Archive for the 'PnP Conversations' Category

P&P Conversations: Hello, Goodbye

Eric:When our friendship was but a timid internet seedling, you wrote a blog called Waiting for Berkman. While the site wasn’t necessarily about the Big Puma, it wasn’t necessarily not about the Big Puma either. Now, almost three years after you and I joined forces at Pitchers & Poets, the Lance Berkman era could be coming to an end. He appears to have torn an ACL this weekend in Los Angeles, and has already floated the idea of retiring. Thank goodness, that in the first day of Berkman’s absence, a pair of large and similarly uncouth rookies performed astoundingly well.

The Cardinals called up prospect Matt Adams, who quite visibly exceeds his listed dimensions of 6’3″, 230 pounds, to replace Berkman at first base. He went 2-4. The Dodgers, meanwhile, won the game on a 3-0, pinch hit home run by Scott Van Slyke, son of Andy. Scott is 6’5″ and weighs 250 pounds. He has a puffy face like Berkman’s and, despite his lineage, a similar bemused working class demeanor.

My question is this: What would the end of the Berkman era mean for baseball? Furthermore, is he a replaceable entity?

Ted: Only if those big rookies actually move with a grace that belies their build will they inherit the Berkman crown. It’s odd to me that such a quietly capable fielder and hitting–so smooth and confident and patient–went down simply catching a routine throw. I felt like I was watching my dad come up lame in a pick-up basketball game; it was the injury of a twilight player.

The potential retirement of the Big Puma marks a kind of turning point in baseball player media relations. Lance was and is a maestro of the old media. When sportswriters needed a sound bit or an observant and humorous sports radio interview, they could bank on Fat Elvis. Berkman didn’t tweet, he talked. He is eloquent and funny as a conversationalist, in contrast to today’s young up-and-coming social media marketeers.

That and he could hit. I’m glad he got a ring.

If this is a year of departures, it’s also a year of arrivals. Are you a Trout guy or a Harper guy? (I’m a Bryce man, myself.)

Eric: Are we already aligning ourselves into camps? I heard John Kruk talking about this on ESPN the other night, and it didn’t even occur to me that anybody was picking sides. But I guess it makes sense. The Angel-faced, fishy-named Trout does present a helluva contrast with Harper and all his stylistic excess.

If this is the Beatles vs. Stones of our baseball-viewing generation, I want to align myself with the Stones. Because a Stones man is what I am. Musically, and I think/hope/hope not aesthetically. But then I watch these guys play. Harper’s super-aggressive, sizzling, kinetic assault on the baseball experience is the more captivating; Trout’s classicist embrace of all five tools, his left-handed game from the right side of the plate, is something more archaically, innocently beautiful.

At risk of reducing this to a Simmonsian level (not that Bill Simmons would ever engage in such old-dude categorization), Bryce Harper is the Rolling Stones and Mike Trout is the Beatles. And yet, despite myself, I find myself preferring Trout. Bryce Harper is changing the way we watch baseball. Mike Trout makes me feel like I’m watching the next Joe DiMaggio. His very swing feels steeped in history. Right now, that’s easier for me to consume and appreciate.

More importantly: Who is the Beach Boys of baseball?

Ted: The Tampa Bay Rays are the Beach Boys of BaseBall. Sunny disposition, coordinated beachwear, and an elevated level of quality that will outlast the schtick….

Give me Bryce Harper. Ordained for years as the second coming, scrutinized like a British royal, called up before his 20th, and how does he respond? By playing baseball with Pete Rose-level gamesmanship mixed with the grade-A talent that he didn’t even bother with at Triple-A. Trout has his appeal, the Dimaggio-like understated disposition, and his footspeed is a totally compelling characteristic. But thus far Harper is the cultural confluence.

Do you think there’s enough going on between the two of these players to create a Nomar-A-Rod-Jeter dynamic at some point down the line?

Eric: Even though I just finished reducing them to stale classic rock archetypes, I’ll now say I don’t even want to go there. For one, I’m not even sure I can explain the Nomar-A-Rod-Jeter dynamic. I was so young, and they were so big. Now I’m old enough that if I was an MLB player I’d be entering my prime soon, and Harper and Trout actually sort of seem like kids. To burden them with that sort of expectation would be unfair. I just hope they are both great, exciting ballplayers for a long time. I hope whatever energy that exists between the two of them only serves to enhance the way each is appreciated. I hope they can be as comfortable in the media landscape as tomorrow as Lance Berkman was in yesterday’s.

P&P Conversation: Location, Dislocation, and A.J. Burnett

Ted: Well, Eric, we are in the dregs of the offseason, after all of the big free agents have signed with their new teams, but before Spring Training begins in earnest. It’s the time of year when, for example, we learn that A.J. Burnett’s no-trade list of teams does include the Los Angeles Angels but does not include the Pittsburgh Pirates. That explains his “Winners are for Losers” tattoo, but does it tell us anything about anything else?

Eric: Has a single top free agent landed at his expected destination this year? Jose Reyes maybe? Nobody saw Pujols to Anaheim or Fielder to Detroit. Yu Darvish had no choice in the matter of which team bid up for his services. What I’m getting at is that for all of our projecting, we have no idea what a given player is thinking at a given time. Maybe A.J. Burnett is a really big fan of the Steelers. Or maybe he’s saying “I’ve had enough with all these high-pressure pennant races and playoff starts and I just want to play baseball.” This brings me to a broader question: If a player is effective — not to say that Burnett is effective — can we begrudge him for choosing to pass up winning and instead being content to swaddle himself in pleasant, low-pressure mediocrity? Baseball players can have different motivations; to reduce them to mercenaries out for fat Borasian paychecks and late-career World Series rings seems silly.

For instance, maybe Albert Pujols didn’t leave St. Louis because of a lack of perceived “respect.” Maybe he left because he was tired of all the obligations and stresses that went along with being ALBERT PUJOLS CIVIC ICON AND HEIR TO STAN MUSIAL. Maybe he just wanted to live in a nice subdivision with his family and have nothing more expected of him than dingers.

Ted: FYI, I have reported your last question to the House of Unamerican Activities, so please ignore the funny buzzing in your smartphone every time you answer a call from one of your commie friends. You see, Eric, professional baseball is about winning. The money, the swag, the buzz; it’s all about winning. I won’t accept any arguments that winning and losing are really just feeble constructs derived to delineate other statistically insignificant entities from one another for the sake of gambling or self-congratulation. I’ll leave that to This American Life.

