Cito and the Great Recession

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Sports teams play a special role in people's lives during hard economic times, like the Depression of the 1930s. Fans fasten on their teams, which seem less dependent on harsh, uncontrollable forces and more in the hands of the players.

The playing fields are relatively even, compared to the economy. I don't think this is escapist; it's more like finding solace in the sight of grace under pressure. Even fantasy Hollywood musicals of the 1930s, such as Astaire-Rogers films, display that.

Take the line "Let's face the music and dance" from Follow the Fleet in 1936; it's explicitly about confronting financial despair with elegance.

This holds for personal depressions too. A friend once moved into my house during a marital crisis. But he refused to discuss it; instead, from dawn to dusk, he would natter about the Toronto Blue Jays, who were having a good year.

Now it's the Blue Jays again. Since Cito Gaston returned as manager last June, they've had one of baseball's best won-lost records -- 85-64, before last night's game. That's despite injuries to four of their five starting pitchers and their closer being placed on the disable list. This has a particular relation to the current economic crisis.

Why? The crisis is financial. Its roots are in the 1980s, when math whizzes began creating complex, impenetrable instruments: derivatives, swaps, CDOs, sliced-up mortgages. They had little to do with real goods but created vast riches and wealth gaps, until recently, when the whole edifice collapsed on top of everyone. As Michael Lewis wrote in his 2003 book Moneyball: "What was happening to capitalism should have happened to baseball: the technical man with his analytic magic should have risen to prominence." Yet it transpired only in Oakland, where a poorly funded team turned to heavy math. It used newly invented or neglected statistics, such as on-base and slugging percentage, to build amazingly successful teams. In 2001, the Blue Jays brought J. P. Ricciardi, who appears prominently in the Lewis book, from the Oakland front office to weave the same magic in Toronto. But it didn't happen.

Maybe you can't transfer the formula. Or, too many players read Moneyball. A pitcher will throw differently if he knows batters are focused on reaching base any old way, especially by walks.

New information transforms the situation. Whatever. When Cito Gaston arrived, he talked about "having a plan" to hit the damn ball. This was different from fulfilling terms in an equation. He put basic human impulses back in. I don't think Oakland ignored the human factor, or that Cito is irrational and never checks the stats. But the balance had gone awry, as it has in the economy. It was separating the numbers from the human realities that led to the debacle. Now, having an (economic) plan is what even right-wing governments embrace.

There is also leadership. People look for calm and serenity during economic crises, since the stresses undo us all. They found it in FDR in the 1930s. Barack Obama provides it, too, although it isn't a trait he presented as part of his candidacy. It helps if the serenity is genuine.

Former Oakland manager Art Howe was apparently ordered to pose on the top step of the dugout, like Washington crossing the Delaware. Cito doesn't pose -- he doesn't even stand much. But he exudes the chill factor, which may be of even greater social value when you put baseball together with this economy.

And it is the Obama moment. From 1997, when the Blue Jays dumped Cito, until last June, he received no serious offers to manage.

In fact, there have been only a handful of black major-league managers. Ever. As everyone knows, things are now officially different.

I've always found Cito elegant. He's an Astaire of the dugout. (And Barack and Michelle are a postracial Fred and Ginger, minus the music.) I wonder if he read Moneyball while he was away. He certainly had the time.

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