“In the biographies of men and nations, success often arrives in a mask of failure.”

by Bob Schwartz

This isn’t about baseball, though the quote is from a baseball writer. Bill James is not just a superb writer; he is a thinker whose analysis of the game has changed baseball more than any other thinker has ever changed any game. You can look it up.

This is about optimism and hope. I was reading The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (a 998-page volume whose title alone should tell you just how thoughtful Bill James is). He describes Robin Yount, who as of the time of publication James considered the Number 4 shortstop in baseball history:

Robin Yount (1974–1993, 2856 G, 251 1406 .285)

Robin Yount was a major league regular when he was 18 years old. We always wondered how good he would be, how much he would improve. In 1978, after Yount had been in the major leagues four years, he held out in the spring, mulling over whether he wanted to be a baseball player, or whether he really wanted to be a professional golfer.

When that happened, I wrote him off as a player who would never become a star. If he can’t even figure out whether he wants to be a baseball player or a golfer, I reasoned, he’s never going to be an outstanding player.

Yount was unhappy about suggestions that the Brewers would move him to the outfield. According to Dan Okrent in Nine Innings, “Yount didn’t merely reject the suggestion; he brooded about it, resented it, and lost himself in self-doubt. Members of the front office… saw Yount’s reaction as immature sulking.”

But as soon as he returned to baseball, Yount became a better player than he had been before; his career got traction from the moment he returned. What I didn’t see at the time was that Yount was in the process of making a commitment to baseball. Before he had his golf holiday, he was there every day, he was playing baseball every day, but on a certain level he wasn’t participating; he was wondering whether this was really the sport that he should be playing. What looked like indecision or sulking was really the process of making a decision.

This is often true. What Watergate was about was not the corruption of government, as most people thought, but rather, the establishment of new and higher standards of ethical conduct. Almost all scandals, I think, result not from the invention of new evils, but from the imposition of new ethical standards. Same thing with Yount; he wasn’t backing away from baseball; he was just putting the bit in his teeth, accepting new responsibilities. In the biographies of men and nations, success often arrives in a mask of failure. (emphasis added)