Monday, January 21, 2013

Meanderings

* I don’t have anything of substance to add on the deaths of Earl Weaver and Stan Musial, but since both were favorites of mine I feel compelled to write a little something. Weaver of course is a managerial hero to many in the sabermetric community. He predated my time as a baseball fan by a significant number of years, but he still was an influence on me through the writing of Bill James and Thomas Boswell, his own book Weaver on Strategy, and Earl Weaver Baseball, which in its DOS form was the first baseball game I played (even though I’m sure he wasn’t writing the code).

The paragraph that follows is the kind of unsupported by evidence blurb I try to avoid writing, because in many cases you can get destroyed with a little cursory fact-checking. Weaver is famed for utilizing his roster to its fullest, particular his bench -- finding specialists whose strengths could help a club. The value of the bench has been greatly reduced in today’s game thanks to the roster crunch--the extra spots have gone to pitchers. Some of this is a natural result of the never-ending progression towards lighter pitching workloads, but some of it may be traceable to an attempt to counter the Weaver school. Once the bench was smartly utilized with specialists, it was necessary to have a counter-stocked bullpen. The verdict of the powers that be in baseball has been to prioritize stopping the other manager from gaining an offensive advantage through substitution rather than leaving one’s self with the tools to do so. One could argue that Tony LaRussa is the anti-Weaver in this regard.

Stan Musial was of course a great player, one who has gotten the short end of the stick--among his contemporaries on either bordering generation, there has been more celebration reserved for DiMaggio, Williams, Mantle, Mays, and Aaron among outfielders. He’s always been a favorite of mine, though--in fact, I have two framed baseball pictures hanging on my wall (the selection is more due to happenstance than a design to pick these particular two, but I wouldn’t hang a picture on my wall if I didn’t like the subject. One is of Babe Ruth’s sixtieth home run, and one is a picture of Stan Musial and various related Musial memorabilia (bats, uniform, ball, etc.)

* The various sports stories of last week (thankfully, not baseball-related) were a perfect reminder of why I have so little respect for sportswriters as a class (certainly I judge people as individuals, but it so happens that I have little use for the majority of individual sportswriters).

The best attribute of sportswriters is how ignorant they tend to be. When someone writes invective against sabermetrics, or displays a complete lack of understanding of statistics or economics or probability, it is easy to simply laugh them off. A huge number of sportswriters fall into this toss category.

As an aside, if I didn’t come to the table with a pre-conceived dim view of the world view held by most mainstream journalists (non-sports), it would be difficult for me to believe how ignorant they are. When I read news stories about topics on which I am well-informed, it is rare to go through an article that does not contain an outright falsehood, a statement of surprise at something that is blindingly obvious, or a quote from a clearly biased source that is allowed to pass without noting that bias. And when I see this occur in articles about a topic about which I know more than the journalist, it naturally gives me great pause about what I read about topics on which I am seeking to learn more.

Unlike many people inclined to interest in sabermetrics, I am not at all looking forward to the rapidly approaching day in which any aspiring young mainstream baseball scribe will be fluent in sabermetrics and not prone to dismissing non-traditional viewpoints. While this will have a limited positive effect of reducing the amount of idiocy we are all exposed to, it will make it that much harder to simply ignore a writer with cause.

My biggest problem with sportswriters is not that they are ignorant--it's that they are self-righteous, prone to pop psychology, and often downright nasty to their subjects. The new breed of baseball writer will still display all these traits, but without the casual ignorance of logic when it comes to strategy and evaluation of players. The perfect symbol of this new breed is Jeff Passan. Passan is as smarmy and as prone to being a jackass as your garden variety Murray Chass-era hack. But because Passan incorporates sabermetric statistics and thinking as appropriate, he is much more likely to get a pass for being a jerk than is a sabermetric ignoramus.

* The Armstrong and Te’o stories are also worthwhile as an illustration of how different my interest in sports is from the interest of the fictional public to which the stories are written. I have essentially zero interest in the private lives of athletes. I do not pick which athletes to root for because they seem like nice people, or because they have overcome some tragedy in their personal lives--I pick which athletes to root for because they play(ed) for/support the teams that I do, or because I enjoy watching them play the game.

