Thursday, September 09, 2004

Baseball and Emotion

If you've come here, there's a 98% chance you were referred by Jon Weisman's Dodger Thoughts. I've frrequented Dodger Thoughts for over a year now, and I've left my share of comments there. In the comments section for Jon's post linking to mine, there were a couple of comments talking about new school baseball analysis ripping the emotion out of the game, as well as the one-liner "verbosity = pomposity." I'm thrilled to see such great reviews, although I wonder if they came from people who actually read the piece. It should be obvious to any baseball fan who looks at this blog that I approach baseball analysis from a standpoint of statistical analysis. But it should be obvious to anyone who reads it carefully that I have a great deal of emotional investment in the game.

When I was a kid, I was more of a football fan and a Raiders fan in particular. When the Raiders lost a game, as they did often in the '90's, I would often cry and would sometimes go outside and engage myself in some quasi-drill to become the world's best football player so that when I grew up I wouldn't have to feel the pain of the Raiders losing. The Raiders had last won the Super Bowl when I was four months old. When I was 19, they made it back to the Super Bowl. So where was I on game day? I had made a prior commitment in my job coaching high school debate students that had me flying back from Atlanta all day. I saw the first few minutes of the game in the airport, and the Raiders took a 3-0 lead. Then we boarded the plane and everything got really, really, bad for me, as the pilot kept announcing scoring updates up to a Buccaneers 34-3 lead. When we finally got off the plane in some airport where I was making my connection, the Raiders had battled back to within 34-21. I excitedly watched on the airport TV's, and the Raiders quickly gave up two touchdowns to lose 48-21. When I got on the next plane, I threw up.

When I was 13 or so, I tried to cut following sports out of my life because it didn't seem cool anymore. That plan didn't pan out. I couldn't manage to skip more than a Raiders game or two on TV per season, and I couldn't let a day go by without reading the Dodgers' box scores (and if the Dodgers were playing the Giants on local TV I couldn't get away from the TV set). But as time wore on, I grew more and more frustrated. I always felt the urge to understand everything that was happening in whatever game I was following, but it all seemed a mystery. I remember when the Dodgers traded Paul Konerko for Jeff Shaw I thought, "I wish there was some way I could figure out if this is a good idea or not." But my family's subscription to the San Francisco chronicle and my stops at and just didn't seem to illuminate much. When I was younger I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated, but eventually realized I didn't find most of it interesting since it just told stories instead of trying to explain.

It took awhile, but eventually I found the wealth of great baseball writing available on the internet. I found it completely fulfilling and everything I read left me wanting more. In fact, sometimes I was inspired to seek out the "more" myself and research the things the writers hadn't looked at. It strengthened my love of baseball to a tremendous extent, and I can't imagine following the game anymore without an understanding of advanced metrics. And it helped my mental health vis-a-vis sports substantially. I was no longer a slave to every game result; I could see the game for the systems of outcomes, not the individual outcomes. This made me love baseball and pretty much forget football, something I'm glad about. Football was a terrible lover, and I'm glad to be rid of it. Baseball, on the other hand, is kind, caring, and exciting, and it makes me want to be a better fan.

My weakness as a baseball writer might be that I don't have a lot of emotion for the individual players. Maybe this is a function of my youth, both from a maturation standpoint and a practical standpoint-- in my time as a baseball fan, most players don't stick with their team for longer than six years. That's a long time (over a fourth of my life), but as a fan it doesn't seem like it; when I think of the Braves, I see Ron Gant and Terry Pendleton, and when I think of the Indians I think Paul Sorrento, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Carlos Baerga. But it's also a function of how I've followed the game. For most of my life, I lived three hours away from the closest major league park (nine hours from my favorite team's park), didn't have any money, didn't have cable TV, and didn't have friends who followed sports to any significant degree. What always mattered the most to me was whether my favorite team won or lost and the reasons why it won or lost. I'd feel like I wasn't doing my job as a Dodger fan if I was ever angered by a move to make the team better because the move exiled a favorite player of mine.

