05/21/2009 12:30 PM ET
Other things Steve Phillips said
Or: Joe Morgan and the triumph of randomness
By Ted Berg / SNY.tv
Bill Buckner (left) was merely inches away from becoming a lauded mustache hero. Instead, he's a reviled mustache villain. Mookie Wilson is still cool. (AP)

During ESPN's broadcast of the Mets' loss to the Giants on Sunday night, Steve Phillips, Jon Miller and Joe Morgan discussed Omar Minaya's comments on the Mets' collective lack of "edge," David Wright's response and Minaya's eventual clarification. Then Phillips said this:

One thing I'll say is David Wright kind of responded verbally, but David Wright also responded in his performance. We can say whatever we want, but the reaction from the Mets when they got a little bit angry about Omar Minaya's comments -- their performance got better. From that point on, they got better. It may have been that Omar caused them to get that edge that somewhere was inside of them.

This is harder to disprove and far less maddening than the absurd anti-Carlos Beltran tirade Phillips would unleash later, but it is no more accurate. You might as well suggest that Phillips himself, by bloviating like he did, caused the Mets' ensuing four-game losing streak.

Think about it: Phillips would later contend that the Mets had been playing poorly, despite having won 11 of their prior 13 games. And don't forget, Phillips ignored the baseball game he was paid to talk about to spend most of the evening telling us that the Mets don't have a leader. So how could this team, playing poorly and lacking chemistry, have been inspired by Minaya's silly comments? Is Steve Phillips suggesting that a general manager can actually alter a team's luck by reeling off baseball fallacies? And if so, is that what Phillips really hoped to achieve by being so harsh toward the Mets all night?

Conspiracy theories abound, but I'm guessing Phillips was merely exposing himself as one of the countless masses who watch baseball all the time without fully grasping the breadth of its randomness. This is a drum I've beaten so many times that it's not even rhythmic anymore, and it's not one I'm here to pound today. All of baseball's winning streaks, like its losing streaks and hitting streaks, can be explained away by probability and duplicated in weighted coin-tossing experiments. To oversimplify: A .500 team has a 50 percent chance of winning its next game, regardless of whether it won or lost its last one.

For a more thorough explanation of the concept, check out this article by Stephen Jay Gould. In it, Gould writes:"We believe that long streaks and slumps must have direct causes internal to the sequence itself, and we have no feel for the frequency and length of sequences in random data." This is my point of contention with Phillips.

It's difficult to believe at first, though Gould's case is a convincing one. Still, anyone watching the Mets the last few weeks must recognize that randomness pervades so much of the sport. Weird hops, bad calls, freak happenings, Ryan Church missing third base. So many variables. Simply put, baseball is just way too complex a game to be boiled down in the manner Phillips attempted.

It's something I've grappled with for a while, because stories like Phillips' are fun to tell, and because not believing in them makes this job a hell of a lot more difficult. I tackled our tendency to analyze the game's intangibles post-hoc about a year ago, when the Mets had almost exactly the same record they do today.

But what I left out of that column and all the subsequent ones echoing the same sentiment is what I hope to get at (eventually) in this one: Understanding the randomness in baseball does not make the game inherently less fun to watch or less interesting to follow.

Sometimes I feel like a wet blanket. Someone told me recently that the 2009 Mets needed leaders like Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter. Now don't get me wrong: The Mets could certainly use Keith and Gary and the pair probably would mean a huge difference in the standings because they were both excellent players. But as leaders? How would I know?

We revere the '86 Mets because they won, but when we do, we conveniently forget to consider that if it weren't for a single wild pitch, they would have lost the World Series in six games. Did Carter's leadership cause Bob Stanley to falter? Did Hernandez will the ball past Bill Buckner?

That's not to say Keith and Gary weren't great leaders. For all I know, they were exceptional ones. All I'm saying is that talent -- tons of it -- got those Mets to the World Series and luck sealed the deal. I don't mean to take anything away from them, either -- all world champions require luck. I'm only saying that it's silly to look at the 2009 Mets and wish they behaved more like the 1986 Mets. If Stanley made the pitch or Buckner made the play, the Mets of the late 80s would be remembered as a massive disappointment, not a gritty gang of mustachioed heroes.

Does that suck out the fun? Hardly. That was an excellent team, and one that happened to strut and fight and party like crazy, and one that happened to win the World Series. All that happened, and since it did, we Paul Bunyan them. And we probably should; they deserve it.

But their chemistry, I'm sure, had much less to do with it than their plain, old-fashioned skill. That's what got them to October. Once there, because of randomness, the 108-win team almost blew it. Then, thanks to more randomness, they didn't. That's what makes it awesome.

This is insulting; you don't need me to tell you why you should like baseball. I just sometimes need to remind myself. So many times when I call nonsense on narratives like Phillips', I'm told that if I think that way, I might as well just have a computer simulate every game and eliminate the human element entirely. That's really what all stat nerds want, I'm told.

It's actually quite the contrary. An appreciation for randomness is an appreciation for the human element. Gould, in his article, teases baseball writers for their tendency to see the sport as a metaphor for life. But for me, it's not a metaphor at all. It's a microcosm.

So often we're hit with the effects of the powerfully and unmistakably random, and we almost always try to rationalize them. But seeing randomness in action on the field and explained mathematically in Gould's article and elsewhere helps me keep my head up when I'm struck with a run of bad luck. It reminds me that I haven't in any way brought it upon myself with a "losing mentality;" I merely live in a random world, and things can turn around as quickly as they went wrong. And that's precisely what I love about baseball.

Which brings me back to Phillips. In the top of the fourth in that Sunday night game, while Morgan was discussing how the Mets were winning despite not playing well, Phillips insinuated that a leader like Joe Morgan would never allow his team to lose focus like the Mets obviously had. Morgan responded:

Sometimes you can't help it. That's one of the things I think people don't understand. When you play 162 games, you're going to have stretches where you play defense, you play poor defense. You hit well, you do not hit well. You pitch well -- all those things happen in 162 games. That's why it's such a tough grind. So there are going to be times when that happens.

And that's just it. Baseball games and seasons and careers have their inevitable ups and downs, and part of the beauty of the sport is that so many of them are uncontrollable. Teams must improve their odds by compiling the best possible rosters and fielding the best possible lineups, then cross their fingers and hope the ball bounces their way.

So if these columns lack specifics about the Mets' clubhouse chemistry, it's because the way I approach and enjoy baseball is all wrapped up in randomness. And it's because I believe if the team stays healthy and Jerry Manuel and Omar Minaya perform appropriately, there's a reasonable chance that in 2032, we could be looking at the disappointing, hard-partying, baseball-brawling Mets club and wishing for a team of quiet professionals like the 2009 squad.

That probably won't happen with Ramon Martinez in the lineup, of course, or without some better starting pitching, but we shall see. There's plenty of time left for circumstance to intervene on the Mets' behalf.

I recognize that, for fans, sometimes chance isn't an adequate explanation. Sometimes we need to know why the Mets can look so good for 13 games then so horrible for four. But I can offer only the absence of Jose Reyes and the presence of misfortune as answers.

Still, if you're struggling to believe that baseball could be so arbitrary, and that random chance could play such a huge role, I offer this: Somehow, a chain of events unfolded that put Steve Phillips in a professional broadcast booth Sunday night so he could rip Carlos Beltran. Try to explain that in any other terms.

Ted Berg is the senior editorial producer for SNY.tv. He can be reached at tberg@sny.tv or via the Flushing Fussing Facebook group.
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