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Inside Mr. Met's Head


June 2, 2010 11:12 AM

The Worst Sports Article Ever Written

Journalism.jpgTraditional journalists are a dying breed because of the Information Age. News websites and bloggers have basically made print journalism obsolete. News comes quicker through twitter, the analysis of bloggers is more accurate and progressive, and perhaps most importantly, it's free. Times have changed.

Perhaps because of this freedom of information, it's become much more obvious that there are some really awful sportswriters out there. For every Joe Posnanski there's a Murray Chass, Ken Rosenthal, or the entirety of the Baseball Writers Association of America (I'm still bitter about Bert Blyleven not getting into the Hall).

Every once in a while, you come across a real stinker of an article. You know, the ones that the guys at Fire Joe Morgan (RIP) would have an absolute field day with. The kind of article that would be better served printed out and used in birdcages.

This article, by Jeff MacGregor of ESPN.com is one of those articles.

MacGregor starts his awful rant with the following:

A few quick words this week about the slow, slower, slowest season in sports. Likewise some fast talk about lightning minds and feet of clay, about the inexpressible depth and breadth of our inattentions, about glaciers and popguns and wishful thinking, and about the great cosmic squeezebox of Time itself....

I've noticed that recently, the new popular meme in sports journalism is "baseball games are taking too long." Mainly, this started because "Cowboy" Joe West, the worst umpire in baseball, complained that "Red Sox and Yankees games take too long." If these idiots actually did research into the length of the average baseball game, they'd find that the overall speed of the game has changed only slightly over the years. The average time of games in the 1960s was 2:38. Today? It's around 2:50.

Understand I'm not complaining (yet; or only) about the average length of the average baseball game.

You all ready have in the first freaking paragraph.

We'll save a detailed rant about that for some other day.

Please don't.

(I have my theories, of course. Before television arrived in the 1950s, the average length of a major league ball game was said to be one hour, 58 minutes. Since then, the league average has ballooned to a near scientific-constant at two hours, 50 minutes and change. Commercials, 'natch -- but also proof that the six most ruinous words in the English language are "Hey! I saw you on television!" when it comes to turning people into performers and performance into parody and self-awareness into shtick. Go ahead! Step out of the box/off the mound and scratch and spit again, Mr. Ballplayer! Because half a century of teevee teaches us all that that's how it's done! Step! Grab! Scratch! Spit!

Okay, yeah, I have to admit that sometimes the amount of time wasted during baseball games can be absurd. But at the same time, the game was much different before the 1950s. There was a much greater discrepancy in talent. One theory why pitchers could throw 400 innings a season was because they never had to throw at 100% until they faced another star player (which were few and far between then). No one could hit a ball during the dead ball era which lead to quicker games. Once players figured out how to hit (which, coincidentally began around the 1950s), the game's time increased.

Maybe if Mr. MacGregor did any research into his article or knew something about baseball he'd understand this.

Just know that three hours and 19 minutes to sit through what was characterized in the New York papers the next day as a "pitcher's duel" is excessive by any reasonable standard. And a total of nine pitching changes is not a "duel" -- it's a botched gangland rub-out. Fouling off lots of pitches or working a count full is not always synonymous with great hitting or great pitching. Sometimes everything about a game is clumsy and wearying and everyone on the field looks handcuffed. This was one of those nights. In stark and happy contrast, Mr. Halladay's perfect game last week clocked a brisk and graceful two hours and 13 minutes.)

Oh no, a game went 30 minutes over average. Someone get this guy his binkie and blanket so he can sit through it. "B-b-but foul balls!! They're boring!! There's no finesse!" I'm not sure how anyone can watch a battle between a pitcher and hitter and go "oh this is boring I'd rather write a 1,000 word article about how terrible of a sportswriter I am."

So I'm not writing about game length.

You all ready have, again.

Nor am I saying that baseball produces insufficient data in a data-crazy age.

What.

Fact is, the opposite is true. Data -- and new ways to chop it up -- seems to be all baseball is producing lately. This, to the game's detriment and likely leading to its demise as our mainstream American signifier. I'm at work on some more substantial thoughts along these lines, but baseball's signature product for its first century and a half has been mythology. Has been metaphor. The numbers were a footnote to the poetry and the iconography and the Transcendentalist folklore. The bright imaginings of our Emersonian collective is what made the game so big.

By fixating on the numbers for your rotisserie league, baseball now insists on making itself very small. Which likewise creates a deformity in sports writing. For example, it is weirdly possible for a casual fan to know all about Albert Pujols and his statistical greatness these days without really knowing which team he plays for.

Oh, okay, so now MacGregor breaks into a rant about sabermetrics out of nowhere. So basically baseball is boring and nerds are ruining the sport somehow by making the game easier to break down. He's right, they should just play the game on a spreadsheet. That would make me so happy.

The sappy, apocryphal stories about the game and our collective rose colored glasses about the game is what made it popular. Yes Bob Feller threw 110 miles per hour. Babe Ruth could hit the ball 600 feet. Ty Cobb was an endearing racist who beat up a man with no arms. Not the quality of the product on the field or the ability to sit outside on a beautiful summer day with your kid, hot dog and beer in hand, yelling expletives at your least favorite player.

That is what made baseball great.

Anyway, it might be wise to remember at this point that the most popular sport in the history of the world generates almost no statistics at all. So, no. This is not about a sea of numbers in an age of numbers. I'm not even writing about your crippled attention span, or my own; or your horribly attenuated sense of story, which now -- thanks to Internet v2.1 -- relies almost entirely on arch commentary instead of the simple procession of event.

