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May 2, 2012

Sobsequy

The Media Meets the Press

by Adam Sobsey

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My favorite second baseman
had gone 0 for 5—there it was,
in black and white. How many of us
could bear a daily record
of exactly what we'd done?

—Stephen Dunn, "Emperors"

Let us now praise famous charts.

But first, as preface, let us both praise and bury a famous man.

In his new memoir, Over Time, Frank Deford denies the accusation that he rants—although he does allow that he rails—and then proceeds to rant and furthermore admit that he rants. He deplores the internet and blogs just like many of the other old curmudgeons of his sportswriting generation, e.g. Murray Chass. (Deford even invented an alter ego, who does not appear to be very much altered, called the Sports Curmudgeon.) But he also says that some of his work for CNN in its early days was “the equivalent of blogging.”

And back and forth, back and forth. Deford is both refreshingly iconoclastic and, at times, gallingly reactionary, and always full of himself and the halcyon days of “the Press,” which has been replaced, he glumly argues, by “the Media,” which of course he is a part of, although he doesn’t quite acknowledge that. He has appeared plenty on television, not only on CNN but also as a Miller Lite All-Star; and he is on the radio as an NPR commentator—in his memoir, he is aggrieved that he and his vocation as a sports journalist weren’t properly respected by the Peabody Award committee, who denied him the prize after Deford asked NPR to nominate him for it. (The Committee chair told NPR that they should have nominated a political commentator instead; sports just weren’t weighty enough for the award.)

Still and all, Deford is famous in his milieu and well-known outside its primary sphere. He is one of the only celebrities in his specialized field. Such fame is difficult to obtain, and Deford knows it: in the spirit of NPR’s dismissal of his Peabody case, he declaims sportswriting as the “toy shop” of journalism, basically unworthy of esteem even though, as he points out, “some toys are very well made.”

He quotes others’ disdain of his ilk: their venality, their narrow-mindedness, their sheer stupidity. “Sportswriters,” a promoter snarled, according to Deford. “You can buy them for a steak.” And F. Scott Fitzgerald: “However deeply Ring [Lardner] might cut into it, his cake still has the diameter of Frank Chance’s baseball diamond.” And Bobby Knight: “The best time of a sportswriter’s life were the three years he spent in second grade.”

The thing is, Deford’s Sports Illustrated feature on Knight, “The Rabbit Hunter,” from 1982, is a masterpiece of (very) long-form sportswriting. It appears in The Best American Sportswriting of the Century, as does his even longer 1985 story about the boxer Billy Conn (“The Pittsburgh Kid”). Deford is one of only two writers (the other is Red Smith) with two entries in the anthology.

In Over Time, Deford asserts that old-school, magazine-style sports journalism, which he helped pioneer in the early days of Sports Illustrated, is dead. That is a preposterous claim, plainly untrue, and Deford talks out of the other side of his mouth when he finally declares, on his book’s penultimate page, “I think there are more good sportswriters doing more good sportswriting than ever before.”

It seems quite evident that most of those good sportswriters, and most of their good sportswriting, are to be found on Deford’s hated internet these days. He seems simply unwilling to admit that. His dogged attachment to the good ol’ days is really a bit perplexing, given that he is refreshingly revisionist about some of the truisms that tend to attach themselves to sports figures. He’s at his best when he points out, for example, that Grantland Rice wasn’t really all that good a writer; that Muhammad Ali was no poet and got “far too much credit for his wit, intelligence and character” from the press; that Pete Rose was “more dumb than venal”; that if you got past the myths that surrounded Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, you discovered that the “difficult” Williams was a warm-hearted mensch and the beloved DiMaggio was in fact a cold fish.

So why is Deford so blinkered when it comes to the internet, which has hosted a golden age of sportswriting? Why is the web still the (mother’s) basement of the field?

