Monday, August 14, 2006

A Straight Line is the Shortest Path to a Mistake

An ESPN announcer breathlessly announced last night that the Red Sox had climbed back into the AL East race "after being declared dead" a few days earlier.

Oh, really? Who did the declaring? After losing five in a row to the Devil Rays and Royals, the Sox were all of three games behind the Yankees with over 50 games to play. In other words, they were a good weekend away from erasing their deficit, which is exactly what happened. Overemotional Sox and Yankees fans might've said such a thing in the heat of the moment, but among neutral observers, only an idiot or someone who'd never seen an entire baseball season could've made such a preposterous assertion.

There's a good living in idiocy these days. Quite a few commentators, a number of them in the ESPN stable of overemoters, were happy to write the Sox off last Thursday and welcome them back from the grave and into the World Series today. In the opinion racket, analysis is out. Peering into the future is in. Alas, second sight remains as rare as ever, so sports has fallen victim to the virulent disease afflicting political journalism-the straight-line projection.

The straight-line projection works on the following principle. Whatever happened last is what's going to happen forever more. Yesterday's score is a precise foreshadowing of all the scores to come. Were the Dodgers struggling at the All-Star break? They were dead. Have the Dodgers won 15 of their last 16? See them in the Series.

Life is change, sang Grace Slick, how it differs from the rocks. Denying that truth is why most big-time American political commentators seem dumber than a box of said rocks. Let me put it this way. If yours truly or any other sports opinionist declared who were the favorites for the 2009 Super Bowl, our nearest and dearest would seek to have us committed. Political journalists have no problem writing or saying in all seriousness who'll be the presidential candidates in 2008, based on polls taken in the summer of 2006. It must be nice knowing absolutely nothing important to American voters will take place between now and then.

Of course, these same bigdomes will cover their expensive-suited asses by announcing "a week is an eternity in politics." If so, why didn't they dismiss the 2008 issue as the nonsense it was? TV makeup must rot the frontal lobes.

ESPN sure suggests it does. It's become ISPN, the Idle Speculation Sports Network, with the bulk of its programming devoted not to live sports, but to loud arguments about what yesterday's scores mean for the future. Sometimes, they're even arguments about yesterday's practices. The network had a spirited debate on who'll win the Heisman Trophy two weeks ago.

At a conservative estimate, 99.999 percent of ESPN's on-air commentators employ the straight-line projection on a daily basis, even if it contradicts yesterday's straight-line projection. Since no one at the network is a dope, quite the contrary, we must conclude the straight-line projection may be a fallacy, but it's the most popular fallacy ever conceived by the mind of man.

Hey, I've fallen for the straight-line trap more times than I like to admit, and so has everyone else I've ever met. In the third game 2002 Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics had the greatest 4th quarter comeback in NBA history to beat the Nets and take a 2-1 lead. Yours truly wrote a post-game piece assuming Boston's victory in the series over a shattered Nets squad was now a sure thin, and believe me, I was not alone. The Celts didn't win another game. As my distinguished former colleague Bob Ryan wrote after Game Four, it'd been so long since the Celts were in a big playoff series, we'd forgotten the games have no carryover effect.

It's human nature to try and look ahead into an unknowable future. Thus, we use straight-line projection even as we know it's wholly fallible. The past may be a lousy tool for predicting what's to come, but it's the only tool we've got.

It's important to recognize the dangers of straight-line projection because here in Boston we're in for a 50-megaton blast of the fallacy this weekend. The Yankees will be in Fenway Park for a five-game series starting Thursday. Aside from knowing all five contests will last longer than three hours, the one guarantee we can make about the last chapter in the most self-important rivalry in sports is there will be an orgy of straight-line projection after each game, inning, and pitch. Try not to pay attention. It's hard, I know, but you'll feel so much better for it next Monday morning.


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