Unraveling records

DMZ · March 8, 2006 at 11:59 pm · Filed Under General baseball 

This is a work of fiction. See the end for a detailed note on this.

“I wish we had a time machine,” the Commissioner of Major League Baseball said. Sitting on the couch made of bats and bases, Major League Baseball President Bob DuPuy nodded slowly. “Bob, you don’t have a time machine, do you?”
“If I had one, I’d already have gone back and told you not to buy the Brewers.”
Selig didn’t smile, but looked off. “It’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?”
“It’s the right thing to do.”
Selig sighed slowly. DuPuy watched, waiting.
“Well, let’s start making calls and get the team together,” Selig said quietly. “I’ll talk to the press tonight.”

“The Commissioner has always held wide power to act in the best interest of baseball,” Selig said, his eyes watering. The camera flashes were so constant all he could see nothing but white and, in some moments, the white-and-grey afterimage. Rumors of the announcement, true and false, had spread all day, and the room had been packed since morning. He couldn’t see the reporters or even his notes. “Following the release of grand jury testimony and an in-depth investigation by Major League Baseball, we have decided that we must act decisively to restore fan faith and integrity in the game. We will be removing from the record books the statistics-” he closed his eyes against the light “-of those players we have reasonable evidence to believe have used performance-enhancing drugs that were or are illegal or banned, and we will issue new statistics that will reflect the game that should have been, that fans wanted and deserved to see.”

George Will argued for deterrence. Players who’d used drugs should have their stats removed entirely, even parts of their career where they were known to have been clean. The other members of the Commisioner’s blue-ribbon panel disagreed. Two former players pushed for known users to only lose their record titles while leaving career and season statistics intact. Others argued for more statistical approaches that would result in overall statistics that matched pre-steroid years. The draft report to the Commissioner ran over two thousand pages with five separate and irreconcilable plans, and was filled with long math proofs and overwrought rhetoric.

“The problem,” Jeremy said, in the basement of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, “is that it’s not park adjusted.”
“It is soooooo ridiculously park adjusted, you wouldn’t even believe,” Aaron replied, tossing an official baseball back and forth from hand to hand, feet up on his desk.
“Go look it up then, prove me wrong.” Jeremy looked from his book to the screen and back again. “Why won’t this stupid thing of crap compile? All I want is hit location weighting. That’s not too much to ask.”
“You look it up, you’re one that’s wrong.”
“Yeah, just like that time you wanted to argue range factor, you moron,” Jeremy said. Aaron stood up, his face red. “Ah.” Jeremy bent over to look at the O’Reilly book again and the ball cracked into his monitor, knocking the LCD off its stand and into his lap.
“What the hell!” Jeremy yelled, standing, monitor crashing onto his feet. Seeing their boss watching from the door, he bit off the next set of curses.
“Good news,” their boss said. He carried a bound volume that looked like a phone book in front of him, holding its bulk with both hands.
“You two get to fix the stats.”
They stared at him.
“You’re always bitching that you’re not doing work worthy of your fancy degrees. Now you will,” their boss said. “We need new stats. ” He set the book down on Aaron’s desk.
“When?” Aaron asked.
“Now. The Commission was a flop, Selig wants to have the first season out the door now, now, now.”
“Uh, no,” Jeremy said. “There’s no way.”
“Here’s the thing,” their boss said, and the other two sighed heavily. “When you get done, there’s two weeks paid vacation and a 10% bonus in it for both of you.”
“I do need a vacation,” Aaron said.
“And I’m here to tell you that if you can’t get the first season turned around in the next week, I’m going to fire you both and outsource this whole thing. So there’s your carrot, and there’s your stick”
“Okay,” Aaron said. “We’ll get right on it.”
Their boss smiled and turned, waving as he walked out the door. “Put those degrees to good work, you useless ivy leaguers.”

