Why I Write (About Baseball)

Recently I sat amidst the fog of a Seattle summer morning and read a short essay by George Orwell entitled “Why I Write”.  Like Orwell, I recognized at a young age that I was a writer whether I actually wrote anything or not.  I wrote short novels in elementary school, poetry in high school, essays in college, all of them shamelessly derivative.  When I read, I found myself considering what worked and what didn’t work, how the words evoked reactions from me.  Each time I faced my lack of originality and the surplus of talent already out there in the world, and walked away, I came back again.  I think that most writers feel this way, especially in their youth.

Six months ago I turned to the internet and baseball, primarily to find a way to toy with words while escaping the drudgery of the endless string of term papers.  The quarter ended but the writing didn’t.  Last night my wife threw a sidelong glance at me.  “Why do people write about baseball, anyway?” she asked, glancing at the open Word document on my screen.

“Funny you should ask,” I said.

In his essay, Orwell outlines four primary reasons why writers are driven to write, ignoring financial concerns.  They are:

1. Egoism, the desire to accrue fame and reputation, and to prove one’s worth in relation to one’s colleagues.
2. Aesthetic enthusiasm, simple appreciation for the subject matter at hand.
3. Historical impulse, the desire to catalogue the past exactly as it happened and to put events in their correct order.
4. Political purpose, in its most open-ended sense: writing with intent to persuade the reader and alter the world through that connection.

In the realm of sportswriting there will never be any shortage of the first of these four causes.  This is especially true online, where self-promotion and social networking have become increasingly vital to one’s success.  Fame is a sort of social capital for writers, so easily quantified through the number of page views, comments, and followers.  This is neither a good nor a bad thing, and I very much doubt that many people are drawn to the vocation solely or even primarily for the ego boost it provides.  The anonymous internet commenter is always there to provide an instant remedy for such delusions.

Aesthetic enthusiasm, on the other hand, seems perfectly suited to the sport of baseball and the internet does nothing to decrease its sentiment.  Few people would write about baseball if they didn’t already love the game.  If the writing is good it will foster this love in the reader, only furthering their desire to read more.  What makes baseball writing so vivid and varied is that each writer can find (and convey) their own unique appreciation of the sport.  It can be economics, statistics, or militaristic imagery; it can even be poetry.

The historical motive is the least obvious, but perhaps the one to which baseball owes the most.  I am continually amazed at the precision and quantity of data available to the baseball fan, minutia spanning from the alteration of the length of a stirrup to the performance of men who played the game in wheat fields a hundred and thirty-five years ago.  That we have this historical foundation is due to the labor of thousands of determined, admiring fans.  The internet, however, erodes this impulse somewhat, as it’s difficult for the writer to create a sense of permanence in a form of media which is inherently transitory.

Orwell’s own passion came from the political purpose of writing.  He concludes the essay with this line: “And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”  Those who have read Animal Farm and 1984 would be unsurprised.  Baseball doesn’t appear as though it would suit Orwell particularly well, but there are certain elements of political struggle present in sportswriting.

The world of baseball naturally lends itself to partisanship.  It divides people into cultural regions, bound to a single baseball team, and demands of them an oath of loyalty.  These regions are peppered with the occasional transplant, who must struggle in foreign lands and can only rely on USA Today and the internet to receive tidings from home.

Because of the remote nature of the game, most fans connect to it through argument.  Some of the most romantic experiences we have with baseball are arguments: the kibitzing of the angry mob on sports radio after the blown save, or the debate at the bar over the Hall of Fame.  The national media takes this argumentation and capitalizes on it, sensibly stoking the fire in order to drive traffic.  Fans from each corner of the country clamber for the mystical quality that is “respect” from the journalism personalities.

We also see this political undercurrent to the never-ending battle between the sabermetric and traditional baseball analysis communities.  These debates are pitched, and much is at stake; Felix Hernandez in part owes his Cy Young award to the charisma of baseball writers, as does Bert Blyleven his plaque.  But as often as these conversations result in good, intellectually stimulating give and take, more often they’re simple diatribes aimed at the already converted.  Edginess and a willingness to ruffle feathers win out over insightful analysis.  Fans are yet again driven to take sides, and the result is an atmosphere eerily similar to politics.

Orwell would have been fine with all of this.  But Orwell lived in a different time, one where he could afford the luxury of moral superiority.  He wrote in the era of Hitler, and in Hitler the idea of an enemy to which all other enemies since have been compared via hyperbole.  It was a time when strength fought strength, one of the reasons we still find that moment in history so appealing.  But as fine a book as Animal Farm was, there is little in baseball that is so black and white.  When it comes to baseball, I find that I can’t avoid being a relativist.

