Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
Quick Six
2005-02-03 08:49
by Alex Belth

Although I read Malcom Gladwell's piece on the nature of choking in sports, I had not read his wildly popular first book, "The Tipping Point," when I picked up his second effort, "Blink." I didn't get too far into "Blink" before I understood why Gladwell is so well-liked; he's a gifted writer, with the rare ability to make complicated ideas approachable to the average reader. His prose is conversational and lively, his enthusiasm contageous. "Blink" examines when we should and should not trust our initial reactions. As Gladwell writes in the introduction:

"Blink" is concerned with the very smallest components of our everday lives--the content and origin of those instantaneous impressions and conclusions that spontaneously arise whenever we meet a new person or confront a complex situation or have to make a decision under conditions of stress. When it comes to the task of understanding ourselves and the world, I think we pay too much attention to...grand themes and too little to the particulars of those fleeting moments. But what would happen if we took our instincts seriously? What if we stopped scanning the horizon with our binoculars and began instead examining our own decision making and behavior through the most powerful of microscopes? I think that would change the way wars are fought, the kinds of products we see on the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are trained, the way couples are counseled, the way job interviews ar conducted, and on and on. And if we were to combine all of those little changes, we would end up with a different and better world.

Gladwell has been criticized for being a populist and watering-down sophisticated ideas, but I think his greatest strength is engaging his readers and stimulating thought and conversation. At least that's what "Blink" did for me. It just got my mind racing, making connections between improvisational acting and basketball*, casting actors in a movie and the dynamics of personal relationships. I loved it. I don't know if it's a perfect book, but it's a great read, and it has served as a catalyst for lots of great conversation.

I wrote Gladwell, told him that I appreciate his book, and shared a story about how changes in the process of film editing relate to decision-making. I won't lie, I also was just dying to ask him if he thought the Yankee playoff collapse last fall could be considered choking. He wrote back, told me he was a huge fan of "Moneyball," and that he didn't think the Yankees had choked. In fact, he suggested that baseball is not a sport that lends itself to choking in a team sense like football or basketball do. If Bernie Williams is slumping that won't necessarily impact how Derek Jeter performs. (Individual situations like what happened to Steve Blass or Chuck Knoblauch are different.)

I thought it would be fun to ask Gladwell some questions as he's a big sports fan. However, with his book tour in full swing, he's simply too busy to sit down to do the kind of extensive interview I usually like to do here. So at the risk of being flip, here's six quick questions I recently asked Gladwell (for a longer conversation with him, check out Rob Neyer's 2002 interview). I figure it's best to be somewhat timely, instead of holding off for months. I hope it encourages you to consider reading "Blink." When things calm down some for Gladwell, I'd like to continue talking with him about sports, so if you've got any questions you'd like me to ask, feel free to leave them in the comments section below.

BB: How did you come to write "Blink" and what is it about? Was it something that you had been mulling over for a long time?

MG: Blink is a book about what happens in the first seconds of any encounter. When you see someone for the first time, or hear a song for the first time, or have to make a decision in a blink of an eye, what happens? I got interested in the subject, weirdly enough, when I grew my hair out. I used to have short, respectable hair. Now I have a fairly wild afro, and the minute my hair changed my life changed as well. I started getting stopped by cops, and getting speeding tickets, and pulled out of airport security lines. Something was happening in that instant when people laid eyes on me that fundamentally changed the way I was perceived and treated by the world, and I wanted to understand what it was.

BB: You've got such an elastic mind, illustrating an intellectual concept with a wide variety of examples, from car salesman to food testers to scientists to musicians and improvisational actors. What draws you to using such an eclectic group of characters?

MG: I’m always interested in making the ideas I’m writing about seem relevant, and the best way to do that, I think, is to look for as many different manifestations of that idea as possible. So if I can explain something about what happened during the Diallo shooting by talking about autism (as I do in Blink) I think it helps to make the ideas seem more real.

BB: You’ve obviously got a knack for seeing things as others don’t. Where does that come from? Did you grow up reading a particular writer or writers who did the same thing?

MG: I'm not sure where that comes from. It might be that I’m very accustomed to being an outsider. I'm the immigrant son of immigrant parents. I'm bi-racial. I'm left-handed. I'm only person to have grown up in Canada who neither skates nor swims. I suppose if you were to put all that together, you'd come up with the psychological portrait of someone who sees the world through a slightly different lens than others.

BB: You have a simple and concise writing style that is very approachable. How did you develop your style and who exactly is the audience for a book like "Blink?"

MG: I think my writing has been heavily influenced by the fact that I spent the first 9 years of my career writing for a newspaper (The Washington Post). And at a newspaper, there is obviously an enormous premium based on writing simply and clearly. Who do I consider my audience? Well, I always say that I write for my mother--that is, for thoughtful, curious middle-aged women. (Somewhat hilariously, whenever I do a reading of some kind, the people who inevitably come up afterwards and tell me personally how much they like the way I write are thoughtful curious middle-aged women who remind me of my mother.)

BB: Did you follow sports as a kid? Either by playing them or reading about them? What about now?

