Archive for the 'Media' Category

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.

Open Book Baseball: An Interview with Alyson Footer, the Houston Astros’ Sr. Director of Social Media

Footer: "We want to be as much of an open book as we can."

Baseball is known for clinging to old paradigms, and hugging out-moded–ahem, traditional–viewpoints on media, culture, technology, and copyright. Some figures in the baseball media even pride themselves on their vintage-inspired view of the game.

Alyson Footer is no such figure. The Houston Astros’ Senior Director of Social Media has embraced the creative power of new media with enviable depth and enthusiasm, transitioning from veteran MLB.com/Astros.com beat reporter to full-fledged social media specialist as smoothly as Craig Biggio shed his catcher’s gear and took up the middle infield.

Footer’s blog, Alyson’s Footnotes, is equal parts access and analysis, with a panoply of in-depth posts that are as likely to spotlight a backup catcher’s favorite flavor of ice cream as analyze the task ahead of a new GM or owner. With an interdisciplinary sphere of influence that expands to Twitter and Facebook, she is the voice of the Astros in those spaces that we, our readers, and our baseball blogging friends happily frequent.

Footer was nice enough to take time out of her busy schedule to discuss her role in the baseball multiverse, and to talk about talking about baseball.

(Ed. note: any links added below were added by me.)

TED

Your title is Senior Director of Social Media of the Houston Astros, and the tagline on the header of your blog, Alyson’s Footnotes, is “Your behind-the-scenes, all-access pass to all things Astros.” Could you describe your role with the Astros?

ALYSON

Several years ago, the Astros saw that major corporations were creating Social Media departments, designed solely for the purpose of marketing their brand to the younger generation. With the decline of newspapers and the emergence of Facebook and Twitter, the Astros realized they could better utilize their time and money by steering away from traditional advertising and shifting the focus to new media.

The role of Social Media Director spans in a lot of different directions. We have two main Twitter accounts: @astros and @alysonfooter. The Astros handle is more for marketing and promotional purposes, whereas my personal Twitter handle is interactive. I communicate directly with the fans and answer as many questions as possible. I also offer a behind the scenes look at the team through comments, photos (TwitPics) and videos (TwitVids).

Basically, we want the fans to feel that they are part of the process.

I also blog regularly. The blogs serve a few purposes: they offer insight and analysis to team decisions and transactions, they provide a behind-the-scenes view of the everyday goings-on of the team and they provide info regarding upcoming events and promotional initiatives. We cover off the field and on the field activities on the blog and include pictures and videos to accompany the blogs. Basically, we want the fans to feel that they are part of the process. We want them to feel as if they’re there with us even when they can’t be. We want to show our players and coaching staff in a very real way. We want to be as much of an open book as we can. The Astros are a part of the city of Houston, in good times and bad, and the players are important to our fans. The more we can show them as real people, the more fans feel connected. Social Media allows for fans to get closer to the players than ever before. We have a bunch of players with their own Twitter handles who communicate directly with the public. It’s great for both sides.

TED

How have the players responded to the change in media presence and the sense of increased access? Is there a generation gap between the veterans the younger players?

ALYSON

I would say there is a little bit of a generation gap between the veterans and the younger players, but I think it’s in a good way. The really young players coming up don’t remember a world without the Internet. They don’t remember when newspapers ruled the roost. They don’t know from the old days when media contingents were small and didn’t include web sites, bloggers and 300 cable and radio stations.

Today’s players are tech savvy and online savvy and they like to engage in Social Media. Last Spring Training, we had one player on Twitter. By the end of spring, we had about five. That total has nearly doubled and I expect that by the time the season is over, more than half the roster will be tweeting. I think it’s great. The players really enjoy it and it’s a great way to market themselves. They enjoy the back and forth with the fans and everyone benefits from that.

Last year, I met some of the Texans players and they said the entire team was on Twitter. I find that fascinating.

TED

You spent a lot of time as a reporter for MLB.com. What were the cultural or technological forces that led to your switch to Social Media, and how has your approach to baseball coverage and storytelling changed with the change in roles?

ALYSON

It’s easier from a communication standpoint when the team is doing well and everybody’s happy, but that is not how sports work.

I covered the Astros for eight years for MLB.com and I loved it. When the Astros created a Social Media position in 2009 and approached me about it, it sounded intriguing. I loved reporting but at the same time, I was doing so much with blogging and Facebook and Twitter that it seemed like a natural transition. As much as I liked the Social Media side of things, my reporting duties took up all of my time and that left very little time for anything else. The idea of doing Social Media full-time was intriguing. And I was able to continue blogging, which was important, because I didn’t want to give up writing. I was ready to move into a different genre. It was a nice transition and I’m glad I made the move.

I try to stay away from straight news reporting, because that is now the job of Brian McTaggart, who replaced me at MLB.com. Because my blog lives on the Astros web site, I didn’t want to be covering the same news stories as Brian. That would be counterproductive. So what I try to do is find off-the-field, more human interest stories to write, and I’ll also reference Astros.com stories a lot and provide some insight or analysis. There are times when Brian and I do overlap, but I think over the course of three years it’s been pretty minimal.

TED

The Astros are in a time of major transition right now. What challenges does this present for you, and how have you had to adjust your approach from covering a regular winner to a rebuilding young team with new ownership?

