Generally, I like staying out of the pissing wars between print journalists and my sports blogging brothers and sisters; it’s like watching two sides scream into the ether — one yelling the usual “Get off our lawns!” and the other whining that Mom and Dad just don’t understand. However, I make an exception for the emergence of former New York Times baseball columnist Murray Chass online, complete with his “this is not a blog” manifesto in his “About” page, not to pillory him (The Big Lead and Fire Joe Morgan have already done an effective job of pointing out certain absurdities), but to offer a few thoughts as to why this obnoxiousness about the new and old media formats seems to plague baseball more than anything else.
(Side note: I’m not gonna take Chass on too much on nomenclature. Like I’ve written before, Bissinger has a point that got obscured in, ironically, vulgarity — and others have written that if the big sports bloggers were really completely committed to the journalistic end, hiding behind the “we’re just bloggers” defense doesn’t wash; internet sites covering politics frequently refer to themselves as “independent media,” with all the traditional ethics and standards implied.)
Let me preface that the comments below are not necessarily about Chass’ writings in and of themselves; he’s written good, mediocre, and bad columns, just like everyone else. They’re just generic trends I’ve noticed, reading columns about baseball over the years.
The Old Guard’s resistance against the Invasion of the Geeks and their statistical analysis has always struck me as perfectly ironic: no sport vehemently defends the sanctity of its statistical records like baseball, with the aid of said Old Guard, who is nothing if not fervent about protecting the old records from the ravages of both proven drug cheats and pillorying those not proven with suspicion or poorly sourced material without a second thought of innocence or guilt. (This defense of the old, hallowed records is also done with a slight bit of sleight-of-keyboard regarding the official discrimination policies of MLB, but don’t let that fuck you up. Whoops, I swore; Chass ain’t gonna like that. Anyway.)
Although I am neither a Baseball Prospectus subscriber nor a person who understands too much behind the idea of VORP, I’m at least able to tell you what it means (Value Over Replacement Player), and the new-stats movement seems to be a logical extension of the sport’s statistical fixation, at least to me.
Yet, both sides remain at perpetual loggerheads: the Old Guard is denying that the Stat Geeks love the game; the Geeks are turning baseball players into automatons. So silly, and mostly on the part of the Old Guard — much of the Stat Geekery is still interested in reading the old guys, even when they declare out loud that they do not care to learn about the ways the game is changing.
This “war”, such as it is, appears to hold roots because baseball has been unnecessarily romanticized to all hell over the past century: the “American Pastime” has become a literary trope that’s been trampled on by not only baseball beat writers and columnists, but political columnists looking to make cheap points about the game’s intrinsic value to society (looking at you, George Will!) Yes, it’s a beautiful game, but some of the prose devoted to it has been more along the lines of stuff that some writers would reserve now for the first drafts of their novels. Largely, the writing needed to be evocative because you couldn’t see it a few decades back — but technology has erased that deficit, making highlights available on ESPN every night and AP write-ups freely linkable online.
The old ways of thinking or writing about baseball don’t carry as much sway as they used to — while it’s still and always will be a game played by humans, slumps and drop-offs are no longer inexplicable; stats are now developed to try and predict whether production can last at an elite level for a full season. This insults the old-school writer: it defies the “mystery” of baseball that gives the game its lyrical, literary, romanticized quality.
And, let’s face it — most writers are drawn to literature because we’re not very good at math.