The interview: Malcolm Gladwell

New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell has some interesting takes on baseball, home runs and drug use.

Originally Published: June 4, 2002
By Rob Neyer |

From 1987 to 1996, Malcolm Gladwell worked for The Washington Post, first as a science writer and then as New York City bureau chief. Since 1997, he has been a staff writer for The New Yorker, and it was there that I first read his amazing work. In 2000, Little Brown & Company published Gladwell's first book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. According to Gladwell, The Tipping Point is "a book that presents a new way of understanding why change so often happens as quickly and unexpectedly as it does."

Gladwell is one of my favorite writers because he tends to see the world in a different way than most of us. The following interview was conducted yesterday via e-mail.

Neyer: In the interest of grabbing our audience, let me start with baseball's latest controversy ... You wrote, in a New Yorker article last September, "The basic problem with drug testing is that testers are always one step behind athletes."

Following up on that, I've got a two-part question. One, is there any reason at all to think that Major League Baseball could do anything about steroids, even with the assistance of the Players Association? And two, should Major League Baseball try to do anything? Or should we, as baseball fans, just accept that illegal performance-enhancing drugs are a part of today's game, like personal trainers and videotape and maple bats?

Gladwell: The best example of how impossible it will be for Major League Baseball to crack down on steroids is the fact that baseball and the media are still talking about the problem as "steroids." In fact, my guess is that most players aren't using steroids at all. Like most world-class athletes, they've probably graduated to human growth hormone or straight testosterone, both of which are much harder to detect. (Ever wonder why a certain aging but remarkably successful power hitter can say with such conviction that he's not using steroids? He's not using steroids. He's using something better.)

An aggressive drug-testing program would cut down on certain abuses, but its never going to catch everyone -- or even close to everyone. The drug-user is by definition always one step ahead of the drug-tester, since you can't develop a test for a drug until people start using it.

Does that mean we should give up? Probably. But there are two issues worth considering. The first is -- is it really true that drugs destroy the integrity of the game? Sure, everyone is hitting 40 home runs right now, but I suspect that's because hitters were quicker to pick up on the value of performance-enhancing drugs than pitchers. There's a chance that pitchers will "catch up" and bring the game back into balance. The other idea is to find another way of indirectly punishing drug-users. For example -- and this is a ridiculous idea, I admit, but it would work -- what if there was a roster weight limit? What if a team could not field a team of more than a certain number of pounds?

Neyer:Oooh, I think that's a pretty good idea ... but something tells me Donald Fehr and his clients would have some ... er, issues with that rule.

While we're on the subject of things you've written in The New Yorker, a couple of years ago you wrote an article titled "The Art of Failure" and subtitled "Why some people choke and others panic." Tennis and flying were the two activities examined in some depth, but there was also a quick baseball reference, as you wrote, "The same thing has happened to Chuck Knoblauch, the New York Yankees' second baseman, who inexplicably has had trouble throwing the ball to first base. Under the stress of playing in front of forty thousand fans at Yankee Stadium, Knoblauch finds himself reverting to explicit mode, throwing like a Little Leaguer again."

Could you briefly explain what "explicit mode" means? I think a lot of people still don't understand how a major-league player could go from winning a Gold Glove to losing his ability to make routine throws just two years later.

Gladwell: The basic idea is that all of us have two different ways of "knowing" how to perform a physical task. The first is conscious knowledge. If I ask you how to use a can opener, you can tell me. The second is unconscious knowledge, which is the knowledge that we have that we can't really describe.

For example, if you gave me a picture of blank keyboard and asked me to write in appropriate letters in the right places, I'd have to think really hard before I could do that accurately. My conscious knowledge of a keyboard is pretty weak. But right now I'm typing at perhaps 40 words per minute, and I'm having absolutely no trouble finding the right letter on the keyboard without thinking at all.

That's my unconscious knowledge system at work, and in that mode I'm a great typist. These two systems are quite separate. And on tasks that we are good at -- like typing, in my case, or throwing a baseball in, say, Derek Jeter's case -- our unconscious systems are way better than our conscious system. But sometimes under pressure, we get forced out of unconscious mode. And what are we left with? We're left with painstakingly going over the keyboard, trying to remember what button goes with what letter. This is what choking is. It's when you get jolted out of unconscious mode. You start thinking too much. All those airballs by the Kings in Game 7 with the Lakers were the shots of players who suddenly start to think about where each letter was instead of just instinctively typing. That was Knoblauch's problem too, and the more he worried about his throwing the harder it was to get back into unconscious mode.

Neyer: Some of my long-time readers might suspect me of intellectual dishonesty if I don't call you out on this "choking" thing, because I've written at least a few columns arguing that there's no such thing as a "clutch hitter."

However, I'm not sure that what you're saying and what I've said can't be reconciled. When Knoblauch was having his problems, they usually came on the routine plays; that is, when he had time to think about it. A hitter, on the other hand, really doesn't have time to think about anything at all. In fact, you've written, in yet another article, about the amazingly brief amount of time that a hitter has to react to a pitched ball, and the mechanism that allows him to do that.

Gladwell: I see your point. But I'm not sure I buy all of it. Hitters certainly feel pressure like everyone else, and that pressure can sometimes have the effect of turning what is usually a fluid, unconscious behavior into something mechanical. The difference, i guess, is that when it comes to hitting there's another person -- a pitcher -- involved as well, who may be just as susceptible to choking. So the two may well cancel each other out. Clutch hitting is a separate issue; that is, under pressure do some hitters get better? Here I'm in agreement with you. I don't think they do (or, at least, the improvement is too small to be significant or noticeable). I think that we tend to call clutch hitters simply those who are lucky enough to have a run of hits in memorable situations. Neyer: Now, back to your beginnings (as a baseball fan, at least). We corresponded briefly a couple of years ago, and if memory serves, you grew up in Ontario, and were a fan of both the Blue Jays and the Bill James Baseball Abstracts. But before I ask you about the Jays or James, then, am I recalling correctly?

