"Gamers" and Biases

In baseball, "gamers" are quite the peculiar phenomenon. If you aren't familiar with the term in its baseball sense, perhaps it will help to think of it in terms of a more accessible definition of the word. Gamers are people who play video games, technologically-inclined contestants who plug into a virtual world of gameplay rather than dust off the old chessboard or backgammon set or whatever board game of choice; in other words, they exemplify the anti-Milton Bradley in gameplay. Same thing in baseball.

But perhaps you're still confused. It's tough to know, say, a gamer from a dirtball from a jerk. Don't worry. Bert Blyleven's got you covered. As it turns out, Blyleven enlightens, a gamer and a dirtball are, in fact, the same thing. They are players who are tough and gritty, who work hard and help their teams win. That seems clear enough. If a guy works hard all the time and helps his team win, he's a gamer, right?

Not so fast, Blyleven says. A guy can work hard and be a great player, but if he's a jerk, why, that's no gamer. Kirk Gibson? Not a gamer. Tough as nails? Check. Great player? Check. Did everything to help his team win? Check. Has enough of a positive influence on players that teams have employed him as a Major League coach for the better part of the last decade? Check. So what's wrong with Kirk Gibson? I'll tell you what: the jerk store called, and they're running out of Kirk Gibson. And he probably slept with your wife.

How about Tim Foli? We are given the perfect anecdote to determine whether the man was a gamer:

(Foli) was a hardnosed shortstop who had an attitude and a fight about him, and was not afraid to say what was on his mind. In fact, I remember an incident where he questioned the tactics of manager Chuck Tanner, and they had an altercation that escalated to the point where Tanner’s hands were around Foley’s (sic) throat.

If you could only give one anecdote to explain why someone is or isn't a gamer, what better one than this? Why, it's such a good example that if you played with hundreds of teammates over a 22 year career and had to select the three biggest gamers you ever played with, this is the kind of thing that vaults you to that level.

So a gamer can question authority, undermine the manager, speak up disruptively, and get into physical altercations with the skipper (and presumably teammates as well).

Compare this description of Foli to another player: Dick Allen. Allen was known for having an attitude and a fight about him, and he was allegedly not afraid to say what was on his mind. He even once got into a fight with teammate Frank Thomas because of this spirit. Pretty much everything that qualifies Foli as such a gamer. Yet Allen was widely viewed as a disruptive force for those same traits and for his altercation with a teammate (which amounted to Thomas hitting Allen with a bat, not Allen being the aggressor). Craig Wright wrote an excellent piece for SABR (PDF file) defending Allen which covers many of the misperceptions regarding Allen, including those stemming from the fight, which lists the following details picked up from interviews with Allen's coaches and teammates:

-the fight happened because Allen was defending a young black player from demeaning remarks from Thomas
-Thomas was unpopular on the team and Allen's teammates generally supported Allen in the altercation
-The manager was looking for a reason to get rid of Thomas anyway and the team released Thomas following the altercation (which also meant when the team was forbidden to speak to the press about the fight, Thomas gave his own account uncontested after being released that painted Allen as the bad guy)
-Coaches and teammates said the fight had no effect on the team's morale

So if getting in a fight with the manager with no specified reason can actually make someone a gamer, sticking up for a teammate against the abuse of an unpopular and disruptive veteran should certainly qualify Dick Allen. This is an interesting dichotomy: in most players, the traits and incident Blyleven describes in Foli are viewed as undesirable and disruptive, but when you get a different idea of a player in mind, those things somehow come across as endearing.

This pattern continues in Blyleven's gamer descriptions. For Ed Ott and Pete Rose, the examples given that exemplify their gamer-ness are examples of them needlessly injuring players. For Ott, the anecdote is, "During one incident after he broke up a double-play at second base, he body-slammed Mets infielder Felix Millan so hard he broke his collar bone." I cannot think of a way to cleanly break up a double play by body-slamming someone so hard it breaks his collarbone (though maybe that is just a communication issue as far as what constitutes "body-slamming" to me and to Blyleven), or how that is any more playing hard and helping the team win than just breaking up the double play without doing it in a dirty and dangerous way.

Michael Young is cited as a gamer for the fact that he has changed positions twice: once to shortstop when Texas acquired a worse defensive middle infield starter (Soriano), which is a move I'd imagine most middle infielders would be thrilled with, and once to third when Texas got a real shortstop (Andrus), which prompted anything-for-the-team gamer Young to
request a trade rather than willingly switch positions for a clearly superior fielder. Compare that to the second baseman who first moved him, Soriano. His displeasure with his move to left field was widely publicized and derided. Young's is ignored. Both players initially refused to accept the switch their teams asked of them, and both ended up switching anyway because they realized the manager fills out a lineup card and wherever you are, you play there with no recourse to play where you want instead. No one calls Soriano a gamer for making that kind of position switch. What is different about Young? For that matter, when A-Rod joined the Yankees and was widely regarded as the superior shortstop, why was it non-gamer A-Rod and not gamer Derek Jeter who volunteered to switch positions?

