Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fractured Logic

When I was watching the PBR events in Baltimore and New York, I could feel my blood pressure rising when Ty Murray and J.W. Hart took umbrage with the way Guilherme Marchi picked his bulls in the bull draft, both last year and so far this season. Murray and Hart said in so many words that if Marchi continues to chose bulls he KNEW he could ride and other riders just pick the rankest bulls left, Marchi will be left in the dust by season’s end. I could hardly believe my ears.

When both those guys were airing their opinions, I was reminded of Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field, which is about two LAPD cops who in 1963 were kidnapped, disarmed, and driven out into the high desert up near Bakersfield by a pair of thieves. One robber shot and killed one of the cops, Ian James Campbell, there in the field. The other cop, Karl Hettinger, fled on foot and lived to tell the tale. The prosecution of the two suspects dragged on for years before they finally were convicted and put behind bars for good.

One result of the shootings was that the LAPD circulated a procedural memo to all its cops instructing them never to surrender their weapons under any circumstances. The obvious implication was that there was only one way to deal with armed criminals, and that was by meeting violence with violence, but the more personal implication was that, to some extent, Campbell and Hettinger had deserved what happened to them. “Both the dead man and the survivor were implicitly tried by police edict and found wanting,” Wambaugh observed. “There had to be blame placed. If you let yourself be killed, it had better be by an act of God. And He did not kill by gun. He killed by thunderbolt.”

The parallel I’m seeing here has nothing to do with the specifics of the situations, but rather with the idea that there’s only one right way to do anything, and if somebody succeeds by doing it differently, then clearly that’s a fluke and it’s only a matter of time before the gods of fair play reach down and set things right. At the very least, I think it’s fair to say I sense some chagrin among PBR types because the way the draft was supposed to play out isn’t necessarily the way it’s playing out.

It might seem obvious that the "purpose" of the draft is to help cowboys ride more bulls, but apparently, that's debatable, so what are the possibilities here? I contend that most of them, in the end, run back to the same underlying assumptions, but let’s just upend the bag over the table and see spills out.

1) Riders should use the draft as a “pathway to greatness” "like winning pole position in NASCAR," to paraphrase the divine Ty Murray. First things first: I’ve always thought this comparison was bogus, but I guess there’s no escaping it, so here goes. In NASCAR, the driver runs two timed laps on the track BY HIM/HERSELF—no other cars in sight—and the racer with the fastest time is awarded a spot on the first row, on the inside curve, which may be on the left or the right, depending on what sort of race is being run. In other words, unlike bull riding, a NASCAR driver doesn’t win pole position in head-to-head competition—s/he wins by pushing her/his foot to the floor and hoping the car won’t blow up before s/he crosses the finish line. S/he wins the RACE because of a bunch of factors, the most obvious being avoiding equipment problems, but mainly, s/he wins by racing smart. Lots of racers have won pole position and then lost the race.

Bull riders are competing against the bulls, of course, but in the end, they are competing against one another, and I expect that as in the timed trials for NASCAR, the performances of riders who go earlier in competition affect the ones who come later. But aside from anything else, you just can't compare a bull to a race car--they have minds of their own and they know what they're supposed to do out there, and it's not get the dude across the finish line. Given that element, it’s obvious to me that luck plays a bigger role in who goes first in the bull draft than who wins pole position in a NASCAR race.

But even if we set aside the comparison and consider the rest of the proposition, who could possibly argue that Marchi didn’t use the draft as a path to greatness? He won the world championship, for God's sake. How much greater does the man have to get? Just because he handled the draft differently than some people might have preferred (which to me means he handled it cleverly) doesn’t negate his accomplishment.

2) Riders should use the draft to show us who has the biggest balls.
(Yes, that sentence is ambiguous—it’s intentional.) I’ve heard over and over that “If (fill in the blank) gets to pick first, he’s going to pick (the rankest bull) in the pen.” Do we really want to reduce this sport to pinhead behavior? Do we really want to see guys pick the rankest bull because it’s expected of them? Who’s proving what to whom here? Do you have any idea how much I admired Robson Palermo for saying in Baltimore he was feeling “too fat and lazy” to attempt to ride Bones that night? Listen, if the only reason you’re a bull rider is because you’re worried you might have, er, other inadequacies, please, go catch yourself some bulls out behind your daddy’s barn and ride them where nobody has to witness your machismo posturing. Nobody wants to watch you get killed because your testosterone levels are greater than your common sense.

3) The rider who always picks the rankest bulls SHOULD win all the marbles. Sorry, I’m not buying it. If there’s one thing that we have seen play out over and over this past season, it’s that the draft has made practically no difference in who wins and loses any given event. I admit it’s likely that Marchi owed at least some of his success to the caginess with which he picked the bulls, but frankly I’m not convinced he would not have done nearly as well if the computer had done the picking. The man was on fire last year. If somebody else had chosen for him, Marchi might have ridden a few less, but he had room to ride a few less. When the season ended, he had ridden 74.8 percent of the time on 99 outs. His closest competitor, J.B. Mauney (AKA, “Wonder Boy,” till he falls off and has to punch an innocent gate into submission), rode 59.4 percent on 96 outs. To have passed Marchi, Mauney would have had to stay aboard another 15 bulls. That amounts to ALL the bull rides Mauney could have attempted in four typical events, in which a rider who qualifies for the short-go gets four tries. That's a pretty tall order, but here's the clincher--Mauney got to pick his bulls in the draft, just like Marchi did. Obviously, he didn't pick them as well.

Finally, J.W. Hart’s contention that if Marchi makes the canny pick and Mauney makes the ballsy one, Mauney will be beat Marchi in the end, is clearly based on the wishful thought that the guy with the most guts WILL win, because he DESERVES to win. I take issue with that. I say the guy who deserves to win is the one who does everything he can to help himself win. He eats right, he gets enough sleep, he watches the booze, he hits the gym, he warms up, he takes his doctor’s advice if he’s injured, he keeps his equipment in order, he keeps his life in order, AND he uses every other tool at his disposal, including the draft, to improve his situation. That’s the guy I want to see wearing the buckle next November in Vegas.


Black Boots said...

SQ, I agree with every single word. It's easily one of the most eloquent and well-written posts I've ever read. Guilherme is in this for the long haul and he is working his plan. More power to him!

Stockyard Queen said...

Black Boots, I've been working in the writing field for all my professional life, and yet, it still really humbles me when people say they think something I've done is well written. Thank you!

S. said...

Thank you! That was kind of what I was trying to say in my comment on the last post, only you said it so much better... and my brain functioning was short-circuited by the, "ARGH, no! WHAT?" of it all.

shannon said...

Great blog as always, SQ. Can't say I disagree with anything. I've always wondered why they complain about guys picking "safe" bulls when the draft left it wide open for that sort of thing. It's a business move and it's a smart move. I hope it works for Guilherme again this year.

Stockyard Queen said...

S., I thought about this when I was watching, but had sort of forgotten about it till I saw your comment, so I thank you for jogging my memory.

Shawk said...

If it jogs your memory to write entries such as this, I'll do my best to bring up these things whenever possible. ;)

Stockyard Queen said...

Oh, S., you are so nice! Thank you!