Monthly Archive for January, 2011

It’s Been Real, Walkoff Walk

cc: via flickr user wolfpix

The end is now for Walkoff Walk, one of our favorite baseball blogs to say the least. Seems important that we honor this occasion with a picture of a pelican eating a shrimp. Rob and Kris have started a Food Tumblr called Eatoff Eat. Drew Fairservice will continue to write at Ghostrunner on First. Dan stays at Philadelphia Will Do (his own Tumblr), and as for 310toJoba, well, who knows.

Fellas, thanks for the memories.

Also: this means we can finally steal their tagline, “On baseball and the human condition,” without feeling so guilty.

The Power and Danger of Restraint

As of late this blog has been an Alex Belth and FreeDarko appreciation space. That will continue below. Alex wrote a  post on the Banter called “The Power and Beauty of Restraint.” He takes as his starting point a blog post by Esquire’s Chris Jones. Because I cannot resist a craft discussion, in I jump.

Jones:

We’re taught to believe that words have a value, a power, a weight. Logically, then, the more words, the better the sentence or paragraph or story. But writing isn’t always a logical exercise. Sometimes—most of the time—it’s about things that are harder to measure.

Belth:

Man, you’ve got to be ruthless to murder your darlings. It is nothing short of inspiring when the great talents have the conviction to do just that.

The whole essay is worth a read. Glenn Stout brings up poetry: “it not only teaches tangible things like economy, sound and rhythm, but it also teaches that the negative space in writing.” Belth himself brings up painting.

These are much better venues than sports writing to immediately appreciate the value of economy. I had a poetry professor in college named Richard Kenney. He’s a damn fine poet, and one of the best teachers I’ve ever known. If you had a problem – as Belth puts it – murdering your own darlings, then Rick did not. He dismissed stray words and sentences with an executioner’s seething glee.

But it was all for a purpose. The only poems he killed were mercy killings. Rick pruned the excess. He questioned the purpose. He demanded the most. He made us memorize Auden and Keats and Rilke. The first Rilke poem I read with him, “The Legendary Torso of Apollo” serves as an apt metaphor here. It’s a short poem about a statue that over the centuries somehow lost its head. But its decapitated state only serves to strengthen the remaining torso. Apollo’s head is more powerful in absence:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Poetry does not get more economic than that last line: “You must change your life.” There is little economy in what I’m doing right now, which is blatantly appreciating economy. But this is a blog, and it’s my blog, and I have the right. So I continue with Belth’s visual example.

I’m a big fan of the painter Caravaggio and the technique of chiaroscuro which employs stark light/dark contrasts. Caravaggio’s paintings use the negative space, the darkness, the way that great writers can use the space between words and sentences. You can also see this technique in film – especially with a lot of noir stuff. Think about the negative spaces onscreen next time you watch “The Godfather.” Certain scenes resonate visually in almost the same way works by a totally disparate talent like Ernest Hemingway resonate.

I end with Hemingway here because to many people he is an icon in word economy. His story “Hills Like White Elephants” is assigned in college English classes for the clever way it approaches a subject without ever broaching it. His books are easy to read and manage to say a great deal in a small space. Fortunately and unfortunately, his iceberg theory holds up as a modus operandi for students in fiction writing workshops everywhere.

Jones, in his blog post, writes that “we are taught to believe that words have a value, a power, a weight.” I was lucky. I was taught by my father that for this very reason, words are to be dispensed with great care. If you can’t say something succinctly, don’t say it at all. Or as Ted reminds me sometimes when I send him drafts of long essays, “try harder.”

In this vein, we must all be careful not to use economy as a crutch. I know I have a tendency to do this. Instead of pushing an idea further, to the brink of collapse, I fall back on minimalism. The less you say, the less you are responsible for. This has mostly been an appreciation for Belth’s “power and beauty of restraint.” But I hope it can also be a warning to myself and to others: don’t use restraint as a tool for cheating. And don’t use it for gimmickry either.

