The Wrong Stuff

“Finally, Something I Know About”: Sports Illustrated Writer Joe Posnanski on Being Wrong

When I e-mailed sportswriter Joe Posnanski to ask him whether I could interview him about being wrong, I got a response right away: “Finally,” he wrote, “something I know something about.”

That wisecrack doesn’t square with Posnanski’s reputation; he’s better known as one of the country’s best and smartest sports journalists. A senior writer at Sports Illustrated and longtime sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, Posnanski has twice been voted Best Sports Columnist in America by the Associated Press Sports Editors and has garnered a passel of other honors and awards. He is also the author of three books most recently The Machine , about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds.

None of that expertise has interfered with Posnanski’s self-described “awe-inspiring track record of being wrong.” Perhaps thanks to that record, he is extremely thoughtful and extremely funny on the subject of screwing up. His reflections about wrongness touched on Babe Ruth, Tiger Woods, the myth of clutch hitting, the misery of the mistaken umpire, the dilemma of instant replay, and the enduring heartache of the Indians fan. In Posnanski’s view, being wrong is an inevitable, illuminating, and sometimes uproarious part of life. (Indeed, on his blog , you can read about three of his own most memorable mistakes , including a hilarious one involving Magic Johnson.)   

I should start by warning you that I’m painfully ignorant about sports.

So am I, so this should work out well.

Ha. Well, at least you’re not ignorant about wrongness, or so I gather from your e-mail.

In this profession, you’re constantly trying to predict what’s going to happen. Every day I make predictions that don’t come anywhere close to the mark.

All sports fans make predictions. Does the fact that you do it professionally mean that you’re supposed to be right at least slightly more often than the rest of us?

Maybe [sportswriters] have a little more insight from talking to the players, the coaches people who are on the inside. But in reality, I don’t know that we’re wrong any less often.

I do think, though, that a big part of the job is how you handle being wrong. Are you upfront about it? Do you play it off? Do you try to defend yourself? Every time you write anything, at least half your readers are going to disagree with you. A big part of sports writing is how you respond to that tension.

What’s your own ethic around that? What do you see as your responsibility to your readers when you get something wrong ?

There’s being wrong and there’s being wrong. Being wrong on facts, that’s something you have a real responsibility to correct. But being wrong in the fun sports way is part of the interplay. For me it’s pretty easy to say, “Look at that, I blew that one again, I couldn’t have been more wrong.”

What puts the fun in the “fun sports way of being wrong”?

Part of it is the gambler’s thrill: Who’s going to win the NCAA tournament? Who’s going to be No. 1 in the country? But it’s also about narrative. The fun of the Super Bowl is the week leading into it; once it’s actually played, the story dies down very, very quickly. But heading into it, all these stories and all these angles and all these different version of what could happen 95 percent of those are wrong, yet they constitute 95 percent of the thrill. In sports and I suppose this is true in life in general most of the time, things aren’t going to turn out the way you think they are. And it’d be boring if they did.

The way you describe sports, it sounds like one big futures market. But, as we’ve all just seen in spades, people in finance are usually terrible at admitting their mistakes. Do you think people in sports are better at it?

It depends on what you mean. I’d be surprised if futures traders get as many nasty e-mails as sportswriters. You get plenty of people who are very, very happy to tell you on a daily basis how wrong you are. But for the most part, there is still a sense that at the end of the day, it’s only a game.

About those nasty e-mails why do you think it makes people so happy to tell you that you’re wrong?

The nastiest e-mails I get tend to be when I’ve picked a team to lose and then it wins. For the fans, winning is great, but proving somebody wrong is even better.

In sports, there’s an extreme culture of playing off of the media. Coaches will go into their team meetings and say, “These guys think you can’t do it, they picked you to lose,” and fire them up that way. Same thing from the fan’s perspective. You wake up in the morning and you read the paper and it’s saying you’re going to lose and then your team goes out and wins. Well they didn’t just win, they proved somebody wrong. That’s what’s at the heart of the joy.

Is that part of what drives our deep love of underdogs the fact that we have a shot not just at winning but at proving other people wrong?

Absolutely. In 1980, when the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviets, there had been this narrative created, and the narrative was, you have absolutely no chance of winning . So that win was all about proving the narrative wrong. I think the love of the underdog is very much about hoping for the unexpected. And the unexpected gets to the heart of being wrong.

Totally. But for fans of real underdogs, the unexpected almost never happens, right? One of the things I write about in the book is a phenomenon I call “wrongness as optimism” you know, that thing where you’re like, “OK, I’m going to write this whole column by noon, and then return those calls and pay the bills and do the grocery shopping.” And then in reality, noon rolls around and you’ve checked your e-mail and eaten a bagel. I bring this up because I feel like sports fandom is the highest form of wrongness as optimism. Although maybe I just feel that way because I grew up in Cleveland.

Me, too.

Oh, really? So you grew up a fellow Indians fan?

Oh, yeah, Indians, Browns, Cavaliers, I grew up rooting for them all.

No wonder you have so much experience with being wrong.

What I have found about Cleveland fans and certainly it’s been true of me is that at some point you know you’re going be wrong, so you try to play tricks with yourself. You say, “Well, I know they’re going to lose today,” in an effort to be wrong in the other direction. The expectation level of a Cleveland fan is so filled with heartbreak that at some point you just try to turn the thing in your favor. But in Cleveland, it never works, because if you say “I know they’re going to lose today,” you are going to be right, and there’s no joy at all in that kind of rightness.

I love the phrase wrongness as optimism, by the way.

Other than Cleveland, do you think there are particular fans that suffer from it the most?

Cleveland is an extreme case. It’s been so long since we’ve won. Kansas City is now beginning to be like that as well; it follows me wherever I go. For years and years and years, the Red Sox were the unsurpassed example of wrongness as optimism. Red Sox nation is soaked in wrongness as optimism.

What do you think about the way sportswriters handled the Tiger Woods scandal? It’s one thing to have missed his philandering side before the scandal broke, but I was struck by the way Phil Mickelson, after winning the Masters, was cast as the contrast case, the nicest guy on earth. Maybe that’s true, but wasn’t this exactly the same mistake we made with Tiger: confusing athletic prowess for human goodness?

It’s so interesting with Tiger, because we knew nothing about him, and we thought we knew everything. He’d been in the public eye since he was 3 years old, he was in front of the camera more than anybody, and there’s something in human nature that makes us think that if we see someone a lot, we can see through them.

And then, like you said, there’s this sense that being good at a sport makes you a good person. That’s been true of athletes going back probably to ancient times, and certainly here in the U.S. going back to Babe Ruth. People wanted to believe certain things about Babe Ruth, which meant not believing other things. You know, he wasn’t drunk; he’d just had too many hot dogs the day before. And all those naked women chasing him in a car with knives didn’t really reflect his true character. When that bubble gets burst, like it did with Tiger for a lot of people, it’s just a real, real shock: “I can’t believe this, this is not the guy I thought he was.” There’s a real refusal to admit that we don’t really know these guys.

In the course of working on the book, I read about a couple of psychologists who studied the so-called “hot hand” in basketball the idea that players who are hot keep hitting baskets and players who are cold keep missing them. No matter how they crunched the stats, it turned out that the phenomenon didn’t exist, but they couldn’t get anyone to believe them. As I recall, they took it to Red Auerbach and Bobby Knight and both of them were like, “Who the hell are you and what do you know about sports?”

That’s a big, big issue in sports, that attitude. There’s an interesting fight going on in baseball about whether clutch hitting exists: whether a player can hit better in the ninth inning when there are two runs on, whether he can be a better player when the game is on the line. And once again, there have been countless studies done on it, and not one of them can find any statistical evidence that any person is capable of lifting his game in such moments.

Yet people continue to believe, and they continue to get angry that anyone would suggest that such a thing doesn’t exist. It’s like, “I know it exists because I’ve seen it.” That’s such a big part of sports. And that’s one of the great things about Bill [James, the inventor of sabermetrics, a statistical method of analyzing baseball] who basically found out that just about everything anybody believes about baseball isn’t true. And because of that a whole lot of people are very, very angry at him.

There’s something pretty touching about people’s desire to believe in clutch hitting. I think part of why people can’t bear to imagine that it doesn’t exist is because it says something to us about the human spirit: that we can be better than our everyday selves, we can rise to the occasion.

Right. You know, there are certain things that just make life more fun. They might be totally wrong, they might be totally untrue, but they make baseball more interesting, they make football more interesting, they make everything more interesting. It’s more fun to believe that the guy got the hit in the ninth inning not because statistically it was his turn but because there was something about him in that moment, some kind of sports courage, that helped him do it. That makes sports a whole lot more fun to watch.

So I really do understand where this kind of superstition and stubbornness comes from. I also think that at a certain point when you’re looking at plain facts and refusing to see them, that’s not very good for you or for the world.

I’m curious about how the people who have to make the calls referees and line judges and so forth deal with being wrong.

Well, being wrong is not part of the fun of sports if you’re an umpire. One of the most famous examples is Don Denkinger, who made the wrong call at first base during the 1985 World Series, which led indirectly to Kansas City beating St. Louis. It’s been 25 years and Denkinger is still loathed in St. Louis. When he first made the bad call, he received death threats, his telephone number was given out on the radio, he had to deal with all sorts of horrible things. Over time that has mellowed, but it is definitely still there. All these years later, people still blame him for the team losing.

I’ve talked with him about how he deals with it, and his initial, reflexive response is, “You’re an umpire and that’s your job. You don’t ever want to be wrong, but you know that sometimes you will be, and you just have live with the consequences.” But I think another part of him is angry about it. Here’s a guy who’s probably been right 12 million times, and yet he’ll always be remembered for the one moment when he was wrong. When you say Don Denkinger, people think “wrong.” That’s literally the first word that comes to their mind. And yet here’s a guy who was an umpire for 30 years and was right much, much more often than he was wrong. It’s really interesting, but it’s also a little bit sad.

That reminds me that I wanted to ask you about instant replays and wrongness. These days the official makes the call and there’s this technology that can tell you whether it was right or wrong.

There’s a lot of famous stories about umpires from the old days who would make the wrong call and the batter would complain and the umpire would say, “It’s a strike because I said it’s a strike.” Back then, the umpire did the best he could and he had the final say. Then instant replay came along and entirely changed the game. Especially professional football, because they use it during the game. It’s changed everything about football how you watch it, how you coach it, how you play it, how you officiate it. In baseball, it’s more of an outside influence, but it clearly shows. Last year during the World Series, the umpires blew several calls and that was one of the big stories of the world series: “Umpires can’t get it right.”

Do you think baseball and other sports are going to go the same direction as football?

The big question in baseball right now is: How much longer are we willing to put up with umpires being wrong? I think there’s a constant struggle for fans to know whether or not instant replay has gotten too involved. It speaks so directly to what you’re writing about, really. There’s a big question of whether human error is and should remain a part of sports.

Where do you come down on it? Is instant replay good for the game or bad?

In some ways it’s made the game better, and in some ways it’s taken some of the humanity out of it. I was against replay in football because I think it changes the entire complexion of the game. But I also understand that when you know the right answer, it’s probably not a legitimate stance to say, “Well, we’re going to continue to go with the mistakes made on the field anyway.” Sports are all about legitimacy the whole steroid issue was “Are we seeing legitimate or illegitimate results?” and as long as people can look at their televisions and say, “Hey, the umpire missed that call,” I don’t think it’s viable to ignore that.

If you had one tip for getting better at predicting sports outcomes, what would it be?