Really, though, the insanity of this offseason proves that players’ decisions are driven by unseen forces like everything else in this Gladwellian world. A lot of it is about money, but there are subtle changes afoot. For example, Jered Weaver took a pay cut to play in Anaheim, and players now go on the DL for psychological issues. Those are but small fissures in the monolith of money and winning.

That said, isn’t every baseball player an itinerant worker spending half his days in hotels no matter where he signs? Does geography even matter?

Eric: Let’s never use the term Gladwellian ever again. (Talk about Tipping Points, if ya know what I mean). Despite the fact that players spend half of their time in-season on the road, and the fact that they often live elsewhere during the winter months, I do think geography matters. Geography is part of brand. The charm of the Cardinals is not just the pretty birds on the uniform or the history of winning or the echoes of Jack Buck, but the fact that once upon a time they were this frontier team whose radio broadcasts reached entire swaths of America that no other team was reaching. The very location of St. Louis matters. The same goes for the Dodgers moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and the Giants moving from Harlem to San Francisco.

I think players are aware of brand and what it means to be a member of a certain franchise. A.J. Burnett might not have okayed the Pirates specifically because he likes rivers or wants to play in the city of Roberto Clemente, but Hiroki Kuroda certainly chose to sign with the Yankees because they are the Yankees. And the Yankees are the Yankees in part because they play in New York City. We’ve talked before about Pujols’ suburban nature and how well that fits in with the Angels brand and the Angels locale. Here in Seattle, you can’t go a week in the offseason without some story breaking about how Free Agent X doesn’t want to play in the Pacific Northwest.

Location matters. But so does dislocation. Maybe geography in baseball is best understood as negative space. The map remains still while the baseball professional (player, coach, scout, journalist) moves from his offseason home to his Spring Training home to his in-season home, and then criscrosses the country on a jet for six months only to return again to his offseason home.

Besides being hell on relationships, all that moving around has to have some kind of grand effect on the collective baseball psyche right?

Ted: A baseball fan today can travel at the speed of light to any point on baseball map, via MLB TV. For that and other Gladwellian reasons, geography is less important to the fan than ever. It’s not to say that cities and stadia are unimportant, but there’s not doubt that a dislocated fan has far fewer barriers to his or her community. If St. Louis was a clearinghouse for all points West, today no single place can command its citizens. Note, for example, the number of baseball bloggers who are able to follow their team as well as some journalists…from across the country.

As for the players, there’s little doubt that city and state matters, though I’m sure it’s personal and there are just as many mercenaries that could care less where they play. Seattle may well be the most difficult city in the nation to attract players to with it’s brisk stadium and atropical meteorology.

Is there a difference, then, between the fan who lives near its team, and those who track from far off lands?

Eric: The fan experience is different if you’re in diaspora. People around me in Seattle aren’t talking about the Dodgers. The games aren’t on in the background at bars. I can’t casually flip to them on television. For me to be a Dodger fan I have to go out of my way; I have to be conscientious about it. In diaspora, it’s hard to maintain passive fandom.

But you’re back in Houston now, back with your Astros. If there’s a difference you’ll be the person to discover it in the coming moths.

P&P Conversations: In a World With no World Series

Ted: Eric, you recently wrote a piece about Adrian Beltre calling for more appreciation for the third baseman. Has Beltre entered the general baseball zeitgeist, or is he still on the oustkirts? Are all of the Rangers on the outskirts of something? If so, what?

Eric: Beltre is in a weird place. If you only read baseball blogs and twitter, then he is the zeitgeist. But if you read newspapers, listen to sports radio, and are a generally sane person for whom baseball is only a minor interest, Beltre remains on the outskirts. I suspect that in this way he is indeed emblematic of the Rangers. Many of the Rangers’ best players are either sabermetric delights like Mike Napoli and Ian Kinsler, or highly stylized like Elvis Andrus. If the Rangers win, then everything changes. Maybe in Texas, it already has. You’re in Houston. How do y’all perceive the Rangers down there?

Ted: Astros fans perceive the Rangers as the distant cousin that we should feel some kinship too but don’t. If the Astros moved to the AL it would be like an 80s sitcom where a city cousin and a country cousin have to move in together. In that scenario, the country cousin would be successful and charming, and the city cousin has dandruff and wears mom jeans. But I digress.

The Rangers are a truly dichotomous team. On the one hand, as you mention, they are saber-darlings who perform bigger than their popular baseball playing reputations. On the other hand, they are clearly having fun out there, and I’d imagine that the casual fan can really get into their jam. Derek Holland is a total clown whose Harry Caray and Arnold Schawarzenneger impressions were so funny that Joe Buck woke up for long enough to hand his job over to the pitcher. Adrian Beltre’s head-touching issues would amuse Michelle Bachmann on a debate night. I’m guessing teenage girls swoon over CJ Wilson. The Rangers are a sabermetric team that you’d never know it, the way you can’t tell it’s Adam Sandler playing his own sister in his new blockbuster.

Speaking of the same thing over and over, I read somewhere that the Rangers would hypothetically be the 11th different team to win the World Series since some particular time. How does that make you feel?

Eric: Well, Ted you know my theory about the number 11…

No seriously, I don’t think parity is a bad thing, if that’s what you are referring to. And by parity I mean a state in which teams with competent management like the Rangers are just as likely to lose the World Series as teams with Brian Sabean as their GM. The thing about baseball, though, is that I don’t think World Series winners are a fair measure of inequality or dominance. This is not an uncommon argument: look at the 2001 Mariners or the last 20 years of the Atlanta Braves.

That said, knowledge that the playoffs aren’t fair doesn’t hurt any less when, say, your favorite team loses to the Phillies in the NLCS consecutive years. And to write off the World Series seems like giving up on everything we believe in (after all, if we can’t embrace randomness and absurdity, then what’s the point of being a baseball fan — even a self-aware one?) That’s a serious question: Could baseball exist and be delightful without a World Series?

Ted: What you pose is the Europe v. America argument. In Europe, they do things like end a football season without a championship and end games in ties. I enjoy such bizarre, Middle Age practices on one level, as a break from the American style, but I’d never choose it for these United States.

I think the real success of the playoffs and the World Series is the fact that most any fan, no matter which team you follow, can get a quick adrenaline rush from watching most any other team experience the thrill of the playoff win. It’s an inhabitable space for baseball fans to enjoy vicariously. The only way to live vicariously like that is if unexpected things happen, like lesser teams win bigger games, or crummy players–I’m coughing as I say the name Allen Craig–pull off wildly unlikely feats. You can’t get that from the IV drip end of a non-playoff season.