Hemingway approaches gimmickry with “Hills Like White Elephants.” But he gave this advice as well as anybody could have. And his iceberg remains the apt metaphor:

If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.

More Not Here

I was interviewed about P&P by Phil Bencomo for The Baseball Chronicle podcast. We talk about the origins of this blog, the American Sports Blogging Experience,  the past/future of the whole writing and sports writing thing, and more. As the singer of one of my once-favorite bands said “if you ain’t got roots, you ain’t got shit.”

Phil asked smart questions, and if you’re into that sort of thing it’s worth a listen:

The Baseball Chronicle Podcast

Thanks Phil, for having me on.

The Ten Commandments

In my day job as managing editor of Jew-ish.com, I had the pleasure of speaking with Bethlehem Shoals of the awesome FreeDarko about hoops, Judaism, and Seattle.  Check it out.

Also, I may post some more about FreeDarko soon. They are a big influence on P&P and once upon a time we joked (joked!) about calling this blog FreeGarko. The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is tremendous.

The Surest Prop of Their Power: Ancient Egyptians and the Power of Sabermetrics

In doing some research on goodness knows what, I came across a few paragraphs by the scholar of ancient literature Edith Hamilton, in her book The Greek Way. Hamilton loves the Greeks, and has not much fondness for the Egyptian approach to intellectual freedom, or the lack thereof.

She describes the class of priests, for whom knowledge and discovery were only a means to strengthen their hold on their power over the common person. “Great men must have built up that mighty organization,” she wrote, “but what they learned of old truth and what they discovered of new truth was valued as it increased the prestige of the organization.”

She goes on to describe how, in maintaining their power, the priesthood had to closely guard its knowledge and keep it from getting to the outside. “To teach the people so that they would begin to think for themselves, would be to destroy the surest prop of their power.” Ignorance breeds fear, she says, and, according to Edith, “in the dark mystery of the unknown a man cannot find his way alone.” Who is available to guide him, but, oh hey look, a priest!

“The power of the priest depended upon the darkness of the mystery.”

Now granted, these are issues that humankind has struggled with for millennia: freedom of speech, the spread of knowledge, etc. But it’s always nice to stumble across a reminder that the days we live in now are monumental. Information is everywhere, and the means and tools to achieve and disseminate insight feel infinite.

Hamilton’s words caused me to take pause for a moment or two and acknowledge the remarkable work of the sabermetricians around the world who labor towards deeper insight for no other reason than to advance the level of discourse for everybody. They don’t do it for profit or for private power, but for the power of the community, as specific as it may be.

The sense of expectation that comes off as arrogance is not, I don’t think, arrogance, but a demand for a higher level of discourse, and a battle against ignorance. That’s a far cry from the Egyptian priests and their covetous protection of knowledge and insight.

And you’ve got to hand it to the courts, too, for opening up sports statistics to the wide world and the world of profit, enabling outfits like Stats Inc. to flourish, and for powerhouse analysis machines like Fangraphs to spread crazy quantities of knowledge to baseball fans and other analysts.

So let’s take a day and declare amnesty for the feisty sabermatrician. On this day, we’ll forgive the acerbic commentary on unenlightened fans, we’ll assume that every sabermatrician has the good of the sport in mind, and that he or she doesn’t live in anybody’s basement.

Sabermatricians, you are keeping us all free from baseball ignorance, lighting the dark and mysterious hallways of the mind and granting power to the people.*

*This refers, of course, to the period before they sign on with a front office and put their once-democratic insights on lockdown.

John Lardner: Writer, Sports Writer

Ted and I were emailing recently about what makes sports writing compelling or not compelling. We write many such emails. Our basic complaint is that writing about baseball is nearly always boring and rarely transcends its subject. It rarely even does baseball justice. The kind of trance one falls into reading an average baseball book is nothing like kind of trance one falls into watching an average baseball game; this is unfortunate.