But if you think I don't have an emotional attachment to players, you're dead wrong. The amount of pain and joy caused to me by Adrian Beltre in the past six and a half years is beyond measure. I still remember Mike Piazza's two home runs against the Giants on the last day of the '93 season (I actually got to see the game on TV!) every time I see him in a Mets uniform. Baseball is nothing without the players, but the players wouldn't mean anything to me without baseball.

Throughout high school and college, I've been a pretty terrible student. I tend to read about whatever tangents interest me and ignore the rest of the readings because they seem redundant. When assigned to do a paper, I normally spend the few days before it's due feeling like I'm an awful person who should drop out immediately. I normally end up writing the paper (normally they are ten pages) the morning of its due date, feel completely unsatisfied with what I wrote, and then get an inexplicably good grade. But in the short time I've been writing about baseball, I feel completely at ease both researching and writing. I've probably written more for this blog in two weeks than I write for school in a typical semester. Listening to James Brown Live At The Apollo Volume II and writing about Jose Lima's Fielding Independent Pitching is a pretty great time for me. Not my absolute favorite thing in the world, but it does wonders for my mental health. I spent the summer either reading about baseball, writing and playing music, or thinking about somebody I couldn't see anymore who I'd been thinking of non-stop for two years, and as much as wish I could deal with everything in my life on its own I have a need for distractions and for outlets for the logical part of my mind. Writing about baseball from an analytic standpoint is just something that I have to do, for now anyway.

If it's pompous to write a ton of words about one baseball player, than I suppose I'm pompous. It wasn't my intention. My intention was just to do the best I could to figure out the baseball player who had cast a huge emotional spell on me. I'd much rather write 8,600 words on someone and have someone only read a secondary source's description of my piece and reply "Duh" than to write 400 words comparing Beltre's OPS to other 25-year-olds. I mean, for my own sake I had to do the research; I had to know about Rico Petrocelli and Bob Bailey and Ruben Sierra's triples in 1989 and Brendan Harris and Justin Leone and PSA+ and all the other stuff. I care too much, from an emotional standpoint, not to do the best job I can of figuring out what to expect. And if I'm going to do the research, shouldn't I try to let other people see the results?

I don't know how big the audience for this blog can be, and it's obviously not going to satisfy everyone in the peanut gallery (for whose sake I resisted the temptation to write "the George Washington Carver gallery" or somesuch verbosity). Nor do I have any idea who this post is really addressed to. All I know is that for some reason I can't explain I have to write this post and hundreds more like it. So join me if you'd like... I know it would make things better for me if you did, but I also understand that (Gleeman-length)^2 is a lot to read.

Tom, first of all, congrats on the Beltre piece and all the effort behind it. Your attitude toward the comments is correct - if there's something you can learn from them, great, if not, just move right along. I will add, though, that your side-by-side discussions of length and audience are related.

It's not an issue of pomposity. The fact is, not a lot of people have time to read a piece as long as the Beltre article. If you're only interested in reaching the people that have that time, that's great. But if you want to expand your audience, you may need to start trimming - despite your feeling that "I've done all this work, why shouldn't I share it." There's a skill in doing the research you're doing, and there's also a skill in writing concisely. Both are important. So while your article may be more worthwhile, the fact is that people - even smart people - are more likely to read the 400-word alternative. There's a lot of material on the Internet, more every day, yet the days aren't getting any longer.

Bottom line - blogs mean freedom - but audiences do not. It doesn't have to matter, but if growing your audience does matter, you may have to meet us halfway.
I'm just getting started with blogging myself (mostly for myself when it comes to that). I admire you for writing essays rather than sound-bites (blog-bites?). I couldn't possibly do that, since I have a hard time keeping one topic in mind long enough.

One thing that makes it hard for me to read your entries is the font you are using. I know it seems trivial, but the bold, sans-serif font makes my eyes hurt. Looking at this article while I'm posting a comment helps a lot.

I know it shouldn't matter, but little things like that can make a huge difference to whether or not people dive into a long article. Spelling is another. You've put a ton of effort into your articles -- it'd be a shame if you lost readers because of stuff like that.

Keep writing and don't let any negative comments discourage you. Sometimes we readers don't know what's best. ;-)
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