The Great Slot Machine Of Life

A couple of years ago Bill James was looking for a couple new writers for his website. He invited people to submit sample writing. This is what I sent him. He told me I finished third. Missed it by ‘that much’ as Maxwell Smart would say.

Anyway, I kind of like this, though I admit (as always) that I would re-write some of it today. Hope you like it. 


Pat Jordan can really write. He is the author of several excellent books and many (occasionally offensive) magazine articles. He could not, in any way, be described as prolific. Surely that is one of the things that has held him back from the recognition that his talent would have predicted.

This could also be said of his failed career in professional baseball. Pat Jordan, as I am sure most of you know, was a highly rated “bonus baby” pitcher in the Braves system in the years 1959 to 1961, but never progressed further than the low minors.

This article isn’t about Pat Jordan; like everything I write it’s really about me, though I try to disguise that. A brief glimpse of my psyche might reveal a man too easily satisfied with small successes. Someone who, once he sees proof of what he could accomplish, is then unwilling to make the commitment that real achievement requires.

Now, where was I? Oh, yes… In Jordans book “A Nice Tuesday” he quotes his father (a lifelong professional gambler) as saying “Hell, for a gambler, is a game he can’t lose.” To me, this assertion makes for a handy insight to the soul of many, perhaps even most fans. Baseball, like life, is dominated by losing.

It’s about the one that got away, it’s about injustice, and it’s about unfairness. It’s about being cheated. It’s about City Hall. It’s about unrequited love. It’s about umpires, and closers with an ERA of 4.91.

It’s about suffering.

It’s about being 60 years old. It’s probably about rooting for the Seattle Mariners.
That’s what life is (mostly) all about, my dear electronic friends, and you can’t separate baseball from life.

The New York Yankees

Let’s talk about ‘The Yankees’, the most successful franchise in the history of major league baseball. The Yankees have done a hell of a lot of losing, or so says I. To back this up, indulge me with a short digression.

Slot Machines as a Metaphor for Life

Here’s a hundred dollars. Go to your local casino and stick the money in a slot machine, one of those noisy, colorful little bloodsuckers. Let’s say you are betting about $.050 each time you spin the reels. Odds are you will be broke within…oh, I don’t know, an hour, maybe 2 hours? Maybe 20 minutes. Or you might hit a big win, might win $300.00. So what does this mean to your long term prospects? Oh, we all know. That big win just forestalls the inevitable; you lose it all.

But along the way you will have innumerable results of winning nothing, or winning $0.35, or winning $0.50, or winning $1.50, or occasionally winning $7.50 or even $25.00 or $50.00. But most of time you will win less than your bet. All progress is temporary; erosion is constant and leads inevitably to the heat death of the universe.

We might say that any time you win at least $0.50 this is comparable to winning a regular season game. We might say that any time you win $25.00 this is comparable to making the playoffs. $100.00 or $200.00 might be comparable to getting to the World Series…and $300.00 or $400.00 to winning the World Series.

​Anyway, the common run of results will soon become tedious; you may wish to bet higher looking for bigger wins, wins that really mean winning. Of course you will go broke faster, but, like winning your division (yeah), or the league championship (All Right!), or the World Series (YES!!!), really big wins give satisfaction. You can always cherish the big win, no matter how much you lose. They don’t take your championship seasons away just because you have a long run of .450 seasons.

But…overall…go broke you absolutely will. Life, as Sergeant Vince Carter might have said, is like a slot machine. Or perhaps we might say that a slot machine is like entropy. The only way to prevent going broke is to stop playing and forgo ever winning. But we love to play, and the only way to keep playing is to put more money into the machine.

Now…About Those Yankees

Let’s look at the years of their existence in New York (1903 through 2014):
27 World Series titles
40 American League Championships
18 East Divisions titles
4 Wild Card berths

Since division play began they have won the World Series 7 times, and the American League Championship 11 times. By my arithmetic this means that of the 22 times they either won the East Division or at least gained access to the playoffs via a wild card they failed to advance 50% of the time.

That’s a helluva good record, surely the best in baseball. But since 1903 we are looking at 51 seasons in which the Yankees at least got to the postseason…out of 111 seasons. So the most successful team in major league baseball history would be considered a failure in just over 54% of their seasons.

Enjoy the Dance While It Lasts (Another Digression)

Something quite exciting happened to me a long, long time ago (don’t even ask me when). I was at a racetrack and put down two bucks on an Exactor (a race, if you don’t know, that means picking the first two horses in order). My pick to finish first did win the race. My pick to finish second was neck and neck with some other damnable beast. Lost by about an inch, and the payout would have been about $2000.00. Depressed? Hah! Like C Montgomery Burns playing pac-man, I never felt so alive.

I believe that the fan experience most often comes down to losing. But there’s hopeless losing, and then there’s the losing that comes from almost, but not quite winning. True enjoyment as a fan comes from wishing and hoping (and thinking and praying, planning and dreaming…), from the human desire for combat, from the pleasure of being involved.

In the end, life is like that. The final act, death, you lose. But there are many acts in the play of life and time enough, therefore, to dream of what might yet be.