Gladwell: You are. Although keep in mind that I have turned on baseball, and now loathe the game.

Neyer: Oh, wow. This interview has taken something of a shocking turn ... I have to ask, what happened?

Gladwell: Why do I hate baseball? Because it has become ridiculous. Realistically, at least half of the teams in the majors (if not more) have no chance of ever winning the World Series, except if they are willing to bankrupt themselves for a one- or two-year run.

How is that a sport? In football, any team is within two years of the Super Bowl. In basketball, it is theoretically possible for even the Denver Nuggets to make the NBA finals within the next five years. Revenue sharing and a salary cap are what make professional sports sports. Baseball, by contrast, is not a sport. It's a market, and it follows the rules of the market, where the best capitalized firms -- like, say, Microsoft, or Coca-Cola or the Yankees -- beat up on the corner stores and the guys working out of their garages.

Now, I am not adverse to lost causes. I'm a Buffalo Bills fan, after all. But what is cheering for the Toronto Blue Jays -- who will never again reach the World Series -- if not a simple act of masochism? What, exactly, is supposed to sustain a fan in, say, Kansas City? Minnesota and Montreal used to be great baseball towns. But the fans there were destroyed by the idiocy of a business that puts the interests of its employees (players) ahead of the interests of its customers.

If there is a work stoppage this fall -- as I hope there is -- and if the players come to their senses and we get a cap and revenue sharing, I'll come back to the game. In the meantime I'll spend my time watching the NBA where, I'd like to point out, a team from a minor, regional metropolitan area just gave a team from Los Angeles a run for its money. Imagine that!

Neyer: Again, wow. I'm not quite so pessimistic as you are. But most everyone reading this knows my views on the subject, so let me return to James and the Jays. It's been my experience that a disproportionate number of Ontario baseball fans, especially those who came of age in the late 1970s and early '80s, are more analytical than the typical baseball fan. My theory is that since those fans (like you) didn't have a tradition to fall back on, you were more likely to really think about what you were seeing, rather than just accept the common wisdom. And as for Bill James, I occasionally meet people in various professions who tell me that reading the Baseball Abstract changed not just how they thought about baseball, but how they thought about the world in general.

Either of these have any resonance with you?

Gladwell: I think you are right. If you grow up with a team that has Joey McLaughlin as its closer, and Garth Iorg at third, you quickly develop alternate appreciations for the game.

As for James, his effect was incalculable. He said that all propositions about baseball could be -- and ought to be -- empirically tested, which was a revelation, because as a young fan you think that sports is just a matter of opinion and lore. Bill James did something else, which I've never forgotten and which has influenced my writing ever since. He mastered the tangent. He would go off on some seemingly unrelated topic (usually about Amos Otis), which only much later would turn out to be totally on point. I try to do that as well, only I'm not nearly as good at making it all turn out later to be totally on point.

Neyer: One last thing ... Since The Tipping Point was published two years ago -- and I believe it hit the best-seller lists -- you've probably seen or heard about people applying the ideas in your book to hundreds of different subjects.

For example, shortly after I read The Tipping Point, I wrote a column in which I theorized that all the attention paid to McGwire and Sosa in 1998 was something of a tipping point for home runs. In each of the three seasons from 1996 through 1998, National League batters hit approximately one home run every 35 at-bats. From 1999 through 2001 -- in the aftermath of that home-run battle that made headlines every day for two months -- National Leaguers hit a home run ever 30 at-bats. So I wondered if McGwire and Sosa hadn't touched off something of a home-run epidemic. Was I trying too hard? (You can be brutal.)

Gladwell: The home-run tipping-point notion is really quite fascinating. One of the things that always interests me in sports is how extraordinarily sensitive athletic performance is to social expectations. My favorite example is the four-minute mile. For years, no one even comes close. Then Roger Bannister breaks the record in 1954, and suddenly, everyone can break four minutes. Did runners get "better" in 1954? Not really. They simply became aware that running four minutes was possible. Same thing with baseball players and the Dominican Republic. Dominicans are not "better" infielders than everyone else. But if you are a nine-year-old kid playing in San Pedro de Macoris, you know that it's possible to be a major leaguer, in a way that the same kid growing up in Maine does not. When symbolic barriers are broken -- the first man from the Dominican Republic to make the majors, the first person to break four minutes -- the context in which we think of achievement changes dramatically.

That's what I think happened after Sosa and McGwire. Hitting lots and lots of home runs became conceivable in a way that it wasn't before. Incidentally, that's why Bonds should never be considered the equal of McGwire or Sosa, because the truly heroic and difficult achievement is to have been the first of your generation to break through a particular mental and physical barrier. Bonds, to me, is John Landy, the Australian who was the second to break the four-minute barrier.

The second element in this, of course, is performance-enhancing drugs. Clearly part of what makes, say, 60 or 65 home runs "possible" is the fact that big hitters are now clearly doping up. But that, too, is part of the tipping point. I'm quite sure that McGwire -- and his admitted use of a steroid analog -- is one of the big reasons for the surge in the use of performance-enhancing drugs. He made drug use legitimate, and when he admitted he was using, no one seemed to care. In that sense, he may be the most influential baseball player of his generation.