On “The Fallacy of the Predetermined Outcome”

Mortimer Shy’s LETTER to Michael Kay, YES TV sportscaster for the NY Yankees  (September 25th, 2005)

Dear Michael Kay:
Several times this season I have heard you use the phrase, referring to the concept of “The Fallacy of the Predetermined Outcome.” I applaud this kind of elevated sports talk, citing a thought process known to every baseball fan, which, as applied to specific occasions, can be comical but also painful. In one game you employ this in consideration of a bungled double play from A-Rod that could, or should have, ended the game, but instead prolonged it for the Red Sox to win. Today, in a less dramatic case, you just opined a little mockingly, “depending on whether you believe in the fallacy of the predetermined outcome.”

I wonder if you could tell me when this “fallacy” became a part of sports lingo, for you to refer to it so naturally. And anything else you can tell me of its history, and/or possible future fantastic applications. Anticipating your reply, I am unable to stop my own reflections on this important subject, the more spurious the better as I see it. Particulary now as the season is near ending, and speculations are running wild as to who is the truly destined World Champion. Ah yes, even the word “destiny” contains the notion of a predermined outcome; for thought just cannot escape trying to calculate.

Then again, predictions, and their handmaiden, statistics, are at war with the very fiber of sports, which are rooted in skill and the ability to deal with chance. And yet they are the most compelling format for commentary, invoking fate and just rewards for ones skills. Am I being philosophical? Yes, of course. Do I swaddle myself in extraneous reflections? Of course! It isn’t easy being a sports fan; far from it! I mean, it isn’t simple, but it is complicated watching a baseball game. Being a sports fan can be excruciating. And now hilarity, and the lowest point of futility, are fused in a concept which you as a Yankee sportscaster, no slouch in intellectual cogitation, are therefore rightly heard to label: “The Fallacy of the Predetermined Outcome”.

“And that sac fly would have been the third out, if you believe in the fallacy of the predetermined outcome,“ says Yankee announcer Michael Kay. And this one: “That could be one of the more glaringly wrong calls you’ll ever see. The first baseman just swiped at the runner as he went by. And also, it was the first play of the game, so we aren’t thinking about predetermined outcomes quite yet.”

Very useful to have this in your arsenal! It is the ninth inning, Yankees ahead 3 to 2, bases loaded, one out. A ball is hit sharply to A-Rod at third base, which could have been a double play–but he bobbles it, fails to make any play and a run scores to tie the game. The next batter dribbles a ball for an infield out to first base, and another run scores. Now with two outs, they take the pitcher out, and the broadcasters have a chance to reflect. “Well of course this is the fallacy of the predetermined outcome, but one can only think: if A-Rod had made that play, things would be quite different.” Ah so it is, and so the Red Sox go on to score more runs and win the game. But another game in the imagination will always insist on running on a different track . . .

Like Zeno’s Paradox, this new Fallacy of the Predetermined Outcome ranks as a bonfide, psychological reality. With only the delayed instruction given to the mind, that you can’t just alter one fact in a series and then resume a desired outcome anyway. Because that is to indulge, indeed, in an imaginary scheme, enticing, inevitable. but . . . wrong!

If Alex Rodrigous makes the play, the game really is over. But he doesn’t; there is no game in which he does! To make a dramatic analogy (and why not?), trying to revise the past for a different outcome is like saying that if it weren’t for Thomas Edison, we’d all be sitting around in the dark, since the light bulb would never have been invented. You can’t just extract events from history (or a baseball game) by removing their most obvious consequences, and leaving everything else as it is.

On the other hand, you can try . . . for the sport of it.  Have a Nice Day!                                                       Mortimer Shy

5 Comments on “On “The Fallacy of the Predetermined Outcome””

  1. Phillip Says:

    I actually think that A-rod’s blown double play is not an example of the fallacy of the predetermined outcome (FPO). The FPO happens when one thinks about an isolated consequence a particular play (usually a change in score, or some other important statistic, like the number of fouls or outs), and then imagines that the game unfolds in exactly the same way, except for that isolated consequence, in the alternate reality in which the particular event happened differently. So we have commentators saying things like “and that missed free throw in the second quarter is going to be the difference in this game.” But in this case, the game actually would have ended on A-rod’s play; there’s no question of what happened after that.

  2. I see your point. Though I am confused; why isn’t the game ending something happening? The commentators say: “if A Rod had made that play things would be quite different.” There is clearly a fallacy in imagining a different future, by (simply) changing an event in the very recent past; because if that past event was different EVERYTHING would be different from that point on. This is where I try to raise this sports commentators Theory to a philosophical level. And this is what I think is at the bottom of all Fallacies of Predetermined Outcomes. The A-Rod case may be different in that it changes the outcome immediately and finally, but perhaps it still falls into the general category. In all cases the spectators are attempting to argue that “things would have been different, if only . . .”

  3. Phillip Says:

    I suppose it is the FPO if they start incorporating other events from the current reality into their speculations about how things would be different in the alternate reality…I can imagine that they probably did this. But just saying the game would have ended had he made the play is, to me, a simple statement of fact.

  4. Dave Carlson Says:

    The example I think of is when Pedro was kept in the game too long, therefore the Red Sox lost. This without thinking about who in the bullpen would have been able to not get hit off of.

  5. foobar Says:

    Sorry Dave, no that’s not a good example…pretty irrelevant in fact.
    A classic example would be: say Jeter at first, A-Rod at bat.
    Jeter attempts to steal, gets thrown out.
    Next pitch, A-Rod hits a home-run.
    Then some announcer goes…”awww, if Jeter hadn’t ran, that would’ve been a two-run homer.”

    NO it’s not…for all we know, if Jeter hadn’t run, A-rod might’ve hit into a double-play.
    The pitch selection would’ve been different, heck the time of day would’ve been different, the hairs on A-rod’s forearm would’ve been millimeters off…that’s enough to cause a diff outcome per chaos theory, esp in a game of inches.

    THAT would be “The Fallacy of the Predetermined Outcome”.

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