It took me a long time to come to grip with my love of sports.
“Long time” in this case means college. I traveled from the Bay Area to Eugene, Ore., to the University of Oregon and instantly decided that sports were childish and I must grow up and become an adult.
It was easy to do in Eugene, which tries very hard to be the Berkeley of the Northwest and succeeds in many cases. I remember siting in on a panel discussion where a guy in the crowd said that civilization went downhill with the start of agriculture. It took very little effort to decide that games were beneath me and dive head first into politics. I minored in political science and wrote about city politics for the school paper for a term. I attended one football game and one basketball game my freshman year even with free tickets. I discovered DailyKos and a host of other blogs.
Well, maybe the real reason was my pro allegiances. While I went to one Duck game I went to all the Oakland Raider playoff games my freshman year in 2002, including their AFC Championship game win over the Titans. I watched every San Francisco Giants playoff game on my 10-inch dorm TV.
Both of those seasons ended with the worst sports-related heart ache available, losing in the championship. I saw the Giants let a World Series slip away with eight outs to go and then watched the Raiders give the worst Super Bowl performance in recent memory. It soured me on sports more than anything else that has ever happened to me.
Since graduating I’ve slipped back, though, and am not ashamed at all. Sports, believe it or not, are where I get most of my intellectual exercise (which may say more about me than I’d like, but stay with me).
Right now I’m reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Fooled by Randomness.” I found the book after reading “The Drunkard’s Walk,” which I saw recommended by Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski. I’m a little scared to type that as if Taleb somehow finds this he’ll tear me to shreds if his book is any indication. I’m a journalist, belonging to a profession he calls a plague (and being in the industry I see his points more than some I imagine).
Still, the book is fascinating, going over all the ways human beings can’t grasp the probabilities of the stock market (his profession) and everyday life.
He mentions how hard it is for most people to imagine alternate realities and the multiple possibilities of any given situation. If a bet has a 90 percent chance of earning $1 and a 10 percent chance of costing $10, then most people just see the most probable outcome, not the total combined chance of the bet (.9×1 and .1×10).
But sports, and specifically sports video games, have made those all the more clear to me.
Taleb loves him some Monte Carlo simulations. Give a computer program a set of rules and let it run to see how a given situation could play out. It gave him a chance to run through market theories and judge how wring other people were likely to be.
In Madden NFL ’99 (I believe, it’s all getting so hazy …), EA Sports introduced the dynasty mode. Pick a team and play through 15 seasons, drafting, trading and creating your own roster year-by-year.
Being 15, I wasn’t so interested in the notion of seeing how well my trading talents stacked up against the computer. I wanted to win. Of course, I had some house rules. It was too easy (and too time consuming) to play all the games myself. By that time I had finely developed Madden skills. If I wanted to win a game by playing it out, I could. Doing that 19 times a season would make it impossible to play out 15 in a week and move on to the next team.
So I simulated games, over and over again. If a simulation didn’t come out the way I wanted I just reloaded the file and tried again. Amazingly, the same game didn’t always turn out the same way. I could lose a game and then crush them the next sim with exact same conditions.
The experience opened me up to the possibility that what I was seeing in the real world wasn’t the only way things cold have turned out. One of the ideas Taleb looks at is the need to look at an event in hindsight and assume that it was destined to turn out that way and try to find the sign that was missed.
In sports this happens all the time. Why did the Saints upset the Colts in the Super Bowl? We should have known it would happen. There was something pointing to it. Oh, of course! Peyton Manning can’t perform in the clutch (link is actually a pretty fair take, but rehashes the general feeling). He never won in high school or college and only once in the pros. We all forgot that he was really a choker. We should have seen it coming.
The real reason often is just randomness. How often does Manning make the mistake he did in the Super Bowl, throwing a slant on a route the got cut off? Not often, but just enough that it’s not impossible. It happened in a big moment. Onside kicks in non-desperation situations are picked up by the kicking team about 60 percent of the time. If the Colts pick that up the Manning play never happens most likely.
This has all been reinforced over and over by my true sports love, baseball. The sports has been grasped by probability and statistics more than any other and operates almost more as a mental exercise for me now than a pastime.
Every situation and match up presents varying possibilities and challenges. Should that lefty face that righty with his platoon split? How sure to you have to be to try and steal in this situation, given the pay off?
Through baseball especially, I’ve learned basic probability and statistical theory, MySQL database manipulation, the importance of alternate outcomes and a host of other topics I would have never had encountered on my own. They directly led me to pick up Taleb’s book, which has nothing to do with these other pursuits but speak directly to them, to me. His world has the idea of monkeys on typewriters writing Shakespeare. I have the fact that while Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak was amazing, someone had to do it.
So while it’s often correct to judge people on what has actually happened and not what could have happened, you have to remember that a plan working doesn’t mean that it was a good one or one that should be followed in the future. Just because Manning has had bad luck in big games, that doesn’t necessarily reflect on him as a person. He just might be having some bad luck.
Sports helped teach me that. The emotional aspects help keep me coming back, but my intellectual curiosity is what keeps me hooked.