Setting the Bar High or Low
(The Problem with Expectations)
Back in late February and the month of March, if you were a New York Yankees fan, you were all in on watching the new “Baby Bombers” develop during the 2017 season. There was no talk of playoffs, much less the World Series, and there was a certain level of excitement at the prospect of watching players like Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Luis Severino as they made their way through a full year campaign in “The Show.” The bar, then, was set pretty low for this (Yankee) team and if they had better than a .500 season the fans seemed okay with that.
Then April and May happened. Suddenly these “prospects” had a 21-9 record and were sitting in first place. Aaron Judge, a bust in last fall’s call-up (42 strike outs in 84 at-bats) was bashing baseballs out of sight, Aaron Hicks was hitting over .300 along with teammates Didi Gregorius, Starlin Castro, and Chase Headley! Free agent acquisition Matt Holiday was crushing homers and driving in runs and the pitching staff was overachieving at an unparalled rate. Suddenly, the bar shifted. Fans were buzzing. “Playoffs” and “World Series” were heard all over New York (as the poor Mets fans, with bragging rights as World Series & Playoff contenders in each of the last two seasons, watched injuries decimate their squad). Yankee fans became Yankee fans again --- confident, arrogant, loud, and looking forward to October.
The month of June has brought the Yankees, and their fans, back to earth. Injuries, regression to the mean (Chase Headley, Chris Carter, Tyler Clippard), and a tough American League Eastern Division, as well as a brutal West Coast road trip (in which the team won one game and then lost six straight) should bring the bar back to those February/March expectations level (but probably won’t, given the nature of Yankees fans & their pre-existing condition of expecting October baseball). The point is, the bar is ephemeral --- we set it, and then re-set it, and then set it again. It reflects what our thoughts are at a certain point in time --- but it may shift at any given moment.
It is very difficult, however, to lower the bar once you have raised it. Going in the other direction, less so. In the Mets case, the bar was high but it fell quickly as arms fell off one pitcher after another. Now that the bar is lower, Mets fans will ride out the season and accept wherever their team finishes this year, pinning their hopes on people recovering in the off season and Sandy Alderson pulling some magic out of his General Manager hat. Not so with the Yankees. Now that they’ve made it to first place (and Gary Sanchez is healthy and hitting) any backsliding from this point on will be painful and even disappointing to the fans. Forget that Tanaka seems lost in space and C.C is out with a bad hamstring. Forget that Greg Bird looks like the second coming of Nick Johnson or Kevin Maas. Judge has 24 homers and Sanchez 12. Hicks, Didi, and Castro are still hitting over .300 and Severino, Montgomery, and Pineda look like major league starters --- so who’s to say these young Yanks won’t be playing ball in October? The bar is high again and they’ll have to live with it.
We “set the bar“ in politics, too, of course, and the 2016 election certainly reflected the Law of the Bar in action. Hillary Clinton’s bar was high from the start (she was expected to win, after all) and with each successive notch her bar sunk (Benghazi, e-mails, “deplorables,” etc.) it became harder and harder to regain the prominence she needed to win the election. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has benefitted from the lowest bar imaginable from the moment he descended on his golden escalator. I would contend a large part of Trump’s success has been his genius at consistently setting his bar lower and lower! As a result, there is almost nothing he can do --- particularly in the eyes of his “base” --- which will diminish expectations for his actions. If we expect less than nothing from someone, we’ll never be disappointed, right?
So, as long as Trump continues to hold campaign style rallies repeating blatant lies and falsehoods, his bar remains as low as possible. It is the ultimate Catch-22: as long as he can continue to set his bar lower and lower, the more successful he appears to his followers. It is a fascinating twist on “business as usual” politics and how we formerly created expectations for success/failure. In 1783, as the last British troops departed from New York harbor, the Royal military band played a popular tune entitled, “The World Turned Upside Down.” We may want to look for that sheet music as we move ahead in 2017-18, watching the bar sink lower and lower.