Dr. Strangeglove

On Chase Utley’s Knee and the Origins of Public Panic

I’m sure you’ve all seen this movie before, but go to about 2:35 in this video and watch until 3:45. The important text is below:

You know… You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan.” But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos.

I intend to apply this logic to the effect that Chase Utley‘s knee injury has had on the fan base. You see, what’s bothered me, at least, about Utley’s injury is not that the Phillies will be without the services of Chase Utley, who is fifth all-time in rWAR for the first eight years of a second baseman’s career (the top 4? Jackie Robinson, Eddie Collins, Joe Gordon, and Frankie Frisch, all Hall-of-Famers). Rather, it’s that I don’t know how long he’ll be out. And here’s why.

It was Sir Francis Bacon, the famous English Renaissance philosopher, scientist, and breakfast food enthusiast, who said “Knowledge is power.” Knowledge allows us to make more informed decisions. In political science, individuals and states are often assumed to act as rational, self-interested utility maximizers with incomplete information. What this means is that, given limited knowledge, they can be expected to pursue the most favorable outcome. When they don’t, that failure is often attributed to uncertainty about the environment.

Uncertainty or an information vacuum leads to panic. In the wake of the recent natural disaster in Japan, a lot of fuss was made over here about the potential meltdown of one or more Japanese nuclear power plants, and the world-ending consequences that could ensue. This is the result of an information vacuum by caused by the refusal of the Japanese authorities to discuss a “worst-case scenario,” which they (the Japanese) find so unlikely as to not warrant mention. In reality, there’s almost nothing to worry about, certainly not for people on our side of the Pacific, but in the absence of information, the public groupthink went into a state of paranoid hypochondria.

Philly sports fans are used to having our stars injured. Donovan McNabb’s broken ankle in 2002, or Terrell Owens’ broken leg in 2004 could have incited panic. Or how about Eric Lindros’ seemingly never-ending series of concussions? McNabb and Owens were both slated to come back in a couple months, and in the meantime, lesser players filled the void. Life was not the same, but in neither case did anyone seem to really panic.

Or how about Lindros? It was widely considered that, after a terrible 1999-2000 in which he suffered a collapsed lung, another concussion, and had feuded with management to the point where he was stripped of his captaincy, it was all but certain that Lindros’s time as a Flyer was up: terrible news for the Flyers. But still, no one panicked, Keith Primeau and Daymond Lagkow filled in, and everyone lived.

Not so with Utley. Chase Utley‘s knee is an enigma, a Gordian knot that will keep Utley out of the lineup until some unspecified date between tomorrow and the end of recorded time. I’ve heard “he’ll be back to full strength by Memorial Day” and I’ve also heard “this is the end of Utley as an everyday second baseman.” Most of all, I’ve heard this absolutely idiotic trend of people picking anyone but the Phillies to win the NL East. And I get the feeling that people are only saying this because of the uncertainty that comes without having a date certain for Utley’s return. I mean, the Phillies have four second basemen (Valdez, Martinez, Orr, and Polanco) on their Opening Day roster, and they ought to be able to cobble together something that works.

The point is, if Utley were just “out for 2011,” we’d deal with it, get comfortable with his replacement or replacements, and reevaluate the situation (and our expectations) accordingly. But the Phillies either don’t know the extent of and solution to Utley’s injury, or they know and won’t tell the public. Left with no rational course of action regarding Utley, we, as the Phillies’ fan base, have taken the only course of action left for us: irrational panic.

I hate to keep drawing on movies, but the key to solving any crisis situation is to slow down and gather as much information as possible, then make an informed decision about a course of action. As long as we’re being kept in the dark about Chase Utley‘s knee, that isn’t possible, and we’re left with no choice but to panic.

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