It seems to me that there is a buried lede in Over Time, one which is quickly re-interred.  “Very simply,” Deford writes, “as a consequence of television, sportswriters had lost their original reason for being, which had been to tell you, the reader, about what happened at the game that you didn’t see.”

Having been confronted by this discovery decades ago, Deford temporarily abandoned mainstream sports, wandering off into Americana to write about the Soap Box Derby and alligator wrestling and monster trucks racing. That sabbatical seems to have gotten the disappointment out of his system. By the end of Over Time, Deford changes his tune again. It’s not the post-television demise of gameswriting, as Deford calls it, that did in sportswriters, it’s that “what’s largely gone out is what made sport such fertile literary territory—the characters, the tales, the humor, the pain, what Hollywood calls ‘the arc.’ That is: stories.”

Again, ridiculous. The best thing about contemporary sportswriting—and predominantly baseball writing, to my eyes—is how much funnier it has become, how much less freighted with the faux-poetry of hacks and their mawkish idolatry of athletes who, like Muhammad Ali and Pete Rose, aren’t nearly as fabulous and brilliant (as Deford argues) as the writers make them out to be. When I read Grant Brisbee, Ken Tremendous, Sam Miller, and their peers in baseball journalism, I’m always delighted by how much comedy they manufacture while also showing ken-tremendous grasp of the subject. In other words, they may be cracking jokes, but their punchlines are serious.

In my view, sportswriting has benefited from the advent of TV and the ubiquity of sports on television. Because anyone can watch any game and see with his or her own eyes what happens, it befalls writers to go beyond merely recounting action and into analyzing it. Quotes from athletes, who are generally guarded at best and disingenuous at worst, are mostly unhelpful. Stats can be helpful, of course, and have improved tremendously in the last generation.

But more than that, careful attention, closer attention, is what sportswriters have been called to pay. Last week, Jason Parks devoted an entire 557-word column to a single Yu Darvish pitch (a two-seamer with crazy arm-side sink? a one-seam fastball? a “shuuto”?). The resulting lively dialogue prompted Parks to conclude, “I like articles where you can learn more in the comment section than from the article itself.”

That is to say that articles like Parks’ on Darvish help bring everyone up to another level of writing about and understanding of baseball, especially those who saw the pitch in question. And, for those of us who didn’t see the game, don’t have anything invested in the fortunes of Yu Darvish, and aren’t Rangers fans, this kind of writing gets us interested in a pitcher and a team we might otherwise pay no attention to. We are able to be fans of baseball rather than merely of teams. This is crucial for the sport, which is degraded by fandom in nearly equal measure as it is supported by it. “The orthodoxy of winning,” as Fernando Perez once called it, makes the game less interesting: partisanship makes it hard to see past caring whether your team beats the other team.

In many important ways, the best sportswriting of Deford’s age was very much like the best of ours: impassioned, complex, novelistic. “The Silent Season of a Hero,” “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” and other pieces of that kind would fly quite well in today’s internet skies. Indeed, the Grantland web site has been called, according to Deford, “The National 2.0,” a reference to the ambitious but ill-fated sports daily of which Deford was editor more than two decades ago. It is precisely the democratically inclusive nature of the internet that has supported “more good sportswriters doing more good sportswriting than ever before.”

Deford’s beef, again, is really with having lost the authority of being a gameswriter. That’s a bit odd, because Deford’s reputation isn’t built on that skill. His “more expansive, embroidered style,” as he himself calls it, was always suited for bigger, better things than telling a reader that Wormwood threw six innings of four-hit ball and Gall hit a two-run homer.

Honestly, even in the days when the only fresh sports news came from newspapers, I never really bothered with the game stories themselves, which were mostly deadly-dull wire reports that could often have been extrapolated from a cursory scan of the box score. I flipped right to the box scores page of the paper—and still often do that online—in order to get a sense of what happened, keeping in mind that the story is in black and white. The box score could tell me what Wormwood and Gall did on its own, without the AP report spelling out what the numbers plainly showed.

