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Sunday, September 27, 2020

There Will Almost Certainly Be Upsets

It is a truism that once the playoffs begin, there will be upsets. But this year's baseball playoffs could have a lot since the first round is only a best out of 3. As I've noted previously (and is detailed in Leonard Mlodino's book, "The Drunkard's Walk"), even a 7-game series isn't long enough to guarantee that the best team will win. For instance, if one team is expected beat the other 55 percent of the time, the weaker team will still win a 7-game series about 4 times out of 10. 
Or, if one team is expected to beat another team, on average, 2/3 of the time, the other team will still win a 7-game series about 20 percent of the time. In fact, in this latter case, teams would have to play a series consisting of at least 23 games to guarantee that the best team will win. And in the case of one team having "only" a 55–45 edge, the shortest series that would guarantee that the best team won would be 269 games.

That's why the probability that some of the best teams won't survive the first round of this year's MLB playoffs is pretty high. That's why, there will almost certainly be upsets.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Giants Fans Need to be Patient. Very Patient.

Giants fans need to be patient. Barring a minor miracle, it will probably be a couple of years before the Giants will once again compete for the National League West crown. And it's not because Gabe Kapler's a poor manager (there simply haven't been enough games at this point to know one way or another) or that Farhan Zaidi doesn't know a good prospect from a bad one (he's a large reason why the Giants minor league system is ranked much higher now than it was two years ago). Rather, the primary problem has been that up until recently the Giants have signed long-term contracts, as well as traded prospects for, aging stars with long-term contracts, thus making it difficult to replace older players with younger ones ("Retool or Rebuild: A Choice, Not a Question") (Note: Check out the Dodgers' 2013 roster -- only Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw remain). Consider the following contracts (all of which were signed before the Giants hired Zaidi):
  • Brandon Belt (32 years old), 6-year contract, expires in 2021
  • Brandon Crawford (33 years old), 6-year contract, expires in 2021
  • Johnny Cueto (34 years old), 6-year contract, expires in 2021
  • Evan Longoria (34 years old), 6-year contract, expires in 2022 (team option for 2023)
  • Buster Posey (33 years old), 9-year contract, expires in 2021 (team option for 2022)
  • Jeff Samardzija (35 years old), 5-year contract, expires in 2020
As the list shows, the Giants have several players under contract who are on the downward side of their aging curve ("Aging Curves and Big Contracts"). Baseball players tend to peak in their late 20s. There are exceptions, of course. Hall of Famers tend to peak later, for instance, but there's probably only one future Hall of Famer listed above.

What's frustrating (or should be frustrating for Giants' fans) is that except for Posey's contract, all of these were signed AFTER the players reached their peak. Common sense and simple statistics would've told Giants ownership that most of these were bound to be bad deals. One doesn't have to be an expert to see that Belt and Crawford (and maybe Longoria) are having difficulty catching up with a fastball in the high 90s. And advanced metrics indicate that last season Crawford was only an average major league shortstop in terms of defense -- Note: Posey, Longoria, and Belt all ranked in the top three in the NL at there respective positions  ("SABR Defensive Index: Final 2019 rankings"). And to think there were fans who wanted to sign Madison Bumgarner to a long-term contract after last season! Has anyone noticed how much the velocity on his fastball declined from last year to this year?

So what are the Giants to do? A playoff-bound team might be willing to take on Cueto's contract he continues to pitch well (but the Giants should only do it if they can get some bonafide prospects out of the deal), however it'll be difficult to shed any of the others (Samardzija, of course, is an exception since he's a free agent at the end of 2020). The Giants probably shouldn't try to jettison everyone. Posey's going to be (and probably should be) a Giant for life. He's still one of the best defensive catchers in the game, and if his hip is fully healed, he may be able to put up decent numbers at the plate for a few more years. Plus, he can mentor whoever his replacement is (probably Joey Bart although the Giants drafted another catcher, Patrick Bailey from North Carolina State, back in June).