We came to a semi-conclusion that what separates writing about baseball we want to read from writing we don’t is scope. Does the text say something that resonates outside the baseball vacuum? Does it do the work that allows us to connect the content to our own lives, possibly thereby changing our perspective?

But wait just a minute, you say. Are these not qualities we look for in all literature? Sure they are, but in baseball writing – and all sports writing – they are often hard to find. For one, a great deal of emphasis is placed on raw information. This is unavoidable and not a flaw, but a constitutional fact of baseball writing that will become only more prevalent as advanced statistics and analysis become more and more mainstream. (In this sense, good baseball writing will be writing that makes complex ideas about performance evaluation easy to understand and apply.)

Then there are the expectation differences. Ted and I spend a great deal of time thinking about baseball. Not that we’re Socrates and Plato, it’s just that when you spend so much time thinking about a specific topic you find that your thinking evolves. A column or a profile that once would have been interesting to me now feels regressive. I find myself reading about a player’s story, a team’s expectations, a stat-head’s findings, and thinking “so what?”

This all brings me to John Lardner. Through Alex Belth, who has turned me on to more good baseball writing than anybody, it came to pass that John Schulian (a talented sportswriter turned screenwriter) sent me a copy of “The John Lardner Reader.” Schulian edited this collection by the lesser known son of Ring and brother of Ring Jr. It was published last year.

I had never heard of John Lardner previously. He was a war correspondent, a columnist and a feature writer, for The New Yorker, Time, and magazines of the era like True and Sport. The dozens of works collected in this book (subtitle “A Pres Box Legend’s Classic Sportswriting”) are often only glancingly sports writing. Lardner, by all accounts, was a student of the human condition – especially its uglier forms.

The first thing that strikes you about Lardner is that he writes about everybody, from Ted Williams to seedy fight fixing mobsters, with the same casual disdain. The story is the story. The characters are all terribly flawed – and so, as he frequently points out with a wink or an elbow nudge – is he. Tragedy is inevitable and there’s no reason to draw it out. Take one of Lardner’s most famous leads:

“Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”

Says everything it needs to about Ketchel, whose story is typical of this collection. Ketchel was a boxer, a drifter, a gambler, a Kerouacian character before the romance got into it. Lardner was at his best writing about the  lesser known and less accomplished types – not Jack Dempsey, but Jack Dempsey’s manager Jack Kearns; not center fielders but roller derby girls.

Lardner’s prose acknowledges the absurdity and inherent meaninglessness of sports – but it also assigns a commensurate humanity and dignity due to the athletes, fans, commentators, promoters, gamblers, and other men and women with a hand in the endeavor. He is at his best when the subject is boxing. Lardner died young, but in his time on earth, he must have absorbed the entire history and culture of the boxing world. In his jabs at boxing’s corruption, one can read a thousand similar, less stinging sentences by future columnists.

“Primo explained the frightful catastrophe by citing in private testimony one cigarette, one glass of cognac, and one pistol or revolver,” Lardner writes about a match presumably thrown by Primo “the Ambling Alp” Carnera to a man 73 pounds lighter. In his way with boiling down major events to minor and absurd situations, Lardner’s columns remind more of Calvin Trillin than any sports writer.

Like Trillin later, Lardner was unafraid to include himself in columns, and even less afraid to end things with a punch line – though usually an understated one. Lardner was a humorous writer, not a humorist. He never got out in front of a story. And with the material he worked with, he never needed to.

“The John Lardner Reader” is proof enough that a good story in able hands is enough to make sports writing compelling. My question is whether we’re currently looking at too many hands and not enough stories.

Let Yourself Believe

The streets are empty and the business centers quiet in Baseballtown. MLBTradeRumors has the feel of a classified ad section in a small town newspaper. This just in, the Pirates are still searching for middle relief! The contrast between the doldrums and, say, the last month of the season is so dramatic that the respite must be necessary. The European soccer schedule seems to have about a week off between seasons, but that’s possible when games (or matches, if you prefer) are spread a bit and the pace of change is manageable for the average fan. Soccer, structurally, ebbs and flows, with various tournaments and champions leagues, and without playoffs in some cases. Baseball, structurally, is a tsunami of daily games, news, highlights, and such madness.