MG: I am a massive sports fan. I have, for example, read every issue of Sports Illustrated cover to cover since the early 1970's. I ran track in high school and college, and in fact briefly held an age-class Canadian 1500 record. But I’m now pretty much an all sports fan, particularly the Buffalo Bills (which is the default NFL franchise for people growing up across the border in Canada). If I had to choose one sport, it would be pro basketball. My feelings on baseball are mixed. I hate to say this, but I'm a massive Yankee-Hater. I know it’s a tiresome complaint. But I would love to see what would happen if baseball went to a hard salary cap, like the NFL. A contest where parties with vastly different financial resources compete against each other is called a business. A contest where competition begins with a level playing field is called a sport. Baseball is a business. Football is a sport. Sorry Alex!

BB: Oh, no need to apologize for being a Yankee-hater. Although the
Marlins won the World Serious two years ago and the A's and Twins have made
the playoffs with regularity for the past several years in spite of having
small payrolls, I understand your point. Fans in Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh
don't have much to hope for in terms of winning when the season begins.
Though with the way economics are structured, they are the recipients of a
kind of corporate welfare from the Yankees. Whether they stick that money
in their pocket or not, they still need to be fortuitous and have bright men
running their organization to run with the big money teams. I understand
your point about football and hoops being more level as sports, I sure would
call them business' first too. After all, how else can you explain how
Donald Sterling? Back to baseball, though. I know you enjoyed "Moneyball." Alan Schwarz recently hosted an informative rountable between two traditional baseabll figures and two sabermetricians. I want to know if you think that one approach to scouting--either the traditional kind or a sabermetric one--would produce better results.

MG: In "Moneyball", Michael Lewis argues that the instinctive judgments of scouts about what predicts major league success are wrong. And that a purely
statistical analysis yields better results because scouts get mislead by
non-relevant things like how a player looks. I agree totally. In fact,
that's very consistent with the parts of my book that talk about how easily
our snap judgments are corrupted by outside influences. When it comes to
picking leaders, for instance, corporate America is hopelessly biased
towards tall men--even though height is correlated with the ability to lead
a major corporation about as much as height is correlated with hitting
ability. But I don't think that Michael was saying that there is NEVER a
role for instinctive judgment in baseball. Whether or not a player is able
to hit in the majors is one of many criteria that a scout or GM is
interested in. a scout also has to figure out--is the player hard working?
Coachable? A good teammate? Lazy? A drug-user? And countless other things,
and when it comes to the judgment of intangibles instinctive judgments are
very important. Imagine that you were a scout, and you were confronted with
an 18-year-old Barry bonds and an 18-year-old Darryl strawberry. Whose
numbers are better? I don't know. But I’d guess that strawberry's were
awfully good. But the differences between those two players--which turned
out to be huge--were entirely a matter not of ability but of character and
temperament. And for that, there isn't any statistic to serve as a guide. I
guess what I’m saying is that the task of the successful decision-maker is
to decide when instinctive judgments are most important and to decide when
statistical deliberate judgments are most appropriate--and keep the two

To read more Gladwell, check out his website.

* Actually, this doesn't have so much to do with improv and basketball, just hoops. Gladwell mentions at one point how an athlete like Larry Bird was able to slow time down for himself when his heart rate extremely high. I don't think every great performer can do this, but it reminded me of something that Bill Russell wrote about in his autobiography, "Second Wind:"

Every so often a Celtic game would heat up so that it would became more than a physical or even mental game, and would be magical. That feeling is difficult to describe, and I certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened I could feel my play rise to a new level. It came rarely, and would last anywhere from five minutes to a whole quarter. Three or four plays were not enough to get it going. It would surround not only me and the other Celtics but also the players on the others team, and even the referees. To me, the key was that both teams had to be playing at their peaks…It never started with a hot streak by a single player, or with a breakdown of one team's defense. It usually began when three or four of the ten guys on the floor would heat up; they would be the catalysts, and they were almost always the stars in the league…The feeling would spread to the other guys, and we'd all levitate. Then the game would just take off, and there'd be a natural ebb and flow that reminded you of how rhythmic and musical basketball is supposed to be. I'd find myself thinking, "This is it. I want this to keep going," and I'd actually be rooting for the other team. When their players made spectacular moves, I wanted their shots to go into the bucket; that's how pumped up I'd be. I'd be out there talking to the other Celtics, encouraging them and pushing myself harder, but at the same time part of me would be pulling for the other players too.

The game would move so quickly that every fake, cut and pass would be surprising, and yet nothing could surprise me. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball in bounds, I could feel it so keenly that I'd want to shout to my teammates, "It's coming there!"--except that I knew everything would change if I did. My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me. There have been many times in my career when I felt moved or joyful, but these were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine.

But these spells were fragile. An injury would break them, and so would a couple of bad players or a bad call by a referee…I always suffered a letdown when one of those spells died, because I never knew how to bring them back; all I could do was to keep playing my best and hope. They were sweet when they came, and the hope that one would come was one of my strongest motivations for walking out there.

Sometimes the feeling would last all the way to the end of the game, and when that happened I never cared who won. I can honestly say that those few times were the only ones when I did not care…But I had to be quiet about it…I felt a little weird about it, and quite private. Besides, I couldn't let on to my teammates that it was ever all right to lose; I had too much influence on the team…if I'd tried to explain, I'd never have gotten past the first two sentences. Anything I confided would sound too awkward and sincere for Celtic tastes…

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