ALYSON

It’s challenging only because when your team isn’t doing well, a lot of the fan base is unhappy. It’s a lot easier from a communication standpoint when the team is doing well and everybody’s happy, but that is not how sports work. So I try my best to explain things in as much detail as I can in terms of the direction the team is headed and what the plan is over the next several years. Fortunately, the new ownership group and front office has a very clear vision as to how to become a contender again, and they have a plan that they will not only implement immediately, but they’ll stick to it as well. That’s hugely important.

It’s easier from a communication standpoint when the team is doing well and everybody’s happy, but that is not how sports work.

Other than that, the challenges are minimal from a big-picture perspective. Teams ebb and flow. I’ve been here 15 years and over the course of that time, the Astros have done a little of everything. They won 102 games in ’98 and two years later ended up losing 90. They’ve won a pennant. They’ve lost 106 games. They’ve taken division and Wild Card races down to the wire. They’ve been eliminated before Sept. 1. It’s been all over the map. I approach my job the same every day and hope for the best for the team.

TED

You are a fantastic storyteller. Was there something about baseball that compelled you to contribute your talents to the game? What have you learned about storytelling as a baseball reporter and social media director?

ALYSON

Well, thanks very much for the nice comment! I do love the storytelling part of this job. Even when I was at MLB.com I’d try to find the weird and wacky every once in a while and report on that. I remember one time, half the team spent an offday playing ping-pong at Orlando Palmeiro’s house. They had a fierce tournament and had plenty to say about it the next day in the clubhouse. I was writing it all down and a colleague said, “You’re writing about this?” I live for that kind of stuff – the off-the-wall, random events that inevitably happen over the course of a six-month season (seven and a half months, if you include Spring Training).

I think it’s important for the fans to know and appreciate the people and stories that will live on forever through storytelling. Why keep that stuff buried?

I’ve always loved baseball, but more than that, I’ve always loved the personalities and characters of the game. I don’t spend much time poring over stats – I find a lot of it boring, to be honest – but there’s so much that goes on around a team, and so many great, smart, funny, polarizing players that have come through Houston and so many fantastic stories that the fans have never heard. I think it’s important for the fans to know and appreciate the people and stories that will live on forever through storytelling. Why keep that stuff buried? My general rule of thumb is, if I find something funny or interesting, it’s likely that others might as well. It sounds pretty primitive but it has served us well. And now that there’s a way to share these items with the world, why wouldn’t we?

TED

With the Astros’ 50th Anniversary celebration going on this year, there must be a font of new and old stories coming down the pipeline….

ALYSON

I certainly hope so! We have a slew of old players we’re inviting back for the season-long celebration this year and I would imagine there will be some interesting tales told! I’ll be listening.

TED

There will be a ton of old school Astros looks rolled out in 2012. Which Astros throwback uniform are you most excited about?

ALYSON

If you mean what throwback uniform would I be most likely to tweet or blog about, it would be the rainbow jerseys. I wasn’t here for that era – I got here in 1997 – but Houston fans absolutely love the rainbow look, especially the orange. That’s what I hear from fans more than anything – bring back the orange!

From a sentimental and personal standpoint, my favorite uniform is the blue and gold shooting star that they wore in the late 1990s. That’s what they were wearing when I first arrived to the team and I have some wonderful memories from my first few years in baseball. No matter what you do in your career or how far you get, there’s nothing more special than when you first started the journey. So I have a soft spot for the uniforms Bagwell, Biggio, Ausmus and Wagner were wearing way back in the day.

A Recollection of Victory

The generation of kids who are now college-aged came up in the middle of a losing streak. America lost to Osama bin Laden on September 11, 2001, and continued to lose as it bowed under the pressures of war and fear. The losing streak was what they knew, and it has formed their world view. They don’t have the relative comfort that even I do, at age 30, that comes with the ability to draw from the long memory of a pre-terror United States. The generation’s default stance is, therefore, one of defensiveness and fear, symbolically calcified in opposition to an evasive mastermind who posed an indeterminate danger.

In the same way that a World Series win for an historic loser represents, with a single swipe, the quick end to long suffering, this generation of kids places a significance on the capture or killing of bin Laden that trumps the nuance of foreign affairs, or the cynicism of older folks who have seen enemies and crises come and go. That much became clear with the news footage of their celebrations, even if it has been overlooked by someone like me.

And it was with some cynicism that I tried to detect traces of irony among the kids celebrating in front of the White House after President Obama announced the successful secret ops mission in Pakistan. There was one guy dressed up as Hulk Hogan who threatened the sincerity of the crowd, but after watching for some time, I decided that the ebullience of those who had gathered was authentic. It was a young sort of excitement, from people who haven’t known anything different. They know little outside of this world that we live in now, and their celebration reflects their reality.

Part of their world now is the absence of certainty. American wars are questionable and indeterminate, leaders are fallible, morality is clouded. President Obama’s announcement, in light of the last decade’s fog, offered certainty. I have never heard anyone say, “You know, we may be treating bin Laden a bit harshly.” He is the unquestioned villain of our age, and his death is a benefit to mankind. Victory is unquestioned, and these kids are not sitting around to question it, but taking to the streets to celebrate a victory in a way that they’ve rarely been afforded.