“Based on the outstanding suggestions contained in the Commissioner’s Committee on Statistical Integrity, baseball has assigned top trained staff to reconcile the differences. We anticipate providing new statistics for the 2005 season in time for the upcoming year,” read the official statement.
Jeremy tore the book in half, handed one of the pieces to Aaron, and they settled down to work. They skimmed the thing, writing short notes on the shared white boards as they slogged through.
Then they gave up and ordered pizza.
“We should focus on getting something out. We know this is going to evolve as we go, so it’s pointless to be perfect,” Jeremy said.
“How come?”
“Are there any players you know used steroids that aren’t on the list here?”
“What do we do with them?”
Aaron chewed on his cheek. “What?”
“Job security is what. For now, assume we’re only going to take out the tainted years in the appendix,” Jeremy said, rubbing his eyes. “And let’s start with Bonds.”
“Okay,” Aaron said.

Aaron took a cut at the awards while Jeremy worked out the play-by-play. Albert Pujols won three consecutive MVP awards in the basement at about one in the morning, when Bonds and other players implicated in related scandals were removed. They turned over the results of their first draft to their boss the next morning.

Pujols’ agent gave a press conference within an hour, announcing the leaked findings and lauding his client and hinting that it would be a good idea for the Cardinals to pay him previously agreed-on contract incentives for winning the award. In offices, people in suits outflanked by the news called each other. Three new trophies were made, and a press conference scheduled. In a basement office, Jeremy swore softly as his code died when it hit a game where it had to try and rework stats for a player from each side.

“Hey, I’ve got a question for you,” Jeremy said at some indeterminate hour.
There was no answer.
“Aaron! Hey!”
“I’m busy,” Aaron said from under his desk.
“You’re sleeping. There’s no time for that kind of weakness.”
Aaron’s head popped up. “Well, if you want to go find me some greenies, Jeremy…”
Jeremy held his hands up. “Hey, I don’t want to have to go erase your name from the payroll system too.”
“What do you want?”
“You cheated on the MVP. All you did was remove names the Commish gave you. But that assumes that all the votes would have been proportionately distributed among remaining candidates.”
Aaron frowned. “So?”
“That’s a mighty big assumption, don’t you think?”
Aaron’s peeping head, looking from Jeremy’s angle like it had been mounted on the desktop, thought about this for a long time.
“Goddammit,” Aaron said, and sat back down in front of his monitor.
Hours later, Aaron turned in a recommendation that the baseball writers be re-polled for those years, and instructed to consider the official purged statistics only. Finally someone from upstairs found their way through the maze to come down and tell him to shut up and stop sending out wide-distribution memos with equations, complicated graphs, and footnotes.

Jeremy ended up going for “the death penalty” only because it was the only bot he could get to run through the seasons quickly and produce testable results. Games with Bonds or another player became forfeits, his stats zeroed, pitcher lines adjusted to remove the damage, and all other player statistics were retained. Games where Bonds played against another player on the Commissioner’s list of players “reasonably believed to have used performance-enhancing drugs” were declared unofficial and removed from the standings, though the stats of players not on the list were still counted.
Pitchers suffered similar fates: their teams would forfeit the game, and the hitters would have both their accomplishments and their opportunities removed from their lines.
“What an ugly hack,” Aaron complained, paging through a season of regenerated box scores.
“It works,” Jeremy said.
“Both bots can do a run in a couple minutes now. I’m kinda proud.”
“You have two bots?”
“Yeah, there’s Shiva to go through and forfeit the games the banned players were involved in and zero their stats, and then Brahma recreates the end-of-year standings and everything.”
“What is up with those names?”
“I’m tired of using Greek and Roman gods for all our projects.”
Aaron shrugged. “Hey, new home run record.”
“No kidding,” Jeremy said, waiting for his bot to report back.
“Sixty one.”
“They were all using amphetamines. That’ll get called back eventually.”
“Fine, it’ll be sixty when they issue the Commissioner’s Report on Past Drug Abuse. Unless you think Babe Ruth is going to get dinged for being alcohol-assisted.”
“Segregation-assisted,” Jeremy said. “If we’re taking these guys out for drugs, you think we’re not going to do something about the color line?”
Aaron blinked. “I’m never going to get that two weeks vacation.”
“No, you’re not,” Jeremy said. “What do I do with the NLCS?”
“What’s your problem?”
“Every Giants game Bonds plays in turns into a forfeit, right? So they lose to the Braves in four games.”
“What happens to the Cardinals-Braves?”
Aaron was quiet.
“I know, huh?” Jeremy said, getting up and stretching. “You want to go buy MLB 2002 and play it out, you and me?”
“They won the series but they don’t advance. The Giants lose but advance to forfeit the next round.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“No solution’s going to make sense.”
Jeremy shook his head. “It’s not satisfying.”
Aaron stared at him.
“I get it,” Jeremy said. “Ghost ship it is.”
Brahma reported success, and 2005 was remade and complete. Jeremy checked the new data set into source control, assigned a validate task to Aaron, set Shiva to destroy 2004, locked his terminal, and went for a walk.