So we get a solid break.

Recent complaints about the conversations-slash-rants about the harshness of the HOF voting discussion have come to mirror those in the political arena, e.g. Palin and her crosshairs (or surveyors marks, depending upon which side of the aisle you side with). But I still think the HOF debate comes at a perfect offseason, when thoughts turn, like the reminiscences of old retired ballplayers to their rookie seasons and their last seasons, to the beginnings and the endings of great careers. The beauty of a Hall of Fame career is that nobody saw it coming, because you aren’t allowed to. We hedge our bets and claim that, barring injury, this guy could be the next one.

These quiet times, though, are best spent imagining those HOF careers as we witness their beginnings. Close your eyes, allow yourself a flight of fancy. In these doldrums, its okay to let yourself believe that Buster Posey and Matt Wieters will clasp fists on the podium together in Cooperstown as the dominant catchers of their era. Evan Longoria dons a Rays cap in his carved image on the plaque. This is more than hoping for a good season from a fading veteran, or the stereotypical optimism of spring training. These are the forbidden thoughts, the taboo projections, well into the future, that eschew probability. Most of us are deprived of sunlight and trudging through the slop of a snowy winter. Give yourself a shot of dopamine: let yourself believe, on this mid-January day, that Lincecum and Cain will pitcher their way to immortality, together. Don’t tell anybody about it, don’t blog about, just think it while drawing in a deep breath.

These are the private moments that we have as baseball fans. There’s a lot of emphasis on publicly proclaiming the quantitative value of one move or player over another. But every pundit has those moments when the data-driven armor falls away, and every Bill James and Dave Cameron recalls for a moment the adrenaline rush of a foul ball headed their way, or the juvenile hope that their favorite player will beat the odds and play their way into the Hall of Fame. Not arguing for it, mind, but simply and quietly knowing it to be true, if only for one cold January day.

Let it Shrine, Let it Shrine

Tomorrow the Hall of Fame will announce the admission of some new members — or it won’t. Among the likeliest candidates for enshrinement are the overdue Bert Blyleven, the super-deserving Roberto Alomar, and the weirdly controversial Jack Morris. Then there’s Jeff Bagwell, among my favorite players in childhood. Bagwell has been accused of and denied PED use. His take on the controversy, and the Hall, is endearingly healthy:

Here’s my whole thing when people ask me about the Hall of Fame: Would I be honored to death to be in the Hall of Fame? Of course I would. But it doesn’t consume me at all. I loved every single part of what I did as a baseball player. But I’ve got my kids, I’ve got my family, and getting in the Hall of Fame isn’t going to affect my life one way or the other. And it won’t make me feel any better about my career.

Anyway, they should open the gates to Jeff Bagwell, Jack Morris, and Barry Larkin too. Last year around this time I made my case for some liberal-minded Cooperstown Reform. I republish it here:

Crowd the Hall

About two decades before the birth of Jesus Christ, construction began on what some historians have called the first Hall of Fame. It was conceived of by the Roman Emperor Augustus as a way to honor his gods, his ancestors, and himself. Hardly discerning when it came to his statuary, Augustus loaded his personal Hall of Fame with 108 busts, some hauled back to Rome from far-off lands, others commissioned by Augustus himself, others yet commemorating military triumphs.

Earlier this month, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown elected its 293rd member in Andre Dawson. He will have to make due with a bronze plaque instead of a full-on marble statue. At initial glance, 293 seems like a lot of members. After all, the history of baseball in America pales in comparison with that of conquests in Rome, and Cooperstown is in many ways more notable for the players it leaves out than the ones it admits.