What light can sport shed on such crucial international developments? In sport, and in baseball, winning washes away failure. Eight innings of shit gives way to one inning of excellence. Communities need such short memories to survive and prosper, the way a closer’s work requires that his memory extend no further back than his breakfast. Our brains can only hold so much poison before they perish, and it needs tricks to staunch the flow. While the world boils, we allow ourselves the luxury of a short memory, and we call it baseball.

Situational Essay: The Language of Degree and Kind in Baseball and Life, by Paul Franz

This Situational Essay comes from friend of the blog and regular contributor Paul Franz, whose work you can find at his blog, Nicht Diese Tone.

When we construct our little narratives to explain the strange things we see every day, we tend to lump our world into broad categories. Actions are “good” or “bad,” “smart” or “dumb.” People are “tall” or “short,” “happy” or “sad.” Sporting events are “entertaining” or “boring.” Politicians are “liberal” or “conservative.” And so on, a veritable smörgåsbord* of quotated and contrary descriptors. I think this stuff is all hogwash. Most of the time, when you’re confronted with a duality, it’s very probable that you’re oversimplifying things. While that oversimplification may be a real time saver – indeed, our ability to do so with such verve and expertise might very well be a key part of our relative evolutionary success – it can also be extremely dangerous.

* Much to my surprise and pleasure, my spell check added the umlaut and the circle thingy over the a.

Much as I’d love to illustrate the point with something profound and socially meaningful, my April-addled mind can’t help but turn to baseball as a perfect locus for the issue. The advantage of baseball over things like, say, politics or morality are numerous. The chief reasons, however, are only two: 1) baseball is far less contentious than politics or morality* and 2) baseball is much, much, much easier to quantify, which will help to illustrate the point.

In the popular narrative of Coors Field, it is an almost mystical place, one man’s Heaven and another’s Hell, a Miltonian paradox.

* This is not, strictly speaking, true, as the recent Dodgers-fan led assault against a Giants fan – leaving the man in a coma – attests. Nevertheless, it’s much easier for most of us to put aside our sporting-related differences than our political ones.

In particular I want to look at the beloved home of my beloved (and, as of this writing, 12-3) Colorado Rockies, the notorious Coors Field. Coors Field is, in our dualistic narratives, a “hitter’s haven.” It’s a miraculous spa where batting averages go to recover and ERAs go to die, a slugger’s wet dream and a scrappy, replacement-level slap hitter’s salvation. Otherwise insignificant careers have been forged (Neifi Perez, Juan Pierre), mediocre major leaguers have been saved (Preston Wilson, Kurt Manwaring), over-the-hill sluggers reborn (Jason Giambi), stars made into superstars (Todd Helton, Larry Walker), and aspiring pitchers wrecked (Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, Pedro Astacio, Daryl Kile, Bret Saberhagen, Greg Harris, and on and on) by its thin air and its cavernous outfield. In the popular narrative of Coors Field, it is an almost mystical place, one man’s Heaven and another’s Hell, a Miltonian paradox.

Until the advent – and advent is exactly the right word – of the capital-H Humidor, playing at Coors Field was like stepping into a video game. Every decent hitter would hit .350 and slug 40 or 50 homers, as if controlled by some over-obsessive teenager on his X-Box. It was so easy, scores were routinely closer to football (or even basketball) proportions than proper baseball ones.

The Humidor, of course, changed all of that, transforming Coors Field from Bichette’s Paradiso to the upper echelons of Purgatorio instead.* No longer a panacea for ailing bats, it became, instead, a kind of minor boost along the lines of many other so-called hitter’s parks. Suddenly pitchers with mediocre stuff like Jason Jennings and Jeff Francis could throw complete game shutouts, and Rockies 8-hole hitters stopped hitting above .300. The narrative transformed, enough that Coors Field and Humidor became opposing watchwords, simultaneously an excuse to disparage Rockies hitters for their advantages and mock pitchers for their crude, cigar-inspired handicap.

* I will not apologize for the Dante reference, even though it is also a terrible pun.

Undoubtedly you can tell what I’m going to say, but I’ll say it anyway. It’s all a bunch of sensationalist nonsense. Because we like to explain the world through clean, discrete, and ultimately meaningless categories Coors Field is painted as a “hitter’s park.” And it is. The problem is, it’s only a marginally better place to hit than anywhere else in baseball. It is, by degree, a better environment for hitters than, say, the Ballpark at Arlington or Fenway Park, but we have created a narrative where it is fundamentally different in kind. Coors Field is a magical place in that narrative, even if its (post-humidor) Park Factor of roughly 115 means that only 15% more runs are scored there than the average stadium (let alone other good hitter’s parks).*

* The pre-humidor PF for Coors was, again roughly, 125. Big? Yes. Infinite? Not quite.

This “difference in kind” thinking is responsible for the hullabaloo about the Rockies cheating by storing some balls in the humidor, while keeping others in the dry mountain air in case of late-inning emergency. The difference between the pre-humidor 25% increase in runs and the post-humidor 15% increase in runs is, of course, only 10%. Since, even at Coors, most teams average less than one run an inning, the difference between using the non-humidor balls and the humidor balls in the final inning of a game comes out to somewhere around one extra Rockies run every month (which, we can assume, would lead to maybe one extra win over the course of the entire season). That’s a real difference in degree, of course, but that’s not the narrative we hold dear.