So, to answer your question, baseball could exist without the World Series, but it would be House Hunters.

(At this point we ask the readers for their thoughts. Imagine that Ray Bradbury and George Will collaborated on a neo-apocalyptic novel in which there was no World Series. What would this world look like?)

P&P Conversations: Worried Series

Eric: I feel like I need to do some sort of literary knuckle-cracking. How long has it been since we’ve done this? Don’t answer that. I watched Game 2 at a quiet neighborhood bar last night with music piping through the speakers instead of play by play. Buck and McCarver-less, those first seven innings went by in what felt like fifteen minutes. I have two theories as to why: 1.) the game was actually just very short because Garcia and Lewis were fantastic and 2.) when you watch a game free of broadcasters and other outside stimuli — this bar was very empty — your imagination can run wild. I found myself noticing things about the players that I never would otherwise have considered. For example, Colby Lewis has the most perfectly brown and shaped and broken in baseball glove I have ever seen: it’s flawless. And without announcers there to remind you of how great of a person he is, Albert Pujols doesn’t just look boring, he looks sad. His eyes are heavy and forlorn like it doesn’t matter whether he hits .400 in the postseason or whether Lance Berkman is protecting him in the lineup, or whether the Cards win or lose. Is he gazing into the distance at a future outside St. Louis? After all, the World Series is not just an event — it’s also an ending.

Ted: Where have you been watching the World Series, Eric, the lobby bar of the Days Inn Tukwila?

I will now quote an imaginary book-within-a-book: “It always saddens me to leave the field. Even fielding the final out to win the World Series, deep in the truest part of me, felt like death.” While I’m sure there’s some parallel to Pujols’ demeanor and the melancholy tendencies of an imaginary shortstop, Aparicio Rodriguez, the imagined Hall of Fame-type character from “The Art of Fielding,” has an endless passion for baseball, whereas Albert’s seems to be running on the dry side. For reasons I’m not quite prepared to explain, Pujols’ appeal must be at an all-time low. He’s catching almighty hell for leaving the locker room quickly after last night’s game on the heels of a modest fielding error, and it seems that, in the public eye, his dominance as a player is somehow caving in around him vis a vis public adoration.

One pet theory: Lance Berkman has reminded St. Louis and America what a chill dude is like, and the contrast between a chill dude and a stoic personality drain has thrown Pujols into a new light. As Eric Freeman notes in a Deadspin article, Pujols and manager Tony Larussa don’t seem to fit into the modern cultural landscape the way that a dynamic man of the times like Joe Maddon does. Freeman goes on: “Major League Baseball generally lacks personality. Albert Pujols, Cardinals star and the best hitter of the last decade, has none.” Harsh words for the decade’s greatest hitter, former WS champ, and current WS player. The Rangers, if anything, embody a young, contemporary attitude towards baseball and the playing thereof. Is there a pair of infielders playing now who are more enjoyable to watch than Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus? (That question is non-rhetorical.)

Eric: How about a trio? Because Adrian Beltre is as exciting a defensive third baseman as a third baseman can be. Also, he has a hard time standing still in the batter’s box. Andrus-Kinsler is obviously a more enjoyable middle infield combo than Furcal-Punto, though there’s something to be said for Furcal’s energy this postseason (even when he can’t hit, he really seems like he can hit) and Punto’s grizzly beard. Has any small, powerless, middle infielder ever looked more world-weary than Nick Punto? Lemme tell you, that guy has seen it all.

I feel as though we’re overlooking the real heroes of Game Two, and those were the starting pitchers. It’s funny to think about, but Garcia and Lewis both came out of nowhere last season. Lewis was a curiosity returned from Japan (though Carson Cistulli somehow predicted his success before 2010) and Garcia was a Spring Training miracle who just wouldn’t go away. Now they just seem like good pitchers. Lewis has a 2.22 era in 44 playoff innings these last two years. Those are some Curt Schilling numbers right there. (I’ve always wanted to invoke Schilling in a purely statistical fashion; his career playoff ERA is 2.23, though in many more innings than Lewis.)

This World Series has been billed as a battle of dominant bullpens. Does that narrative leave you as cold as it leaves me?

Ted: The dearth of marquee starting pitchers does detract from the adrenaline of the first few innings of these games, sure. But good pitching is almost as entertaining as marquee pitching. Jaime Garcia has been on my style radar for some time, as he’s as little sung as Colby Lewis with stuff on par with some of the best young pitchers in the game. After inning three or four, his work setting down some fine right-handed hitters takes the place of the marquee desire. A match-up of bullpens I suppose slows the game down, and there are few truly iconic performances attributed to relievers.

Which reminds me, it has been a while since I’ve seen the media parse a game into its parts with such a fine toothed comb as they have this World Series. Whether questioning LaRussa’s bullpen moves or Ron Washington’s bullpen moves, it seems to me that there is a kind of obsessed attention being paid to the tid bits. I never would have thought that a match-up featuring the Rangers offense against Pujols, Holliday, and Berkman would come down to piddly maneuvers and hot defense.

Eric: I think part of the strategy obsession has to do with the managerial character of this series. Imagine a Ron Roenicke vs Joe Girardi series or some such — people who don’t read the New York Post would hardly think twice about bullpen usage. The Washington – La Russa dynamic is another one that feels completely different at the bar with the game on mute. La Russa, for instance seems far less menacing in silence, and far more like a bit actor in a second-rate cop show. Washington on the other hand just looks kind of like a fan. Anyway, we can save the strategic theorizing and second guessing for next time.

P&P Conversations: Foul Ball Excitement Reform

Ted: Not long ago, we thought that the American baseball fan could stoop no lower when an adult woman plucked a foul ball from the hands of an excited child. To put it simply, we were wrong. Two days ago, two men, also adults, wrestled for control of a foul ball that had flown into a trash can. We watched while two men nearly came to blows over a piece of garbage. What has become of us, Patrick? Is this a new phenomenon made grotesque by contemporary culture, or do we just see it more now?

Patrick: I’m tempted to believe that this is an age-old human foible that’s been exposed under the baleful light of the television camera.  I’m sure the same phenomenon occurred in the old days, under the bleachers at the Polo Grounds, when dirt-encrusted newsies attacked each other with lead pipes and rusty nails for the sake of a foul ball.  That said, back then they could have probably swapped that foul ball for a couple of moon pies or a hoagie in a rare opportunity to obtain adequate nourishment.  My question: what, today, is this piece of garbage really worth?  How does a foul ball drive well-fed men to madness?

