August 10, 2012
In A Pickle
Why We Want to Be Smart
For 95 percent of you reading this, baseball is a hobby. You have jobs and kids, cats and lives. You have a lot of things occupying your attention, including things that provide better remuneration than baseball does, yet you, I'm willing to bet, spend quite a lot of time watching baseball, Tweeting about it, blogging, talking with your friends online and off. Most importantly, here's what I think you do: You spend a lot of time thinking about baseball, about teams and players, who is good and who isn't, the best ways to measure these things most accurately, and how on earth Bartolo Colon is still a going concern.
That interest in thinking about the game is what draws us, writers, readers, commenters, editors, database wizards, the whole motley lot of us, together as a committed group of (mostly) amateurs on Baseball Prospectus. What's fascinating, though, about this ever-growing group of amateurs is not so much the amount of dedication, the time and money we spend on the game that won't give us anything tangible back, but the way in which we dedicate ourselves.
So: the way. I think that in part because of the advance of communication technologies that have allowed us both unprecedented access to data and also unprecedented access to a world of people who care about things the way we do, many of us like things in a participatory fashion that I'm not sure we did in decades past. And it's not just baseball, of course, or even just sports. People who love movies or books or comics or TV, or subsets of those (action movies, steampunk romance novels, graphic memoirs, prestige cable dramas), can get together the same way. Baseball nerds have salary and injury data, performance records and PITCHf/x stats. Fans of other entertainment have similar access to news about who has signed as a lead in which television pilot, which author got a three-book deal, and why a studio switched directors late in the development process for a film. And, most importantly in both fandoms, we have places to go on the internet to analyze trades, to second-guess casting choices, to bitch and moan about decisions we'd have made differently.
That is, we don't just watch TV and baseball and like or dislike it, get happy or sad because Bodie died, or because the Indians lost a heartbreaking 13-inning game. We criticize and analyze, we break down the story structure of the TV show, the cinematography, how the episode fits into the arc of the season. We obsess over a pitcher's release point and a catcher's framing and a manager's bunt calls and a GM's propensity to sign decent relievers to multi-year deals. We do this on our own with our blogs and we do this in big groups with comment sections and Twitter.
But here's the problem: I used the word "participatory," and that's not quite right. Really, it's pseudo-participatory. We are participating with each other, certainly, not merely being passive receivers of entertainment, but we are not actually participating in the events with which we are so obsessed. Most of us don't have jobs in baseball or TV or wherever our passions lie, and most of us never will. We toil away in the dark, having no effect at all on our beloved.
To touch on something that repeats my first piece on this very site, there's something absurd about this way we go about our fandom. We sit around in our underpants and complain about the J.A. Happ trade or the Brandon Belt situation without knowing anything about the health status, emotional state, budget, set of feasible alternatives, or anything else important about our favorite team. More and more people, at least in baseball, are understanding what they don't know, but all that's done is refocus our analysis into areas where we can be confident that we have more or less the same data the teams have, like PITCHf/x. It hasn't, in my view, actually reduced our propensity to lean forward while we watch, to think rather than feel.