Instead, as last season drew to a close, the Rockies were accused of cheating, their successes at home pinned on a vast late-inning conspiracy. With humidorized baseballs, the story went, the Rockies were a normal baseball team, capable of scoring runs, yes, but also capable of striking out, hitting into double plays, and regularly stranding runners who reached third with no one out. Bring out non-humidor balls, however, and the Rockies became unstoppable, a force not merely capable of destroying even the best of pitchers, but indeed destined to overcome any deficit, no matter how large. To this way of thinking, the difference between the humidor and non-humidor baseballs was not 10% more runs, but rather “win” instead of “loss.” The whole picture became about differences in kind (wins and losses) instead of differences in degree (15% more runs than average and 25% more).

The Rockies routinely had one of the worst offenses in Major League Baseball during the early 2000s, and yet were mistakenly believed to have one of the best.

The same, of course, is true about pre-humidor Coors. That Park Factor of 125 is big. Really big. Big enough that the Rockies routinely had one of the worst offenses in Major League Baseball during the early 2000s, and yet were mistakenly believed to have one of the best. But, even with a Park Factor that large, the difference remains one of degree and not kind. While the cumulative effect of a PF of 125 leads to the kind of mis-evaluation that makes Neifi Perez look like an actual Major League baseball player, that is only because the baseball season is 162 games long, and because the actual difference between Albert Pujols and, say, Aaron Miles is much, much, much, much smaller than we usually believe.* Another way of reading, then, that Park Factor of 125 is this: teams that would score 4 runs a game elsewhere scored 5 at Coors. Suddenly that doesn’t seem nearly so insane as the narrative of “hitter’s paradise” made it sound.

* While Pujols certainly hits more homers than scrappy middle infielders, and by a long shot, his unreal career high in Wins Above Replacement is 10.9. That’s epically, historically great. It’s also 11 wins out of 162 games, or about 6.8% of the season. I’ll let you decide: difference in kind, or difference in degree?

Once our narratives have been constructed, we reinforce them with the stainless steel of confirmation bias. When the Mets come from behind by four in the bottom of the ninth at Shea Stadium (or their new digs, Citi Field), we think of it as a great comeback. When the Rockies come from behind by four in the bottom of the ninth at Coors, we think of it as Coors Field up to its old tricks. A 12-11 slugfest at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City is the result of bad outings from both teams’ pitching staffs. A 12-11 slugfest at Coors Field is the result of the absurd ballpark. The special category of “Coors Field” explains and is the cause of all offense in the Mile High City, while elsewhere it’s just normal baseball.

Now don’t get me wrong, and allow me to reiterate my point one more time. Coors Field does matter. It used to inflate scoring by 25%, and now inflates scoring by 15%. The Rockies, on the whole, will come from behind to win in the bottom of the ninth more often than other teams. But only very, very slightly more often. The difference is one of degree: the Rockies will score 23 late inning runs for every 20 that a comparable offensive team scores, thanks to playing at Coors. The problem is, our narratives, our categories, our confirmation biases all conspire to make every single run we see at Coors a product of the park, and not of the million other things that go on in a baseball game.

But wait, I’m not done yet. We can apply the same logic to steroids (gasp). While there may be a categorical difference between Barry Bonds, All Time Home Run Champion and Barry Bonds, Great Hitter, we tend to forget that we don’t even know exactly how many extra home runs Bonds hit because he used steroids. And we can’t know. What’s more, we don’t know who else benefited, and to what degree. What we do know, however, is that the easiest thing to do is to look at the picture and to discount any player who had a peak season during the “steroid era” as a “cheater,” whose whole body of offensive work is attributable exclusively to his steroid use. Rather than imagining that steroids help a player become X% better, we see steroids as being the difference between “good” and “bad,” or “great” and “good.” We can’t even begin to suppose, in our absolutist narrative, that Bonds may well have hit 700+ home runs even without steroids. No, every single home run he mashed is tainted, cheap, unfair. They categorically, absolutely, definitively do not count.

Is that right, though? My answer is no. Of course the steroids issue is a big deal precisely because we do not and cannot know exactly what the effect is, but to imagine that the effect is categorical instead of incremental is absurd. Even if players hit twice as many home runs because of steroids, they didn’t hit infinitely times as many. And I think that would be easier to accept if our categories hadn’t also been violated. Barry Bonds is not merely a guy who hit X% more homers, but rather is the Home Run King, both in terms of career and single season jacks. Those categories carry far more weight for us than numbers do.

To return to where we started, there’s a good reason we think in categories instead of increments, kind instead of degree. It helps us survive. It’s better to assume that the unusual ripple in the tall grass we see is dangerous (it might be a tiger) than to assume that said ripple is only marginally more pronounced than usual. In nature, nuance leads to destruction. That’s no excuse to turn away from more nuanced thinking, however. If anything, it’s an exhortation towards the opposite. That we like to see things as either categorically good or categorically bad makes us easy to persuade and, as a result, hoodwink. If, for example, a politician speaks eloquently to our absolutist moral sensibilities, we’re quick to cast our vote in his favor. In the process, we forget that the difference between him and his opposition might not be categorical, but rather incremental, that there are perhaps a range of (non-linear) possible solutions to any given problem instead of two diametrically opposite ones.