And they probably should keep Crawford around so he can work with Giant prospect Marco Luciano, who will turn 19 years old in September. Luciano appears to be the real deal. He can field like Crawford, but he also is showing power akin to San Diego shortstop Fernando Tatis, Jr. He'll be 20 years old on Opening Day in 2022, and there's a good chance he'll be ready for the big leagues then ("Giants' Marco Luciano to be MLB's No. 1 prospect in 2022, analyst says"). What about Belt and Longoria? Well, they're still among the best defensive players in the game, but it's unlikely that any team will be willing to take on their contracts, especially if they don't raise their batting averages (both are starting to hit better, though).

Giants fans need to start thinking about the 2020 season as one long tryout. Zaidi will hopefully continue to churn the roster looking for untapped potential (think Max Muncy and Justin Turner). He already may have found a couple of hidden gems in Mike Yastrzemski and Mauricio Dubon. Yastrzemski's been great, but he's 29, so he may only have a few good years left. With luck, he'll prove to be one of the exceptions. The jury's still out on Dubon. He played and hit well last season, but his performance has been underwhelming so far in 2020. His hitting has picked up of late, however, and he has the tools to play multiple positions, much like Chris Taylor of the Dodgers. Then there are the numerous prospects who have yet to make an appearance in the majors, such as catcher Joey Bart, outfielder Heliot Ramos, the aforementioned Marco Luciano, and pitchers Seth Corry, Tyler Cyr, and Sean Hjelle, to mention just a few. There's a good chance that one or more will pan out. Not all of them will. And we won't know which ones will and which ones won't for a couple of years.

Which is why Giants fans need to be patient. Very patient.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Memorable Baseball Quotes

It's been a few years since I posted some of the more memorable baseball quotes. I thought it was time to do it again, especially since the season may not last much longer. Many of these appeared previously ("Notable Baseball Quotes","Love is the Most Important Thing in the World, but Baseball is Pretty Good, Too (Yogi Berra)","On the Lighter Side: Memorable Baseball Quotes"), but a few are new.

Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.
-- Yogi Berra

The baseball mania has run its course. It has no future as a professional endeavor.
-- Cincinnati Gazette editorial, 1879

You can have the best team in baseball, and if nobody goes through the turnstiles, you've got to shut the doors down.
-- Tommy Lasorda

I can see how he (Sandy Koufax) won 25 games. What I don’t understand is how he lost five.
-- Yogi Berra

I have discovered, in 20 years of moving around a ball park, that the knowledge of the game is usually in inverse proportion to the price of the seats.
-- Bill Veeck

Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.
-- Leo Durocher

Do you know what I love most about baseball? The pine tar, the resin, the grass, the dirt. And that's just in the hot dogs.
-- David Letterman

A hot dog at the game beats roast beef at the Ritz.
-- Humphrey Bogart

Greaseball, greaseball, greaseball, that's all I throw him (Rod Carew), and he still hits them. He's the only player in baseball who consistently hits my grease. He sees the ball so well, I guess he can pick out the dry side.
-- Gaylord Perry

Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.
-- Leo Durocher

The tradition of professional baseball is agreeably free of chivalry. The rule is, 'Do anything you can get away with.'
-- Heywood Broun

The great American game of baseball is a fraud, a treachery and un-American. It offers a regrettable example to the nation's youth, is populated by cheats, thrives on sneaky tricks, and teaches Fagin values to thousands of Little Leaguers
-- Shirley Povich

Baseball is a game where a curve is an optical illusion, a screwball can be a pitch or a person, stealing is legal, and you can spit anywhere except in the umpire's eye or on the ball.
-- Jim Murray

Good pitching will beat good hitting any time, and vice versa.
-- Bob Veale

Think! How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?
-- Yogi Berra

When we played softball, I'd steal second base, feel guilty and go back.
-- Woody Allen

The other teams could make trouble for us if they win. 
-- Yogi Berra

What is both surprising and delightful is that spectators are allowed, and even expected, to join in the vocal part of the game... There is no reason why the field should not try to put the batsman off his stroke at the critical moment by neatly timed disparagement's of his wife fidelity and his mother's respectability.
-- George Bernard Shaw

So I'm ugly. So what? I never saw anyone hit with his face.
-- Yogi Berra

I never took the game home with me. I always left it in some bar.
-- Bob Lemon

Baseball is the only major sport that appears backwards in a mirror.
-- George Carlin