They loved and hated the new 2005 season. Some stats services denounced it, declared they would continue to offer “actual statistics” in addition to carrying MLB’s official ones. Many applauded the new version as a more true record of what should have happened, a translation that provided what had come. Some analysts who called for the move said they were filled with satisfaction and joy, and some felt no better for the new stats.

“What’s your favorite game that doesn’t exist any more?” Aaron asked.
Jeremy stopped typing and pushed back from his desk. “That’s a good question.”
“I know.”
“July 26, 1999, St. Louis at San Francisco. Giants won 10-8. Bonds hit a home run in the first inning, McGwire in the second. I was there, it was a good time.”
“Are you mad it’s gone?”
“I never thought about it. I was there, it was last minute, my friend and I lucked into these amazing seats, best I’ve ever had. Ten rows off third base. I’ll never forget how great that was. What was yours?”
“I don’t know, anything out of the 2002 World Series. That was some great baseball.”
“Was, yeah.”
“Are we sure he was on in 99?” Aaron asked.
Jeremy shrugged. “It’s on the list.”

Jeremy destroyed and rebuilt and repeated. Aaron wrote a program that identified unexpected spikes in player performances, profiled them against the normalacy of already known drug users, and ranked top candidates by use and type of suspected drug use. Their boss was delighted, and took each batch’s list away with a smile.
Baseball began expanding their list of players, issuing new reports with new names, and with each update bound in heavy navy covers, Jeremy and Aaron would set to work again.

The phones in the basement started to purr regularly. The sound was unfamiliar and distant, buried beneath books, old editions of Baseball America, empty cans of Diet Coke, pizza boxes, pizza, takeout food containers, old and crusty socks, and, on Aaron’s desk only, a framed photo, taken by Jeremy, of Bill James shaking Aaron’s hand, looking a little surprised that a stout pale dude ran up to him and grabbed his hand while another guy took a picture.
Aaron hit the speaker button.
“Stats operations,” he said.
“You’re making a lot of people very angry,” the phone said. “You’re taking people’s livelihoods.”
“Uh huh. Is there something I can do for you?”
“Yeah, you can, you can get yourself killed.”
“We wish we’d get killed,” Jeremy yelled from across the divide. “Take us out of our misery.”
“Bye now,” Aaron said, and hung up. He laughed, looked at Jeremy, shook his head, took a drink of his Diet Coke, laughed again, and called security. Then they unplugged the phones.