When sportswriters single out a human interest story, it is their way of telling you who to root for. One could look at the roster of any Division I college football team with its 85 players and find someone who has been through a traumatic experience. Frankly, the notion that the death of a college-aged person’s grandmother would be a trauma worthy of making into a story is laughable. Certainly such an event is a terrible thing for the affected person and family, but it is also a fact of life and something that the majority of people in that age group have experienced. But journalists decided that Te’o was special, and that you should root for him--and they almost gave him an absurd Heisman trophy for it.

More broadly, I don’t care if Player X is a jerk to fans (and I certainly don’t care if he is a jerk to the media). I might care if I had any reason to interact with Player X--but I don’t, and the odds that I will ever interact with him are infinitesimal. Sportswriters are often incapable of realizing that the rest of us aren’t affected or interested by whatever inconveniences or petty issues Player X creates for them.

If I discover that Player X isn’t too friendly to fans who come up to him and ask for his autograph, I feel no reason to change my opinion of him. I know that when people who want something that I have approach me, I do my best to ignore them altogether (obviously no one is asking me for my autograph, but we all deal with panhandlers, charities calling for money, family members who need a favor, and the like). How can I fault Player X for behaving exactly as I would behave? Why would I factor this into the degree to which I like Player X, when the only reason I am even aware of his existence rather than that of another 1/7,000,000,000 of the world’s population is his ability to play baseball?

Of course, this can be easily looped back to the big baseball story of the month, the Hall of Fame voting. While the Hall of Fame was broken beyond repair before steroids made it a complete joke, the principle holds: I want to view baseball players as baseball players, nothing more and nothing less. Whatever else they are outside of that is of equal consequence to me as that of a mailman in Topeka.

3 comments:

  1. I'm not against the writers as such. I just find that they don't have much to say to me, or anything in common with me. Since they don't really watch the games, they never have much of interest to say about them. (Or, perhaps, since they can't come up with interesting to things to say, they don't need to watch the games. I shouldn't presume which way the causal arrow goes.)

    Their professional work is sometimes good for assembling the thoughts of players and managers and umpires and the like. That's about it, and really that's what they have retreated to. This seems fine.

    Also, it's much more common not to like baseball now, even (perhaps especially) among the big writers. They don't really enjoy baseball for the most part and so in a conversation we end up talking past each other.

    This has drastic impacts on stuff like Hall of Fame voting, where it can easily undergird a "I don't like any of these guys, so I will find reasons not to vote for them" mindset. I think the cast majority of dissatisfaction among the BBWAA voters in particular is just guys who really don't go in for baseball very much. That's on top of the natural antipathy you talk about between journalists and the people they cover (i.e. constantly harass).

    The ignorance of most journalists of their beats is surprising on the one hand, because of the reliance placed on them by the public, but on another it's not. Writers are writing to please their editors, who don't know much about much either. This used to be controlled somewhat by feedback; there was a time when there was the time and space to correct journalists when they were going off the mark. Now, any feedback is drowned in an avalanche of nonsense spewed by a small section of highly public morons who like hearing their voices. Journalists, told they need to interact with this idiocy, have their goodwill toward the public rapidly drained. They also are dreadfully overworked for the most part, but that is another story.

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  2. Also, one other comment:

    "When sportswriters single out a human interest story, it is their way of telling you who to root for."

    No way. I can't accept that, that is far too instrumental a view. They're just working. Your average sportswriter doesn't give a rat's ass who you root for and doesn't particularly want to shape opinion. They want to file stories that get read and generate positive feelings from their bosses. Sob stories sell, so they get written.

    It's also much easier for a reporter (like most people) to relate to an emotional story than it is a story about a game he doesn't particularly like.

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  3. You are probably right that it is not an active desire to get you to root for the player or his team, but I absolutely think that it is a way of playing favorites. The media still has a great deal of ability to influence hearts and minds, and by selecting a certain individual's sob story as worthy of attention, they improve his public image. Often, as in the case of Te'o, the media gets caught up in its own narrative and promotes the player to make the storyline even more stirring. The sportswriters who engaged in this behavior in the fall of 2012 wanted you to associate with Te'o. The opposite--reporting bad things or attempting to make mountains out of molehills is even more common.

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