The narrative of absolute, dichotomous categories is an extremely dangerous one exactly because it is beautiful. Coors Field as “hitter’s haven,” human beings as fundamentally good (or bad, as the debate goes), politicians as liberal or conservative, such characterizations make it easier to think, easier to live, easier to write. Poetry may owe itself to complexity, but on some level it also owes itself to simplicity: without a sense of Good and Evil, Joy and Misery, how do we understand No Second Troy? Without the narrative of great plays or bad ones, how do we appreciate an unrepeatable Tulowitzki play in the hole?* The possibility that the narrative value of categories is ultimately empty – of a kind of brute, practical use, but devoid of substantial, metaphysical meaning – is what drives the anti-statistics crowd of baseball fans mad. The reliance upon and manipulation of categories is what makes so many religions so powerful, and – along with hefty doses of confirmation bias – it is what makes Fox News and MSNBC so persuasive to so many Americans.

* Another little pun for which I will not apologize.

Even if players hit twice as many home runs because of steroids, they didn’t hit infinitely times as many.

Ah, there I go breaking my own rules. You see, I too am talking in categories, in differences in kind instead of degree. The notion of diametric opposites, the need for clear categories like Good and Bad cannot be, if we are to challenge it, innately and fundamentally Bad. To say so would undermine the argument. The problem is, every single word we read is a category, every single idea a kind of absolute. We can deconstruct and deconstruct, and then reconstruct and reconstruct, and what we’ll end up with is words that stand for something, some category. Words that can never be truly specific, for true specificity would require a new word every second, every thought, every sentence. Communication, as much as miscommunication, is built on categories.

So what is there to do? Uncomfortable though it may be, I believe it remains useful to deconstruct, to analyze, to see where differences of kind actually are differences in degree, even though every difference is, in the end, actually both. To my mind, we do not need to destroy the narratives of politics, religion, morality, or, most importantly (of course), baseball. We need, instead, to dive into them, to see where they come from and why, and then to reconstruct them in some new form so that we can once again communicate. Analysis and synthesis stand together, it turns out. Like any set of supposed opposites, they actually are more alike than disparate. Is there an endpoint to all of this analyzing and synthesizing, a point at which narrative and myth turn into Truth? Maybe, but probably not. Instead, it seems to me that the very act of trying to understand, of insisting upon being a learner, an asker of questions, a thinker, a skeptic (though we might also insist on being ignorant, a provider of answers, allowed to zone out, and a believer) is at the heart of what it is to be human.

You Gotta Keep Score: Mariners Broadcaster Dave Sims Talks Scorekeeping

“You gotta keep score,” broadcaster Dave Sims told me over the phone. “I don’t know anyone in this business who doesn’t keep score.”

Even early in my conversation with the Seattle Mariners play-by-play veteran, I understand the depth to which this professional broadcaster associates calling a big league baseball game with scoring it. Sims can barely conceive of succeeding at the former without doing the latter.

It isn’t long, either, before a discussion of the broader practice of scorekeeping gives way to the concrete, and I can hear the rustle of looseleaf paper as Sims shuffles through his scorecard from the Mariners-Dbacks game he called earlier in the day. Highly touted Seattle prospect Dustin Ackley‘s day at the plate catches his eye.

“Let’s see,” says Sims, “Ackley walked on four pitches and he hit a double. In my mind’s eye I can see it, and I have it marked down right here. Keeping score helps you tell the story of the ballgame.”

Sims paused, as his scorecard revealed another storyline. “The Mariners were set down ten in a row to start the game,” he said with the same emotion he probably infused the live broadcast with. “Heck, they didn’t have a base hit until the fifth, a seeing eye single by Michael Saunders past the right side.”

He can’t seem to help but to recount the afternoon. It’s as if, scanning his scorecard, the game is replaying itself before his eyes. Give him enough time and one starts to feel that he could extract a week’s worth of stories from the ticks, digits, and colors on his scorecard.

A broadcaster’s job is to describe the game with the accuracy of a reporter and the narrative fluidity of a novelist. Like a reporter, Dave Sims takes very good notes, and, like a novelist, he knows how to interpret and translate these notes into a cohesive narrative. Through the relentless use of his scorecard, Sims turns a plot into a story, and he does it in real time.

Through the relentless use of his scorecard, Sims turns a plot into a story, and he does it in real time.

Sims learned to score from his father at a young age, around six or seven years old, and he found keeping the book a match for his personality. “I’ve kept score all my life,” he tells me. “If you’re a baseball fan, you tend to be anal retentive anyway. Scorekeeping just reinforces it to the nth degree.”

“For example,” he continues, “I’m very anal about keeping pitch counts. Today, I was watching the Mariners and the Diamondbacks, and it’s interesting to see what guys are swinging at. Keeping a good pitch count, I can look down at my book and see that Langerhans swung at the first pitch the first time up and the second time up he took it deep in the count.

“I keep balls and strikes. I keep a pitch count up in the upper right hand corner of the box because it can give you an insight into how a hitter’s doing.”

