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.