Take Me Out to the Ballgame — Tournaments and Games of Failure

“Baseball teaches us, or has taught most of us, how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball and, precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often – those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of it’s rigorous truth.” — Fay Vincent, former Commissioner of Baseball (1989-1992)

“Baseball is a game of inches.”  — Branch Rickey, Quote Magazine, July 31, 1966

I have been a baseball fan just about as long as I have been able to talk.  My father played the game and tried out for both what were the New York Giants and Yankees–and was a pretty well known local hero in Weehawken back in the 1930s and 1940s.  I did not have my father’s athletic talents–a four letter man in high school–but I was good at hitting a baseball from the time he put a bat in my hands and so I played–and was sought after–into my college years.  Still, like many Americans who for one reason or another could not or did not pursue the game, I live vicariously through the players on the field.  We hold those who fail less in the game in high regard.  Some of them succeed for many years and are ensconced in the Hall of Fame.

Others experienced fleeting success.  Anyone who watches ESPN’s or the Yes Channel’s classic games, particularly those from the various World Series, can see this reality in play.  What if Bill Buckner in 1986 hadn’t missed that ball?  What if Bobby Richardson had not been in perfect position to catch what would have been a game and series winning liner by Willie McCovey in 1962?  Would Brooklyn have every won a series if Amoros hadn’t caught Berra’s drive down the left field line in 1955?  The Texas Rangers might have their first World Series ring if not for a plethora of errors, both mental and physical, in the sixth game of the 2011 Series.  The list can go on and it takes watching just a few of these games to realize that luck plays a big part in who is the victor.

There are other games of failure that we deal with in life, though oftentimes we don’t recognize them as such.  In economics these are called “tournaments,” and much like their early Medieval predecessor (as opposed to the stylized late Medieval and Renaissance games), the stakes are high.  In pondering the sorry state of my favorite team–the New York Yankees–as I watched seemingly minor errors and failures cascade into a humiliating loss, I came across a blog post by Brad DeLong, distinguished professor of economics at U.C. Berkeley, entitled “Over at Project Syndicate/Equitable Growth: What Do We Deserve Anyway?”  Dr. DeLong makes the very valid point, verified not only by anecdotal experience but years of economic research, that most human efforts, particularly economic ones, fail, and that the key determinants aren’t always–or do not seem in most cases–to be due to lack of talent, hard work, dedication, or any of the attributes that successful people like to credit for their success.

Instead, much of the economy, which in its present form is largely based on a tournament-like structure, allows only a small percentage of entrants to extract their marginal product from society in the form of extremely high levels of compensation.  The fact that these examples exist is much like a lottery, as the following quote from Dr. DeLong illustrates.

“If you win the lottery–and if the big prize in the lottery that is given to you is there in order to induce others to overestimate their chances and purchase lottery tickets and so enrich the lottery runner–do you “deserve” your winnings? It is not a win-win-win transaction: you are happy being paid, the lottery promoter is happy paying you, but the others who purchase lottery tickets are not happy–or, perhaps, would not be happy in their best selves if they understood what their chances really were and how your winning is finely-tuned to mislead them, for they do voluntarily buy the lottery tickets and you do have a choice.”  — Brad DeLong, Professor of Economics, U.C. Berkeley

So even though participants have a “choice,” it is one that is based on an intricately established system based on self-delusion.  It was about this time that I came across the excellent HBO Series “Silicon Valley.”  The tournament aspect of the software industry is apparent in the conferences and competitions for both customers and investors in which I have participated over the years.  In the end, luck and timing seem to play the biggest role in success (apart from having sufficient capital and reliable business partners).

I hope this parody ends my colleagues’ (and future techies’) claims to making the claim to “revolutionize” and “make the world a better place” through software.

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