Baseball: The King of Team Sports

There are five major team sports: baseball, basketball, football (American style), ice hockey, and soccer (European football). The skills and abilities required to play these sports at the top professional level are several and varied. But, in my opinion — based on experience and spectating — the skills can be ranked hierarchically and across sports. When the ordinal rankings are added, baseball comes out on top by a wide margin; hockey is in the middle; basketball, football, and soccer are effectively tied for least-demanding of skill and ability.

Ranking of sports by skill and ability

Baseball or Soccer? David Brooks Misunderstands Life

David Brooks — who is what passes for a conservative at The New York Times — once again plays useful idiot to the left. Brooks’s latest offering to the collectivist cause is “Baseball or Soccer?” Here are the opening paragraphs of Brooks’s blathering, accompanied by my comments (underlined, in brackets):

Baseball is a team sport, but it is basically an accumulation of individual activities. [So is soccer, and so is any team sport. For example, at any moment the ball is kicked by only one member of a team, not by the team as a whole.] Throwing a strike, hitting a line drive or fielding a grounder is primarily an individual achievement. [This short list omits the many ways in which baseball involves teamwork; for example: every pitch, involves coordination between pitcher and catcher, and fielders either position themselves according to the pitch that’s coming or are able to anticipate the likely direction of a batted ball; the double play is an excellent and more obvious example of teamwork; so is the pickoff play, from pitcher to baseman or catcher to baseman; the hit and run play is another obvious example of teamwork; on a fly to the outfield, where two fielders are in position to make the catch, the catch is made by the fielder in better position for a throw or with the better throwing arm.] The team that performs the most individual tasks well will probably win the game. [Teamwork consists of the performance of individual tasks, in soccer as well as in baseball.]

Soccer is not like that. [False; see above.] In soccer, almost no task, except the penalty kick and a few others, is intrinsically individual. [False; see above.] Soccer, as Simon Critchley pointed out recently in The New York Review of Books, is a game about occupying and controlling space. [So is American football. And so what?] ….

As Critchley writes, “Soccer is a collective game, a team game, and everyone has to play the part which has been assigned to them, which means they have to understand it spatially, positionally and intelligently and make it effective.” [Hmm… Sounds like every other team sport, except that none of them — soccer included, is “collective.” All of them — soccer included — involve cooperative endeavors of various kinds. The success of those cooperative endeavors depends very much on the skills that individuals bring to them. The real difference between soccer and baseball is that baseball demands a greater range of individual skills, and is played in such a way that some of those skills are on prominent display.] ….

Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer. [To the extent that any of us think such things, those who think they are playing baseball, rather than soccer, are correct. See the preceding comment.]

At this point, Brooks shifts gears. I’ll quote some relevant passages, then comment at length:

We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize.

This influence happens through at least three avenues. First there is contagion. People absorb memes, ideas and behaviors from each other the way they catch a cold…. The overall environment influences what we think of as normal behavior without being much aware of it. Then there is the structure of your network. There is by now a vast body of research on how differently people behave depending on the structure of the social networks. People with vast numbers of acquaintances have more job opportunities than people with fewer but deeper friendships. Most organizations have structural holes, gaps between two departments or disciplines. If you happen to be in an undeveloped structural hole where you can link two departments, your career is likely to take off.

Innovation is hugely shaped by the structure of an industry at any moment. Individuals in Silicon Valley are creative now because of the fluid structure of failure and recovery….

Finally, there is the power of the extended mind. There is also a developed body of research on how much our very consciousness is shaped by the people around us. Let me simplify it with a classic observation: Each close friend you have brings out a version of yourself that you could not bring out on your own. When your close friend dies, you are not only losing the friend, you are losing the version of your personality that he or she elicited.

Brooks has gone from teamwork — which he gets wrong — to socialization and luck. As with Brooks’s (failed) baseball-soccer analogy, the point is to belittle individual effort by making it seem inconsequential, or less consequential than the “masses” believe it to be.

You may have noticed that Brooks is re-running Obama’s big lie: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.” As I wrote here,

… Obama is trying, not so subtly, to denigrate those who are successful in business (e.g., Mitt Romney) and to make a case for redistributionism. The latter rests on Obama’s (barely concealed) premise that the fruits of a collective enterprise should be shared on some basis other than market valuations of individual contributions….

It is (or should be) obvious that Obama’s agenda is the advancement of collectivist statism. I will credit Obama for the sincerity of his belief in collectivist statism, but his sincerity only underscores and how dangerous he is….

Well, yes, everyone is strongly influenced by what has gone before, and by the social and economic milieu in which one finds oneself. Where does that leave us? Here:

  • Social and economic milieu are products of individual acts, including acts that occur in the context of cooperative efforts.
  • It is up to the individual to make the most (or least) of his social and economic inheritance and milieu.
  • Those who make the most (or least) of their background and situation are rightly revered or despised for their individual efforts. Consider, for example, Washington and Lincoln, on the one hand, and Hitler and Stalin, on the other hand.
  • Beneficial cooperation arises from the voluntary choices of individuals. Destructive “cooperation” (collectivism)  — the imposition of rules through superior force (usually government) — usually thwarts the individual initiative and ingenuity that underlie scientific and economic progress.

Brooks ends with this:

Once we acknowledge that, in life, we are playing soccer, not baseball, a few things become clear. First, awareness of the landscape of reality is the highest form of wisdom. It’s not raw computational power that matters most; it’s having a sensitive attunement to the widest environment, feeling where the flow of events is going. Genius is in practice perceiving more than the conscious reasoning. [A false distinction between baseball and soccer, followed by false dichotomies.]

Second, predictive models [of what?] will be less useful [than what?]. Baseball is wonderful for sabermetricians. In each at bat there is a limited [but huge] range of possible outcomes. Activities like soccer are not as easily renderable statistically, because the relevant spatial structures are harder to quantify. [B.S. “Sabermetrics” is coming to soccer.] Even the estimable statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gave Brazil a 65 percent chance of beating Germany. [An “estimable statistician” would know that such a statement is meaningless; see the discussion of probability here.]

Finally, Critchley notes that soccer is like a 90-minute anxiety dream — one of those frustrating dreams when you’re trying to get somewhere but something is always in the way. This is yet another way soccer is like life. [If you seek a metaphor for life, try blowing a fastball past a fastball hitter; try punching the ball to right when you’re behind in the count; try stealing second, only to have the batter walked intentionally; try to preserve your team’s win with a leaping catch and a throw to home plate; etc., etc., etc.]

The foregoing parade of non sequitur, psychobabble, and outright error simply proves that Brooks doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I hereby demote him from “useful idiot” to plain old “idiot.”

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Related posts:
He’s Right, Don’t Listen to Him
Killing Conservatism in Order to Save It
Ten Commandments of Economics
More Commandments of Economics
Three Truths for Central Planners
Columnist, Heal Thyself
Our Miss Brooks
Miss Brooks’s “Grand Bargain”
More Fool He
Dispatches from the Front
David Brooks, Useful Idiot for the Left
“We the People” and Big Government
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility