the deepest cut


A quick fact pattern:

  1. 43 kids try out for an Orlando-area high-school varsity baseball team;
  2. 20 kids make the team;
  3. of those, 18 (90%) are juniors or seniors; so,
  4. why did ABC News do a national feature story on a sophomore who got cut?

The answer is because that player, Anthony Burruto, is a bilateral amputee (AK/BK).

The coach’s decision to cut Anthony has led to a predominantly one-sided narrative that goes something like this: Anthony has a good fastball, has competed successfully in baseball in the past, and therefore, hasn’t been given a fair shake by his coach, Mike Bradley. (The stories state that Bradley based his decision on the fact that Anthony cannot field bunts effectively. While I haven’t seen any direct quotes from Bradley on the subject in any media, I haven’t seen Bradley or anyone from the school – which has released a statement – disavow the comment, so I’m going to operate under the assumption that it’s close to the truth.)

George Diaz, the writer from the Orlando Sentinal who was one of the first people to report on the story (click here to read), set the tone:

“In cutting Anthony, Bradley whiffed on the big picture: Despite whatever limitations you want to place on him, Anthony is the consummate teammate.”

George Diaz has been writing for the Orlando Sentinal for more than 20 years. He has been on the Sentinal Editorial Board since 2006. But his analysis makes no sense.

I submit, as a person living with limb loss, that Anthony doesn’t deserve to be on the Dr. Phillips High School varsity club just because he’s the “consummate teammate,” whatever the hell that is. It appears that Diaz uses “consummate teammate” as a euphemism for “inspirational totem,” as highlighted by the next sentence in his article:

“If somebody is slacking off, all Bradley needed to do was point at Anthony and say, ‘What’s your problem?'”

In other words, Anthony’s value to the varsity team rests on the fact that he wears prosthetic legs: look at that kid, the disabled kid, the amputee. He’s not complaining and he’s missing body parts, so stop your whining (you able-bodied pansy). Diaz is in fact arguing that Bradley should select Anthony precisely because he’s disabled, not because he deserves to be on the team! Unless Florida has expanded high school rosters to include a 10th position called “Object Lesson,” this argument is at best baseless, and at worst, unintentionally insulting.

While Diaz has covered the Olympics, Super Bowls, and numerous other events of national/international magnitude, he has lost the forest for the trees here. The story isn’t whether the coach made the right decision to cut Anthony when Anthony’s some kind of role model because of his disability. The story is whether Coach Bradley’s purported basis for cutting Anthony – that he won’t be able to field bunts and opponents will exploit that to their advantage – makes sense.

Here’s Diaz’s analysis of The Bunting Theorem:

“But that’s never been an issue before. The kid can play. Little League, fall team at Dr. Phillips, up through the natural progressions. He’s been on the cover of ESPN the Magazine. He can throw a fastball around 80 mph. He’s got a wicked curve.”

Let’s break this logic down into its component parts.

1. that’s never been an issue before.

This could be relabeled the “Head in the Sand” rationale. As long as nothing changes, nothing will change. The non-existence of a past event means that it won’t happen. (I refer Mr. Diaz to Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan, both by Nasim Nicholas Taleb, for an erudite and compelling refutation of this argument.)

But put simply, the fact that blindness hasn’t been a problem for me in the first 41 years of my life doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future. Similarly, the fact that coaches in the past failed to employ a certain strategy when facing Anthony doesn’t mean that they won’t in the late innings of a tie game at the varsity level. We really just don’t know.

Diaz paints this as an almost absurd possibility: “how cheesy would it be for any team to try to take advantage of a kid battling out there like Anthony? Would a coach be so obsessed with winning that he would order every player to bunt?”

To paraphrase a former vice-presidential candidate: Mr. Diaz, I have played high school and college baseball; I have coached youth baseball. Mr. Diaz, you are no baseball.

Wait. Well, when I started that paragraph it seemed like it would work much better. But don’t let my inability to analogize effectively mask the underlying truth: based on my extensive experience in something less than the baseball hotbed that is/was Massachusetts and Long Island, the answer is “yes, absolutely,” someone will try and take advantage of this. And while we can debate the “cheesiness” of that strategy – as well as the decision of a seasoned sports reporter to use the word, “cheesy” in a real newspaper – the reality is that even in, yes, high school baseball, many coaches and teams will exploit perceived weaknesses on the other team in an effort to win.

Now, it wouldn’t happen the way that Diaz posits – no coach would tell all 9 of his hitters to try and bunt their way on base. The much more likely scenario is that in a key spot in the game, either at the coach’s suggestion or (gasp) at a player’s own discretion, the opposing team would try and force Anthony off the mound to field a bunt because it thought it might increase its chances of winning by doing so.

Let’s frame the issue differently: should you bunt when a good pitcher has an injury that doesn’t prevent him from pitching, but that significantly limits his mobility? Virtually everyone in the United States who understands anything about baseball would answer that question affirmatively, whether we were talking about high school, college, or the major leagues.

Anyone who’s even a casual baseball fan should remember this being an issue in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS. This is now commonly referred to as the “Curt Schilling Bloody Sock Game.” For reasons that Yankee fans still cannot divine and that Red Sox Nation will forever be thankful for, the Yankees refused to try and bunt the injured Schilling to death, allowing him to thrive for 6+ innings. This led to the Red Sox’s first World Series since 1918 and prevented me from having to deal with Yankees fans talking smack to me for about 36 months. That may have been the most glorious three-year period of my life.

But back to the issue at hand, the question in that game wasn’t, “Is it appropriate?” It was, “Will they do it?” And as the game progressed and Schilling continued to stymie the Yanks, it became, “Why aren’t they doing it?”

2. the kid can play. Yes. He can. So can 23 other kids who got cut from the Dr. Phillips varsity baseball team. This, without more, isn’t the most compelling analysis of why a player should be kept on a team.

3. he’s been on the cover of ESPN the Magazine. That qualifies Anthony to make the team about as much as my once appearing on CNN entitles me to ride shotgun with Anderson Cooper and report the news.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s awesome that Anthony was on the cover of that publication. In fact, that’s one of the few issues of ESPN the Magazine that I’ve ever read, and I did so because of him. (Though I think calling it a magazine is a stretch.)

4. he can throw a fastball around 80 mph. He’s got a wicked curve. This is the only thing that remotely approaches real analysis in Diaz’s article. I have no idea whether it’s actually true or not, but I’ll assume it is. (I somehow doubt, though, that Diaz was down at the field with a radar gun. But hey, anything’s possible.) What’s not discussed, and what is ultimately much more important, is whether the other pitchers on the team also throw around 80 and have a solid second pitch.

the real issues

It’s easy to create a compelling story around the dashed dreams of a brave, disabled athlete, wronged by an insensitive coach. But this begs the more relevant (and less sexy) story: what, if anything, did Coach Bradley see in the 1-2 days of baseball tryouts that supported his decision to cut Anthony? And before you can answer that question, another one pops up that deserves consideration: is 1-2 days enough time to evaluate anyone, much less 43 kids?

Taking these in reverse order, it appears that Coach Bradley gave himself only 24-48 hours to winnow his roster from 43 to 20 players. This approach doesn’t allow for the most refined view of the players vying for spots. Now perhaps there are good reasons for this. Maybe all of these kids participated in an off-season training program together (as many varsity teams now do) and Bradley, while not running those, saw them. Maybe Bradley had coached all these kids before in a fall league. I don’t know if that’s the case.

But I do know that every spring when I was in high school and in college, tryouts typically lasted no less than a week, and often 2. Would my coaches would have made their player decisions any differently after this longer time period than they would have if it was only 48 hours? According to Malcolm Gladwell (Blink), no. But a 1-2 day tryout opened Bradley up to the charge that he made the decision based on the grossest data (i.e., the obvious fact that Anthony wore prosthetics), as opposed to more detailed analysis (i.e., a full week’s worth of watching pitchers back up home plate and third base, cover first base, and field bunts.)

That then leads to the second question: how much data could Coach Bradley have accumulated to make his decision in 24-48 hours? During those brief tryouts, did he stand around and put the pitchers through drills where they covered first base? Backed up first and third? Fielded bunts? I don’t know the answer to those questions, so I’m not going to hazard a guess. (I will opine, however, that if you had only 24-48 hours to evaluate who was going to pitch for your team, you’d spend more time evaluating their ability to actually throw the ball to a catcher than you would whether they could field like Greg Maddux.)

Instead, I’m going to lay out the following facts, which don’t appear to be in dispute:

  1. Coach Bradley was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 1998. This does not make him a great coach, but it does suggest that he’s not exactly a baseball neophyte. This conclusion is bolstered by the fact that he was an assistant coach at two other high schools and then at Dr. Phillips High School before becoming head coach there.
  2. Bradley graduated from Dr. Phillips High School himself, suggesting that his fear that other teams might try to exploit the fact that Anthony wears prosthetics by bunting is based on something other than pure speculation. While a review of Dr. Phillips High’s website doesn’t paint a picture of the school as a historical baseball powerhouse, the fact is that multiple players have been drafted by major league teams, and the school has produced talents like Johnny Damon and A.J. Pierzynski. If DPHS is a middling baseball school but producing players of major-league caliber, the top schools in the league have to be pretty damn good (read, highly competitive).
  3. Bradley was on the coaching staff of a national youth team that won the Bronze Medal at the 2010 Pan Am games. My basic assumption is the national team head coach didn’t select someone he thought would provide no value whatsoever when choosing his assistant coaches.
  4. Only 2 sophomores survived the cut. Ninety percent of the DPHS team consists of juniors and seniors. The evidence therefore demonstrates that Bradley didn’t discriminate against a disabled kid. He discriminated against underclassmen. And in the meritocracy that is sports, that’s normal. High school juniors and seniors tend to be better players than their younger brethren (i.e., faster, stronger). In the absence of a junior varsity team, freshmen and sophomores have to be unusually talented to claw their way onto a roster. And while Anthony has talent, it’s not at all clear from what I’ve read/seen that he’s in the top 10 percent of underclassmen players.
  5. One of Coach Bradley’s listed hobbies (on the DPHS athletic department website) is watching Ohio State University Football. While this has nothing to do with the issues at hand, it does suggest that he’s not free on most Saturday afternoons in the fall.

So where does all of this leave us? Did Anthony get screwed? Is Coach Bradley a villain? Will Ohio State be BCS bound next season? These questions, the ones that Diaz and ABC News focused on – well, at least the first two – sacrifice discussion of the hard issues for the sensational.

The more relevant, interesting, and appropriate question is this: what standards should we apply to an athlete wearing prosthetics who competes in the able-bodied arena? And I believe that if you asked the top amputee athletes in the world this question, they would answer as follows: treat me like every other athlete. (That is not guesswork on my part; I base it on numerous conversations I’ve had with some of the finest prosthetic-wearing athletes in the world.)

If prosthetics are, finally, allowing people with LL/D to compete against able-bodied individuals, don’t we want the standard to be “evaluate us on what we can do, not on what we look like as we do it?” If that’s the right yardstick – and I think it is – then based upon the currently-available information, it seems that Coach Bradley did just that. He left a high school sophomore off the squad because, despite his ability to throw a baseball, he didn’t have the same ability to do other things required of a pitcher that other kids – almost all older than the sophomore, by the way – could do as well or better.

Unless Bradley cut Anthony simply because he wears prosthetics – and there’s not one shred of reliable evidence that that’s the case in any of the articles I’ve seen on the subject – he did exactly what I would expect a coach to do: he cut an underclassman who has talent . . . just not enough to play varsity ball this year. And Bradley chose the harder path. He could have given Anthony a slot and received praise and press for taking on this “inspirational,” “remarkable,” and “heroic” youngster onto the team.

Anthony’s mother says, “[Bradley’s] not looking at [Anthony] like he’s an athlete[.] He was looking at him like he’s a disabled person.” But based on the currently available information, I think she has it backwards.

If Bradley had done what she claims he did, Anthony Burruto would be wearing the sky blue DPHS Panther uniform today. But he’s not, and that may actually be progress.

———————

Notes:

1. In the interest of full disclosure, I know Anthony and his parents. I met and spoke with them many times between 2002 and 2006. Anthony is a fantastic kid and a remarkable athlete. Even as a youngster, baseball was his primary passion. I have nothing but respect for what he has achieved and always enjoyed it when we spoke, even though he was a Yankees fan. I also enjoyed talking with his supportive and loyal parents, even though they too were Yankees fans.

2. As I was fact checking this piece before posting it this morning, I came across an article by Mike Thomas, also of the Orlando Sentinel, which took issue with Diaz’s article for many of the same philosophical reasons that I did. My post was written before I stumbled upon Thomas’s piece, but for those interested in reading his thoughts directly, you can do so here.

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