Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Told Ya

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11

Back in 1992, I got into an argument with an old high school friend. We were living together in a house in Yuma, preparing for the summer so that we could attend college in the fall, and we were discussing life - specifically, the way life and existence 'are'.

His position was that people basically get what they deserve in life. If you work hard, you'll be rewarded; if you slack, you'll be punished. As long as you're smart and keep one eye open, life is managable and you'll come through it just fine.

My position was that life is essentially random: good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to good people, and while a smart person might well be able to turn a disaster into an opportunity, it's no less likely that an opportunity will turn into a disaster, no matter how hard you try. (Well-read folks will recognize that this position is hardly original with me: it was probably ancient when it was written into the Book of Ecclesiastes.)

We happened to be having this discussion with our girlfriends present, and though they seemed bored by the conversation in general, they did agree to help us settle our disagreement; both voted with my friend that the world was basically a place where the good are rewarded and the bad punished.

Exactly one week later, my friend was alone in his room, crying. He'd learned just a short while earlier that his grandmother, one of the people he was closest to in the entire world, was suddenly on her deathbed back in rural Minnesota, and it would be very unlikely that he'd be able to make the trip up to see her before she died. The four of us were together again; his girlfriend to comfort him (though at the moment he wasn't willing to accept comfort), and mine because she was his girlfriend's best friend.

As the sounds of my friend's sobs came through the walls of his bedroom, I looked at the two women, smiled a tight, bitter smile, and said just two words. "I win."

Fast-forward to 2005.

The first incarnation of Contrarian Bias was as part of a larger site called TwinsTerritory.com, a community site dedicated to fans of the Minnesota Twins baseball club. During 2005, a young pitcher who'd been a throw-in in a trade with the San Francisco Giants a year earlier was having a breakout year in the minor leagues: he'd pitched well for the first half of the year with the AA club in New Britain, then after being promoted to the AAA club in Rochester pitched even better. There was more than a little excitement, especially since the parent club still had visions of possibly competing in the playoffs, and thus the young phenom pitcher was likely to arrive in the big leagues a bit earlier than expected.

He arrived, pitched reasonably well for a first-time big leaguer, and the fan base went nuts. The pitcher, in case you haven't figured it out by now, was Francisco Liriano.

There was one guy, though, who didn't join the bandwagon. One guy who insisted on pointing out that the reason this guy had been a throw-in in the first place was that he'd spent the better part of the previous two years recovering from serious arm problems, and that as such, he was always going to be a higher-risk candidate for arm injury than someone who hadn't had those problems. This guy, of course, was a buzz-kill; who wants to be told that the shiny new rookie might actually be made of fool's gold? Some tried to convince this guy that of course the Twins knew their rookie was an injury risk, and as such they'd take extra-special care of him and be sure not to overwork his arm. Others were less friendly, or at least less inclined to discuss the issue. Almost no one said, 'You know, this guy may have a point. Maybe we should temper our enthusiasm a bit.'

In 2006, Liriano began the year in the bullpen, but when the Twins' starting rotation proved much shakier than expected, was quickly promoted. He pitched extremely well, striking out batters at a ferocious rate, and running up numbers that looked not just like Rookie of the Year numbers, but Cy Young award numbers. The fans, predictably, went nuts. Some thought that Liriano was the second coming of another outstanding starting pitcher, Johan Santana. Some even went so far as to suggest that no team in baseball, and possibly no team in the history of baseball, ever had as 'dominant' a pair of pitchers as Santana and Liriano.

The buzz-kill guy simply sat off to the side, having left the sports-blogging game, and silently wondered when the rent was going to come due.

Monday night, at Comerica Park in Detroit, Francisco Liriano had perhaps his worst start as a major leaguer, giving up four runs on ten hits in four innings, then leaving the game. Afterward, Liriano pointed to his elbow and noted that he was in serious pain. Back in 2002, it was an elbow injury that ended Liriano's season with class-A Hagerstown, and complications from that injury limited him to just nine innings in all of 2003.

The most rational guy in the room that night was Liriano's teammate Carlos Silva, who noted:

I tried to tell him, 'You need to worry.' Of course, you don't want to lose that guy, especially in the situation we're in. But he's got to take care of his future. If you're going to lose him, it's better to lose him for two weeks than for his future.

Across the assembled online fandom of Twins Territory, the bandwagon comes to a bloodcurdling halt. What once looked like a march toward destiny now suddenly seems fragile, ephemeral. A three-game series with the Tigers that looked like it might possibly propel the Twins into contention for the division title now looks like a disaster in the making, and if the club can get out of town still even numerically in the wild-card race, it'll be a moral victory to some.

To others, of course, operating under the Dorito theory of pitching prospects ("crunch all you want - we'll make more"), all this means is that the Twins now get to call up their next uber-prospect, Matt Garza, who while he thankfully doesn't have a history of arm problems, did start the season in A-ball. As a general rule, pitchers who try to jump three levels in a single season aren't terribly successful, but that's not likely to stop the true believers.

And somewhere, in his dingy living room, an older and not necessarily wiser man smiles his bitter smile.

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