April 10, 2000
Prospectus Q&A: Ray Ratto
Some Words With San Francisco's Finest
Ray Ratto has been one of the finest sports writers in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years, first with the San Francisco Chronicle and more recently with the Examiner. The rest of the country got their first taste of Ray's work in the late, lamented National. In addition to his local work, Ratto is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He answered a few of our questions about his job and the role of performance analysis in mainstream baseball writing.
Baseball Prospectus: You're a columnist, not a beat writer, writing about many sports. How do you perceive your audience for your local writing and for your Web writing? Do you write differently for each audience, beyond the obvious point that your Examiner work is likely to focus more on Bay Area sports?
Ray Ratto: The Web audience is different, because they get the references without so much explanation. They like sports and know it because, well, why else would they be on the Web looking at it? Thus, I think I can take more chances on the Web because I figure anyone who's bothered to go this far is interested in plowing through the insider jargon that the average person wouldn't. But that's just me; I could be wrong.
BP: In your experience, do sportswriters for local papers have a solid knowledge of athletes and teams outside their own area? Clearly, beat writers will know more about their assigned team than about others, but how important is their overall knowledge of the sport and its players?
RR: It's hard to answer that without going to the easy "some do, some don't". The beat writers largely do because they do Sunday Notes columns of some kind or other, and in any event would keep up because they are generally fans of the sport they cover. I suspect their knowledge is very important, because without it, they'd look like dopes pretty quickly, and who needs that?
BP: Baseball analysts like those at Baseball Prospectus ideally write about what is--as close as possible-- "demonstrably true" as opposed to writing about "intangibles" like "knowing how to win". Do you find this split between the concrete and the intangible important in your own writing? Basically, this is the Barry Bonds question: statheads are always astonished to find at season's end that local writers have voted Jeff Kent or some other decent player to be the Giants' MVP, rather than Bonds, and we wonder what might be the thought process behind such claims.
RR: One of the things statheads cannot know, and that ballwriters think they know more than they actually do, is the impact of one player on his teammates. In the case of Kent, he has had a greater impact on his teammates in the clubhouse and, to a lesser extent, on the field. Your quibble may actually be, then, with the definition of "most valuable". Some people think the numbers tell all; others seek out the intangible through their own lying eyes. Hey, let a thousand flowers bloom.
BP: Over the years, you have seemed less likely than the average writer to merely regurgitate press releases. You don't waste column space on the latest bleatings by Bud Selig unless you intend to offer an analysis of the material. What kind of feedback to you get, from readers and from the people on whom you focus your attention, to this approach? How difficult is it to separate from the pack, to blend a critical approach with good, readable writing?
RR: It isn't that hard to separate from the "pack", since the "pack" isn't actually that large. A lot of writers offer the kind of analysis you ascribe to me, so it's not like I stand alone, defending the nation against the evils of men in suits. Readers generally don't let me know unless they have decided that I am a hateful creep, and the people who I write about range from the open-minded to the mean-spirited to, finally, the ones who don't talk to me at all. I like that third group best of all. Less to worry about.
BP: Why did The National fail?
RR: Because it went through $100,000,000 in 17 months, which seems like chump change now but was a big deal in 1991. It didn't expand to enough cities, and didn't get the paper in enough people's hands. Simple as that.
BP: Are websites like ESPN.com the 21st century equivalent of The National?
RR: No, because there aren't as many long, thoughtful pieces on the Web as there were in The National. You tend to make your point and get out on the Web, whereas you might run a little in print if given the space.
BP: In his introduction to our most recent book, your ESPN.com colleague Rob Neyer advises the reader to, "Be patient, my friends: the Empiricists shall prevail". Yet, as I write this, a poll on ESPN.com tells us that more fans think Willie McGee deserves election to the Hall of Fame than does Tim Raines. How far has analysis of baseball come in the past couple of decades?
RR: The Empiricists cannot succeed as long as the formulae they use to determine one player's value against another's is not readily understandable to the average non-physicist. Some stats, like on-base percentage, have become part of the common parlance, but largely allegiance is based on who played in your town rather than who had the best strikeout-to-walk ratio. Willie McGee played in St. Louis, a hot baseball town, in the prime of his career. Tim Raines played in Montreal.
BP: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk with us.
RR: Thanks for coming, and drive home safely.