There’s one aspect of writing that Orwell couldn’t foresee, and that’s the blurring of the line between writing and publication.  The act of writing itself, regardless of whether it’s read or thrown away, has the effect of organization, forcing the author to order his or her own thoughts.  The research and reflection necessary for good writing – or even writing that just tries to be good – helps people to improve upon their knowledge.  This is the same with conversation, which helps people clarify their ideas and understand how relevant they are to the world around them.  Every piece of writing is an extension between author and reader, an attempted exchange of ideas.  This exchange can certainly be persuasive.   But in the end it’s primarily personal, an individual expression that may or may not reach the next person down the line.

Here at Pitchers & Poets, there’s little pretense about our preference for the aesthetic.  I believe that everything has to mean something, even baseball.  It’s not enough for me to say that something is good or that this causes this to happen; I’m not even particularly interested in efficiencies or the process of winning baseball games, beyond a clinical, mathematical viewpoint.  I want to write about baseball as allegory, as a symbol for something greater than the game itself and greater than me, myself.  The game is something that connects all of us, forms a framework by which we can develop other ideas about the world as a whole.

My hope is that this framework can attach to the framework of others to build something meaningful.  It’s not a war, nor is it an attempt at a Pyrrhic victory.  I write because I like sharing ideas, and sharing them makes them better.  Why people read baseball writing is a separate discussion entirely.

7 Responses to “Why I Write (About Baseball)”

  • I believe that everything has to mean something, even baseball.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this one (or hit the ball out of the park if you want a baseball metaphor). Like good art, baseball does mean something to its fans. It allows us to see ourselves in the reflection.

    There is a theory called Basking in Reflected Glory, where an individual who associates themselves with a successful Other (sports team, movie star, politician) feels the reflected success of that Other even if they have no tangible connection to the event. Your favorite team wins, your self-esteem goes up. Following a team intently, especially a winning team, has a reinforcing positive effect on us. Writing (and reading) about our passions follow the same line.

    I don’t know if this would be considered part of Orwell’s Ego but I think that it feeds a little into our own outlook. Baseball brings a small amount of enjoyment into our lives, morning by morning, through the long, long season.

    However, as a Pirates fan I can say that it brings a wholly different emotion each morning and I can’t say that it’s always positive.

  • ” I write because I like sharing ideas, and sharing them makes them better.”

    You nailed it there. This may be the best, and purest, reason to write of all.

  • The “sharing” may be tied to the ego as well: no one wants to be Brian Scalabrine, hand extended, looking for another’s skin and bone but finding only air. It’s lonely not finding reciprocation and, at times, downright embarrassing. The internet may enhance both extremes.

  • @Steve: I agree completely. Interestingly, as I’ve written for P&P I’ve been forced to distance myself from my hometown team for the sake of the broader audience, and I definitely feel a certain level of detachment as a result. Of course, some of that remoteness is probably owed to the team itself, as the Mariners stumbled through another lost season.

    @Dana: Let’s just hope that the assumption holds true and that the sharing really does improve the writing. One could imagine Orwell muttering something about groupthink, and catering one’s writing to an audience that simply nods its head. Writers themselves, even baseball writers, can develop their own fandom and inspire their own reflected glory/politicization. Concerning my own level of anonymity, I think in this case we’re fairly safe.

    @Bryan: This is true; all you need to do is scan down the page at some of my older posts, with that horrible “0 tweets, 0 comments” resting smugly beneath them. I think one of the hardest and most important things about any form of writing is the willingness to stick one’s neck out. It’s very easy to hide behind the classic tropes and build a unassailable veneer; it’s more difficult to experiment, to guess, and to admit when some of those guesses inevitably come up wrong. One has to consciously shed some of the ego and embrace a certain amount of humility, difficult in the face of those fanged comments.

  • excellent excellent piece.

    i too love this line “I believe that everything has to mean something, even baseball.” However, its not so much that I believe everything has to mean something as I believe what we as humans do is make meaning out of everything, even baseball, and that in that act of making meaning lies politics. In that lies the coincidence of the aesthetic, the historical, the political and even the egotistical as meanings are made through appreciation, expression and cataloging.

  • Mabel’s onto something.

  • @Patrick: I think the importance of humility in a writer is even more pronounced with the internet, because it’s made more writers accessible to both their fans and their critics (and the dreaded 0 tweets/0 likes/etc).

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