It's a round ball and a round bat, and you have to hit it square.
-- Pete Rose

Why does everybody stand up and sing, 'Take Me Out To The Ball Game' when they're already there?
-- Larry Anderson

Baseball is accused of being too slow. Here's something that would not only speed up the game but also provide a welcome opportunity for serious injuries. Like most good ideas, it's uncomplicated: If the pitcher hits the batter with the ball, the batter is out. That's it. A simple idea, but it would make quite a difference.
-- George Carlin

I'm one of those people who's not really turned on by baseball. My idea of a relief pitcher is one that's filled with martinis.
-- Dean Martin

The pitcher has to find out if the hitter is timid. And if the hitter is timid, he has to remind the hitter he's timid.
-- Don Drysdale (known for throwing at a batter or two during his career)

The season starts too early and finishes to late and there are too many games in between.
-- Bill Veeck

The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.
-- Casey Stengel

For the parents of a Little Leaguer, a baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown in innings.
-- Earl Wilson

If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's life, she will choose to save the infant's life without even considering if there are men on base.
-- Dave Barry

If it wasn't for baseball, I'd be in either the penitentiary or the cemetery.
-- Babe Ruth

I learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands; you need to be able throw something back.
-- Maya Angelou

Baseball players are smarter than football players. How often do you see a baseball team penalized for having too many players on the field?
-- Jim Bouton

Baseball is what we were; football is what we've become.
-- Mary McGrory

It ain't nothin' till I call it.
-- Bill Klern, umpire

I didn't mean to hit the umpire with the dirt, but I did mean to hit that bastard in the stands.
-- Babe Ruth

Bob Gibson is the luckiest pitcher I ever saw. He always pitches when the other team doesn't score any runs.
-- Tim McCarver

Trying to sneak a pitch past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.
-- Joe Adcock

I think I throw the ball as hard as anyone. The ball just doesn't get there as fast.
-- Eddie Bane

When they start the game, they don't say, 'Work Ball!' They say 'Play Ball!'
-- Willie Stargell

Sure I played. Did you think I was born age 70 sitting in a dugout trying to manage guys like you?
-- Casey Stengel to Mickey Mantle

As a nation we are dedicated to keeping physically fit... and parking as close to the stadium as possible.
-- Bill Vaughn

If you don't succeed at first, try pitching.
-- Jack Harshman

When we lose, I eat. When we win, I eat. I also eat when we're rained out.
-- Tommy Lasorda

Ninety percent of this game is half mental.
-- Yogi Berra

All I remember about my wedding day in 1967 is that the Cubs lost a double-header.
-- George Will

I never said most of the things I said.
-- Yogi Berra

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Remixing Our Religion

In her fascinating survey of our so-called secular world ("Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World"), Tara Burton argues that people in general, and millennials in particular, are not so much abandoning religion as remixing it. "Shaped by the twin forces of a creative-communicative internet and consumer capitalism," they are rejecting "authority, institution, creed, and moral universalism" in favor of "intuition, personal feeling, and experiences" (p. 10). They are trading in institutional religion for what Burton calls "intuitional" religion: namely, "narratives that simultaneously reject clear-cut creedal metaphysical doctrines and institutional hierarchies and place the locus of authority on people's experiential emotions... The Remixed demand agency and creative ownership in their spiritual lives, dissatisfied with the narrowness of the options available." (p. 33). She argues that Americans, and especially millennials
envision themselves as creators of their own bespoke religions, mixing and matching spiritual and aesthetic and experiential and philosophical traditions. The Remixed hunger for the same things human beings have always longed for: a sense of meaning in the world and personal purpose within that meaning, a community to share that experience with, and rituals to bring the power of that experience into achievable, everyday life. But they're doing it differently. (Or, at least, they think they are). (p. 10)
Many of the Remixed faiths can be found leaning toward the political left: for example, the gospel of wellness and its focus on self-care; the sexual utopias of polyamorists and kinksters; contemporary occultism and other New Age spiritualities; and social justice culture and its eschatological vision of a better world. Others are not, however. Silicon Valley's transhumanist techno-utopianism is "gleefully libertarian, comfortably capitalist, and antiauthoritarian" (p. 189). And then there is the Nietzschean-inspired atavistic authoritarianism of the alt-right, the manosphere, and some followers of the psychologist Jordon Peterson, who "see in today's contemporary intuitional religions a feminized weakness that only a cult of authoritarian masculinity can fill." (p. 206). Among the latter are what Burton calls "nihilistic atavists," those who mourn "the loss of a once-great masculine civilization but see no way forward except for total social collapse" (p. 206).

