This year marks the 40th birthday of my favorite studio album of all time: Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. I know I’ve mentioned my love for The Boss quite often in these pages (almost as much as I’ve tried to find convoluted reasons to plug my senior thesis research); I don’t think any one record fully captures the essence of Springsteen’s musical genius, but Born to Run is as close as you can get short of seeing him in concert, or at least listening to a high-quality live recording.
Springsteen has called Born to Run “the dividing line” of his career, and for good reason: after failing to achieve commercial success with his first two albums, Bruce poured his soul into what he thought was his last chance at stardom and set his sights on making “the greatest rock record [he]'d ever heard." Though he introduces us to a range of characters, stories, and emotions over the course of eight tracks, all throughout the album we are confronted by poignant expressions of Springsteen’s own passionate desires and aspiration for greatness, as well as the urgency with which he felt he needed to achieve them. Incredible as most of the songs are on their own, the unifying themes of contrasted and conflated romantic idealism and desperate yearning make the full record a true masterpiece greater than the sum of its parts.
These observations are unoriginal to the point of possible cliché—I wasn’t nearly the first to feel my passion ignite with the soaring title anthem or the haunting beauty of “Jungleland.” But I’ve identified another side of Born to Run that no other Springsteen fan or music critic has noticed in four decades: I think one of the greatest albums in the history of music is actually about baseball.
Once you start to listen to the album through this lens, a whole new world of meaning opens up. It turns out that each side of Born to Run tells the tragically heroic story of a different baseball man: one an overly confident sabermetrician trying to make his way in a game that has long resisted change, the other a thoroughbred scout struggling to find his place in a sport that’s evolved beyond what he once knew. And perhaps more importantly, Springsteen’s magnum opus is an incredibly insightful and nuanced commentary about analytics, scouting, and how we can best understand and enjoy the game of baseball.
It really is incredible that Springsteen was able to write such an insightful, enduring commentary on baseball considering that many of the ideas and trends that he critiques didn’t develop until decades after the album’s release. So, if you’ll permit me, I will now put my liberal arts education to good use by taking you track-by-track through this legendary record to interpret the genius of Bruce Springsteen’s misunderstood and underappreciated baseball mind.
Track 1: Thunder Road
Let’s not mince any words here: Everything that people say sabermetrics can’t capture is in this song. Born to Run has been described as representing 24 hours in the life of its various characters, and as the harmonica-piano duet signals the break of dawn it reveals a world of longing, of #want, of The Will to Win. The protagonist’s love interest appears “like a vision” as Bruce sings of “magic in the night.” This is a story of trusting your gut and following your passion. In “a town full of losers,” our hero declares that he is “pullin’ out of here to win” before giving way to a triumphant swell of instrumental passion.
Setting the song in this context is a brilliant twist since the metaphorical morning actually represents the dawn of sabermetrics. Our protagonist is an idealist with big dreams, but as we meet him he’s really just an optimistic loser whose only redemption is “beneath this dirty hood.” There’s great promise in what’s to come, but at this point all he’s asking us to do is come along for the start of the ride.
Track 2: Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
The most autobiographical track on the album, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” is ostensibly the story of how the E Street Band came together and found success. Despite being the most upbeat-sounding song on the album, the lyrics tell a story of great adversity. Bad Scooter “take[s] in all the heat they was givin’” while he has his “back to the wall”; he reflects on being “all alone” and “on [his] own” while doubters tell him “kid, you better get the picture.” Yet he maintains his cocky swagger and looks forward to the day that he’ll “sit back right easy and laugh” at those who dismissed his bold new ideas.
Any of that sound familiar? I don’t think I’m alone among the community of sabermetricians when I say I see a lot of my younger (and probably present, though hopefully to a lesser extent) self in the character of Bad Scooter. The analytics movement sat on the sidelines for far too long and came of age in the snark-filled corners of the internet, and as a result much (if not most) of public sabermetric research and discourse is framed in terms of what teams and writers and broadcasters are doing wrong. In addition to making the analytics movement seem cool, this song perfectly captures that defiant, maybe-a-bit-too-strong confidence that has permeated the sabermetric zeitgeist.
Track 3: Night
This is perhaps the most emotionally conflicted track on the album. Clarence Clemons’ opening saxophone wail sets the tone for the song: exciting yet bleak, eager yet tired, optimistic yet hopeless. Unlike the youthful idealism in “Thunder Road” and the cocky defiance of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” our protagonist’s confident disposition comes across like a denial that even he doesn’t fully believe in.
“Night” is also the hardest song on the record to clearly interpret in baseball terms. It could be a commentary on the stubbornness of sabermetricians even when they know deep down inside that they’re wrong, though that’s a less-nuanced and more-arithmophobic message than what we see throughout the rest of the album. Perhaps there’s a hint of a jab against analytical overconfidence in this song, but my best explanation of the main point is that it’s a critique of sabermetric groupthink and the non-diverse bubble of ideas in which analysts can easily get stuck.
Track 4: Backstreets
It would be easy to see the end of Side 1 as a scathing critique of the analytics movement. The basic story is that our protagonist has a falling-out with a companion, but this record is so much deeper than that. In his contemporary album review, Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus called this track “deathly” and called the music “so stately, so heartbreaking, that it might be the prelude to a rock & roll version of The Iliad.” After spending three songs defining the protagonist’s character in terms of his passion for sabermetrics with increased skepticism, it doesn’t seem at all far-fetched to suggest that being betrayed by “Terry” represents the realization that analytics don’t work in baseball.