Ted: Is the price of a foul ball as simple as the thrill of experience? Do I give these grandstand grapplers too much credit by suggesting that they are seeking not for the ball itself, the object, but for the need simply to suck the marrow from the bone of life? It’s hard to underestimate the impact of the shot of adrenaline that courses through the veins when a foul ball shows itself on a course right towards. However, as civilized beings, it’s our job to recognize in the heat of the moment the appropriate course of action and choose that over the quote natural course of action. For example, once you realize the ball is in a trash can, it is time to beg off and follow another passion before you hurt somebody.

Patrick: There may be some marrow at the bottom of that trash can, but I doubt it’s palatable.

The trouble with the adrenaline theory is that once the fan has met with triumph, he or she is left with a two-dollar baseball with an extra logo.  You’d think at this point the fan could locate the nearest eight year-old boy, become a hero for the next ten or fifteen seconds by giving it to him, and be on his way.  People don’t act like that, though; they throw Charles Barklean elbows and treat each ball as if it had a treasure map drawn on it.  I can also get the visceral feeling of the ball nearing you, and I think there’s more than a little of a vicariousness to it, the desire to replicate the heroes on the field.  But whatever it is, something in it must stay trapped in that ball even afterward.

A while ago, we had a discussion on the Twitter after some other fan made an ass of themselves on national television, which led to your call for #foulballexcitementreform.  If I recall correctly, and I do (because I can go back and look at the history), your opinion was that “the authorities should step in and regulate it [foul ball behavior].  Save people from themselves.”  I find myself drawn (on this rare occasion) to the libertarian viewpoint: that those who are willing to risk ridicule for the sake of their prize should be allowed to pay the price.  Does this make me insensitive to the dangers of uncoordinated, usually inebriated fans? Or does it make you a communist?  (Note: this is a leading question.)

Ted: I will get my #blackballed hashtag ready, Patrick, to prepare for the inevitable reaction, but I think that a baseball game is a controlled environment where many people are packed into a small space, and they gotta get along. We’re not out on Ron Paul’s family farm here, we’re in a manmade bubble, where an overzealous ball seeker can hurt kids or himself, as we’ve very tragically and regrettably seen lately. Nobody wants foul balls to get all serious, but real life took care of that for us, and that occurred well after myself and quite a few other people were becoming aware of a strange overexcitement about grabbing foul balls. I haven’t really thought through what it would mean to regulate the practice. I’d begin, theoretically anyway, by preventing anyone over the age of 18 from going home with a foul ball, and I’d prevent anyone from invading another’s space to get one. Home runs and memorable events would be an exception, etc. Who knows if you could ever enforce such rules, and maybe what we need is a collective unspoken agreement among Us Adults, that we’ll all just cool out. Are we cool, Patrick? Are we cool?

Patrick: We’re cool, Ted.  Here in Seattle, the fans haven’t been packed in all that tightly as of late, so I tend to forget what it’s like.  But even if we were to appropriate the actual baseballs to give to orphanages, we still haven’t deal with the attention-seeking aspect of the catch itself. Maybe we can alter the culture of fandom to prevent dangerous behavior, hopefully using copious amounts of shame.

Ted: Not knowing how to comport yourself is hardly a new phenomenon, I agree. Now, though, it seems that the actual stage is not the only stage. The stage has expanded past its traditional boundaries. Are we actually paying too much attention to the spectators, who aren’t supposed to be in our purview at all, except in a warm and fuzzy, “collective experience” kind of way?

Patrick: The boundaries of culture have shifted throughout our country, especially in the past fifteen years or so.  Reality television has shifted focus away from a “celebrity class”, and the internet, in Twitter and sports journalism, has broken down many of the barriers between fan and player.  This borders dangerously close to what the kids today call the “meta”, but are we in some way contributing to the shift with this very discussion?  Are we changing the story, albeit very slightly, through our telling of it?

Ted: Always.

P&P Conversations: The Mystics and Statistics

Eric:

The Cleveland Indians are in first place at 12-4. This wouldn’t matter to me normally. But the Indians are 12-4 on the back of a vigorously healthy Travis Hafner. Grady Sizemore just returned to the lineup after seven years on the disabled list. Matt LaPorta might not suck after all. And Carlos Santana far from sucks. There’s something compelling, and dare I say, inspiring about this mix of resurrected corpses and fresh-faced infants tearing up the American League, right? How long before Omar Vizquel hangs up his White Sox hat and heads out East to rejoin the party in Cleveland?

Ted:

I had no idea that Seven Years in Tibet was based on Grady Sizemore’s career. He should’ve let some people know he was lighting out for the territories. And it’s nice of Hafner to show up the year after everybody stopped drafting him in fantasy baseball leagues.

The Indians right now seem to embody one of the mysteries of baseball: injuries. There are the obvious injuries that can gum up a career, but more common probably are the kind of injury that are barely detectable. Some fiber of shoulder muscle might be weak enough to keep Grok from Grokking, but not enough to keep him from starting. There are a couple of things that I’ve learned about baseball with age. One, deception is the most important part of pitching. Two, injuries (and the greatest injury of all: aging) are just about the most important factor in the makeup of a good baseball team.

Both of these tenets are difficult to detect, and they are boring. But they explain why Greg Maddux was great.

Eric:

I am not quite comfortable with calling aging the “greatest injury of all.” I have a feeling many of our readers who exist outside the scope of professional baseball will not appreciate that sentiment. Anyway, I’m intrigued by injuries as a factor in team success and a measure of player value.

Some word problems that you don’t need to answer:

1. The Green Bay Packers lost their starting running back Ryan Grant early in the 2010-11 season, and yet they went on to win the Super Bowl. Could that happen in baseball with a similarly valuable player?

2. Intelligent people who make careers out of evaluating the relative merits of baseball players are quick to point out that like a sharp batting eye and a strong throwing arm, the ability to not get hurt (durability) is a skill. This is why a guy like Sizemore, for example, is not as good as he seems. Do you buy this premise?

It’s hard to deny that certain players are more affected by lingering and recurring injury problems than others (i.e. Rafael Furcal). But isn’t there also a spiritual or karmic or at the very least luck-oriented side of all this? Isn’t this why we call them “freak injuries?”

Ted:

My response, in math quiz form:

1. Winning is relative, obviously, in that if you lost a player on a great team, it might become a very good team, which would still be better than a simply good team. I think the team question is a lot more complicated than the individual question. Individual performance is graded in such analytical terms these days that the tendency is to say, well, he’s good or he’s bad for this reason and that reason. But a guy like Hafner reminds me, at least, that there’s not a sort of numbers-based reason that he’s been crummy. It’s a human thing: a confluence of muscle fibers and tendons and psychology worthy of the chaos theory. I don’t know what I’m getting at. We all know that life is complicated.

