citizens of the developed world seemed to have lost or misplaced any aspirational goal. What is the over-arching ambition of the European Union right now? What great purpose are they trying to achieve? What about Japan?

For that matter, what about the United States?

We could name some…maybe establishing democracy worldwide. Or ending poverty. But it’s not clear our heart is in it. The media make it look more like we’re watching the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) with envy, or even with horrified fascination. Reporters tell us daily that these countries are not only moving up the economic ladder. They may establish new reserve currencies, take over new global roles that once were ours alone. We’re told the 21st century belongs to them.

Here’s a suggestion for an aspirational goal, that’ll keep us looking ahead, rather than behind, that’ll keep our focus on what we have to do, not what others might do:

Develop the observations, understanding, and services needed to tap the Earth’s resources, preserve the environment and ecosystems, and protect ourselves from natural extremes. Share these capabilities with all peoples from all nations. Better yet, share this grand challenge itself with them. We’re all in it together.   

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