There's something delightfully ironic about reading an opinion piece on the internet whining about how the internet is ruining everything.

Soccer is no doubt a great sport. It's a shame that America is yet to embrace the sport. But it's completely irrelevant to a discussion about baseball.

Also, MacGregor is wrong about soccer having no statistics. Voros McCracken, the pioneer of Defense Independent Pitching Statistics, or DIPS, has been attempting to create sabermetric like statistics for soccer. Sorry that us stat nerds are ruining the pure sport of soccer *headbutts MacGregor*

Rather, this: Can a game once written about only in the past tense survive the transition to our fortune-telling, 140-character future?

Yes.

What was once the most ruminative and reflective of our stick 'n ball pastimes is now just another Ouija board for our hair-trigger, nitwit predictions. Twitter, blog or column; essay or app, mobile upload or download, can baseball -- and its glacial pace and its patient fans and its impatient writers and its slow-to-boil stories -- survive the Age of the Instantaneous?

Not entirely sure what he's trying to get at here. Each of these are better than the alternative of being a drooling incompetent moron who knows almost nothing about sports. If sabermetrics weren't accurate in predicting future outcomes, we wouldn't use them. But they are. And we do use them.

Baseball is also still absurdly popular. Even though attendance is down this year, millions of people still pack into each of the major league ball parks. Baseball attendance has come a long way since the 1994 strike.

Space must be filled! Airtime yammered into! Content provided! Arguments provoked!

Still loving the irony of a talking head raging against talking heads.

A tall, exhausting order to carry out 24/7 from February to November.

162 games.

30 teams.

1,000-plus players facing tens of thousands of pitches.

And every pitch the little magic key to unlock some infinite new array of futures -- futures into which popgun Nostradamus must now squint, divining from the press box every possible, incremental outcome.

And this is a bad thing... how?

The Mets have been really bad this year -- until the very day a week ago they became not bad at all! Now they're right back in it! Unless they're not! They could win the World Series! Or miss the playoffs! Same with the Red Sox! Who were many games back until the very moment they weren't! Who might fail! Or yet succeed!

And weren't those Yankees terrible last year when we all wrote them off in May because of A-Rod and that scandal and the weak hitting and the bad pitching and the new stadium and those bogus wind tunnel home runs? Who could've guessed they'd win the World Series?

Everyone!

MacGregor is really breaking new ground here. You mean to tell me that the majority of sports fans are reactionary idiots?! Say it ain't so!

Not like this doesn't happen in every other American sport. No sir. Not at all.

Except the ones who didn't guess that at all! Which was also everyone!

Ah yes, Schrodinger's Prediction. The Yankees cannot both play in and not be in the World Series.

(This is the same creaking mechanism by which the Celtics "baffled" the "experts." Dead for the year as matter of conventional dotcom wisdom and imagined weak character -- until the heroic instant they fought their way into the Finals.)

You mean to tell me people can be wrong about things? The horror. The horror.

Hooray!

This was my reaction when I realized the article was winding down.

The very thing we so love about sports -- the unpredictability of the physical gesture at the heart of it -- is also the one thing we can't abide. Hooray for not knowing!

Sabermetrics aren't voodoo. I can't walk into a Vegas casino, arm-in-arm with Bill James, and make a billion dollars just because I know what Brian Bannister's career xFIP is (it's 4.83)

In a business with a lower forecasting IQ than any Magic 8-Ball or government intelligence agency, do we really want more predictions? How is it possible to crave more projections from such a grasping, inexpert press?

Considering the quality of your article, I'd say you're right about the grasping inexpert press. Perhaps this is some sort of postmodern satire article making fun of the incompetent print media. Yet again, I'd be giving MacGregor way too much credit.

And if you don't think we'll all soon be revising and reformulating our season-long forecasts in baseball, pitch-by-agonizing-pitch and in real time, you're crazy.

Beep boop replace all baseball players with robots.

Poor Stephen Strasburg's big league debut will generate 10 million words tweet by tweet by tweet before he ever toes the rubber on June 8. Each pitch thereafter will open or foreclose an infinite number of futures for him and for the Washington Nationals. And for the National League. And for Major League Baseball. And for Bud Selig. And for America. Boom! Bust! Hooray!

The amount of hype surrounding Stephen Strasburg is absurd. But guess who has obsessed about him ever since he's touched a pitching rubber. Your employer, ESPN!

Packaged thus, as science fiction and sentence fragments, each Twittered non sequitur will rattle around a sports fan's skull like a BB in an empty soup can until you manage to shake it out one ear.

Should baseball writers and baseball fans think and write and read in "real time?" Or only across the long, slow arc of baseball's geologic time? Maybe we should declare a moratorium on this kind of empty guesswork until after the All-Star break. Or September. Or embargo it altogether.

I propose that we place an embargo on all idiots writing sports articles.

Sorry MacGregor.

These are my thoughts on the train ride home, as the cars rattle and heave and balk, one banging into the next and the next in sequence, speeding and slowing, Newtonian, like the folds of a bellows, coming together and coming apart, like the knucklehead accordion of Time itself.

I'm just going to randomly namedrop people. This article is like the Aristotelian view of Schopenhauer's theorm in relation to Descartes' maxim keeping in time with Sartre's understanding of Kantian deontology.  

Future tense, indeed.

Pity baseball.

Drowning in the data stream.

A long-form sport in a short-form world.

If this means that MacGregor is done with baseball, I say good riddance. One less awful "analyst" to read.

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