2. I do buy the premise that some guys get hurt more than others, yeah. Those are the heartbreakers, because the fans among us think that faith can out-duel probability. Like right now Indians fans are feeling pretty convinced that Sizemore will be the story of the year. He’ll come back and lead the World Series parade down whatever the main street in Cleveland is. But the odds are that he won’t. He’ll probably get hurt again. The odds always win given enough time. My dad taught me that (not in a gambling way, in a middle school math way) and he’s much smarter than me.

Question is, does it matter? Does the mystery of injury have anything to do with being a baseball fan, besides the mere presence or absence of a player in the lineup? In other words, what does a simple fan do with the mystical veil of injury?

Eric:

Let’s be honest here, we have no idea what the simple fan does with the veil of injury. I’m not even sure what the veil of injury is. But all fans are affected by the mysterious ways of injuries. When a player is limping along, ineffective, grimacing, tragic, it’s the fans who are forced to sit and watch and pity him. When a star like Grady Sizemore goes down with a seven-year ligament tear, it’s an act of urban blight: another factory shuttering its windows and lettings its remaining employees go, another light on the Cleveland skyline turned out, another devastating blow to that city’s poor sports fans.

What I’m saying is, the mystery of injury has everything to do with being a baseball fan. Especially a baseball fan like you or me. We live for the narrative. And think about all the great baseball storylines defined by injury. Think about Mickey Mantle’s knees or Sandy Koufax’s arm or poor Herb Score’s face. Injuries are as much a part of the games as home runs and strike outs.

And this, my friends, is why the Cleveland Indians will finish in fourth place in the AL Central this season.

Conversation: A Hangover is a Good Thing

Transcript, if you don’t speak robot:

Ted: Well, Eric, it is now baseball’s offseason. Are you ready for the Hot Stove season?

Eric: To be honest, no.  I am not ready. I am still in a state of World Series hangover. But I am using this time to rethink my approach to the offseason, to consider how one best enjoys the rumor mill. I’m asking myself, is hanging onto every last Jon Heyman eyebrow flicker, Ken Rosenthal bow tie tug, unsourced tweet, a rewarding and self-realizing process?

Ted: On the contrary, I’m excited to focus all my attention on Cliff Lee as he rocks away in his rocking chair on the outskirts of some Arkansas town, evading questions about the Nationals while he caresses the pelt of his latest kill. Who needs the metropolitan world centers, with all of their commerce and noise pollution, when you can track Jon High man as he searches for a Wi Fi connection. But seriously, a world series hangover is a good thing. I was amazed how quickly the news cycle turns to free agents. I mean, Brian Wilson’s beard hasn’t even dried out yet.

Eric: Are you? I think instead of watching Cliff Lee’s every movement this offseason, I am going to strive for something even more ambitious: I want to embody Cliff Lee. I want to go at the offseason with an easy precision and chill attitude he demonstrates on the mound; I want to act as though nothing matters a wit even though deep in my heart, somewhere, I know the stakes are high. Or to use a baseball cliche, I want to let the game come to me. Speaking of baseball cliches, how about that Joe Morgan?

Ted: Joe Morgan is proud of your hard-nosed approach to the offseason. That’s how he will approach his recently elevated role in meal preparation at the old homestead. If he doesn’t show up on TV somewhere, I admit I will miss him, the way I miss Full House after school: it wasn’t good, but it was there. Who is this Hersh hizer fellow, anyway?

Eric: Ten ex-Dodger pitchers I would rather listen on Sunday Night Baseball than Orel Hershiser: Tom Candiotti, Eric Gagne, Pedro Martinez, Ramon Martinez, Chan Ho Park, Scott Radinsky, John Wetteland, Mike Fetters, Hoyt Wilhelm, and of course Fernando Valenzuela.

PnP Conversations: Baseball in Stereo

Ted: Eric, I realize we’re in the middle of an exciting playoffs, and we’ll get to that. But right now I have a confession to make: I support the designated hitter.

There, it’s out. It’s on the table. It hurts me to admit it. I have always, until these playoffs, believed in the old ideas: that every man should hit for himself, that tradition should bear out, that a pitcher hitting pushes managers to rely on strategy. I was wrong. It took this season for me to realize it.

This year I watched way more AL baseball than NL, which is a first for me. At first I was startled when the lineup turned over without a flailing twirp in the lineup. Then I got used to it. Where AL teams had in the past seemed bloated and excessive, like a genetically modified factory turkey, as the season carried on these lineups took on the feel of normalcy. All these good hitters, all in a row! Maybe this is how it should be.

turkey by flickr user bucklava

Also, someone quoted somewhere the startling yet reasonable fact that the NL is the only league in existence in which pitchers are required to hit. As that point hit home, I started to feel like such singularity smacked of petulance rather than tradition.

So there I was, on the brink, not sure where I stood, watching very little NL ball. Then the playoffs, the NL games. The pitchers hitting, to my AL-ized eyes, was something of an abomination. The flailing, the absence of skill or style. This is how AL fans must see the NL! I realized. I was horrified. My mind was made up.

But these pitchers sure can pitch! We called the no-hitter in our last conversation (close enough, anyway). So what’s our next on-point prediction for these 2010 playoffs, Eric?

Eric: I see your point; the Ranger and Yankee lineups strike me not as bloated turkeys but as sleek killing machines — no inefficiency to be found in the mechanisms of their run-scoring. It’s as if the American League is played stereo and the National League in mono. But I find myself itching to defend the NL, in all its nostalgic, idiosyncratic glory. The Senior Circuit. The Double Switch.

In other words, I appreciate the inefficiency of the NL; I appreciate the intricacy, the moving parts, and yes the strategy. I’ve been playing a lot of MLB 2k8 lately (don’t judge me; it’s convenient and the franchise mode is surprisingly tough), and I’ve found playing in the NL a much more dynamic experience. There is something lost with the DH — something gained, but also something lost. That said, it’s all just a game anyway, right? So if the NL took the plunge, I’d merely moan for thirty seconds and then start to wonder if the Dodgers could sign Adam Dunn this offseason.

ghetto blaster by flickr user rpm1200

As for these playoffs, how about Elvis Andrus stealing home? Oh wait — that already happened. I predict the Rangers beat the Yankees. How about that? Bold, right? I’ve always found the prediction game a silly one with teams because all I am totally unable to separate the emotional and the intellectual. In other words, I just pick the team I want to win. Go Rangers.