Boy, I wish I knew the answer to that. The one thing I can say is that you have to try to not lose the forest for the trees. I remember going to the Super Bowl in 1995, when the San Diego Chargers were playing the San Francisco 49ers, and it was clear from the start that the 49ers were going to destroy the Chargers. They were a much, much, much better team. But I’m there all week, and as the days go by, you talk to more and more people, and everybody’s telling you, “This game’s going to be a lot closer than you think,” and you’re looking at the Chargers players and they seem very confident, and you’re hearing behind closed doors that they have a little secret something they might use.  And it just builds and builds to the point where Sunday comes and suddenly you’re like, “You know what? I think there’s a surprise in store here.”

And then on the very first play the 49ers hit like a 79-yard touchdown pass and they end up winning 173 to nothing or whatever. You were right the whole time, but you allowed all this information in and you started losing sight of what’s important and what isn’t. I think the more you can stick to the big picture, the better your odds of making a decent prediction.

What have you been most wrong about?

I could give you a long, long list, but here’s one. During the 1996 Masters golf tournament, Greg Norman went into the last day leading by five shots, which is basically an insurmountable lead. So I wrote this whole column about how they shouldn’t even play on Sunday, just roll it up, it’s all over, let’s go home. Then I go out the next day and watch him tee off and his first shot is just terrible, and about three or four holes in I realize that Greg Norman is completely falling apart. By the 11th hole he was out of the lead, there was no chance he was going to win.

I remember thinking, “Boy, what I wrote yesterday is really, really, really wrong.” Everybody said he was going to win. But to write it as glibly as I did to basically tell everybody, “Don’t even watch, just go home” I was a little bit off on that, huh?

You talk about being wrong with such good humor, but when you print the column and the next day it turns out you were totally wrong, do you cringe?

Well, yeah, sure. I mean, I’m not trying to be wrong. Coaches always talk about how winning is never as good as losing is bad, and I think the same is true about being right and wrong. But the thing about making predictions is that you have no control over them at all. Once you make the prediction, it’s over; I’m not out there on the field, I’m not coaching, I’m not playing. So part of me was looking at Greg Norman and thinking “Greg, can you just show up? I mean, you’re up by five shots, for crying out loud, you’re making me look really bad here.”

Do you ever get any grief from your bosses for being wrong?

Well, ha, there is one story, yes. My very first sports columnist job was in Augusta, Ga., and my bosses there came up with this idea that I would pick football games over the weekend and [readers] would write in their own predictions, and if they beat me they would get a T-shirt. They were called the “I Pounded Pos” T-shirts, and they had a picture of me getting booted through a goal post. I said, “I’ll be happy to do this, but you should know, I’m not very good at picking games.” They said, “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

Well, the first week, I think we got, I don’t know, maybe 1,300 or 1,400 people writing in. I had a terrible week, and literally a thousand of them won. So of course the next week we got 5,000 in, because people were realizing it was really easy to get free T-shirts. The publisher of the newspaper, Billy Morris, who I’d never talked to he ran not just our paper but the whole chain I ran into him and he says, “You’re the guy who’s picking those game, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “You might want to start picking better.” That was the most direct response I’ve ever gotten to being wrong.

This was 18, 19 years ago, and to this day I still get letters from people about how they have five “I Pounded Pos” T-shirts in their house. I remember I got a photo from a guy who had clothed his entire family in these shirts. So, you see, you have good luck.  You couldn’t have found someone who’s wrong more often than me.

Well, that’s made it very fun to talk to you. One last question: Whom do you want to hear interviewed about wrongness?

Let’s see, who has really consistently been wrong? You know, Dick Cheney would be a good interview. I’m sure he’d be wide open to talking to you. 

Kathryn Schulz is the author of the forthcoming Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at . You can follow her on Facebook here , and on Twitter here .

This interview is part of a series of Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong.  To read an interview with education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch, click here . To read an interview with criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz, click here .