So, Who Has Really Had The Most Fun?

This is where subjectivity comes in to play. Pleasure for me isn’t necessarily pleasure for you, or pleasure for that guy. But I believe the following things provide fun for the fans and I suspect many or even most of you would agree
1. Winning, but…not so often that it gets monotonous.

​Isn’t a roller coaster more fun than rolling around a flat oval track? I would think that if your team at least contends for a wild card or division title 80% of the time, and manages to get to the World Series once every 10-15 seasons, well…that’s got to be a fun team. Along the way there has to be some bad, even terrible seasons, seasons that compel personnel changes and therefore create issues and events for the fans to discuss.

2. Changes

Trades. Rookies breaking into the lineup. Managers getting fired. Managers getting hired.

3. Great Individual Seasons, and…Not So Great Individual Seasons

A Hall of Fame type season, even an All Star caliber season, by one of the home team players is a great pleasure, of course. But a sub-par or even disastrous season is still interesting. The fans get to speculate on what’s going wrong, and can it be fixed, and what it means for the future of the player and the team.

4. Watching young players develop.

I think we all love seeing a new face. I think we love it even more to see a young player with promise clearly figuring things out year to year.

5. Controversy

As a fan I certainly don’t like to see scandal involving my favorite teams or players. But controversial moments on the field of play…strategies, split-second decisions by players…absolutely I do enjoy that.

6. Quality Media Coverage

The local radio and television teams, newspaper columns and internet blogs, books… Intelligent and entertaining commentary count for a hell of a lot, don’t they?

And, so…

There is a team out there, a team that has won the World Series many times and they are not the New York Yankees. A team that has developed a huge number of good and great players, a team with a history of controversy, both positive and negative.

Have the St Louis Cardinals fans had more fun than the rest of us? Honestly, I think they’ve won a little too often, haven’t suffered quite enough to be the recipient of any empathy from me. But surely their fans shouldn’t be complaining.

There is another team out there that has played seemingly forever. It took them a million years before they finally won a world series, and another half a million years before they won another. They’ve developed some good and some great players, it’s true, but their record in this regard isn’t all that impressive. The true fans of this team are what I think of when the words “…long suffering…” are mentioned.

I don’t know if I could handle this much pain, but the Philadelphia Phillies fans seem to be able to.

There is yet another team out there, a team that has won the World Series a few times, but also suffered through a long drought punctuated with painful near misses. A team that has developed a huge number of good and great players. They’ve had their share of controversy and, to my mind, very little scandal. They’ve had lots of great media coverage, especially print journalism, over the years as well.

I didn’t mention attractive uniforms or a cool ballpark as fan enjoyment items, but the Boston Red Sox have these things, too. Maybe they’ve won just a bit too much in the last decade, but who knows, they may not win another World Series till 2104, either.

Me? Well, I’m more a fan of various teams than I am a fan of any one team. Still, my favorite team provided its fans with a special kind of pain – a seemingly endless stream of prospects combined with very little success, including the destruction of their most promising season and most talented roster.

​As to long term failure, consider that the Montreal Expos haven’t won a single game since 2004.

Gary Fletcher
June, 2015

3 thoughts on “The Great Slot Machine Of Life

  1. This is why sensory deprivation is an interesting topic. Humans would rather experience pain and loss than to experience an absence of it, without some other sensation to fill the void. Boredom is horrifying. People talk about fearing the unknown quite a lot, but what is already known seems to cause more distress than anything else.

    Cool article – I’m not even into baseball.

  2. Well, feel free to write those up. I mean, I might take up one of those ideas, but I think the moment has already passed (for me). If something strikes me as having potential, I start writing about it in the form of a Word document, give it a title and save it. When I think I am finished, I add the word ‘done’ a couple lines above the title.

    So I’ve got a few of those in the unfinished category in a folder (plus a single document called ‘Ideas for Articles which has a ton of stuff in it…most of which I don’t remember or understand) and those have most of my attention. Although anything that really grabs me will jump the queue. I have ideas several times every day that I never even get around to starting work on…I’m sure you are the same.

    I did a bunch of work preparing a database to write an article, or potentially a bunch of articles, regarding managers. I now have a record of every player 1900 through 2016 and includes not only their playing statistics, but who was the manager of record (and if more than one manager, how many games each managed their team that year). Lotta potential stuff in there, but I haven’t done anything with it now for about 6 months…I haven’t given up hope, though.

  3. For some reason, Gary, I see this article as the building block for another article, which would, in effect, remove the scaffolding from this one and show the finished work. Possible headlines:

    – Somebody out there Scream!
    – Are you Having Fun?
    – Which Fans are Having the Most Fun
    – Entertainment Value: It’s not just for breakfast anymore
    – An Indexed balance between drama, farce, success, failure, hope, dissonance and resolution: Who out there is having the most fun?

    Simply, turn your speculative musings into a Bill-ish question: Which franchises have provided the best balance of the four fan food groups: winning/losing, drama/farce, hope/angst, and dissonance/resolution?

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