We return to this topic all the time but it seems a valid one. The exciting postseason pastime of deciding which team to get behind — only to watch the games and realize that sometimes your instinct decides these things for you for you. Example: Despite my Dodgers fandom, I was pondering not hating the Giants for this series. The Phillies have caused me a lot of strife lately. The Giants are fun fun fun. Tim Lincecum (maybe still) knows who I am from the many times I interviewed him when we were both at the University of Washington. And there’s the underdog factor.

But as I watched the Phillies come to the plate down at the end of Game One, all I could do was root for Jimmy Rollins to hit a double and devastate Brian Wilson (a total goon, at least in my rendering of the playoff narrative), thereby lifting the people of Los Angeles to collective joy.

Oh these playoffs are surprising times. And for the first time all year, I’m starting to realize how sad it is that baseball’s almost over. Has the specter of looming offseason doldrums hit you yet? Did it just happen right now? Sorry about that…

Ted: No, the looming specter of the offseason has not hit me, and I consider it a tad sacrilegious (can sacrilege come in “tad” form, or is it an all-or-nothing prospect?) that you would bring up such a prospect in the heat of the pennant battle. That reminds me: during a broadcast, Ron Darling and John Smoltz started to talk about spring training, and some drive from one Florida town to another. I could have punched them. This is no time for such talk. This is the time when spring don’t mean shit. So I will now commence ignoring the concept that time exists past Halloween.

I get your argument for the pleasant familiarity of a broken system, ie the DH. After all, we here at Pitchers and Poets often praise the inefficient, or the pleasantly unaware, the pleasures of intuition and flagging data input. I guess I’m just following my gut, though. I think the older I get, the more I’m willing to set aside matters of principle and embrace the mechanism of entertainment. The DH is entertaining, and that’s maybe the only argument I can make for it.

animated steve carrell via flickr user cineypantalla01

Intuition and rooting, yes, it’s a complicated tango. I want to root for the Giants, myself, but can’t help but enjoy Roy-O pitching for the Phils, and enjoy that he and Brad Lidge are bookending the game once more. But I still can’t root for the whole team. I’m a fragmentary supporter right now. I dig Lincecum (I’m totally sure he remembers you, just like I’m sure Jose Cruz remembers when he coached me in 14-year-old Babe Ruth), I like that Pat Burrell (who I’ve just in my head nicknamed Despicable P — ha!) has been reborn anew, and I like Kung Fu Panda a lot, but I can’t put it all together. For the Phils, I can’t like their all-too-familiar postseason lineup that much, though they’ve got some remarkable players on their team.

AL-wise, once again, I don’t want the Yanks to win, but they’ve got Lance Berkman driving in runs. And I don’t really like the Rangers. Josh Hamilton creeps me out with his combo of junkie vulnerability and religious zealotry, and they still haven’t shaken the band box, popcorn, all-hit old reputation in my reptile brain. Yet I love Cliff Lee, and I double-love Elvis Andrus, and I like Vlad Guerrero.

In short, I’m torn. So in a way I sort of lose, but I also sort of win, in that whatever teams go the distance I can find something to enjoy. I’ve got some kind of baseball version of diplomatic immunity. It’s kind of cool.

Here’s a random question: can a team win the World Series with Mike Fontenot playing third base?

Eric: Yes, technically it is possible. But my instinct is that this team can’t. The reason? By playing Mike Fontenot at third base, Bruce Bochy is denying America the joy that is Pablo Sandoval. This is typical of Bochy, who in recent years has also elected to deny America the joy that was his well-defined Padres era mustache. For a team like this year’s Giants to win the World Series, it would take some sort of rising. Not The Rising, like Springsteen’s The Rising, but a regular rising — as in to form an identity that is greater than the sum of its crazy parts.

The Giants have so much weirdness. Taken as individuals, Despicable P and Aubrey Huff and Big Panda and Timmy and the Ghost of Barry Zito, and even god forsaken Brian Wilson are all delights. Misfits. Characters. Inglourious Basterds,the lot of them. Yet the Giants, for all the unlikely winning, have yet to become the full-on, fun-timing band of gypsies that they are capable of. This team should sing like the Pirates of the 1970s. They should be the kind of team America wants to get behind. But they remain — to reuse an appropriate metaphor from earlier — a team that projects itself in mono.

This is partly because of Bochy’s management — of which Fontenot’s unlikely presence is a direct result. Ron Washington would never be so stodgy as to play a utility guy instead of a slugger, struggling or not. (Then again, Washington has the DH at his disposal…your point about entertainment value is starting to make sense.) And the Rangers, even with a slightly less magnificent set of kooks on their roster — an ex-junkie Jesus-freak, a shortstop named Elvis, an unlikely Nelson Cruz, a Japan reclamation project, etc. — manage to capture the imagination and at least for me, play in stereo.

PnP Conversations: The Mayor of Basics

Eric: Things are so different this year, Ted. So different. Do you remember last October? When our souls thawed like springtime in a slow John Steinbeck novel for the New York Yankees? When A-Rod was the center of the universe, and names like Strasburg and Heyward offered little more than glimmering hope for a distant future? When fragments of the McCourt divorce bombshell still sizzled on streetcorners in the land of baseball?

It feels like a million years ago, last October. So much has changed. All of a sudden baseball is a young man’s game, a game of Hamiltons and Vottos, Prices and Lincecums. Even the three returning postseason teams are markedly different: The Yankees are back to their evil ways as monolithic favorites (if not in practice than in my imagination). The Twins are without Justin Morneau and without a roof above their heads. The Phillies have transformed themselves from an offensive powerhouse to the 2001 Diamondbacks or 1966 Dodgers with their new-look rotation.

I’ve been a negligent fan lately. I’m without a horse in this playoff race. I’m utterly unqualified to pick a division series winner, much less a World Series champ. But after a tiresome September, I’m ready with an aspiration. I hope we’re in for a hell of a wild month of postseason baseball. I hope there’s a brawl. I hope there’s a no-hitter. I hope there’s an unexpected hero. Basically I want all the regular excitement. What do you want out of these playoffs?

Ted: A no-hitter would be appropriate, given the season itself. I’m with you, though. I don’t have a horse. I’m in for a vicarious playoffs, and I’m excited to see the Braves, the Rangers, and the Giants, mostly because their fans will be fired up. That’s the kind of fan I am in general: if I don’t have a horse, I’m more than happy to jump on the bandwagon of someone around me. I enjoyed the Angels’ 2002 World Series win immensely because my good friend is a fan. Heck, I became a Mariners fan this year based mostly on proximity (though it blew up in my face like a bouncing Betty).

