Sages say it's not the destination that matters but the voyage. When we get to where we're going, we often wonder why we bothered, yet the weeks at sea were full of adventures—storms and pirates and breaching whales, not to mention the hours spent on deck leaning into the wind and brooding.
I'm not sure if Neil Tesser had a destination in mind back in 1981 when he created the now-hallowed Golden BAT award, which measures the accuracy of the prior year's baseball predictions; but if he did, we might have reached it. Tesser, my predecessor as the Reader's media columnist, was a Bob Gibson of a critic, never unwilling to throw high heat at the opposing batter's noggin. Tesser cast a cold eye on the annual spring ritual in which Chicago sportswriters presumed to forecast the upcoming pennant races. His hunch was that they brought no more genuine expertise to the task than gerbils would have, and he decided to find out. Hence the BAT—for Baseball Acumen Test—in which, as each new season got underway, Tesser held the scriveners to account for the previous season's dismal but promptly forgotten forays into seermanship.
A few years in, I took over Tesser's role. I like to think there was a shift in tone, a more generous regard for the fallibility of the human condition ("Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made," said Kant). What came to matter wasn't so much that most predictions were pretty awful, just as Tesser expected them to be, but that occasionally one was pretty good. More important was the heart-wrenching delight of (some) winning sportswriters. Aside from the occasional towel flick or noogie from a locker room Adonis, what other recognition did their line of work have to offer? On my watch, derision retreated; compassion had the upper hand.
And so the years passed of genial ridicule and marginal tribute. The BAT and spring—one became unimaginable without the other. But last spring, without a word of warning, the Sun-Times dropped out of the competition! Its sportswriters made no predictions! This year they did the same.
I asked sports editor Chris De Luca why. "We got crunched for space when we stopped doing special sections," he explained.
We all recognize the power of austerity to veto ancient traditions. What startled me were the views of Sun-Times sportswriters when I asked them to comment. I wondered if Rick Telander had regrets. "Not really," he said, "because by the time the season ends, I have totally forgotten who I picked and why, or why not. Plus, in your wrap-up, you reward the winner (not me) and humiliate the others (me)."
Said Rick Morrissey: "My only problem with predictions is one of perception. I don't mind being wrong. I'm wrong a lot. But it's silly to think that because sportswriters are 'experts' they should be right about who is going to win the World Series or the Super Bowl or even a Bears-Packers game. We're guessing just like everybody else is. We're paid to be 'experts' on writing, reporting and clear thinking. Predictions are fun but without a whole lot of substance."
Even multiple BAT winner Toni Ginnetti was dry-eyed: "I've never liked the practice of 'predictions' to be honest. Too many things happen in a season—from injuries to surprise rookies to trades—that can make you look like a fool as much as an 'expert.'"
In other words, instead of shaking a fist in fury at the loss of a rite of spring, the Sun-Times's finest say good riddance. Their departure brings us back to Tesser's original premise. Perhaps sportswriters have finally wised up and now recognize those predictions to be just as silly as Tesser always said they were. But it's also possible that they always thought that, and it is our eyes that have opened at last to the obvious.
I don't know whether to cheer or mourn the Sun-Times's dropping out. I told Ginnetti I'll miss our chats every time I called to give her the good news that she'd won again. But the BAT was created to ridicule something out of existence, and if our work is done, it's done. Some sleepless nights lie ahead as BAT headquarters tries to figure out whether to proceed. Perhaps a long sea voyage would help sort things out.
True enough, the Tribune continues to play the game. And this year's winner is its White Sox beat reporter, Mark Gonzales, who correctly predicted the 2012 Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds would win their respective Central divisions, and that the Yankees would prevail in the AL East and Giants in the NL West. What's more, Gonzales accurately foresaw that the Texas Rangers, AL pennant winners the previous two seasons, would return to the playoffs in 2012, but only as a wild card team.
"I did?" said Gonzales when I got him on the phone and told him of his triumph. He laughed. "Oh, boy!" This reaction showed a little less humble awe than I would have liked. (This year there's no Whiffle BAT, or booby prize. The field was tightly packed behind Gonzales, and no one embarrassed himself so egregiously that he needs to be named.)
I asked for his thoughts on the tradition of making predictions. "It's really great fodder for people who are really into it," he said circularly. He told me he gets into it about two weeks before spring training ends, when he's seen enough of the teams to make educated guesses.
Did I want his 2013 picks?
"Detroit and Cincinnati in the World Series," Gonzales said, cutting to the chase, "with the Big Red Machine winning."
What about the Cubs and White Sox?
"I didn't pick either home team to win their division."
What about wild cards?
Hometown chauvinism has laid low many a BAT contender over the years. I expect Gonzales's cold heart to make him a contender again next year. If there is a next year.