The fallacy of ‘game change’ moments

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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During Game Six of the 1986 World Series, Mookie Wilson dribbled a “little roller” ground ball toward a hobbled Red Sox first baseman named Bill Buckner.

During Game Six of the 1986 World Series, Mookie Wilson dribbled a “little roller” ground ball toward a hobbled Red Sox first baseman named Bill Buckner.

… And that son of a bitch let let the ball roll between his legs.

For committing this atrocity, Bill Buckner became the ultimate scapegoat.

He was hated and blamed — not just for costing the Sox a World Series game or a World Series Championship — but also for representing the fulfillment of the “Curse of the Bambino” — which had plagued the Sox for generations.

There was just one problem: He didn’t cost the Red Sox the World Series. In fact, the Sox might not have even gotten to the World Series in the first place without him (he only hit hit .340 during the month of September.)

As Bill Simmons notes,

Buckner didn’t send himself out in the 10th; that was manager John McNamara’s decision. And Buckner didn’t allow three two-out singles; that was doe-eyed closer Calvin Schiraldi. Buckner didn’t unfurl a game-tying wild pitch to Wilson; that was Bob Stanley. And Buckner wasn’t the one who couldn’t block the pitch; that was Rich Gedman. Only after 16 pitches failed to clinch the game — and only then — did the cruel spotlight find him, following a lazy grounder that skipped along like a rabbit in a cornfield. (Emphasis mine.)

… And, of course, Buckner wasn’t to blame for the Red Sox losing the next game against the Mets. He didn’t blow the 3–0 lead the team held in Game Seven.

The point is that observers like to simplify things. And so the wildly unfair perception that Buckner cost the Red Sox the World Series persists.

Interestingly, this principle of simplification seems to work for both infamous — and truly momentous — events.

In his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” Steven Johnson argues that our perception of great inventions is similarly simplistic. We perpetuate the trope about the brilliant inventor who has an epiphany one day out of the blue. But as Johnson told NPR, “When you go back and look at the historical record … it turns out that those eureka moments are really infrequent.” Instead of lightbulbs going off over our heads, Johnson argues that most great ideas are the product of a “slow hunch.”

Likewise, political observers like to create narratives about “great moments” and “game-changing” gaffes, but the truth is that accumulated trends are more common. Sure, there are outsized gaffes that matter (see George Romney), but they are rare.

This, of course, brings us to the proclamations that a secret recording from a Mitt Romney fundraiser has cost him the election. In response to the number of times Romney’s presidential chances have been declared dead, TheDC’s Mickey Kaus observed: “Pundits and bloggers can only declare Romney’s campaign dead once.”

Kaus isn’t alone in making this observation. Over at the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin has some fun recounting the numerous times Romney has been been written off for dead:

5. Romney’s $10,000 “bet” in a primary debate was going to wreck his campaign.

6. Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom’s “Etch-a-sketch” remark was going to kill Romney’s chances.

7. Romney’s remark about owning two Cadillacs was going to doom him in Michigan.

8. Romney’s comment that he was most concerned about the middle class and not the very poor who have a safety net, which may need fixing, was going to cripple him.

I’m not sure whether this proves Mitt Romney is history’s greatest gaffe-machine — or that media prognostications are wildly speculative and presumptuous. Or both. But it is clear that he has been able to overcome some pretty bumpy comments in the past.

Yet the media continues to declare that each moment is the defining moment. As Larry Sabato observed: “In the age of the nonstop news cycle, every new development is the most important thing that has ever happened, meriting breathless coverage — until the next, more important development inevitably overtakes it in a day or two.”

If Romney wins, this will never be spoken of again. And if he loses, some will blame the 47 percent comment — and claim that they “knew it all along!”

But that would be like blaming Bill Buckner for costing the Red Sox the 1986 World Series — wrong and simplistic.

Who knows? Maybe it will have been the “I like firing people” line that truly did him in?

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Matt K. Lewis