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August 26, 2010

Joe's Blog

A Night in Brooklyn

by Joe Sheehan

I don't remember exactly when, but at some point in the middle of the '00s, the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan penned an article in which he expressed wonderment at what it would be like to attend a ballgame with a stathead. Jonah Keri, with Baseball Prospectus at the time, subsequently invited him to attend one with him, although I don't think the date ever happened.

I wish Ryan could have been at MCU Park in Coney Island last night, where a collection of statheads and fellow travelers gathered on a cloudy night to watch some pretty unimpressive baseball. I think he would have been surprised, and while I don't know whether he would have enjoyed himself, I do hope it would have changed his perceptions about how this particular type of fan enjoys the game.

See, the thing that I've always struggled to convey, that I think all of us who have presented performance analysis have struggled to convey, is that you get into this stuff because of baseball. You're a baseball fan first, and then you learn about all of these interesting ideas, and they just make the experience better. Ryan and Buzz Bissinger and Murray Chass, the old guard that has been most vocal in attacking not just the ideas but the people who present them, have never quite understood that point. No one's love of baseball is any more or less than another's for their desire to know more about it. There are so many ways to appreciate baseball, from playing it to watching it to reading about it to immersing yourself in its minutiae, that to declare one to be better than another, purer than another, degrades everyone's experience.

For all the bluster about stathead arrogance, it's the outsiders who have always gotten this. I know no stathead who thinks you have to grasp sabermetrics to love the game. To understand it, to make arguments about it, to present ideas to a larger public about it…yes, then we get our backs up. But to sit in a ballpark on a Wednesday night and just enjoy it…no, all you need is a ticket.

I think Ryan would have been surprised by our group last night, not least of which because it included a girl (the lovely and talented Emma Span). No one kept score. No one cited Darrell Ceciliani's TAv. There was beer and hot dogs (the latter for the sad folk, like me, who missed the pre-game Nathan's run), banter and bluster, and as much catching up on children and spouses and ex's (yes, Bob, statheads have those things) as there was discussion of Ceciliani's speed and Cory Vaughn's apparently limited potential and the general lack of top-tier talent on display.

If you'd been sitting two sections over and noticed the lively group with Section 17 mostly to themselves, you wouldn't have pegged them for anything more than a bunch of thirtysomethings (and screw you, Jesse Spector and your abundant youth) out for a fun night. That one invented something called JAWS and is going to write the next great book about the Hall of Fame, or another was there at the birth of Baseball Prospectus, the entity that sticks like a chicken bone in the throats of old baseball writers, or that a third was once a front-office executive in his own younger days…you wouldn't have known that to look at us. You would have just seen people having fun at a ballgame.

Oh, not that we couldn't have pissed off the old folks if they'd gotten close. An extended argument over the number of current pitchers with at least 150 wins (that began a borough away between Geoff Silver and I) was solved by using a smartphone to pull up Baseball-Reference. At least two of us had prepped for the game by contacting prospect experts, including BP's Kevin Goldstein and both Keith Law and Jason Grey of ESPN, and getting their input on what to watch, sharing that information with the group during the game. During the seventh-inning stretch, it was noted that four of the five people in their seats were checking MLB scores on their phones. At one point, the words "bug porn" were used, and I'm still not sure I can open the follow-up e-mail without ending up on a watch list. No laptops made an appearance, but at least one was present. (Look, it's a really long trip from Inwood to Coney Island….)

We questioned Cecliani's bunting, and we admired an absolute bomb by Will Cherry, and we listened to Jesse tell tales of covering the New York-Penn League when he was 12 or so, and we had fun, because that's what you do at a baseball game.

When I first pictured my book, I thought it would include lots and lots of pieces about analysis, about stats, about breaking down the details of a baseball game. I think that's my bread-and-butter as a writer, and I expend 50,000 words every October on that cause. As I went through my archive, though, I found that that material didn't grab me, didn't hold up quite as well. It's not that it was bad, but the breakdown of a decision to sacrifice in the first inning of a playoff game in 2001 just didn't carry so much weight a decade later.

Some of that stuff is in the book, because it has to be, but there's a lot more about just being at ballparks, watching games, experiencing baseball. There's no doubt in my mind that my favorite sections of the book are the one devoted to games I attended and another that is just personal pieces, many of which are about games I attended or watched and what happened on that given day or night. As it turns out, I don't want people to take away from the book that my framework for analyzing baseball is the correct one. I want them to take away that this guy absolutely loves baseball and that he wants you to love it, too.

Riding home last night on a train that I think detoured through Atlanta to get from Coney Island to Manhattan, I was putting down a Nathan's chili dog (finally!) while arguing instant replay with Geoff Silver, Derek Jacques and ESPN's Matt Meyers. At one point, I think at the Charlotte stop, I just looked over at Derek, who I've known for 25 years, and said, "I am so freaking happy right now." I had gone to a ballgame and was putting down bad food while talking ball with good friends, and at that moment, I didn't mind that I wasn't going to get home until Friday.

Bob Ryan doesn't have to get that. Buzz Bissinger doesn't, and I expect that Murray Chass never will. I get it, though, and my friends get it, and that's all that matters.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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