But I think Springsteen is making a much more nuanced point. The key lyric in this song for me is: “Trying to learn how to walk with the heroes we thought we had to be.” The specific reference to the “walk” suggests that our narrator’s understanding of sabermetrics didn’t get much further than the basics. Thanks largely to its emphasis in Moneyball (both the book and the movie), the idea that the analytics movement ultimately boils down to preaching plate discipline and on-base percentage is a popular misconception among those who don’t fully understand it. This line also speaks to the protagonist’s general desire to define himself and his relationship with Terry (i.e., sabermetrics) in terms of what he’d seen from other people, not from his own ideas and critical thought. Springsteen’s critique (which would be lost on the character he created) is thus not about analytics per se but using and judging the advanced statistics without fully understanding them.
Track #5: Born to Run
As we turn the record over to Disc 2, we meet a new protagonist who embodies rebellion against a “runaway American Dream.” A restless romantic zooms through his “death trap” of a town looking to escape and feel something real, and is willing to risk his life in the process. It’s…you know what, there’s nothing I can say about how this song sounds that you don’t get from listening to it.
There’s no way a song about baseball that’s called “Born to Run” couldn’t be about the intangible thrills of the game. The traditionalist’s answer to “Thunder Road,” this track introduces us to a young baseball guy with an old-fashioned mentality who feels suffocated by the data-driven outlook that the previous protagonist helped to create. Neither Springsteen nor our narrator is questioning that quantitative analysis is useful, but the latter clearly feels out of place and left behind and the former seems to be suggesting that there are blind spots in the sabermetric view of the game.
Track #6: She’s the One
This is far and away the easiest song on this album to interpret. Nominally, the lyrics tell the story of a woman with whom our narrator is infatuated despite her dishonesty and “heart of stone.” Symbolically, Springsteen here relates the story of a scout who believes in the potential of a raw young player. Maybe the prospect hasn’t shown much yet and our scout knows why most people aren’t as high on him. But our protagonist knows talent when he sees it, and he is unwavering in his faith in his guy.
Figuring out Springsteen’s personal opinions is another matter. Yes, the song sounds sincere—an extended Clarence Clemons saxophone solo is a sign of love, not irony— and as the Side-2 parallel with “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” it makes sense that it would be generally positive. But on the other hand, a listener wouldn’t be left feeling very confident that she is in fact the one, and it’s not unreasonable to think Bruce could have written a genuine ode to a philosophy he doesn’t really believe in. I lean toward interpreting his portrayal of a scout’s instinct in a positive way, but there’s something to be said about the ambiguity.
Track #7: Meeting Across the River
The most strident opinion Springsteen expresses about baseball is not-so-subtly baked into this short but haunting ballad. On this track, our desperate protagonist asks his friend for help before “meeting with a man” about some sort of illicit deal that’s obviously not going to go very well. The narrator confidently declares that “the two grand's practically sitting here in [his] pocket,” but his optimism that he’ll find redemption is undermined by the wistful bass and trumpet and his own clear lack of preparedness for the mission.
Bruce doesn’t doubt that his character’s belief is genuine, but there’s a clear message in the dramatic irony he presents. The narrator, with his irrationally stubborn faith in a plan that’s obviously doomed to fail, represents the backlash against sabermetrics and the ardent anti-analytics crowds who willfully ignore advanced statistics in favor of their subjective instincts. Just as “Backstreets” wasn’t a critique of the entire field of sabermetrics, this isn’t a broad indictment of traditionalist philosophies—just of reflexive closed-mindedness to sabermetric ideas.
Track #8: Jungleland
The album’s finale might be my favorite song of all time, though depending on the day I’m not even sure if it’s my favorite track on this album. It’s the story of a tragic hero called “Rat” and his ambitions, romance, and death set in the context of a surreally poetic gang war. And it is the single most important song on the album in terms of its message about baseball.
If you’re looking for it, the easiest way to interpret “Jungleland” is to see Rat as a scouting martyr. Here we have a scrappy, ambitious young kid who finds beauty and poetry where no one else can see it. But those in charge hunt him for his idealism (among other things), “his own dream guns him down,” and he and his death are forgotten. If you want to read this song as a damning critique of the sabermetric movement, that the statheads are robbing baseball of its magnificence and unceremoniously kicking the experienced denizens of the game to the curb, you certainly have the basis to do it.
But this interpretation is an intentional red herring, and the real meaning of the song is much more profound and satisfying. If you listen to this track primarily to hear the story in the lyrics, you’ve missed the point. To focus solely on the Rat’s tragic fall is to miss everything else that makes this song magical—which is exactly Springsteen’s point.
Listen to that saxophone solo again. It’s glorious. If I didn’t already play saxophone, this song would make me want to take it up. There are so many emotions in Clarence Clemons’ two-minute swell of passion: hope and despair, joy and sadness, betrayal and forgiveness, love and pain. The intended takeaway of this song transcends the literal meaning of the lyrics, but if you’re too busy trying to explain how it fits in with your own agenda you’ll miss the wonder that’s right in front of you. The same goes for baseball: if you get too caught up in the increasingly false dichotomy between scouting and analytics, you might forget to appreciate just how wonderful this game is.
This is the last article I'll be writing for a while, and for lack of anything more profound to say (except for, hey, have you heard that front office personnel are the next Moneyball?), I’ll leave you with that extremely trite yet genuinely sincere thought. Dick Cramer accurately called baseball “a soap opera that lends itself to probabilistic thinking”—the key here being “soap opera.” There’s no wrong way to love baseball, but it’s easy for fans and analysts on any side to get caught up in negativity (I’m certainly guilty of that). And if you go too far down that rabbit hole you’ll lose sight of what makes this game so fun, so exciting, and so magical.
“The poets down here don’t write nothing at all,” Springsteen sings in “Jungleland,” “they just stand back and let it all be.” Maybe that makes them bad poets (though you could say they literally specialize in blank verse). But I bet they know how to appreciate the game.
Thank you for reading
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