What I don't know ...
Secondary break, straight change, nickel defense, other unknowns in sports
What I know I don't know about sports could fill Talladega Superspeedway
Let's face it, sports have more arcane rules than the United States Senate
Unlike baseball announcers on TV, I can't tell with the naked eye if that last pitch was a splitter, spitter, cutter, four-seamer, two-seamer, backdoor slider, straight change, circle change, scroogie or Eephus, because 40 years of playing, watching and writing about sports has taught me almost nothing about them, including how to pretend to identify pitches in the confident way that announcers do when bluffing their way through on TV.
The philosopher Donald Rumsfeld once said: "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."
What I know I don't know about sports -- the list of Known Unknowns -- could fill Talladega Superspeedway, which holds something like 175,000 people, a single semi-fact that constitutes half my body of knowledge about racing. Auto racing ought to be as simple as autos racing, but the sport manages to mystify those of us confused by our own cars.
Last fall, when the battery in our minivan died, and a man from AAA popped the hood, my oldest daughter said in a tone of wonderment: "I didn't know this end opened too." The AAA guy squeezed the clamps of his jumper cable and looked at me with a mixture of pity and contempt, as if he might use those clamps to remove the man card from my wallet.
Little did he know how little I know about anything, including anything related to sports. I cannot comprehend, for instance, a single thing about luxury taxes, salary caps, franchise tags, mid-level exceptions, amnesty clauses, cap hits or The Kovalchuk Amendment, which sounds like the worst Jason Bourne movie ever but is -- as far as I can tell -- a formal part of the NHL's collective bargaining agreement, another phrase that is almost completely devoid of meaning to me.
Indeed, the entire foregoing paragraph is an unintelligible collection of letters, an eye chart, and shall remain nothing more to me as long as I live. A day bent over a labor-relations glossary would relieve me of this ignorance, and serve me well in the future as a sports fan and writer, but then nobody will ever say on his deathbed, "I wish I'd spent more time learning the difference between the Bird, non-Bird and Early Bird exceptions to the NBA salary structure." (I take that back: I know a couple of people who might say that on their deathbeds, but I try to avoid them at parties.)
Likewise, I am ignorant of all manner of modern baseball statistics, preferring RBIs to DOPDI, or Ducks On a Pond Driven In, or whatever the more meaningful metric is now called.
I don't know how to do all the usual things that people don't know how to do -- apply backspin to a golf ball, topspin to a tennis ball or side spin to a bowling ball, in such a way that makes a hook hit the pocket perfectly. Google "How to roll a strike," by the way, and the autofill assumes you're looking for "How to roll a joint," a bit of modern-technology sacrilege that would have made Square Earl Anthony's crew-cut stand on end, or even more on end than it already was.
I can never remember what a secondary break is in basketball. I can't surf, putt or go to my left. I can't tell a nickel package from a dime package, which handicaps me both when watching NFL games and stumbling upon online tutorials in how to roll a joint.
And while football's defensive schemes have become comically complicated, in direct contravention of the word "scheme" (which suggests a group of campers conspiring to short-sheet their counselors), even basic tactical innovations, in just about every sport, leave me more baffled than enlightened.
True, sports have more arcane rules than the United States Senate, as embodied by the infield fly rule, which isn't -- relatively speaking -- all that difficult to understand. But even those rules aren't as tough to learn as, say, the proper spelling of Jeff Samardzija's surname (I had to look it up just now) or the proper pronunciation of Rajon Rondo's first name (mah-jong is a good mnemonic).
None of this worries me, because what you don't know can't hurt you. Some of the wisest people who ever lived have said as much. On the contrary, ignorance to them was the fountain of all knowledge. Socrates said: "I know nothing, except the fact of my ignorance," and he did OK. Confucius said: "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance."
I know the extent of my sports ignorance -- I know my unknowns -- and by that narrow definition I'm a stone-cold genius.
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