Where Nothing’s Ever Wrong: A Fan’s Inquiry Into the Role of the Baseball Rumor

"Whispering" Bill Barrett

There were two astronomically important free agents on the market this off-season, and a constellation of three more high-profile players to fill the offseason skies and guide the navigation of the fleets of baseball’s rumor mongers. Messages like naval mail scattered in the wind and filled the hours and minutes with updates, insights, and, well, rumors.

For Albert Pujols it was talk of massive Miami money, of cratering Cardinals commitment, and shortcomings in Chicago. Speculation gave way to conjecture, built on a foundation of endless assumption. Hundreds if not thousands of blogs weighed in. MLBTradeRumors posted update upon update tracking the subtle shifts in negotiation. Cubs? Cardinals? Marlins?

Then Pujols signed with the Angels, miles away from any team mentioned anywhere. My daily Internet baseball rounds revealed a tenor of surprise among the rumor elite, followed quickly by some analysis, and almost no talk of the light years of time spent getting everything wrong.

Enter Prince Fielder, about whom the star-watchers strung us along with talk of the Nationals, the Mariners, the Rangers, the Orioles. Not a mention of the team that actually signed the guy, the Tigers. The Internet was wrong again, left to mutter awkwardly to itself, recalling perhaps a stray sentence in a post two years ago that may have mentioned off-hand that the Tigers were a possible trade target for prospects, barring a strong play by etc. etc.

Of course I know that “wrong” isn’t just the right term to employ, because our “rumor” mongers use the term to couch their speculation. There is no “wrong” when there is no commitment to the lasting veracity of a statement. A source is not inaccurate to report a rumor, because a rumor somehow doesn’t exist after it’s uttered. As soon as a deal is announced, no matter how far afield from the rumor mill it may be, the rumor mongers post a quick summary of the years and dollars and move on to the next batch of hearsay.

To read back through a sequence of rumors after a Detroit or an Anaheim deal comes out of left field is to see the light of a star that died two weeks ago, to gaze at a subjectless shadow.

Given that, what role do the rumors serve? Is all of this conjecture entertaining?

I thought so, but when the hurried, harried announcement of the most recent signing by Detroit came over the wire, I felt annoyed and misled. I felt that I had wasted a good deal of time thinking about where Prince Fielder would end up, because none of it was right.

I assume, of course, that there is some kind of single truth out there worth pursuing, while the rumor mill relishes vague suggestion and endless redirection. These are, of course, the elements of suspense, of mystery, of surprise. The emotions pegged to false suggestion and redirection have compelled us for eons.

But what suspense contains that baseball rumors lack is a sense of logic, that the puzzle pieces presented early on will come together in a satisfactory–if unexpected–way. Fielder to the Tigers was not a culmination of stratified rumors and logical building points. It was a whitewash, a contract offer that immediately erased all that came before it. Jeannie Vanasco in the latest edition of The Believer teaches me that erasure can have content, the formula this offseason feels more like demolition quickly covered over with tract housing.

If we desire narrative, then the rumor mill has only promised it, then withdrawn at the moment an investment should pay off.

If there is so little correlation between the end result of a trade or free agent deal and the rumors that surrounded it, why are we paying any attention to the chatter at all? When did baseball fandom become an exercise in relentless logistical Lincoln logs?

By way of comparison: last season, I burned out on fantasy baseball. What should’ve been fun was like keeping an accounting ledger. Every day that I had to read up on starting pitchers and bench warmers felt like April 15th. I mention this not to bash fantasy baseball, which I’ve played for longer than I’ve done most anything else in my life, but to draw a parallel between the information burnout of fantasy baseball and the rumor burnout of this offseason.

Ie., somewhere along the line, in both pursuits, there grew, for me, a disconnect between raw streams of data and the game of baseball. Browsing the previous week’s stats to see what no-name fifth starter possessed a fractionally higher K to BB ratio to fill out a sagging roster was as distant from a diving grab over the middle late in a game as a speculative paragraph about Prince Fielder’s favorite breakfast spot in D.C. was from his first day in a Detroit Tigers uniform.

Why do still I read the rumor sites? I don’t derive any tangible pleasure from them that I can think of or articulate. I don’t relish some new piece of gossip or rumor. In fact I feel a little empty inside when a storyline developed over weeks suddenly goes cold and the conversation shifts elsewhere. Yet I return, and read the posts that I don’t care for that much, I relive the sensation I dislike. Yet I return.

Am I addicted? The anticipated rush rarely materializes. I repeat the same act expecting a new result. I search out a non-existent thrill.

I realize now that what I love is news. I am fascinated that Prince Fielder signed with Detroit, and that Pujols eschewed the Cardinals for the West Coast. I want to know where, when, and why. Too often, rumors pass for information, and a confident writerly tone projects credibility where instead creativity forms the core of the message.

The last thing I want to do is deride something that baseball fans enjoy. If speculation tickles your fancy, who am I to steal your thunder. All I can do is talk of my own experience as a fan, and me, I need a break. Leisure gave way to compulsion, without compulsion giving way to satisfaction.

Just in time, too, as the brightest stars are charted and Spring Training is will spring up from the horizon soon. The daytime glow of real baseball will dry the winter’s rumor-dampened sod.

1 Responses to “Where Nothing’s Ever Wrong: A Fan’s Inquiry Into the Role of the Baseball Rumor”

  • Barren off-seasons, like a midsummer’s night, will lead us all to dream and grasp at mirages, no?

    May I suggest the Dominican or Venezuelan leagues to quench your winter baseball appetite? There’s this not-written-rule that getting walked is both unmanly and illegal, so it’s kinda fun.

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