But, should we consider all of these religions? Not all embrace metaphysical beliefs; some are quite secular, in fact. However, as Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge have noted, it is not uncommon for secular movements to take on metaphysical trappings and evolve into bonafide religions with their own narratives and shared rituals. Scientology and Transcendental Meditation, both of which began as self-help therapies or practices, are two such examples. This is not a concern of Burton, however. She draws on a Durkheimian understanding of religion, one that does not require that adherents hold a belief in a God or supernatural force, and argues that today's Remixed religions are religions in the sense that they provide followers with four key aspects of religion: "meaning, purpose, community, and ritual." (p. 29) Take, for instance, social justice culture:
It has done what so much of anodyne, classical liberalism has failed to do. It has imbued the secular sphere with meaning. It has reenchanted a godless world... Like its Marxists antecedents, [it] has managed to create a thoroughly compelling, eschatologically focused account of a meaningful world, in which every human being has a fundamental purpose in a cosmic struggle... To dismiss it as silly or jejune is to profoundly overlook what it reveals about the American search for meaning and about the spiritual hunger of those who subscribe to it. (p. 177)
She notes that it weaves together the basic tenets of intuitionalism into a narrative that explains the world in which we live and promises an eschatological future in which all will be well. (p. 178) It also excommunicates heretics who are insufficiently "woke," as well as calling-out outsiders for offensive statements or behavior. Such actions not only maintain the movement's purity, but they provide followers with collective rituals that reaffirm their inclusion in a moral community. "Call-out culture persists not merely because there are plenty of people out there who deserve to be cancelled, but also because the sense of community it provides to its participants, the fantasy of moral solidarity, is a potent draw" (p. 188). And then there are the safe spaces, areas or rooms set aside for protecting the experiences of the marginalized:
The cloister of the self space doubles as a moral hermitage: a place where those who utilize it can be guaranteed not only to find like-minded members but also to reify their own commitment to that space, its values, and ideals. To willingly enter a safe space is not just to withdraw from the real world, but to enter a quasi-sacred one, in which social justice's narrative of the self, society, and truth reign supreme. A space, you might say, not unlike a church." (p. 188)
Burton contends that social justice culture, techno-utopianism, and atavistic authoritarianism are all vying to become America's new civil religion. "All three... claim a powerful, transformative vision of the world, rooted not in transcendent meaning but in human thought, feeling and will... Only time will tell which one will win" (p. 246).

She takes care to point out that many of today's Remixed faiths are not as new as some of their adherents believe. Deism, Theosophy, John Humphrey Noyes's Christian Perfectionism, Phineas Quimby's New Thought, and Transcendentalism are examples of early American intuitional religions. And trading in old faiths for new ones is hardly new. As Stark and Bainbridge pointed out 35 years ago, people seldom stop believing; instead, they tend to trade their beliefs in for “newer” or “different” ones ("The Persistence of Belief, Part I: The Future of Religion"). They empirically demonstrated that there is a strong inverse correlation between church membership rates and participation in untraditional forms of belief (at least untraditional in the U.S.) such as Yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Scientology, Astrology, and so on.

Burton (pp., 18-25) estimates about 50% of Americans count among the Remixed, hailing primarily from three groups of "believers": The spiritual but not religious (SBNRs), who make up about 27% of Americans; the faithful Nones, the 18% of Americans who don't belong to a religious community or claim a religious identity but still believe in a higher power; and the religious hybrids, the 21% of Americans who say they belong, believe, and/or practice a given religion but jettison those elements of it they don't like or supplement it with beliefs and practices from other traditions.

