Romancing the Zone (Rating System): Bonnie and Clyde, Digital Eyes, and the Impending Death of Conversation

I watched Bonnie and Clyde this past weekend, starring Warren Beatty and the ridiculously radiant Faye Dunaway. As is my natural inclination, it got me thinking about baseball. The classic film follows the likable but slightly bananas “Barrow Gang” as they rise to prominence as hold-up chiefs and brigands, then rise to mythology in the course of a few years.

Early in his career (in the movie, anyhow), Beatty’s titular hero would rob a small-town convenience store and bellow, “I’m Clyde Barrow, and this here is a hold-up!” No Nixon mask, bandana, or low-slung ball cap; no Unabomber sunglasses or hoodie. Just Beatty’s bedazzling grin and a doff of the fedora and he was off to the next town, to pull another job. Might as well hand out business cards, or an eight-by-five glossy. What struck me was that such a thing was possible back in those days. There was no concrete photo evidence of an act in progress, no surveillance cameras, no holograms on photo-IDs. When something went down–a bank robbery, for example–the sources that the wider public drew upon for enlightenment were subjective, first person accounts and witness testimonials. And those, we know well by now, lead to some crazy shit.

Bonnie and Clyde does a fine cinematic job of rendering this very phenomenon, the distorting effects of such unreliable sources. The Barrow Gang tracks its own progress through the lens of the media, reading newspaper articles to each other as they rumbled down country roads and picnicked beside lakes (with a few kidnappings and moy-dahs speckled in between). The newspapers, in bombastic prose, chronicled Barrow Gang bank robberies from Texas to Chicago, St. Louis and Missouri. According to the media, the Barrow Gang was a continental army, cutting the legs out from under the national economy. The American public was swept up in it, filling like the fabric of a hot air balloon with the flame heat of the newspapers’ bloviations. You can’t check facts, after all, if facts don’t exist.
Which brings me to the baseball hook. This week,word came down from the New York Times of the new digital eye technology, blowing open the Internet baseball conversation like the Barrow Gang bursting in on the local savings and loan. The multi-camera set-up will reportedly track anything that moves on the baseball field, in real time, and display the results as jauntily as a flash game. Every fielder’s speed and steps-taken will be counted, every square foot of a fielder’s range calibrated, every spat sunflower seed’s trajectory vectorized. Basically, the Great Unkowns of baseball analysis will soon be known; the White Whales will be poached. What lies just over the horizon–so close I can hear its mechanized joints lurching like Bigfoot screaming in the night–will strip the ballfield of its mystery. Players will be tracked like so many cod, caught, geo-tagged, and released into the wilds of free agency, emboldened by these oceans of data, or defenseless in the face of ’em.

If there’s one angle of the game that has eluded quantification and incited spirited consternation, it has been defense. Physics layered upon physics, the movement of the ball and fielders, range factors and expectations, good jumps and bad angles: it keeps sportscasters in business. This guy has the best first step in the game, that guy has a nose for the ball, this other fellow grows roots. Derek Jeter being the prime example, as old schoolers sing his praises and new-schoolers bemoan that praise. It’s a great argument, veritably political in the polarization, the play of regionalism and power structure. He’s a winner, screw the stats. Fielding stats are bunk anyway, I’ve watched him, I know. He’s the most overrated fielder in baseball history. Colorful threads in the loom of baseball discourse.

This new system could be the theory of everything, the unification of the big and the small, the micro and the macro. All questions could be answered, unraveling the textiles, the complicated, the confusing, but–to the human eye–the sublime and the satisfying tapestries that clothe of the National Pastime. Who belongs in the Hall of Fame? Just ask four-eyes over there in the corner with the dazed look and the reams of dot matrix print-outs spilling out on his lap.

Computers have taken over the world in part because they are mesmerizing tools, just fascinating to watch, and they answer questions that once seemed unanswerable. So that’s another kind of human majesty right there, and some of that may replace the emptiness that results from all of our questions getting answered. I love computers. I could watch the little digital eyes demo for hours.
But Bonnie and Clyde would never fly today. To be a bank robber in this modern world, you need a brain like a computer. Get cocky, holler out your name to a shopkeep, and you’re done before you started. To rob a bank today, you have to look into the Matrix, decipher its patterns, decode it, and deconstruct it; you’ve got to be postmodern. Braggadocio used to fill newspapers and books. Now it fills prisons (I know this because I’ve watched seven episodes of The First 48).
We may soon say the same of the general manager. Heck, we already do. But this next thing, this camera system, it’s the fucking Pinkertons, and the message board debates, the Jeter-gabbing and the Adam Dunn-bashing and all of that, those passionate unfounded conversations, they are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, telling stories and bathing in canyon pools while something smart and unstoppable tracks them, day and night, across the plains.

Bonnie and Clyde’s Hideout. Go nuts on this collection of photos and info.

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