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January 25, 2012

The Platoon Advantage

TwinsFest Cognitive Dissonance

by Bill Parker

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BP welcomes the authors of The Platoon Advantage, a general baseball blog that covers history, stats, and current events with passion and irreverence, and revels in the random minutia that makes the game we love so special.

I’ve always been entertained by the usual line of attack traditionalists take against the sabermetrically-minded, specifically the “get your head out of your spreadsheets and watch the games!” line. Because if there’s one thing I know to be absolutely true about everyone who might be shepherded under the sabermetrics-friendly umbrella, it’s this: we all love the game of baseball. We love it in very different ways, but we nonetheless love it, and we love watching it. There is no one whose one true love and calling is biochemistry or software design, but who does sabermetric research instead because he or she just can’t pass up all that sweet, sweet sabermetrics money. We get into the numbers because we love the game. The numbers don’t replace our love of the game, they enhance it. But you know that.

I do have a special degree of respect for those among us whose love of the game is just that, love of the game, and isn’t (or is no longer) tied to the fortunes of any one team. Or maybe they root for one team above others, but it’s just a passing interest, and their real love is the game itself. I suspect it makes them better analysts, and less prone to wild mood swings between April and October. I imagine they spend less money on Officially Licensed Apparel, and waste less time listening to brain-melting local talk radio. As writers, it must be easier for them to deflect the silly claims of bias against a particular team that everyone gets now and then. It just seems like a purer, more noble existence to me. Sometimes, I really want that.

It’s not for me, though, and never will be. I’m a Twins guy, and have been for nearly thirty years now. My mood tracks the wins and losses pretty closely (up to a point I hit in July or so of last year, when there were too many losses to even care anymore; that was a glorious respite, actually). I yell and curse at the TV. I buy the overpriced T-shirts and hats. In my worst moments, when I really need a fix, I even listen to the blowhards on talk radio and the special types of “fans” who call into their shows. And, okay, I’m biased against the White Sox and Yankees. This is probably not the kind of thing one should say in his debut Baseball Prospectus column, but I don’t think I let it impact any analysis I do, and I might as well lay it out there.

The fanhood probably gives me a couple analytical blind spots. You’ll never convince me that my childhood hero Kirby Puckett wasn’t at least an above-average defender, and I can understand all the arguments against his Hall of Fame candidacy, but I’ll never buy them. For the most part, though, I think, the mind is more than capable of holding onto two very-different-but-not-necessarily-contradictory ideas at once.

For instance: I was at Games 1 and 2 of the 1987 World Series, memories eight-year-old me stored away to be cherished forever. I know, of course, that the 1987 Twins were probably the sixth or seventh best team in the American League that season, and maybe the worst Series winner in history. It certainly doesn’t damage my perception of those memories. I like the team better, actually, now that I know that about them. Similarly, I was at Game 7 in 1991, one of the greatest games that has ever been played. Jack Morris was incredible, at that particular moment in time. But there again, the brain is a terrific machine: I can recognize and acknowledge that, and celebrate the memory, and hold onto my belief that overall, he was just a pretty good pitcher who didn’t get hurt and pitched for a lot of really good teams. It’s not some special power I have, it’s something our brains can do. Those two things are just in separate compartments.

Which is a sort of roundabout and apologetic way of saying I don’t apologize for what I’m about to do, a few short days from now.

TwinsFest 2012 happens this weekend in Minneapolis, mirrored or echoed by similar events  across most of Major League Baseball. The crowd (painted with a hugely broad stereotyping brush) is pretty much at the opposite end of the baseball-fan spectrum from the picture of the fan-analyst (fanalyst?) who reads Baseball Prospectus and knows what True Average is. Thousands of Upper Midwesterners will swarm the Metrodome, many of them wearing fanny packs and sweatshirts that look like this and caps with mesh backs and more or less flat bills. Many will get in a long line for the right to pay $20 and have Jack Morris scribble his name on something and, hopefully, be able to get out to his face what a crime it is that those fools in the BBWAA haven’t put him in the Hall yet. It’s a lot of kids and older folks and people who are somehow still trying to make a living buying and selling sports collectibles.

And I’ll be there, as will (my blogging and heterosexual life partner) The Common Man. It’s our third TwinsFest in the last four years, the sixth or seventh overall, and it tends to be one of the highlights of the year. We’re kids, basically, for a day and a half in late January. I expect the autograph collecting will be at a minimum this year, though more because we’ve already got most of the ones we care about than out of a sense that we’ve outgrown it or anything like that (the Jaque Jones-Shannon Stewart-Brad Radke corner may well prove impossible to pass up).

What TwinsFest represents is a chance to get excited for the baseball season in the dead of winter, to share that excitement with thousands of people who share the same kind of mixed-blessing passion I do for the same team (albeit often for vastly different reasons), and, yeah, sometimes, to get face-to-face with guys I once looked upon as gods. (And to get something to take home from the experience. I’ve never really understood my own fascination with autographs; I just like the way a hand-scrawled name looks on an otherwise clean white baseball.) My sabermetric leanings peacefully coexist with my rabid, childish fanhood, and actually enhance it a bit; I like knowing as much as I can about the thing I love. And TCM and I might sit in a long line talking about WARP and FIP, then get to the front and exchange smiles with Jack Morris (while avoiding the impulse to tell him he’s not a Hall of Famer).

It’s the kind of experience that may sound like hell to you, or like the kind of kitschy thing that can only be enjoyed ironically. And that’s fair. If you’re reading this, I feel like I can assume two things about you with something approaching certainty: (a) you have at least a passing interest in advanced baseball statistics and research, and (b) as a necessary prerequisite of (a), you really love baseball. The beautiful thing about this “community,” such as it is, and about those ridiculous blanket assumptions people make about it like the one I opened with, is that that may well be the only things I can assume about you, and the only things we have in common.

Bill Parker is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bill's other articles. You can contact Bill by clicking here

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