What's the future of Remixed religion? Burton believes that unlike in times past, it may be here to stay, given the pervasiveness of the internet and consumer capitalism. And since coronavirus pandemic has pushed most of us even more online, one could argue that intuitional faiths are better positioned to survive the pandemic than are institutional ones. Still, the pandemic has also highlighted how much we crave face-to-face interactions, something that many Remixed faiths do not offer, so there may be hope for institutional religions after all. Moreover, cultural evolutionists argue ("The Persistence of Belief, Part III: Religion is Good for the Group") that evolutionary pressures tend to favor "Big God" religions that promote solidarity, reduce intragroup competition, and enhance intergroup competitiveness by encouraging prosocial behavior, such as keeping selfishness in check. Burton repeatedly highlights how the spiritual individualism of many Remixed faiths, which is often couched in the language of "self-care," is often highly selfish. Thus, it's not unreasonable to wonder just how long their shelf life might actually be.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Stealing Signs, Bobby Thomson, and the Shot Heard Round the World

“Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it” - Leo Durocher

“The tradition of professional baseball is agreeably free of chivalry. The rule is, “Do anything you can get away with.”” - Heywood Broun, 1923

A few months ago when reflecting on the 2017 Astros' sign-stealing scandal ("Some Thoughts on Stealing Signs in Baseball"), I noted that a certain level of cheating is expected and even tolerated in professional sports. The key, of course, is never getting caught. I also mentioned how under manager Leo Durocher, the NY Giants stole signs using a telescope located in the center field clubhouse during the latter part of the 1951 season. When they began doing so on the 20th of July, the Giants trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers by 7 1/2 games. They fell behind as far as 13 1/2 games (on August 11th) before going on a winning streak (37 of their last 44) that helped them catch the Dodgers and force a three game playoff. The teams split the first two games, and in the bottom of the 9th of the 3rd game, with the Giants trailing 4-2, Bobby Thomson hit perhaps the most famous home run in MLB baseball history: His three-run walk-off homer off of Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca, known as “The Shot Heard 'Round the World.” You can see a clip of Thomson's HR at the end of the post, with Russ Hodges calling the shot.

All this is detailed in Joshua Prager's 2006 book, “The Echoing Green,” which expanded upon his 2001 Wall Street Journal article, ("Was the '51 Giants Comeback a Miracle, Or Did They Simply Steal the Pennant?"). Coach Herman Franks, who operated the telescope, relayed the stolen signs to both the Giants dugout and bullpen via a buzzer wire. The Giants eventually settled on signaling the batter from the bullpen, which was located in right field, where backup catcher Sal Yvars tossed a ball in the air for a breaking ball and held on to it for a fastball. In 1949 two Washington Post reporters estimated that, on average, just under 12 seconds elapsed from the time the catcher signaled to when the pitcher released the ball. Plenty enough time for Franks to push the buzzer and Yvars to relay the sign. All right-handed batters had to do was take a quick glance at the bullpen to get the sign. They didn't even have to step out of the batter's box.

Rumors that the Giants’ had stolen signs using a telescope spread throughout baseball in the '50s. Branca, who had been traded to Detroit, first learned of it in 1954 from his roommate, who knew someone from the Giants who told him about it. Branca called Yvars a few days later, and Yvars admitted that it had happened. Then in 1962, Washington Senator and former Giant, Danny O’Connell, told a reporter (Joe Reichler) that the Giants had stolen catchers’ signs in the last few months of the '51 season, but the story didn't gain much purchase. When asked, Thomson denied it, and Branca remarked that although he'd known about it for years, he'd hadn't said anything because he didn't want to sound like a sore loser. It really wasn't until Prager's 2001 article when several 1951 Giants players (including Willie Mays) publicly admitted to the sign-stealing scheme that people actually began to believe it was true.

That said, in 1951 stealing signs using telescopes and binoculars was not uncommon. Nor was it against the rules. In 1962 Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby wrote that “every team with a scoreboard in center field has a spy to inside one time or another.” The White Sox installed a system in the 1950s that reportedly was still in use two decades later, and it was based on a system the Red Sox had installed at Fenway before that. In fact, it wasn't until the 1962 season that using mechanical devices to steal signs was strictly forbidden (it probably wasn't a coincidence that the 1961 National League champions, the Cincinnati Reds, were accused of using a telescope to steal signs), but it's unclear how much of a deterrent the new rule was. Think Astros 2017 (and if you believe that no team illegally stole signs between 1962 and 2017, then I have some land south of Florida that I'd like to sell you).

