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Presents Above Replacement

We have all heard the story, immortalized in song, of how Santa Claus tabbed Rudolph as his Christmas Eve starter (or was it pinch runner?) and saved Christmas. But who has heard of the tense disagreements between Santa Claus and his General Manager-elf, Buddy Beane (certainly not to be played by Brad Pitt in any forthcoming movie)? Why was Rudolph even on the roster? I've been in contact with Buddy Beane (now retired) and allowed him to tell the story of that Christmas season in his own words.

Flossie awaits introduction prior to her induction into the reindeer Hall of Fame
Flossie awaits introduction prior to her induction into the reindeer Hall of Fame
Clive Mason/Getty Images

It was a strange Christmas season. I was new on the job, just hired to be Santa's GM, and payroll was down. It was the Great Depression, after all, and even the big guy in the red suit had to have some cutbacks. Reindeer payroll was the biggest concern. After all, elf pay had been cut about as far as it could without hindering productivity. To make matters worse, Flossie and Glossie had retired after the previous season, Pacer got injured during fall training and had to have surgery that would keep him out the whole season, and Thrasher tested positive for PEDs. This upstart team led by some fellow named Walt Disney signed away two more reindeer for way more than we could offer. So we were down six starters, with only Donner and Blitzen coming back, and they were questionable at best.

I'd been working in the accounting department before becoming the GM, and I'd tried to devise some new methods of reindeer evaluation. The big guy mostly cared about speed, power, and sense of direction, which were all important things, but I knew something was missing. By analyzing the last one-hundred forty-seven reindeer teams, and how efficient they were at delivering gifts I realized that more important skills were good takeoffs and landings and ability to pull in tandem. I looked at what I called the "replacement level" teams, which had managed to get every good boy and girl one small gift, and from that derived the "Presents Above Replacement" metric. And that worried me. While Santa was pleased with Donner and Blitzen and wanted to keep them on the team, according to my metrics they had been worth a combined -0.2 PAR the year before, and if they didn't improve their teamwork, that could go downhill. They were great in individual drills, but as part of a team of nine? Just didn't cut it, and I wanted to cut them. Well, the big guy wouldn't have it. Didn't want to go into the Christmas season with eight new starting reindeer.

After some pretty tense meetings in mid-September, we reached a compromise. Donner and Blitzen would be assured of a spot, and Santa would let me pick most of the other reindeer, with him having the right to veto, of course, as driver/manager. (In retrospect, no one should ever agree to be general manager on a team where the owner is also the manager, but I was young and stupid.)

We had 20 Fall Training invites that September, and I don't have to tell you who made the team. Some of them were Santa's picks, like Dasher, chosen because he had great speed. Unfortunately, he was terrible at harnessing his speed and tended to throw the whole team off. Steamer projected him at -0.5 PAR based off of his career in Reindeer Games in the Lapland Athletic Conference, which is kind of the reindeer equivalent of the SEC in football. His speed was so great Santa insisted he be on the team. But I insisted he be paired with Dancer, who didn't have nearly the speed, but was able to work well with just about anyone. Steamer projected 1.2 PAR for Dancer, so at least we were making some progress.

There were all sorts of rumors about why I insisted that Vixen be on the team, but the real reason was pretty simple: the smoothest take-offs and landings of anyone. Positioned close to the sleigh, Vixen could be the difference between some broken presents and a Merry Christmas to all. It's always hard to analyze defense, though, and most people weren't sold on Vixen being better than Holly. Holly looked better across the board than Vixen, but I sold Santa on starting Vixen instead because Holly would be capable of filling in at any position, making her a more valuable reserve.

But the biggest disagreement Santa and I had was over who should be lead reindeer. The lead reindeer, as most of you know, doesn't have to be the biggest or strongest, although if he can pull a good load that's a good thing. But he does have to have a superior sense of direction. That's where Santa and I agreed. I also knew, from my analysis, that the lead reindeer also had to have the lightest feet for the best takeoffs and landings of any one them. You also need one starter and one reserve, as it's the most important position on a team. Santa had thought that Holly and Ivy would be one of the starting pairs, but Holly was more capable of everything, and Ivy had everything that a lead reindeer needed. So a few days before the final roster was to be announced (on November 15th) we agreed that Ivy would be the starting lead reindeer.

Our big disagreement was over the reserve. Lead reindeer do occasionally find themselves sick or injured, after all. One memorable year, a lead reindeer named Robin went AWOL and was found partying down in Oslo, thinking Christmas had already happened. So it was an important job, and there were two main candidates for it. You likely have heard of both of them, as the one we passed on went on to a lucrative career with Walt Disney.

It was down to Sven and Rudolph. Santa, of course, preferred Sven, who was much stronger (he could pull quite a heavy load by himself) and faster. His sense of direction was sometimes lacking, though, and he had a tendency to get distracted by ice. He also carried on conversations with some imaginary friend of his. Rudolph wasn't strong or fast, but had a keen sense of direction, and was very efficient on take off and landing. With Sven, you weren't sure whether he'd land Santa next to the chimney or put himself in the chimney.

Oh, the arguments we had! You might have heard of Santa as "Jolly old Saint Nick," but he sure wasn't in those meetings! My argument to him was that the lead reindeer needed to set the tone for all the other reindeer; that while power was a good trait, getting to the right place was more important. "Rudolph," I said to Santa, "has the best nose for direction I've ever seen in any reindeer. He's simply the best at getting on the roof, and right where you need to be." I was sure that Sven had more power, but was also just as likely to strike out in the wrong direction, and even clear out of the delivery zone. I didn't share my metric with Santa; his opinion was likely to be "PAR, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing." But I could see that if Sven had to fill in, he would challenge the fifty year record-low PAR (-3.4.) Rudolph might only be replacement level, but I could at least see that he would do better.

As for all that about Rudolph having a red nose, I'm really not sure where that comes from. He was a little guy, to be sure, and more than a little different. When Ivy went down with a strained tendon on Christmas Eve (just as Santa was loading his sleigh) and Rudolph was called upon, I heard Santa say "So, Rudolph, I hear you have a nose for direction. Hope so, you'll be guiding my sleigh." I suppose that got turned into "Rudolph with your nose so bright/won't you guide my sleigh tonight" for the sake of rhyme. The reindeer hadn't been real fond of him before, especially Sven, but after one of the most successful Christmases ever (he posted 6.7 PAR as the team managed 19.8, the highest total in ten years!) he was pretty popular. After a stellar career he retired a few years back, always above replacement but slipping below average in recent years. He'll be inducted into the hall of fame when he's eligible, and I hope I get to introduce him. He'll certainly go down in history, just as the song says, so they got that part right.

Here ends Buddy Beane's story. Each reindeer's contribution to the successful Christmas follows:

Rudolph--6.7 PAR
Dasher--0.1 PAR
Dancer--1.7 PAR
Prancer--1.9 PAR
Vixen--3.8 PAR
Comet--1.9 PAR
Cupid--1.8 PAR
Donner--1.5 PAR
Blitzen--0.4 PAR