Dave Sims’ scorebook is a living text. He uses it constantly while broadcasting, moving from the live game situation to the evolving text and back again like an air traffic controller with a radar screen. The scorebook is an irreplaceable key to the practice of broadcasting, and crucial for tracking the through-lines of the game as they play out from the first pitch to the last. Sims’ scorebook, in other words, is not a document composed for historical posterity, but a tool of the immediate world, as crucial to his work as a computer screen to a programmer.

(Speaking of technology, I ask him if he ever uses the Internet during a game. “When I’m broadcasting, I don’t have time to be fumbling around checking the Internet,” he assures me, “but I can go right to my book. You’re seeing more iPads used for some stuff, but I’m not there yet.”)

Sims’ scoring system, which I’ll readily admit was a bit hard for me to grasp in its finer details over the phone, places a premium on the most important narrative fact in a given inning: outs. “The great Bob Wolff told me never to forget the number of outs in the inning,” says Sims. Next up is the need to identify how a hit was made, and Sims logs where the ball was batted to alongside the traditional numbers. What that likely means, I’d guess, is a few more strokes of the pen than the average fan invests, to show a long fly ball or a weak grounder. And a home run, for example, gets an ‘X’ to mark the spot over the fence where it left the yard.

Sims also uses four color-coded highlighters to mark important turns of event. A play marked with a pink highlighter signals that a run was driven in, green means a strikeout, blue a walk, and yellow means that it was an unusual play of some kind (one can imagine a yellow streak highlighting yet another gravity defying catch from Franklin “Death to Flying Things” Gutierrez, or yet another 200th hit of the year from Ichiro). “When I look down at my book,” Sims says, “my eye jumps right to the color. It’s all very visual.”

During Spring Training, when a scorebook can take on the convoluted air of an Enron accounting ledger, Sims marks the starters in black or blue pen (the foundational color is arbitrary based on whatever pen is at hand that day), and the reserves go down in red. He maintains the scorecard just as he would any other broadcast, from each Single-A at bat on down to every last dizzying high-numbered roster manipulation.

“If I’m on the air, I can’t just say, ‘here is some guy.’”

During the regular season, Sims’ scorebook is an oversized ledger with space for a hundred or so games. His book is not as cumbersome as the one used by the late Mariners icon Dave Niehaus, the heft of which, Sims noted, “was enough to give you a hernia.” Sims’ saves his big scorebooks, and his archives go back years. He can look to his own library to find the results of a game from years gone by.

His book is not as cumbersome as the one used by the late Mariners icon Dave Niehaus, the heft of which, Sims noted, “was enough to give you a hernia.”

Whereas, in basketball and football broadcasting, of which Sims has done a ton, there is more reliance on producers for up-to-the-second game information, in baseball, Sims does much of his own tracking, creating his primary reference materials as the events themselves occur. It’s a triangle of action: he watches it, he marks it down, and he talks about it. See, write, talk, see, write, talk. One corner of the triangle informs the other as the space between them gains texture. The past informs the present.

The broadcaster, in completing this three-pronged action, does what the fan himself or herself does, seeing and marking, reacting and learning. When I score a game myself, I feel more confident in discussing the finer points, having at my disposal a reference document that corresponds directly to the facts of the matter. I can argue for a player’s performance because I have equipped myself with information. The insight that a scorecard proffers is distinctly democratic, and the broadcaster who keeps his own score is only trumpeting the fact that what he is doing every fan can also do, albeit without the salary. Every fan owns his or her own story.

“It’s a multitasking job, particularly in TV,” says Sims of scoring and calling a game while throwing cues to fellow broadcasters and sideline reporters and coming in and out of breaks. “But it’s what I’ve trained all my life to do, and I love it.”

Images courtesy of Dave Sims.

Descent into Doucheyness?

As the Giants ran towards a World Series victory last year, Brian Wilson was a pleasant surprise: a ballplayer with equal parts focus and humor. He appeared in odd places, and said funny things about himself and the game. His charming, modern antics enriched the enjoyable run of an overachieving team.

This season, he’s already toeing the line between charmingly eccentric and outright douchy. His commercial for MLB2K11 is really funny. I dig the lines about “the most perfect honey” and the magic powers of his beard. Good stuff, funny concept, enjoyable execution. His turn as a ship’s captain on “Lopez Tonight” could’ve floundered, but it floated.

Then I saw Wilson in a random Spring Training interview on President’s Day. Some news guy behind the camera, fishing for yet another hilarious Bri-Wi quote, asked him who was on the $50 bill. Wilson, on cue, produced a fat wad of scratch, leafed through it on camera, and produced a $50 bill. “That guy,” said Wilson. Fine, a little gag. The news guy pressed onward, though. “Who’s on the $100?” “That guy.” What should probably have been at most a few chuckle-worthy sound bites became the SNL sketch that wouldn’t end.

There’s a couple of factors in play that determine whether Wilson’s course will be solid or subpar: context and taste.

Context

The context of the Brian Wilson phenomenon is crucial. He clearly enjoys an extended ham session, and something like a commercial provides the necessary cues by which to enjoy him in action, and to judge him on the merits of comedy. In other words, with a commercial or a late night TV appearance, the viewer knows what to expect.

