Simmons-Gladwell Chat

Bill Simmons (aka, “The Sports Guy”) recently posted an email exchange he had with Malcolm Gladwell, the author of “Blink.” (Part I; Part II). Not surprisingly, it is packed full of funny, great moments. Two in particular stand out. First, Gladwell writes:

Why don’t people work hard when it’s in their best interest to do so? Why does Eddy Curry come to camp every year overweight? The (short) answer is that it’s really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn’t work hard. It’s a form of self-protection . . . To me, this is what Peyton Manning’s problem is. He has the work habits and dedication and obsessiveness of Jordan and Tiger Woods. But he can’t deal with the accompanying preparation anxiety. The Manning face is the look of someone who has just faced up to a sobering fact: I am in complete control of this offense. I prepare for games like no other quarterback in the NFL. I am in the best shape of my life. I have done everything I can to succeed — and I’m losing. Ohmigod. I’m not that good. (Under the same circumstances, Ben Roethlisberger is thinking: maybe next time I stop after five beers).

This is an interesting idea, with potential application to agency theory that I haven’t seen laid out in the literature. But, the best moment in the chat comes in Part II, where Gladwell astutely observes:

It is possible, as “Moneyball” reminds us, to win with less by being smarter. But the point is not that if you have more money than someone else you automatically win more games. The point is that if you have more money that someone else you’re playing a different game than they are. Wal-mart is not competing against mom-and-pop corner stores. They’re in a different business. And it isn’t fun, at the end of the day, to watch a mom-and-pop compete against Wal-mart. It’s painful and pointless . . . Contests where one player has significantly more resources than another are not sports. They are marketplaces. To root for the Yankees or the Red Sox is the functional equivalent of rooting for Microsoft or General Electric. No thanks.

Exactly right! But here’s where I run into a problem. I love the Philadelphia Phillies, and like to think of them as an underdog, gutsy team, sort of like the last non-chain bookstore in town. But last year, the Phillies’ payroll was $95 million, 5th in the league. This year, it will be around $94 million. And they still can’t make the playoffs (this year, their new GM has basically admitted they have no chance.)

Which means that I’ve somehow convinced myself to be an insane fan of baseball’s equivalent of General Motors.

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2 Responses

  1. Adam says:

    Good post. It’s interesting to see how Simmons handles himself in these “Curious Guy” chats with authors who have (or are thought of as having) a more intellectual readership. E.g., Klosterman & Gladwell.

    Also, to tease this out a little (but staying with baseball), thanks to my Dad, I grew up a Yankees fan during the only era when they were not good, sort of like most blue-chip American car makers from the late ’70s to mid-’80s. Don Mattingly was my version of the Corvette, I guess–a classic on an otherwise forgettable roster (not counting Winfield).

    And feel free to root for the Evil Empire if you want an expensive winner, even if we did overpay for that idiot Johnny Damon. I don’t use the term idiot as an endearing moniker. He really presents himself as one of the dumbest human beings I’ve ever seen interviewed–he was clearly dumber than everyone else who’s ever had a “Cribs” episode. And that’s saying something.

  2. Frank says:

    It would be too trying to try to change allegiances now. It’s a systemic problem, as Paul Weiler suggests in his book Leveling the Playing Field: How Law can make Sports better for Fans:

    I, as a Buffalo Bills fan, have no such qualms.