Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Andre Dawson and availability bias

Please skip the cross-border shin-kicking and go straight to what was left out of the contrived debate about Andre Dawson's Hall of Fame plaque.

Dawson went there when, in conversation with a couple Chicago sports talk radio chuckleheads, he said he told the powers-that-be in Cooperstown: "I tried to explain, perhaps, the impact of what really catapulted me to Hall of Fame status, and pretty much what my preference was."

Typically, the articles have stated Dawson played longer with the Montreal Expos (1976-86), but won a National League MVP award with the Cubs. Being a former MVP probably did factor into the BBWAA's Chicago outfit, so-called, keeping his name in the discussion.

However -- and no one seems to talk about this -- Dawson or any Cubs player of that era had one huge advantage in MVP voting. In that era, from the late 1970s through the early '90s, the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves each had almost all of their games broadcast on superstations (WGN and TBS) which were available to most U.S. cable subscribers and parts of Canada. Hear this out.

That wrinkle of the pre-digital era has probably been forgotten. It's been on my mind for a few weeks, but what hat a player has on his plaque is a trifle. I know that, because even as a serious baseball nut, I had to check whether Nolan Ryan represents the Texas Rangers, California Angels or Houston Astros on his plaque.

Everyone has the Internet and can compare traditional and advanced statistics. Serious Seamheads shell out for the MLB Extra Innings package. In Dawson's day, most teams only got North America-wide exposure if they were featured on the NBC Game of the Week, or ABC's equivalent, Monday Night Baseball.

The two franchises' ubiquity on cable TV even seeped into popular culture. There's a circa 1990 Simpsons episode where Homer, moved by Lisa's infectious moralizing, decides to cut the family's illegal cable hookup. Bart rhymes off all the reasons not to, "Monster trucks! Tractor pulls! Atlanta Braves baseball! Joe Franklin!"

Will Ferrell once said he got the idea for a Harry Caray impersonation, because when he came home for lunch around noon California time, he would flip on the Cubs telecasts on WGN.

Before MLB went to three divisions in 1994, it briefly discussed keeping two divisions and having the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals play in the National League West with Atlanta and Cincinnati moving to the NL East. The Cubs' ownership refused because it would hurt their local TV revenues.

Coincidentally or perhaps not, the Braves and Cubs were overrepresented in the post-season awards in those days. In a 10-year span, 1982-91, those two franchises accounted for five MVP awards, even though only the '91 Braves reached the World Series. Dawson, as you need no reminder, won his award while playing on a last-place Cubs team. The BBWAA also votes for the Cy Young Award. The Cubs had three during that rough timespan (Bruce Sutter in 1979, Rick Sutcliffe in '84 and Greg Maddux in '92 before he won three more with guess who, the Braves).

Picture a hard-working beat grunt from an eastern city in 1987 on a West Coast road swing. He wakes up around 11 a.m. Pacific, understandable after covering a night game. The Cubs, who still played all day games at home, would be on TV. He would see Andre Dawson hitting all those home runs (49 that season, the most any player had hit since George Foster slammed 52 in 1977) and driving in all those runs, and it's not hard to go from there to casting a MVP vote for him, even though the Cubs could have finished last without him.

That is not meant to call out anyone well after the fact. The very definition of availability bias is people tend to go with the first information they receive. It's good to dig or try to build a more layered argument, but who has the time? They went with what they got first and it has carried down the line.

You can even see it in the coverage now, which typically has omitted that Dawson was second in MVP voting twice while with the Expos (1981 and '83 behind Dale Murphy of, wait for it, the Atlanta Braves). His only other top-10 finish also came in Montreal. That has been left out, even in Canada, since many media outlets just run the same wire service articles as every other website as part of their strategy for giving users something unique.

Dawson being MVP runner-up in Montreal twice, in a sense, is more impressive than winning it once in Chicago. The Expos were an afterthought to U.S. media and fans. Allen Barra once wrote that Tim Raines being selected to seven all-star teams while playing for Montreal was like winning the Pulitzer Prize while writing for a newspaper in North Dakota. It is somewhat Sisyphean to explain this to most Americans, who tend not to realize the one-sided natures of their conversations of the rest of the world (Eddie Izzard: "... in other countries; you do know there are other countries?).

The short answer is Cooperstown got this right and if you want to go there, it is a little pathetic for Chicago media to put a waiver claim in on Dawson's legacy. Far be it to say that's their egotism talking. Just now, Chicago media personality (and former Raptors TV voice) Chuck Swirsky was on the FAN 590 in Toronto, his former station, saying "the majority of baseball fans" remember Dawson as a Cub and that he performed "on the biggest stage in baseball, Wrigley Field," which hasn't hosted a World Series game since the year the Second World War ended. Please. That's just a reflection of selective memory.

Canadian sports likers get to see the Expos get a day in the sun. (Colby Cosh had the best line on Twitter: "The Andre Dawson news is great. Haven't been this happy since Ugueth Urbina announced he would enter prison as an Expo.")

The larger point is that in honouring past greats, baseball writers and fans tend to let themselves be controlled by factors they should be controlling for. They get caught up in whether someone lasted long enough to reach some arbitrary round number (300 wins, 500 home runs, 3,000 hits), or how he fared in MVP voting. We are well-aware how media members who votes for awards of this nature are fallible.

However, there probably hasn't been enough attention devoted to how playing for a team which had games aired coast-to-coast helped Dawson in 1987. He got a MVP award, and that helped keep his name out there until he was finally elected. Not that there's anything wrong with that, so long as it's properly acknowledged.

Dawson may wear Cubs hat for speech (


Superfun happy slide said...

That was a thoughtful column and I genuinely enjoyed it. However, try not to discount the importance of the visual of Dawson in Wrigley's left field. Collective memory is a far more powerful aspect of context and reflection that you give it credit for.

sager said...

True: Memory is good, but if people don't know what they should be looking for, what happens?

I don't discount collective memory, but it shouldn't have importance ascribed to it -- especially since Dawson played right field in Chicago.

Superfun happy slide said...

I must have been channelling my '87George Bell, MVP fetish. The left hand is the tool of the beast, of course.

Dave said...

I'm an Expo fan (and will forever hate the Jays), but WGN and a trip to Wrigley in '89 made me a Cub fan (fitting really, one team forever gone, both forever cursed, comforting). There, I sat with my dad in the 5th row, behind a guy who saw Ruth play in the Series there and an elderly lady who showed me pictures of her and another elderly lady at a kitchen table who was apparently Ryne Sandberg's mom. Close enough to see Dawson stare daggers at the pitcher for knocking him down, bottom of the ninth, he gets up and belts one into the center field bleachers to tie it. Comes up in the 11th I think it was, takes that menacing closed stance, waving that bat like he did, same pissed-off look on his face. I nudge dad and say, "Jeezus, he's gonna do it again." Sure enough, dead center field bomb, up into the section that used to have astro-turf over the old bleacher steps. We exit a now delerious Wrigley and make our way down to Rush St. for $4. pitchers of Bud. What a day!

I'm not at all upset by the Hawk's comments, I'm sure it feels strange to represent a team that no longer exists, I'm sure a lot of Montreal fans will make it down to the induction and he'll be as classy about it as he ever was.