Using optical devices to steal signs dates back at least to 1899 when the Phillies used opera glasses to steal signs from the top floor of a three story building that overlooked the centerfield wall. That year the Phillies finished with a record of 94-58, quite an improvement over the previous year when they finished 78-71 but not enough to win the pennant (they finished in 3rd place).

The '51 Giants already had a sophisticated method for stealing signs in place before they began using a telescope. They noticed that catchers tended to be a bit careless with runners on first, so once a runner reached first, he would begin signaling the sequence of signs to someone in the dugout, who would then study and eventually decipher the pattern. Once the signs were known, whenever runners reached second, they'd relay the signs to the batter.

Some Giants’ players didn’t want to know what pitch was coming, believing they hit better just reacting to a pitch. Thomson was not one of those. He wanted to know the signs, but he repeatedly denied looking at Yvars prior to hitting his home run off of Branca. However, Giants' coach Herman Franks later told Prager (after his book was published) that he saw Thomson glance toward the right-field bullpen before Branca's fateful pitch.

The electrician who set up the buzzer for picking off catchers' signs was a devoted Dodgers’ fan, but he worked night games at the Polo Grounds. Late in the 1951 season he was struck by stomach cancer and as the season wound down, he listened to games on the radio horrified at what he had helped wrought. He passed away on November 3, 1951, exactly one month after Thomson's home run.

Branca attended the 6th game of the World Series, and agreed to be photographed "choking" Bobby Thomson. And four months later Branca and Thomson sang together at the Baseball Writers Association of America annual dinner, to the tune of "Because of You," which was made famous by Tony Bennett, whose "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" is currently played after every San Francisco Giants win (how's that for a coincidence?). Each sang a version of the song with lyrics specially written for each of them. Branca, who was actually a great singer, brought many in the crowd to tears. Not too long afterward, they sang again on Ed Sullivan's variety show, "The Toast of the Town" (later known as "The Ed Sullivan Show"). In time, Branca and Thomson became something of an act, appearing on television and at events where they'd sign baseballs, posters, etc. and occasionally sing. They even became friends although Thomson's early denials angered Branca for some time.

Other facts included in the book:
  • Twenty-three days after Thomson's home run, Branca married Ann Mulvey, whose parents were part-owners of the Dodgers. Their daughter, Mary, married baseball player Bobby Valentine.
  • The loss to the Giants in 1951 was especially painful for the Dodgers, because the previous year they lost the pennant race on the last game of the season on a 10th inning walk-off home run by Dick Sisler. If the Dodgers had won, they would’ve forced a playoff with Phillies.
  • For a brief period of time after he retired, Branca co-hosted a sports radio show, "Speaking of Sports," with Howard Cosell.
  • When he managed the Dodgers, Leo Durocher was instrumental in transforming Ralph Branca from a prospect into a genuine star. In fact, after he became the Giants' manager, Durocher attempted to trade for Branca, once offering the Dodgers Thomson in exchange for Branca.
  • Both Branca and Thomson grew up Giants fans. Thomson's father, however, was a die hard Dodgers fan.
  • In 1962 the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers once again tied for the National League pennant, forcing another three-game playoff. The first game was played in San Francisco, and before dawn the Giants groundskeeper treated the topsoil off of first and second base with sand, peat moss, and water to slowdown Maury Wills. Wills never reached base, however, and the Giants went on to win 8-0 over Sandy Koufax. They won the playoff as well although like in 1951 they were behind entering the 9th inning (4-2). They scored four runs in the top of the 9th and won 6-4. Unlikely any cheating occurred here, though. The final two games were played in LA.
  • In 1964 the San Francisco Giants installed a sign stealing system in centerfield, wiring a pine box with lightbulbs and push-buttons. It was in use when Herman Franks (yes, that Herman Franks) took over as manager on the last day of the 1964 season, and it remained in use for four more seasons while Franks was manager and the Giants finished 2nd every year (winning over 90 games each season, except 1968 when they "only" won 88).

