Framed above every sports pundit's deskin needlepoint, calligraphy, 84-point type or all of the aboveshould be this incisive observation from the Old Perfessor, Casey Stengel:
"That feller runs splendid but he needs help at the plate, which coming from the country chasing rabbits all winter give him strong legs, although he broke one falling out of a tree, which shows you can't tell, and when a curve ball comes he waves at it and if pitchers don't throw curves you have no pitching staff, so how is a manager going to know whether to tell boys to fall out of trees and break legs so he can run fast even if he can't hit a curve ball?"
Maybe they should even write Stengel's words on a small strip of paper, put the strip in a small box and strap the box around their foreheads, the way Orthodox Jews do with the Shema. Or maybe their editors could make them all stand in a circle and recite it every morning. But I'd settle for the framed quotation.
Stengel, whose observations frequently hid their true brilliance until people started thinking about how crazy they sound (he also laid down for us the one ironclad law of baseball: "Good pitching will always stop good hitting and vice versa"), hit upon a truth that cannot be spoken in our punditocracy. In an act of self-loathing and rebellion, I am going to say it anyway: you just never can tell.
People in the media do not want you to know this truth. That's why it is so subversive. If the word really got around, it might threaten to put out of business at least half of the sports columnists in Americamostly from the half that specialize in making confident predictions based on "expert" knowledge.
If applied to political commentary, widespread acceptance of this notion that a whole lot of things are, at their root, essentially unpredictable, could leave the airwaves as thinly occupied as the Bellevue Mall. Pundits would become as unemployable as art history majors.
Truth be told, punditry is a quack science, like astrology, power crystals or economics. That may not be quite fair to astrologists, who have a somewhat better track record at predicting the future than political commentators (78 percent of whom believed one year ago that Howard Dean was a lead-pipe cinch to be the Democrats' presidential nominee), tea leaf readers and sportswriters. However, we Media Geniuses still are slightly ahead of the economists and predictors of End Times signs.
At this time of year, pundits both wise and otherwise typically make some predictions to cover the coming months. But did you ever notice how seldom they ever look back over the previous year's forecasts with a scorecard?
This week, with Stengel's humbling dictum in mind, we'll review just a small sampling of recent swinish pearls of conventional wisdom:
X Peyton Manning and the Colts are unstoppable. To hear the Geniuses tell it, the New England Patriots, who had never lost to a Peyton Manning team, were as doomed as the defenders of the Alamo. Peyton, thrower of 49 touchdown passes this year, destroyer of records, league MVP, would shred the proud Patriots just as he had almost everyone else.
Good thing they don't decide football games on exit polls. Final score: Patriots 20, Colts 3. Had a New England defender not dropped a near-interception in the end zone, mighty Peyton would have been shut out.
X Mike Tice is a fat idiot. All season long, Media Geniuses wondered loudly how the lummoxy ex-lineman managed to keep his job as coach of the Minnesota Vikings. After all, hadn't his team performed below analysts' expectations? Didn't they dunderheadedly miss the playoffs last year by giving up a touchdown on the last play of their final game?
After the Vikings had backed into the playoffs, the pundits assessed that Big Dumb Mike and his team had about as much chance of beating Green Bay as John Kerry had of getting the vote in Ohio overturned. Not at Lambeau Field. Not against that indomitable competitor and Media Genius fave Bret Favre.
Naturally, the Vikings trounced the Pack, and Favre threw four interceptions. Moral of the story, besides "you can't ever tell," is that having a healthy Randy Moss can make you a lot smarter as a coach.
X Southern Cal is soft. Outside of Southern California, the near universal conclusion among we Geniuses (including this one) was that USClike all those swishy California teamswasn't gritty enough to win a manly, smashmouth game against Oklahoma or, for that matter, Auburn. They had played too many relatively close games. They had surrendered too many points. Their conference was too weak.
Final score: Southern Cal 55, Oklahoma 19. New conventional wisdom: Them California dudes sure is fast!
X Buzz will bring discipline to the Vols. Maybe next year.
Meanwhile, the anarchic Jerry "Delta House" Green is looking better and better in the rearview mirror.
X Vanderbilt will finish last in the SEC East. If ever a case were to be made for random drug testing in the newsroom, this nugget of conventional wisdom is it.
As it has turned out so far, Georgia's top seven players (who also are their bottom seven) can't even dominate the podunks of their own state. Tennessee got doinked by 25 points by the Commodores in Knoxville.
Kevin Stallings' team may not be the class of the East, but they can shoot well (18 three-pointers against UT), they pass well (a school-record 31 assists in the same game) and they have unusual depth (typically giving significant minutes to nine or 10 players each game). The new conventional wisdom was articulated last week by the visiting broadcast team from ESPN: "If this is the worst team in the SEC East, it's gotta be some league."
Of course, we can't get out of the prognostication and expert opinion business altogether. Where, after all, would journalism be if it never ventured beyond reporting the news?
So with that in mind, let me offer a major prediction for 2005: The Media Geniuses won't get it right.
Of course, I could be wrong about that. Like Stengel said.