“What year are you on?” Aaron asked around a mouth of food.
“2003,” Jeremy said. “Again.”
“There’s no change to oh three in this bunch.”
Jeremy sat in the low cocoon of fan noise. “Is that a chicken pot pie?”
“Yeah,” Aaron said. “Why did you run 2003?”
Jeremy shook his head. “I’m not sure. Where did you get that?”
“There’s no 7-11 near here,” Jeremy said, looking over.
“Sure there is,” Aaron said. “Don’t give me that look.”
“When did you sneak out?”
Aaron took a big forkful of pie and smiled, chewing.
Their boss entered. “Hey, you morons screwed up the career rate leader boards,” he said. “Nobody goes home until it’s fixed.”
“Give it to Aaron,” Jeremy said.
The boss wheeled on the still-smirking Aaron and pointed. “I want that done,” their boss said, and walked off. Aaron swallowed.
“That was low,” he said.
“How long have we been stuck here? You snuck out somehow to buy microwaveable food and didn’t shower and didn’t bring me any. Screw you.”
“You keep pushing that boulder,” Aaron said, forking chicken into his mouth.

Some players sued, others accepted the remote judgment without comment. Some appealed to the Commissioner in person, and some of those were convincing, and forgiveness was granted or guilt overturned. Jeremy wrote a new bot that could re-populate a player’s seasons. He named it Indra, and Aaron complained about that name too.

“I don’t know that all of these guys are guilty,” Aaron said. “I mean some of ’em, sure, I always thought maybe, and yeah, we know pitchers more than hitters even, but…”
“You wrote the performance detector,” Jeremy said. “You’re as responsible for that list as the people who squealed. And some of them confessed.”
“I wrote the spike detector as an exercise, to provide some direction for them to start investigating,” Aaron said. He waved the spiral-bound supplement at Jeremy. “This is my list with a new cover and retitled ‘Supplemental Findings Part Four.'”
Jeremy yawned. “Yup.”
Aaron set it down and put his feet up on his desk.

On rumors that Major League Baseball was going to retroactively adjust player pensions, deducting service years where a player had been found to use drugs which were then or later banned, the union sued for an injunction against such action, and MLB countersued immediately, asserting their right to re-apply existing standards to fixed data. The suit was promoted through the court system quickly, expanding in scope and gaining more and more mass, until it stalled in a Federal Appeals Court, attracting more and more of New York’s brightest and nastiest lawyers, a solicitor singularity billing both sides hourly.

“Hey, by the way,” Jeremy said. “I turned you in.”
“For what?”
“Job performance-enhancing drugs,” Jeremy said. “I told them how much of that awful caffeine-heavy goo you’ve been downing since they started us on it.”
“That’s not funny.”
“They’re going to back through your performance reviews.”
“Shut up.”
“Take away the paid vacation they gave us.”
“I always hated you.” Aaron picked the list up again and opened it.
“Hey, do you remember that time you threw the ball at me and broke my twenty inch LCD?”
“So what?” Aaron asked, and then his nose made a satisfying crackling sound when the pitched ball struck.

Their boss visited more than once a day, hand-delivering updated memos with names of players who needed invalidating, and players who had won the Commissioner over and were to be given their careers back. Aaron built a data store Indra could pull player data from for restoration and after one particularly ambigious memo, they started to work on how to throttle stats based on level of certainty. Jeremy found the cache of frozen chicken pot pies.

“Now for nineteen eighty-four, where Tim Raines must now no longer have played,” Jeremy said. “And Eurasia has always been at war with Oceania.” He incarnated Shiva and set it to work with a new set of names.
“I downth geth ith.”
“Not important,” Jeremy said. “Don’t go anywhere, in a minute, you’re going to have to figure out a set of Gold Gloves and a Rookie of the Year.”
Aaron sighed, a whistle escaping his bandaged nose. “Gothdammith.”

A further, lengthy disclaimer: “Fiction” means “not real”. Commisioner Bud Selig hasn’t decided to expunge stats. He never had that chat with Bob DuPuy. Never had that press conference. MLB hasn’t done independent investigations (as far as I know) for the purpose of compiling lists of players they think used performance-enhancing drugs. George Will wasn’t on a fictional blue ribbon commission. And so on, through the disclaimer, here at the end. Except for these two disclaimers, it’s all fiction.


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