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Pandemic and the Social Capital of Local Neighborhoods

While biking on local trails early in the pandemic, I mused that people seemed "nicer" and hoped that one of the pandemic's long-term benefits that it would help bring Americans together after years of political polarization ("People Seem Nicer"). Unfortunately, some of our leaders (one in particular) have used the pandemic to divide us even more than we were before. Still, I have hope. I have hope because anecdotal evidence suggests that "social capital" may be on the rise in many of our local neighborhoods. If so, this could signal a reversal of several decades of decline, at least according to the political scientist Robert Putnam ("Bowling Alone").

What's social capital? It is generally thought to be the quantity and quality of resources that we can access through our various social networks. By social networks I do not mean social media outlets such as Facebook or Twitter, but rather the connections we share with our friends, family, co-workers, and so on (Note: the analysis of social networks dates back at least to the 1930s, long before Facebook was a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg's eye -- see Freeman 2004). Social capital is generally seen as a function of the number of ties (i.e., connections) we have with others AND the level of trust present in those ties. Put differently, the more ties of trust that we have (and continue to invest in), the greater our social capital.

Many scholars believe that social capital is positively associated with a number of instrumental and expressive rewards (e.g., higher paying jobs, better mental health), increased participation in various types of collective action (e.g., voting, volunteering, charitable giving), and the functioning of democratic institutions. It is also positively associated with healthy neighborhoods:
Consider a neighborhood with high social capital. In that neighborhood, the neighbors know each other, talk to each other often, and trust each other. In that neighborhood, a mother might feel comfortable letting her child walk alone to a nearby park. In a neighborhood with lower social capital, where the neighbors do not know or trust one another, the mother would either have to walk with her child to the park or hire someone to do it for her. (Pamela Paxton, 1999, p. 89)
So why do I think social capital may be on the rise in local neighborhoods around the country? Well, our own neighborhood has begun holding "social distancing" gatherings (which really should be called "physical distance gatherings"), such as movie nights where we play a movie on an outdoor screen and neighbors gather by households to watch. And when I mention this to others, many say their neighborhoods are doing similar things. And such activities typically increase the number of social interactions and level of trust between neighbors, thereby increasing not only the social capital of people within our neighborhood but the social capital of our neighborhood itself.

Of course, anecdotal evidence is only that. We can't know that such activities are systematically happening across the U.S. (and the world) without better data, which we won't have for a few years. However, if it is happening, then maybe, just maybe, we'll emerge from this pandemic with resources that we can use to "rebuild" the U.S. from the bottom (neighborhood) up into a less polarizing society. We can only hope.


Freeman, Linton C. 2004. The Development of Social Network Analysis: A Study in the Sociology of Science. Vancouver, Canada: Empirical Press.

Paxton, Pamela. 1999. "Is Social Capital Declining in the United States? A Multiple Indicator Assessment." American Journal of Sociology 105(1):88-127.

________. 2002. "Social Capital and Democracy: An Interdependent Relationship." American Sociological Review 67(2):254-77.

Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Friday, June 12, 2020

This Is Not Over: Unfortunately Some Are Acting Like It Is

Be careful out there. This isn't over. Unfortunately, some are acting like it is. People are flocking to beaches, resorts, restaurants, and in some states, bars, movie theaters, and theme parks, without taking any precautions, behaving like they did prior to the pandemic. Add to this the George Floyd protests where although a lot of the protestors are wearing masks, not all are. However, coronavirus cases and (more importantly) hospitalizations are increasing in several states. Some of these increases are traceable to early reopenings; others to the virus working its way into areas of the country that had been relatively untouched up to this point (for an excellent analysis, see "The new coronavirus spikes, explained").

I doubt that our elected officials have the stomach to shut things down again, so it's us to help keep everyone safe. So, wear your mask in public spaces (it's to protect others, not you). Practice social distancing (it's to protect you AND others). Don't stay indoors for an extended period (except your residence, of course), especially if its crowded. Wash your hands. Exercise. And... be nice to others. It may not always feel like it, but we're all in this together.

Updated: June 13th