Make-Belive Baseball

When the baseball strike began, the Sun-Times shifted to the tumult and shouting of a “make-believe season.” STATS, Inc., of Skokie is syndicating this computer-generated fantasy to papers in most big-league cities, and the Sun-Times is giving it a page a day–a big commitment.

Some purists immediately denounced virtual baseball as blasphemy. Otherwise, according to Sun-Times editors and STATS officials, there have been few complaints. This could mean no one is paying much attention.

We just spoke to the person who might be the make-believe season’s one fastidious reader. His name’s Bruce Winge, and he pointed out some strange goings-on. Such as the Cubs’ Kevin Foster and the Rangers’ Roger Pavlik each starting two games in a row, and Florida’s Chris Hammond taking the mound despite a fractured leg. And John Wetteland pitching in five straight games for the Expos, saving four and winning the fifth. Not impossible, but likely only when the games are being played on computer. Likewise, the Cubs pounding Greg Maddux 6-0 while sweeping a three-game series from the Braves.

Winge noted that the Yankees’ Paul O’Neill got three hits in one game but his batting average didn’t budge. And thanks either to STATS or some happy-go-lucky Sun-Times proofreading, Ozzie Guillen showed up in the Minnesota Twins’ lineup one day, Toronto’s Ed Sprague and Randy Knorr made the box score for the White Sox, Craig Grebeck pinch-hit for Toronto, and when the Cubs beat Atlanta 5-4 last week Randy Myers and Donn Pall apparently played for both teams.

Last Friday, Mike Maksudian cracked a three-run homer as the Cubs came from behind to beat the Mets 5-4. Maksudian’s blast came in either the seventh inning (box score) or the bottom of the ninth (game brief).

And every once in a while Seattle plays a home game in the Kingdome, even though the roof there is falling in and the Mariners were exiled to an endless road trip in July.

Running the STATS season was not the Sun-Times’s original intent. The paper wanted to produce its own fantasy season and syndicate it across the country. The Sun-Times expected this season to be created by an account manager at a suburban bank. The account manager was Bruce Winge.

Sure that a major strike was inevitable, Winge had devoted hundreds of hours to his own simulated baseball season. “I have been developing this project for the past five years, hoping the day would come when the fruits started to bear on this tree.”

In 1992 the Sun-Times took a two-year option on Winge’s services. Two months ago the parties got back in touch. “I said I had devised a way to do the rest of the season using my computer,” Winge tells us. It was music to the ears of Drew Davis, president of Chicago Sun-Times Features, Inc. “He had a great idea, one that we were very interested in,” says Davis. Prototypes were developed.

But Davis labored under one crucial misconception. He supposed Winge “was actually playing these games out using a statistical, objective, mechanical process. We were under the impression this was a computer-generated simulation.” On August 8, when Winge and Davis finally sat down to sign the eight-page contract, Davis discovered this was not the case.

Davis remarked that Winge would have to stipulate that he owned proprietary rights to the software he was using. And Winge said there was no software. His computer was his word processor. He made his projections with pen and paper. Says Winge, “They became–I can’t even find a word–disillusioned.”

Did your jaw drop? we asked Davis.

“I didn’t have a mirror there,” he told us.

Mining the same mother lode of statistics as STATS (Winge’s come from Baseball Weekly), Winge manipulates the numbers with common sense.

“Like I say, it’s real simple,” Winge explained. “If Frank Thomas hit 30 home runs the first half of the year I’m pretty sure he’ll hit about 30 the second half of the year.” Some players fade notoriously in the stretch, we reminded him. “Bingo!” said Winge. He knows that. If they faded before, they’ll fade for him.

“I have a gut feeling for the game,” Winge told us. “I kind of know what’s going on in the world. It would have been my fictionalized account of what was going to happen from August 12 on, and I don’t think that’s any more wrong than what those people are doing over at STATS.”

The Sun-Times didn’t see it that way, and Winge was sent packing. Unfortunately for Winge, no one cares about the projections of an account manager, especially when those projections can be dismissed for subjectivity. Brewed through a hard drive the same numbers turn into pseudofact–godlike, irrefutable, impersonal fate.

Davis told us, “It’s easier to support the results that are determined by a machine than a person.”

Sports editor Bill Adee mused, “If I’d been Bruce Winge I’d be worried if I put Big Frank down for 0-for-4 and Big Frank comes looking for me. Maybe I saved a life.”

Winge doesn’t see it this way. “The point is, for seven weeks no one at the Sun-Times questioned my product as we were massaging it. Every hoop they asked me to jump through I jumped through. And then at the 11th hour they decided they wanted to sever all ties.”

