Alex Massie

BASEBALL/POLITICS: You Must Not Read the Sports Pages Too Often

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Via Kevin Drum, I see that, in one of his regular plangent calls for a better press corps, Brad DeLong has highlighted an extraordinary suggestion from one of his readers. Namely that:

I repeat my previous suggestion for the "baseball test." A reporter should not be assigned to cover subject X unless he has as good an understanding of X as a baseball writer is expected to have of baseball.

I assume that Professor DeLong's reader does not intend reducing the quality of political coverage in this country but it seems unavoidable that this is indeed what he is proposing. I mean, has this chap ever read Bill Plaschke? Or Murray Chass? Both these men are members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (though typically, being stuffed shirts, they decline to cast Hall of Fame ballots).

Here's Chass listing some of the things he didn't want to hear about this season:

Statistics mongers promoting VORP and other new-age baseball statistics.

I receive a daily e-mail message from Baseball Prospectus, an electronic publication filled with articles and information about statistics, mostly statistics that only stats mongers can love.

To me, VORP epitomized the new-age nonsense. For the longest time, I had no idea what VORP meant and didn’t care enough to go to any great lengths to find out. I asked some colleagues whose work I respect, and they didn’t know what it meant either.

Finally, not long ago, I came across VORP spelled out. It stands for value over replacement player. How thrilling. How absurd. Value over replacement player. Don’t ask what it means. I don’t know.

I suppose that if stats mongers want to sit at their computers and play with these things all day long, that’s their prerogative. But their attempt to introduce these new-age statistics into the game threatens to undermine most fans’ enjoyment of baseball and the human factor therein.

This man, ladies and gentlemen, is the senior baseball writer for The New York Times. It's not clear to me why he's so proud of his ignorance, but there you go. Still, you might think someone would have a word and suggest that learning about the value of statistical analysis might help Chass write about one of the two biggest changes in baseball these past twenty years (the other being the internationalisation of the game).

Not to be outdone, here's a representative sample from Mr Plashke, poet laureate to the unfortunate Los Angeles Times. The story is headlined, if you can believe it, There's Trust In His Eyes:

Around the hotel table sat Dodgers executives discussing trades.

In the corner sat the old scout watching television.

Around the hotel table they were talking about dumping Milton Bradley and wondering whom they should demand from the Oakland A's in return.

In the corner sat the old scout who has never worked with radar gun, computer or even stopwatch.

Around the hotel room table, someone mentioned an unknown double-A outfielder named Andre Ethier.

In the corner, the old scout jumped.

"Wait a minute!" shouted Al LaMacchia. "I know Andre Ethier!"

In a gait slowed by years of climbing bleachers, LaMacchia walked over from the television to the table.

With Dodgers executives staring at him in amazement, the old scout began to sell.

He was on the phone, and it sounded as if he was crying.

"You're writing something about an old fella like me?" said Al LaMacchia.

He's 85, and he's been scouting for 51 years, and he can't believe anybody still cares.

I tell him I am writing the story because the Dodgers still care.

For the first time since Fred Claire was their last world championship general manager, the Dodgers are listening to their older scouts again.

They are reading reports scrawled in aging penmanship. They are evaluating players based on dusted-off instincts.

I should make it clear that I have not changed the punctuation. Plaschke really does write in one sentence paragraphs. Even if you can ignore the sheer gawd-help-us-ness of the writing, you might want to be bear in mind that the story is, essentially, a fraud.

As the invaluable noted, Andre Ethier was so unknown that he was the Oakland Athletics' Minor League Player of the Year in 2005. Perhaps Plaschke thinks Billy Beane was employing the old Purloined Letter Strategy?

Chass and Plashke are not unrepresentative figures. There are, of course, diligent beat writers sprinkled across the country, but in general terms the quality of sports writing in this country's daily newspapers is appalling. Much of it is sentimental pap drenched in cheap perfume. That's bad enough, but to make matters worse baseball writers are proud of their ignorance. Most of these fellows still talk as though batting average and wins and RBIs were a meaningful measurement of a players' ability or contribution. You do not need to be a stathead to realise that these are junk statistics.

There's a wider point to be made here too, however. The political blogosphere is still, in some ways, catching up with the sporting blogosphere. Sports fans crashed the big media gates some time ago. In any major league city or any significant college town the chances are that the best, sharpest, most detailed and comprehensive coverage of big league baseball or college football is to be found online, not in the traditional mainstream media.

To give just a few examples: Bronx Banter beats the NYT's Yankees coverage every day.; John Perricone's Only Baseball Matters is required (and provocative) reading for San Francisco Giants fans. In college football, Brian Cook's Mgoblog does a better job covering Michigan football than any newspaper, while Sunday Morning Quarterback provides better and more useful college football analysis than ESPN and Sports Illustrated combined. The point isn't that these blogs are especially good, but that there are dozens more just like them. 

Now in some ways it is easier for bloggers to cover sports than it is for them to record politics. After all, the sport is delivered to your home. You're limited only by your Tivo capacity and the number of hours you 're prepared to spend on your site. Nonetheless, we can see something of the same beginning to happen to the political blogosphere too.

Magazines and newspapers embracing blogging is one thing (and my bet is that blogging will have an even greater impact on the style of reporting as time goes on an as more readers leave the inky edition behind); more significant, it seems, is the rise of enterprises such as Josh Marshall's Talking Points mini-empire. Who knows how many similar ventures will find the space and the backing they need? The point is that the market is responding to demand, eliminating a market inefficiency.

The big papers and the TV stations will still matter, but there'll be more and more original, accessible and dependable reporting online. That's a good thing, I believe, just as the boom in new voices and fresh perspective afforded by the internet has massively improved sports fans' ability to find worthwhile coverage of their favourite teams. It's happening; it's just a question of how quickly...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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