So I’m ready to enjoy myself, and harbor no bitterness towards any team, even the Yanks. For the one key difference this year, against last year, is that my favorite player of all time plays for the team now: Lance Berkman. If he gets any significant playing time, I’m in it to win it with the Bronx Bombers. It also helps a bandwagon fan like myself that my good friend out here is a Yanks fan proper.

I will also abstain from picking any winners. I am here to enjoy myself, to watch some baseball, to soak in the atmosphere and the fun. I don’t in the end care who wins, even when it comes to the Big Puma. There, I said it! I feel liberated. I burned out on baseball this year, and I’m using the playoffs as a vehicle in which to travel back to the basics.

The basics include such tourist destinations as:

– Tim Lincecum’s change-up
– Neftali Feliz’s easy motion
– Bronson Arroyo’s efus-like curveball
– Dusty Baker’s dancing toothpick
– Jason Heyward’s mighty swing
– Bobby Cox’s swan song
– Joey Votto, superstar

So, yes, I agree, things are different this year. It’s a little brighter day, in my mind. I’m letting the sun in.

So, Eric, you are the mayor of the town of the basics. What does your population look like? Or would you leave the town of the basics and head for the hills of small sample sizes, predictions, wagers, and other madness?

Eric: The Mayor of Basics. That could be the name of an independent film. But since it isn’t, and it’s my title, here we go. Here are the basics I want from the 2010 MLB Playoffs:

I want The Joe Mauer to tear through the Yankees pitching staff with so much aplomb that the people of New York can’t help but tip their caps in slack-jawed awe. And if The Joe Mauer can’t, then I wan’t The Evan Longoria to do the same thing. I want Elvis Andrus to steal second and third base on consecutive pitches. I want Roy Oswalt to be better than Roy Halladay and Edinson Volquez to be better than either of them. I want Pablo Sandoval to walk off — but only once — and Brian Wilson to drop to his knees in agony as a Brian McCann home run settles into the San Francisco Bay.

Is that enough? If not, I’ll still hold out for that aforementioned brawl. Hockey season is coming.

You mentioned Berkman. There are quite a few more un-World Series’d veterans taking to the postseason this week. Halladay and Oswalt for two. Tim Hudson. Big Jim Thome. Arthur Rhodes. I’m sure I’m missing more.

Who, besides Berkman, would you like to see get their hands on a ring this year?

Ted: I don’t think it has to be an old guy to want to see someone get a ring. Immediately, Joe Mauer comes to mind, as one of the elite players in the game. The Rays as a whole have been a really good team for a little while now, and they are the sort of young, fun team that it would be great to watch win.

(You know what’s weird? I don’t really associate Tim Lincecum with Victory, and with the charge for the championship. For whatever reason, he occupies more of a theoretical slot in my baseball consciousness. Almost like Wes Anderson and the Oscars. Anderson makes consistently great films, but I don’t associate Rushmore and Tenenbaums with the infrastructure of the Academy or whatever.)

As I alluded to earlier, I think it’d be epic for Bobby Cox to win it in his final year as the Braves manager. That strikes me as the storyline that could have a lot of widespread cultural weight behind it (a la ARod winning it all, Red Sox curse breaking, etc.). There’s not much more basic than the old gipper winning it in his last go-round.

The irony would be, of course, that this is a young man’s playoffs. Whoever wins minus the Yanks will be able to look at foundations built on youth. So maybe what I’m looking for is that classic set-up: young guys spill their blood to win one for the old guy.

And I wouldn’t mind a McCovey Cove splashdown much either.

PnP Conversation: The Bigness of the Babe and Bill James

via flickr user doradora

Eric: Bill James has written an essay for Slate called Life, Liberty, and Breaking the Rules. Actually, essay might not be the right word; the piece feels more like performance art — a structureless, egomaniacal rant in the tradition of frustrated talk radio calls, and furious letters to the editor. Alex Belth at Bronx Banter thought it fit to ask the simple quetion: “Is Bill James losing it?

I think he might be, Ted. The piece starts off in mid-conversation, as if clipped from exasperated correspondence. (“First of all” rarely bodes well as an opening clause). And it quickly dives into a tone so defensive and so earnest that readers would be justified in wondering what they might have done or thought to deserve such treatment. James only gets weirder and more confounding from there, by using the word “bullshit” multiple times and leaping haphazardly from the deeply personal to the sweepingly general to the just plain anecdotal.

James probably means less to Pitchers & Poets than he does to most baseball publications. We are relatively unconcerned with statistical analysis and the baseball establishment (though we do appreciate the premium he puts on convention-breaking). Instead, we focus on the experiential, the ephemeral, and the personal. Which is what makes this article so interesting. It’s totally, almost embarrassingly personal.

I’m not especially well-versed in the guy — I’ve never even picked up one of his Baseball Abstracts — but I think you might be. So my question is, what do you make of all this? Is he actually losing it?

Ted: Your lack of experience reading Bill James’ stuff shows itself. I’m no Jamesian scholar, but I’ve read much of his Historical Baseball Abstract. He is, in fact, as taken with the historical and extremely non-analytical side of the game as he is with the numbers. The abstract’s player descriptions are more engaging, on many levels, than the numbers (for me, anyway), as James clearly takes great pleasure in finding the little-known anecdotes about little-known players and sharing them with a dash of his own sensibility. So stats, yes, but he’s also a sort of self-made historian and has set a long precedent for discussing things like Babe Ruth’s eating habits and cheating in baseball, etc.

Okay, with that said, he might be losing it. James has always reminded me of the really smart, fairly anti-social kid that you sit next to in science class in middle school. If you are of a certain temperament, and you’re a little susceptible to strong personalities, even anti-social ones, you might make friends with him and go over to his house a couple of times and watch him hack computer games and steal liquor from his parents and ramble engagingly about perverse topics and children’s cartoons. This kid’s intellect is apparent, and between perversities he says some truly insightful stuff, way ahead of its time. But deep down, you know that if you hitch your horse to this wagon train, it’ll take you somewhere you don’t really want to go.

Now, James only reminds me of that kid. He’s not perverse, and a life of corporate crime isn’t the only outcome for his acolytes. But, he is now revealing the weirder side of anti-social, anti-establishment intelligence. This article is the equivalent of poruing mixed drinks from his parents’ dusty bottles of forgotten booze.