An interview in the locker room, on the other hand, is the realm of information, insight, some level of professionalism (which doesn’t preclude humor, by any means). It’s not the place for rehearsed skits performed with grinning sportswriters, especially when those skits involve the inflated ego that defines Wilson’s comic turns outside of the ballpark. Comedy needs misdirection and a level of the unexpected. But the locker room is within the bounds of the game of baseball. It’s already a bubble of half-fictions and escapism. To try and redirect a redirect shows lack of taste.

Taste

And that is the key to the game that Wilson is playing: taste. There’s no accounting for it, and it’s a fickle mistress. Taste doesn’t mean good manners. It means knowing when to talk, and when to ball. It means understanding context, and withholding some choice lines in the locker room for later use in street clothes. It means knowing when to leave some room for the audience–because at this point Wilson is clearly cultivating his audience–to breathe a little. Harness the power of anticipation, maybe play it straight for a couple of days.

I like to see players having fun, because baseball is fun. It reminds me of when I played baseball, and the characters I played with that made every day different and enjoyable.

But Wilson shouldn’t expect fans of levity to follow him down this entertainment rabbit hole, enjoying every canned move he pulls out, heedless of the situation, which threaten at this rate to soon read more like an episode of Saved By the Bell than the asides of a witty ballplayer.

I, Human

A crazy article from the New York Times

StatSheet, a Durham, N.C., company that serves up sports statistics in monster-size portions, thinks otherwise. The company, with nine employees, is working to endow software with the ability to turn game statistics into articles about college basketball games.

This strikes me as a novelty. The text produced by the software is terrible to read and the analysis itself is hardly worth reading it for. “Over the last four seasons, Washington is 1-0 against Long Beach State,” goes  the final sentence of this especially compelling game preview. But it does make for a worthy discussion point.

If computers and the internet brought the democratization of sports news and analysis, then why not also the mechanization? Is this a logical progression? Are robots capable of providing not just information but analysis that people actually want to read? The CEO of StatSheet obviously thinks so.

Gerard Cosloy of  Can’t Stop the Bleeding jokes that one day soon we’ll be longing nostalgically for Bleacher Report, with its tremendous brand sporting insight. My thought is that integrity-wise, the robot sites aren’t too far removed from Bleacher Report –a site that, by all appearances, levers cheap and free labor into page views, often at the expense of decent content. But overall, I tend to agree with Cosloy’s facetiousness.

Robots can’t win — at least not yet. The reason is complexity. As the linguistics expert in the Times story notes, robots can’t write nuanced sentences. Bleacher Report writers (in theory) can. And for sports analysis to be even decent, it has to do more than spit statistics and canned catchphrases out in seemingly random order (although this strategy works very well in radio). Decent sports analysis is about ideas and perspectives — this is true whether the analysis is wonky like the work on FanGraphs or Ken Pomeroy’s site, or news and gossipy like much of, say Bleacher Report’s content, or generalist and frequently long-winded like the writing this website.

The Anatomy of a Hit Piece

Not baseball, but this remarkable column by Adrian Wojnarowski on the Lebron James situation caught my eye. Mostly, I was amazed by the first paragraph:

The Championship of Me comes crashing into a primetime cable infomercial that LeBron James and his cronies have been working to make happen for months, a slow, cynical churning of manufactured drama that sports has never witnessed. As historic monuments go, this is the Rushmore of basketball hubris and narcissism. The vacuous star for our vacuous times. All about ‘Bron and all about nothing.

Agree with the premise or not, that is one hell of a way to set the tone. But how does it work? How does Wojnarowski infuse this simple little intro graph with so much seething rage? Let’s at least take a look at the first sentence.

He achieves maximum rancor by immediately setting the conversation in his own sarcastic, negative terms. “The Championship of Me” opener sets Lebron up as a narcissist. Without realizing it, by the time we get to the rest of the clause, we are already thinking in the writer’s terms.  That clause itself is a minefield of dismissive and negative vocabulary. The words “crashing down” imply, well, a crash. Of course nothing is breaking here, nothing is crashing. In fact, you could very easily phrase it differently and say that something is taking off, a new era is beginning. But nope, we’re now crashing.

And what are we crashing into? An infomercial, of course. We are crashing into the cheapest and least regarded kind of television programming. This kind of inverse hyperbole is pretty obviously ridiculous when you consider all the other fluff programming to which ESPN devotes one hour specials. Compared to National Signing Day or the 5th round of the NFL Draft, the Lebron James press conference actually feels pretty important.

Of course, unlike these other dramas, the Lebron James presser is “a slow, cynical churning of manufactured drama that sports has never witnessed.”  This is a beautiful piece of writing. Using the word cynical sets off subconscious alarm bells with sports fans because sports, the holy game of professional basketball included, are supposed to be above cynicism right? Sure. We really think that way. And Wojnarowski’s use of the word manufactured is perfect because it strengthens the (completely ridiculous) premise that the rest of the NBA (and sport in general) is some kind of un-manufactured, organic phenomenon. The word manufactured hits even harder when we consider that Lebron might well be departing a city deeply troubled by its inability to manufacture anything.

And who is doing this manufacturing? Why none other than Lebron’s cronies.  There’s a word without negative implications.

I would continue, but I have tickets to go watch an entirely meaningless — but delightfully organic — baseball game between the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners. And for the record, I’m no Lebron fan, but I don’t think his departure would mean the end of Ohio either.