Most of the reasons given for a player being a gamer are just terribly generic and nondescript. They feel as if you could replace the name in the heading with any of dozens of other names and not notice. Nick Punto is a gamer because he plays hard and plays good defense and can't hit but still manages to occasionally not end up with the worst possible outcome at the plate. Eric Chavez makes the list because he used to be good and has had injury troubles and now doesn't want to retire, and because dammit, he plays the hardest damn DH you've ever seen. Dustin Pedroia is a gamer because he looks like a midget logger. And he plays hard.

Not that things like playing hard and going all out aren't great traits to have, but really, that describes the majority of players who are in the Majors, and probably in the minors too. Trying to distinguish a handful of players by how hard they play is probably pointless. Just about anybody with marginal or below-average Major League skills (which is a lot of players) is going to be putting everything he has into the game every time he plays in order to be where he is, and most players who are better than that probably are doing the same. You aren't going to be able to find a short list of players out of the several hundred in MLB who legitimately distinguish themselves from everyone else in that regard. So when you resign yourself to the task of selecting just a few players for praise for this aspect of their game, there is a ton of potential for bias in which players you select. Why choose player A who plays hard and does the little things to help is team win over player B who does the same things? Or, as it may be, why choose player C who undermines the manager's authority and picks fights and is contentious, or player D who plays catcher for the White Sox and is keeping the jerk store going through the Kirk Gibson shortage by being their number one seller?

Maybe player A looks small and scrappy and his skills are less obvious from an athletic tools standpoint. Maybe he looks like someone you might see at your office or in your neighborhood at at your kid's ballgames watching his kid. Maybe he has a certain reputation in the media or among fans. Maybe it is some other bias.

Consider Latin American players. Consider the economic status many of them come from, or a scenario where developing under skilled and devoted coaching means sticking out of a large crowd of other kids enough to catch the eye of the buscones and hopefully get a look from some pro teams, where making the Majors means distinguishing yourself from your early- to mid-teens as a pro prospect, distinguishing yourself in camps and workouts with countless other prospects, and distinguishing yourself in summer and winter ball in Latin leagues just to break into the low minors, and then distinguishing yourself from there where most American players are entering into the system directly. Consider how hard most of those players have to work to take that route, and then think that not a single one of those players plays hard enough or does enough little effort things to help his team to distinguish himself among the game's great gamers. That is a ridiculous notion. Of course there are players from Latin America who have spent their lives putting everything into every play as much as anyone in the game does. When no such player is lauded as a gamer, it is not because of a lack of traits or effort or whatever it is that distinguishes one as a gamer.

This isn't to say that there is something wrong with trying to give credit to players you really like or trying to highlight the things you like about that. The issue is, when you do undertake such a subjective task, and when you set out to whittle down hundreds of candidates who could all fit the description just as well to a small handful, biases are going to creep into your selections, be they personal biases or cultural biases or whatever. Because of the nature of a list like this, biases will more than creep in. They can end up dominating your list. Maybe that is ok-maybe I want to highlight how hard Albert Pujols works and how good an example he sets and how he does all the things I would want in a player because I am a huge Pujols fan and it is not that important to me that I don't know how hard everyone else is also working or how much of the same effort they are also putting in. And maybe staring down home runs or glaring at umpires is confidence and intensity and an expression of dominance when Albert does it and showboating or upstaging when someone I don't like does it, and I can be biased because those are my feelings and I understand that. Or maybe it's not. I think that's an important question to ask with this type of thing. What biases are influencing your choices? Are you ok with exhibiting those biases? Are you ok not just with who you are choosing to single out for praise but with who you are leaving out and implicitly setting aside as below your chosen group? Does your opinion, with the biases, add anything to our understanding of the issue being discussed, or is it just applying a generic standard to your personal favourites? Are you doing genuine research or just listing off things off the top of your head that anyone could have done (which is not only not insightful, but also particularly prone to biases that you likely won't identify)?

That means when you single out Tom Foli for his desirable trait of having a fighting attitude and spirit, even when it puts him at odds with the manager or leads to altercations within the team, does that mean you are also ready to single out and praise Dick Allen for the same things (or perhaps Carlos Zambrano, or whoever else)? If not, either you are not communicating your reasoning very clearly, or you are communicating a biased viewpoint. Can you call A-Rod a great gamer for willfully switching positions and for hitting further down in the batting order when the manager put him there and he had no choice? Certainly the man plays hard and has trememdous demands for himself when he plays. Or is there something else that you need to communicate that sets your choices apart? If you are ok with these extensions of your reasoning, what led you to single out the players you did over others who exhibit the same traits listed?

I don't mean to just single out Blyleven here. I use his article because I think it is a good example of something that we are all prone to, and I think looking at his article introduces a lot of questions that I think need to be answered when writing a piece like this.

And, for the hell of it, I close with a gamer-mosaic:

By the way, notice any biases there?


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