The baseball box score is itself a masterpiece. Allowing that an infield dribbler looks like a line drive, allowing that you can’t tell who made excellent fielding plays—allowing for the inevitable elisions—the box score partially reconstructs the game and contains pretty much everything you need to know. And it has remained both remarkably consistent and highly adaptable. Here is one from 1876:

You can come fairly close to understanding precisely what the data means, 136 years later. A few interesting things haven’t changed, like the inclusion of time-of-game information. It leaves one wondering why that item has persisted for so long, but thinking that perhaps it’s because the running time gives a sense of the feel of the game. A 30-run, 2:47 ballgame, like the one above: you sense that it moved rather briskly, as most games probably did back then. It probably had a sort of rabbit-race feel to it.

What’s just as fascinating is what has changed. We don’t list errors alongside at-bats and runs anymore because fielding has gotten so much better that errors are anomalous rather than integral elements of every inning. We no longer need to know where the umpire was from—perhaps because in 1876 the partisanship of the Lowell, Mass. umpire in the above game might have affected the outcome? And the pitching line is nowhere to be found. Pitching was mostly functional back then, if I recall my history correctly. The pitcher’s job was to throw the batter something he could hit. There was no mound. The distance to home plate was 45 feet. The concept of a ball, as opposed to a strike, was just 13 years old in 1876.

The ductility of box scores allows them to express precisely what each era needs to know about its baseball games, every iteration reflecting its singular time. The pitchers’ part of the box has constantly expanded, now including such detail as Called strikes-Swinging strikes-Foul balls-In Play strikes.” We seem to think we need to know if a reliever earned a Hold, although we are in a discovery period with that stat, which is obviously flawed. I wouldn’t be surprised if it someday evaporated.

It’s worth admiring the sheer persistence, if not the merit, of the much-maligned RBI column in the box score. You could look at it the way that Frank Deford might. In a pig-headed chapter devoted to bashing soccer, he argues that Americans don’t like the sport because a) we like to use our hands and b) we like big plays.

For the moment, let’s leave aside the objections to these arguments (other than to point out that soccer has so few “big plays,” i.e. goals, that they are that much bigger for their scarcity). Where Deford might be onto something is in pointing out that Americans like to make stuff, and they especially like to make stuff out of ideas that other people had. Like Croissan’wiches. RBI guys are like that. They don’t initiate the runs (unless they hit a homer, but that falls into Deford’s other category, the big play), but they do screw the lid on the jar at the end of the assembly line. As enlightened baseball fans, we might look down on the stat as misleading and primitive, and rightly so in some ways. But it helps to look at it through a different lens. The stat has remained important to us because we need it as Americans, perhaps, rather than as baseball adepts.

The admiration for the RBI gains in sturdiness, a little, with the memory of a stat that used to be in the box score but has since been weeded out—just the sort of trial-and-error intelligence that speaks to the box score’s ingenuity and vivacity. You will recall, if you’re old enough, that once upon a time there was a box score stat called “GWRBI.” The Game-Winning RBI was credited to the player who first gave the winning team a lead it never relinquished. This GWRBI-equipped box score comes from the game in which Barry Bonds hit his first career home run.

“GWRBI” appeared just before “E” in the old box scores, giving it the pole position in the section of the box below the batting totals. Apparently, in the 1980s we were obsessed with clutch hitting, to the degree that a guy who knocked in a run in the second inning of an eventual 1-0 game got credit for a factitious achievement that assumed the leadoff spot in the game’s graphical narrative miscellany.

We came to our senses rather quickly and dropped the stat from the box score at the end of the ’80s. What I like best about the discard of the GWRBI is that it reminds us that the box score, like the game of baseball as a whole, accommodates only what is necessary and will purge as readily as it will absorb. It has a sense of itself. And so, I admit, does Frank Deford.

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

Related Content:  Blogging,  Media,  Press,  Frank Deford,  Sports Illustrated

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