Radio Motion Meditation

Via Flickr User Nite_Owel

A version of this essay appears at Everyday Ichiro

In a previous post, I talked about sports talk radio. Now, it’s onto the good side of baseball on the radio: the game broadcasts.

I listened to a good part of Sunday’s  Mariners game against the Padres on the radio while driving home from a camping trip with my wife and a group of friends. That I listened on the radio is notable because it was the first time that I have done so all season. Until then, in an attempt to observe and report as much as I could of the Mariners, in the kind of detail that is only possible through TV, I had ridden my DVR like a jockey.  The radio, well I left it in the figurative closet, like an antique attache case, made of the kind of old leather that smells like the recliner in your grandparents’ living room that you used to fall asleep in.

Like that leather attache case, baseball on the radio these days requires some back story to be truly appreciated.

My history with the Mariners is only a month or so deep. As such, I’ve got very little back story. At the beginning of the season, I had nothing to go on but some spring training games. I turned to TV broadcasts to cull Mariners knowledge through my eyeballs. Ichiro’s batting stance, King Felix’s mechanics and pitch movement, Guti’s glovework near the wall, and so on. I’m all for using my imagination, but I would have been out of my comfort zone listening to games about players I hadn’t watched play.

Also, I wanted to see how each player carried himself, and what their general presentation was.* Radio, for all of its charms and enchantments, can’t feed my eyeballs with that information. Instead it consists of the limited storytelling scope of one or two observers. They’re hard-working observers, without a doubt, but they’re constrained by the limitations of their medium. Not to say that TV doesn’t also face myriad constraints, but I think it’s safe to say that many more of the senses are stimulated when you watch TV. There’s basically a radio broadcast laid over the constant stream of images, so everything TV-wise is an add-on from the foundations of the radio broadcast. Humankind and its social interactions and judgments leaped forward on the shoulders of speech and storytelling, but we’re still rooted in faces and bodies, postures and poses, and that’s what TV offers.

*It’s also true that Mariners fans also had to learn about their own players, like newcomers Casey Kotchman and Cliff Lee, for example, who they might not have watched play for more than a few games previously.

Via Flickr user abardwell

Granted, I’m discounting the great possibilities of the human imagination, replacing wonder with concrete data. It’s the book vs. movie problem, in essence, ie. that I can’t read a Harry Potter book anymore without envisioning the actors who played them in the movie series. I saw the movies before I read the books, so now I will never know what my brain would have come up with if I had read them first. I will also never know what it’s like to imagine the Mariners via the descriptions of Dave Niehaus. But really baseball isn’t about imagination as much as it is about the wonder of actual things. Every day you’ll see something new, yes, but you’ll see something new that is real. The play of the imagination isn’t in the tension of real vs. fantastic, but of the magic of every day life, of Every Day Ichiro.

That being said, radio does have its mystical properties. It was with some nostalgic pleasure that I found the game on the radio while driving home from a weekend away. Not only was this the first broadcast I heard on the year, but there isn’t a better way to end a camping trip or to spend an hour on the road than with live baseball on the radio. It’s the middle ground between the country and the city, a bridge from our pastoral roots to the urban present.

So I turned up Dave Niehaus piping through on 710 AM, I draped an arm out the window, and I tuned out.

I didn’t literally tune out, like out of life. I kept an eye on the road and all, and at the very least I wasn’t texting and driving. But instead of zeroing in on the details of the Mariners game, on every pitch, I let my mind wander in between the phrasings, and the pure sounds of a man telling a story of a game happening somewhere distant. The radio game was the backdrop, the hazy middle distance seen from the path that my thoughts wandered, rarely settling anywhere but walking, step after step, in the directionless direction of a figurative destination, the highway emerging a few car lengths ahead and crumbling away behind me. Driving the pace of my ranging thoughts: the game itself, pitch after pitch ringing in the subconscious like a heartbeat.

The radio, humming along like time and the storyteller before the fire, sets a beat to life rather than recreating the world the way that TV does. So maybe I was wrong. I didn’t need to know anything about the Mariners that the radio couldn’t provide, because the voice in the radio doesn’t offer information as much as it does forward motion. A sense of progress, through time, through life, down the highway, on the way home.

Pew Pew Pew! Baseball Demonstrations from the Booth

I enjoy it when retired pitchers turned broadcasters in expensive ties grab a baseball that some intern had to scare up for them and demonstrate how to throw a cutter or a circle change. The starched cuff of a fine dress shirt, a little bling on the fingers and slow demonstrative arm gestures remind me of Little League, when the dad who was also a lawyer would pull up in his beamer and teach the kids a thing or two before heading off to the steakhouse to make deals.

My dad never worked nine-to-five, so I suppose there was something mysterious about these well-dressed, clean-shaven dads. I didn’t envy them. In fact from the beginning I thought it was tacky to put a glove on and toss it around in business clothes. It didn’t feel right. I didn’t appreciate, at the time, the tightening noose of time that each day presents.

But I digress. The reason I brought it up is because FackYouk has an awesome dramatization of an Al Leiter broadcast booth demonstration. What he is demonstrating, I have no idea. I do know that is is Magic®.

via a Reader share from WalkOffWalk