1984 Baseball Abstract: Oakland A's


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One of the people I interviewed last summer for the job as my assistant was a very nice young man named Paul Izzo. Paul hails from Providence, Rhode Island; he grew up, as it happens, just a few blocks from the boyhood home of Davey Lopes, soon to be designated a shrine. Paul showed me an article in an old Baseball Digest which talked about Davey Lopes growing up in an East Providence ghetto. The area he grew up in is, in fact, not a ghetto at all. It's a very nice, turn-of-the-century neighborhood.

I thought about that a lot during the summer, a short essay on the minor irritations and insults of racism in America; a similar essay was what we might call the incident of Eddie Murray's family. David Earl Lopes is sort of black, and everybody knows that black people grow up in ghettos. So Dave Lopes has to deal with that.

I am in the same article with the Oakland A's and their blessed computer in more newspaper articles than you can count. I am not complaining; it sells books. Only I haven't figured out what I am doing there. My work has nothing to do with computers. I don't know any computer languages and couldn't write the most basic program. I enrolled in a computer science course as a junior. I lasted about three weeks.

But my work, while it has nothing to do with computers, has something to do with numbers, and a lot of people who don't understand one don't understand the other, either, and so far as they are concerned, we are all living in the same ghetto.

That having been said, perhaps my thoughts on the future of baseball would be of as much interest's as the next person's. As mentioned, I recently purchased a computer, and am still learning how to use the canned programs that come with it. The main thing that you are struck with in the process of learning about a computer is how totally, incredibly stupid it is. The machine simulates intelligence so well that when you accidentally slip through a crack in its simlulations and fall to the floor of its true intelligence, you are awed by the depth of the fall. You give it a series of a hundred of a thousand sensible commands, and it executes each of them in turn, and then you press a wrong key and accidentally give it a command which goes counter to everything that you have been trying to do, and it will execute that command in a milisecond, just as if you had accidentally hit the wrong button on your vacuum cleaner at the end of your cleaning, and it had instantly and to your great surprise sprayed the dirt that you had collected back into the room. And you feel like, "Jeez, machine, you ought to know I didn't mean that. What do you think I've been doing here for the last hour?" And then you realize that that machine has not the foggiest notion of what you are trying to do, any more than your vacuum cleaner does.

The machine, you see, it nothing; it is utterly, truly, totally nothing. And all of the fascination and the speculation about the computer, about "what it is going to do" and "how it will change things" in baseball and in other areas is completely misguided, because it is not going to do anything and it is not going to do change anything.

We are going to do things with the computer. You and I are going to change the world, and we're going to change baseball, and we're going to use the computer to do it. Machines have no capabilities on their own. Your car cannot drive to Cleveland. What machines do is extend our capabilities.

What is unique (exciting, terrifying) about the computer is that it extends our capabilities to such an enormous extent and in so many areas -- in more different areas, I think, than any new invention since the tire iron. The reason for this is that almost everything which can be done on paper can be done easier and faster (some would say better, but I'm not convinced of that yet) on a computer. Since all our lives revolve to a large extent around literacy, around works on paper and numbers on paper, our lives are in time going to revolve to the same extent around computers. Whether we like it or not.

Some terrible things, unimaginably terrible things, are going to be done with computers in the next thirty years. Do not kid yourself that it's not going to happen; deal frankly with the fact that it is going to happen. Some marvelous, wonderful things are going to be done with computers. I look forward to them. We are going to change our lives, using the computer, far more than we have changed our lives using the automobile, far more than we have changed our lives using the television machine. I have no doubt that this is true, because the computer extends our capabilities, for good or evil, in far more sweeping and comprehensive ways than the automobile, which in truth expands only our ability to move around, or the television, which expands only our ability to observe. I am not afraid on balance. It is only human nature that we are going to see a little more of, blown up larger than life by the new machine.

Before we approach any nearer that point, I have a recommendation. Computers should be banned from the dugouts. Right now, before any of them are put in there to begin with. BAN them.

Computers aren't going to be bad for baseball; it's not anything like that. But they will, or would put an unnecessary distance between the fans in the seats and the man in the dugout. Computers do not belong in dugouts for the same reason that bicycles do not belong on the basepaths: They would remove the game from a human level. Let them study their printouts before the game starts.

Some people have expressed a concern that what is being done in baseball with the computer is (ahem) not in the best interests of my profession, of sabermetrics. I am speaking here not only of the Oakland experiment, but of the computers that have been hauled into Comiskey, the Kingdome, and a couple of other places. I stress that I do not know any of these people. I have never met them, wouldn't recognize them if I passed them on the streets. I don't share many of their interests. They live in another part of the ghetto.

And from what I head, I don't want to know some of them, either. I gather, frankly, that some of baseball's computer people are world-class oysters, dogmatic fellows who think they know more about baseball than anybody else on the planet, and consequently have no intention of listening to anyone. The concern that has been expressed to me is that some of these people may be doing us more harm than good.

If that's true, it's unfortunate. But I'm not all that concerned, and let me explain why. There is, you see, no such thing as "computer knowledge" or "computer information" or "computer data." Within a few years, everyone will understand that. The essential characteristics of information are that it is true or it is false, it is significant or it is trivial, it is relevant or it is irrelevant. In the early days of the automobile, people would say that they were going to take an "automobile trip." That lasted about ten years; after that, people went back to taking trips as they had before. They were vacation trips, or they were business trips, or they were trips on personal matters, or they were trips to the coast or they were trips to the mountains. After the novelty wore off people still traveled in automobiles, but they ceased to identify the trip with the machine and returned to identify it with its purpose. People stopped driving to Cleveland just to have some place to drive. That's what we're going through now with the computer; twenty years from now, the term "computer information" will sound quaint and silly.

The main thing that is happening in computers now is that they are becoming much easier to use. As computers become easier to use, our dependence on "computer people" becomes smaller and smaller. Computer people are not going to be running baseball in a few years; indeed, computer people are not going to be running anything in a few years except computers. The rise of the computer age is not going to put computer specialists into positions of power any more than the rise of the auto age put auto mechanics and bus drivers into positions of power. Don't worry about it.

I am engaged in a search for understanding. That is my profession. It has nothing to do with computers. Computers are going to have an impact on my life that is similar to the impact that the coming of the automobile age must have had on the professional traveler or adventurer. The car made it easier to get from place to place; the computer will make it easier to deal with information. But knowing how to drive an automobile does not make you an adventurer, and knowing how to run a computer does not make you an analytical student of the game.