Sunday, September 27, 2009

You Guess Is As Good as Mine -- They Both Probably Stink

Through the housecleaning process, I would up skimming a book that had fallen behind one of our bookshelves. It was "Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion," an as-told-to first-person diary of the late Ashe's 1973-1974 tennis season written in collaboration with Frank Deford. I'm sure it's out of print, but it is an excellent read for any sports fan, even those who don't much care for tennis.

In the course of my browsing, I came upon a diary entry Ashe wrote the evening of September 10, 1973. He was completely, hopelessly depressed and angry at being eliminated in the fourth round of the U.S. Open in a major upset. Ashe could not believe he had lost to some upstart kid, a teenager, a nobody. Some guy named Bjorn Borg.

What was an upset in 1973 doesn't look quite the same in 2009. Ashe lost to an all-time great at the start of said great's career. Of course, on that September evening, Ashe didn't know that. Neither did Borg, or anyone else. The future is blank by definition. And by that definition, most attempts to see into the future draw blanks.

Ashe's diary entry reconfirmed one of my beliefs that is becoming increasingly strong with the passage of time. When it comes to sports (and this goes triple for other forms of journalism), predictions and speculation are a complete waste of time. They are enjoyable, people like them, and on some occasions (the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby), they are mandatory. There are occasions where a fan or a writer is expected to take a position beforehand, and it's all part of the fun.

But fun and reality are not always companions. Forecasts, whether in finance or football, are based on the past. Almost all of them are straight-line projections, that is, an assumption that what's happening now will continue to happen for an indefinite period.

Take one forecast -- please. Last weekend, I made a post here that effectively picked the Pats to beat the Jets, based on a 20-year historic trend of the Jets turning turtle in big games when fans and commentators thought they might really be a good team this time. This was erroneous. It was also a bad forecast based on other people's previous bad forecasts, which in itself shows the cloud-cuckoo land nature of predictions.

Oh, well. If there's one thing sportswriting teaches you, it's how to shrug off bad guesses. They are as inevitable as rainouts and as ephemeral as their cousins in entertaining mindlessness, trade rumors. As noted, predictions are an inescapable part of sports. It is my belief that football has become the most popular U.S. sport because it allows fans and commentators an entire week to argue about what's going to happen next before their opinions must be tested by reality. In baseball, what a person predicts at 4 p.m. can make said person appear a perfect ass by 10 p.m.

I'll still make predictions, because I am a member of the sports community. But I never argue predictions with people. I'm trying to cut down on idle speculation, too. To my mind, the most sensible and honest answers on future sports events are "just a hunch," if one has one, or "why don't we wait and see," if one doesn't. I told you I wouldn't be a very good sports talk radio host. There's another reason why.

It is worth nothing that Damon Runyon, who made one of the most famous observations on sports forecasting, that "the race is not always to the swift or the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet," covered his bet nicely with an opposing opinion: "I make all of life 6-5 against."

Let his second thought be our watchwords.


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