I write fragments if I goddamned well feel like it. I refuse to follow many of the principles of proper research that are agreed upon by the rest of the academic world. An editor said to me last year, “Well, you’ve earned the right to do things your own way.” Bullshit; I was that way when I was 25.

Exhibit A: he compares himself and his writer’s life to the career of Babe Ruth, with seemingly little irony. The article could be called “What Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds and I Did to Achieve Greatness, and Why We Don’t Care What You Think About It.” And I quote: “It doesn’t make me a bad person; it makes me who I am.” Uh, Bill, who has called you a bad person? You didn’t cheat at writing fun books and building insightful commentary. Steroids and corked bats do not equal unsound grammar and self-publishing.

Granted, his argument is slightly more subtle than that, but the fact is he placed himself in the same paragraph as the Babe and Barry Bonds and Ted Williams. I don’t know much about much, but I know a slightly unsettling feeling when I feel one, and that made me a little nervous about his creative sensibility, and his taste.

Okay, now that I’ve started the claim that he’s off his rocker, I’ll offer that his actual argument has some merit. America was built by hustlers, as claimed in the book I’m reading called Freedom Just Around the Corner by Walter A. McDougall. Even the Puritans basically said to the king, yeah sure cool we’re your servants, etc., while they set up their own economy and government and went after it American-style.

So what do you think of his argument, that we should leave Babe Ruth alone. You know, work to end those anti-Babe rallies on the mall in Washington, D.C., and discontinue our Impeach George Herman campaign….

Eric: I accept my lack of experience reading Bill James. And I accept the fact that his influence goes beyond statistics.

That said, I think your description of James as I know his reputation — and has he is portrayed by other writers, like Rob Neyer and Joe Posnanski — seems accurate. He does seem to be teetering on the edge. As Neyer wrote of the article, it says more about Bill James than it does anything else, including Babe Ruth.

On the subject of Babe Ruth, I think we are crossing into an altogether different dimension. James is a cult hero and it is unlikely that he will ever be anything more than a cult hero. Babe Ruth on the other hand is a tall tale. If they aren’t already, the historical facts of his life will soon mean a great deal less than the myth of his existence. I don’t think it’s silly at all to put Ruth in the same category as Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan and even John Henry. The pie-eating, beer-guzzling, home run bashing Babe. He fits right in. He’s is folk. Hell, 2014 will be 100 seasons since he made his Red Sox debut.

With that status in America’s history and its collective cultural conscious come certain realities. One of those realities is that like those 19th century folk heroes, Babe Ruth will ibe studied exhaustively. His legacy will be proven and disproven. His behavior will be roundly criticized and roundly applauded. We already see this happening with stories about calling shots and hitting home runs for sick children.

To argue, as James appears to, for a kind of willful ignorance on subjects like Ruth, seems, well, willfully ignorant. One can’t expect us to look back and appreciate that “America was built by hustlers,” as you put it, without actually investigating and learning about those hustlers. Furthermore, I find that narrative unconvincing. I think America was built by hustlers. But it was also built by slaves and preachers and educators and poor farmers. It was also built by immigrants and poets and soldiers.

via flickr user photohound

There is that indefatigable spirit of America. The one that Whitman wrote about and the Founding Fathers embodied and James appears to be trying to tap into. It exists and that’s a great thing. But James is warping the spirit considerably. His adventures illegally crossing a railroad track to get to a convenience store are hardly the stuff of Vanderbilts and Carnegies and pioneers moving westward on the Oregon trail. Crossing that railroad track isn’t even a risky enough act to work as a metaphor. Not to be petty, but a billion people in places like Beijing and Rome and Mexico City jaywalk every day. Does that mean they too are imbibed with the spirit of America?

To answer your question, I don’t think we should leave Babe Ruth alone. We should continue to celebrate him and explore his history. But the notion that anybody is trying to discredit him feels foolish.

I want to go back to the idea that America was built by hustlers. As I mentioned, I find that narrative unconvincing — especially as we often see it in film and tv and book portrayals as an excuse for and explanation of organized crime. The Godfather has a million examples of it, from the opening scene in which the poor abused baker Enzo says “I believe in America” to Michael Corleone’s military heroism to the famed panoramic image of the parked car in the golden field with the Statue of Liberty looming in the background over the murderous scene.

It obviously works in the movie. And there is an element of truth in the notion. But I’m not all the way there. Tell me why America is a nation of hustlers, not a nation of something else.

Ted: Well, vis a vis the hustler concept, I don’t want to press on someone else’s point too hard, and I agree in large part with your assessment of who has built the America that exists today. One side note is that the author of the hustler idea stressed the double meaning of the term hustle, meaning to scheme but also to work hard. And hard work applies to both the stereotypical Godfather-style ascendance, and to your average everyday American success story.

I think there’s something to be said for doing something in the spirit of something. Like capturing or tapping into the spirit of the time, or using your force of personality to influence the way people see something that is askew. I think Bill James used his power of personality to drive the baseball conversation in a more intelligent, more interesting direction, and I think Babe Ruth used his power of personality to save baseball and take it to a new place. Suffice it to say, I don’t think that Barry Bonds did that, and I’m fairly sure that Roger Clemens didn’t do that. Sosa and Mcgwire do present a more complicated argument, because of the way that they saved baseball and really did elevate the game when it was in the crapper.

Hey, I’m with Bill. This stuff is complicated.

But he takes it too far. His essay goes from Babe Ruth to steroids to crop spraying to crossing the railroad tracks to Branch Rickey. From insider trading to violent crime to Prohibition. It isn’t that he’s wrong, it’s that he’s off in the Milky Way. Every argument is covered, giving the impression that James wanted to write something that included the contents of his active brain, rather forming a cohesive argument. And ultimately that’s fine. It’s a great way to learn about yourself and about a topic, by exploring all of its facets. But is this a consistent, compelling, drum-tight, “print”-worthy piece? Probably not.

The primary offense James is committing is Failure to Self-Edit. His prominence may have gained him an editor’s hesitance to question what the hell he’s talking about. Hell, I probably wouldn’t say that to his face either.

It may be that rather than showing us the real Bill James or something intense like that, he’s showing us the limitations of his artfulness. He is more effective when summarizing a baseball player’s career, or sharing a story from the annals of baseball anecdote. I might in the end leave the column-format policy argumentation to Thomas Friedman.

With all of that said, are we holding Bill to a standard too high? He never claimed to be Thomas Friedman. In fact, one of his genius moves is to avoid claiming any particular identity. In a way, allying himself with Bonds or Ruth is one way of attaining the freedom of the pariah, a role he hasn’t enjoyed in decades.