Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Eusociality" and baseball voodoo: The Washington Nationals need to take up chess (to turn around their performance)

In his book “The Social Conquest of the Planet” (Books blog, May 1, 2012), Edward O. Wilson talked about rooting for local sports teams as an example of eusociality, of social capital, as a process related to essential altruism.

It seems relevant right now  The Washington Nationals, the pride of baseball last year finishing over .600 and winning the NL East, despite stumbling in a tie-breaker game of the playoffs in the ninth inning, now are playing like a minor league team, dropping the first five in a row at home after the All Star Break.  Despite the return of their regular position players, they have actually suddenly gotten worse.  This season could spiral into unprecedented disaster, as humiliating as ever. The team has stopped functioning.

In big league sports, especially baseball and football, teams can go up and down very quickly.  The Detroit Tigers won only 43 games in 2003, but have been a powerhouse in the AL for several years now.
And some commentators, like Malcolm Gladwell, have begun to challenge collegiate sports (football, at least) on safety and public health grounds (and bad karma), that could make the entire world of sports unravel (Issues blog, July 21).
Plus, baseball (like cycling and other sports) has been hit by doping scandals.  The Nationals have stayed clear of it as far as we know, but recently a star for the Milwaukee Brewers was suspended for the rest of the 2013 season.  How much does all this mean?

One could even see the doping as part of “The Cheating Culture” so well described by David Callahan in his 2004 book (Book reviews, March 28, 2006).  Just today I picked up the latest issue of “Wired” with cover story “Celeb Bill Hader comes clean: “I’m a Cheater: 37 hacks, cheat codes, and workarounds guaranteed to make you a winner”.  Things like claiming you’re indigent when going to the hospital (if you aren’t). Don’t follow the rules, just don’t get caught.

But my own well-being in life has often tracked to how “my own” major league sports teams did.  I had a great spring my senior year of high school, and the “new Senators” in 1961 started out well, at 30-30 when I graduated.  Then they got swept in Fenway Park (blowing a seven run lead in the bottom of the ninth with two outs) and never recovered the rest of the year (losing 70 of their last 101 games). I had a good summer, but would have my disastrous expulsion at William and Mary that fall.  While I was done there, the Redskins lost every game, too (including a 53-0 loss to the New York Giants).  The only game the Redskins won in 1961 was against the “new” Dallas Cowboys.

1963 was the absolute worst year for the “new Senators” (they finished a horrible 56-106, and lost a makeup doubleheader at home to the "Pascual-rich" Minnesota Twins 10-1 and 14-2 the day after Martin Luther King's March on Washington!). It was not a good year for me, either.  My parents “bailed me out” of the wrongful thing that had happened at WM, but I had to start a wage-earning job that summer at the Bureau of Standards, while going to school part time, and became even more socially isolated.  It was not a good time for me.  I wound up dropping organic chemistry after a lab accident, and becoming “just a math major” – but eventually that turned out well.
I’ve had my own good and bad periods as an individual performer.  That was true in tournament chess, where I got pretty good while I was in the Army, and then again in the early 1980s while living in Dallas.  A chess player’s opening repertoire is like a baseball team’s starting pitching staff;  his endgame is like the bullpen.  Playing White is like playing at home.

It was true in academics sometimes.  My first semester in grad school was rough, I made a record low “D” on a partial differential equations midterm (but got a B in the course anyway at the end).  
Yet, when we become sports fans, we put our “happiness” in the hands of others who perform in our stead.   That’s an essential part of “socialization”.  The Washington Nationals are performing incredibly badly right now, and I don’t know why.  I’ve even shared tweets with a couple of them (a couple are practically neighbors in Arlington).  It hasn’t helped.

I think that the management and players alike need to take up chess.  Start with  (Arlington Chess Club) GM Larry Kaufman’s opening repertorie (aka pitching staff).  Maybe if I got to playing chess again more and actually started winning (rated games), it would amount to baseball voodoo.  I can do something about that.  
(Note: Misspelling in URL direct title is a typo error.)

Update Thurs AM:  Will the Nats get out of their funk today?  Hope so. 

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