June 17, 2011
The Man Who Knew Too Much (About Baseball)
Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, film critic for Yahoo, and the founding editor of Deadspin. He is also the author of four books, including God Save the Fan (2008) and Are We Winning? (2010). He grew up in Mattoon, Illinois.
A few years back, I spent a weekend at spring training with my father, as all sons should. Like most fathers, my dad is behind the times when it comes to technology, which is to say he was fortunate enough to live most of his life before The Machines took over our souls and enslaved us. He is on Twitter, somewhat insanely, which I find upsetting, somehow: the Internet has made communication easier, but it’s not supposed to be easy to communicate with your father. I don’t know much in this crazy world, but I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to retweet your father, and he is not supposed to retweet you. Even in West Virginia and Utah.
He’s not particularly skilled at Twitter, though; sample Tweets include: “That should do something for this waiting for something to happen team?,” “Don't you you just the dog days of Aug?,” “I would probably sick right now,” and my personal favorite, “@jstrauss [blank message].” He’s getting there, and I love that he’s trying, but he’s 61 years old and sometimes attempts to turn off the computer with the garage door opener. It’s a challenge.
He also doesn’t spend his entire day reading about baseball on the Internet like I do. He has a real job. So even though I can’t imagine a human being loving baseball more than my father does, he knows nothing about what goes on outside the lines. He is, essentially, a blank slate. He doesn’t know anything about the sabermetric revolution; I could barely get him to read my book, so Moneyball as a Father’s Day gift wasn’t really an option. He never knows what the players’ home lives are like, or where they went to college, or what country they are from. (My attempts to differentiate for him Venezuela and the Dominican Republic has, so far, fallen on deaf ears.) And he’s clueless as to how long the contracts of any of our beloved Cardinals last, or how much any of these players are making, save for “too much.”
The fundamentals of roster construction are a mystery to him. He absolutely cannot understand how Oliver Perez will make 20 times what Colby Rasmus will take home this year. And it's a mystery to him because he does not care. The team on the field wearing the Birds on the Bat, that's the one he's watching, and that's the one he's rooting for. He doesn't know any of the prospects, he doesn't know when everyone's contracts expire, he doesn't know what incentives are. My father is not stupid: he legitimately does not care. That's just not a factor in how he watches baseball.
I really wish I could do that. Like most sons, I really wish I were like my dad. I know how the sausage is made now, and I cannot force that out of my brain. I understand Win Expectancy, and BABIP, and how everyone fights about who has the correct WAR calculation. This has made me a smarter, more knowledgeable baseball fan. I have a better understanding of the game of baseball than I’ve ever had before, and if there’s something I’m confused about, I have instant access to a bottomless pit of information that will enlighten me. If you want to learn more about baseball, like everyone who has ever loved baseball wants to do, this is the best time in human history to be a baseball fan.
And I sort of hate it.
I'm fully aware that the genie is out of the bottle, and it's impossible to put it back. I can’t cheer Ryan Theriot for bunting the runner over to second with no outs in the ninth because I know it’s statistically inefficient. I can’t get excited by a hit-and-run, even when it works, because I know that in a macro sense, it’s bad strategy. I can’t even trade for a closer in my fantasy league anymore without feeling guilty, knowing that saves are just managing to the stat and that today’s managers are frighteningly inefficient in their bullpen usage. I mean, how do you make someone feel guilty for a fantasy baseball transaction? That’s nuts. But the more I learn, the sillier I feel, sometimes, watching one individual baseball game. After all, one game is a small sample size. And there I go doing it again.
Dad doesn’t care about any of this. He likes the Cardinals to score more runs than the team they are playing, and when something happens that makes that more likely, he cheers. When it doesn’t, he yells. I tried to explain sabermetrics and all the rest of it to him once, and he looked at me the same way he looked at me when I played Nirvana for him and tried to explain that this was my generation’s John Lennon. I didn’t try again.
And I don’t want to. I sometimes wonder if he’s having more fun at the games than I am. I’m smarter. I’m more educated. I’m still obsessed by the thirst for more knowledge. But the search for enlightenment, as it has for countless philosophers before me, has made me sadder than it has made me happy.
It just, again, makes me long to be like my father, blissfully unaware and uncaring about advanced statistics, average annual value, and no-trade clauses. There is a game on the field, and he is watching it and cheering for his team. I can't ever do that again. I don't know how he does it, but dammit, he does.
Wait, I know how he does it: avoiding articles like this one. Sorry, but I’m probably not going to get him a Baseball Prospectus subscription for Christmas this year. Let him be happy, while he can.