Winge was ready to quit his job to seize this opportunity. He expected to work 70-hour weeks. But his package–he emphasizes–would have been error free, with game briefs so brightly written the STATS briefs couldn’t compare. Asserting his credentials, Winge, who’s 51, points out that not only does he follow baseball ardently, he once wrote a weekly column on youth sports for the Daily Herald and is president of the Northwest Writers Club of Mount Prospect.

So he’s not letting the insult go by. He’s throwing down the gauntlet. He’s projecting the remainder of the ’94 season anyway–that’s standings, won-lost records, final batting averages, the whole shebang–and mailing them to us. In October we get to unseal the envelope and compare his “season” to the one from STATS, Inc.–which Adee says the Sun-Times will keep publishing until the strike ends.

So much is at stake here! Winge might prove that the same results STATS churns out with its microchips he can churn out with a pencil and notepad. And if his results turn out to be totally different, that’s OK too! Unless his method’s a lot worse than STATS’s, he’s demonstrated it’s definitely better.

If this historic showdown between man and machine sounds unusually meaningless, accept it in the spirit it’s offered–as extra strike relief, rushed in to fill the yawning void. Eyeing the duel ahead, Bruce Winge made a solemn promise. “I won’t start any pitchers with broken legs,” he vowed, “and I won’t be trading Randy Myers to Atlanta.”

News Bites

From our notebook:

The juice press continues to squeeze the pulp. We’ve just finished Newsweek’s cover story on “the double life of O.J. Simpson” and an essay by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison in Mother Jones. There was much in Newsweek you already knew, plus garnish from Dr. Alvin Poussaint (“It’s a classic story in the history of our country. What’s underneath the darkies’ smile”). And W.E.B. DuBois’s theory of “twoness” was trotted out for diagnostic purposes (“the higher he reached for trappings of the white world, the more he distanced himself from his beginnings”).

Harrison reaches out to a black friend. “Suzanne . . . refers me to Cornel West and the concept of ‘internalized rage.’ Internalized? I say. You could hardly get more externalized than Mr. Simpson, I say.” Assuming his guilt, she writes, “Fuck him,” although allowing, anent his wife, “May I say, without incurring wrath, that I didn’t like her face?”

Harrison plants her flag on the terra firma that men do not, ever, strike women. But then murky waters roll in. “I am among those women who experience a certain frisson when a man threatens to apply physical force to me. (Not any man; the man I love.)” And she reveals her own lover was black. “When I heard O.J. Simpson’s voice on the 911 tapes I heard my lover’s voice.” And their love, which they liked to think “could save America,” didn’t make it either.

She despairs. “America seems to me now, even more than it did in the days of Birmingham . . . awash in blood. . . . On the morning after the Fourth of July, I ask myself: Please, God, is anything possible anymore?”

Yes, Virginia, some things are. And in the absence of the graceful essayists who no longer seem to ply their trade at the nation’s dailies, perhaps the papers could carry a service feature that would lighten the crushing burden the Simpson case has heaped on one and all.

We’re urging some aggressive antisymbolism. Possibly an occasional simple box that reads: Prominent Black Men Who Did Not Murder Their Wives Yesterday. If that category seems too broad it could be refined. Prominent Black Men Who Left the Ghetto to Succeed in the Violent World of Sports but Nevertheless Did Not Murder Their Wives Yesterday.

If the concept proved enlightening and useful it could be expanded. Black Congressmen Who Were Not Indicted Yesterday on Morals or Corruption Charges. Or a sweeping Notable Blacks Whose Names Did Not Appear in Yesterday’s Papers in Shameful Ways.

There is no need for this calming approach to the news to be racially exclusive. We also suggest Lawyers Who Did Nothing Lately to Manipulate Mass Opinion With an Eye to an Eventual Hung Jury–Truth, Justice, and the Dignity of Their Profession Be Damned. And, Commentators Who Did Not Raise the Question “What Does This Terrible Matter Say About Who We Are as a People?”

Two weeks ago the Reader ran a profile of Tom Chiola, an openly gay candidate who ran successfully for the circuit court. Outlines’s Tracy Baim did not enjoy the article, and in a column she complained that reporter Neal Pollack “looks at potential gay candidates in the pipeline” without mentioning Marc Loveless and Ken Jacobsen, gays who already have declared for alderman.

Fair enough. It’s what Baim wrote next that bothers us. She wrote, “It is not for any reporter to decide who is a ‘legitimate’ gay candidate.” What caught our eye were those quote marks around legitimate. We went back through Pollack’s article. He didn’t use the word. She wasn’t quoting, or even paraphrasing, him. It’s her word, not his, and it would have served its purpose without the emphasis. Sarcasm or irony seems to have been intended here, but Baim made herself look a little slippery and self-righteous.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.