This year, Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar found themselves on the cusp of entry, scraping in vain at the impregnable golden fences of Cooperstown. Next year, they should be admitted. But what makes the Hall of Fame dynamic – as an institution more than as an actual building – is the list of men left on the outside. The Hall of Fame is defined by that invisible line that separates the worthy from the unworthy. It is the line over which celebrated men like Marvin Miller and Buck O’Neill, Gil Hodges and Ron Santo can never cross.

The location of this line, this threshold, is hard to place. Once upon a time, it sat squarely between numbers. It sat between 499 and 500, between 299 and 300, between 2,999 and 3,000. Only certain circumstances – misdeeds, injuries, intangibles – could compromise the landmarks of greatness. But these are different times. Belief systems, like home run records, have been crushed beneath a type of deceit. Traditional statistics, once considered infallible measurements of performance, have been proven inadequate.

There are 539 Hall of Fame voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Aside from the broad and broadly-covered schism between old-school skeptics and sabermetric believers, that means 539 unique definitions of what merits Hall of Fame induction. Induction requires 75% approval, or 405 votes. Once eligible, players can remain on the ballot for up to fifteen years. This means time for voters to consider the legacy of a candidate as his career fades further into the rear-view mirror. For guys like Blyleven, who seems to be gaining momentum at the pace of a baseball rolling across a flat surface, it means annual near-misses, an extended human drama that feels destined to play out like the final scenes of an ancient tragedy.

This is why there needs to be some level of Hall of Fame voting reform. Not just for poor Blyleven, for whom induction would mean so much at this point, but for all of us. The Hall of Fame is supposed to be a celebration. It’s supposed to be nostalgic and it’s supposed to make us happy. We want to see our heroes in tears on that podium for their final moments of glory. We want to remember what it felt like to watch them play and win and lose.

I don’t know what I’d prescribe to fix the Hall of Fame voting process, but I know this. I would let more people in. I would ease the restrictions. I would welcome more players and more managers and more executives and more ambassadors. Not a lot more, but a few more; some of those legacies stranded right outside the gates would be granted admission.

As it stands now, the voting process is entirely subjective. There are no statistical requirements for entry, no thresholds that need to be reached. There are just those 539 writers and the meager check and balance of the Veterans Committee (an essay for another time). If it were otherwise, if this were a Hall of Greatness or Hall of Merit, then Bert Blyleven would have already been admitted, and the whole conversation would be moot.

But it’s a Hall of Fame. And that’s a different thing. With a Hall of Fame, the stakes are basically non-existent. Is Mickey Mantle’s presence in Cooperstown really soiled by Bill Mazeroski’s? There need be no statistical formula for inclusion. We have our hearts and our imaginations and the whole point of the institution is to please us, the baseball fans who trek to upstate New York, and pass hours arguing about it. So why not ease the standards, ease the frigid self-righteous shrieking over whether an excellent player (anybody whose even part of the conversation is an excellent player) is or isn’t quite deserving enough?

How could this be accomplished without creating a Hall of Mediocrity, or a Hall of Cora Brothers? There are a few possibilities that immediately come to mind. One option is to simply lower the 75% threshold used by the BBWAA, perhaps even to a more sane 70%. Another would be to introduce an element of controlled fan voting. I realize that some fans hate All Star voting because they believe average folks aren’t smart enough to know who the best second baseman in the NL in a given year is, but the fans are what powers baseball. As a single component of a larger formula, fan voting could bring a new dynamism to the process. A third option would be to introduce appeals processes, so certain candidacies could be resurrected.

I don’t know how much thought Augustus put into the statues in his forum. It is very possible that he argued for hours with advisors over whether to include a 109th statue, or whether a certain ancestor or general was being unjustly excluded. But honor and glory are not finite substances of which we could run out. Even with a slightly-expanded Hall of Fame, there will be emotional induction ceremonies and heated arguments over who deserves admission. It’s just that if we open the gates to Cooperstown just an inch or two wider, there will be more joy, and isn’t that the whole point?

Happy New Year, Baseball Fans

May all your underpaid scrap heap pick-ups over-perform and your young pitchers’ arms go unfrayed.