Last Friday, Rian Watt wrote about what comes after Sabermetrics, pointing to what he termed “intersectionalist” writing as the next great paradigmatic shift in baseball analysis. This writing, he claims, is about, “sports within the context of the broader society, and about the renewed humanity of the game.” He asserts that his favorite writing of the last year has, “been about politics, and race, and gender, and sexuality, and money, and power, and how they all come together in this game we love.”
Placing baseball within its social and political context is not a move meant to condemn or replace sabermetrics. Craig Calcaterra’s description of it as a fellow traveler to sabermetrics, or Steve Goldman and Christina Kahrl sorting it into the “liberal arts wing” of baseball writing seems apt; today’s writers are all students at the same university, marching behind the same mascot. The Intersectionalists simply represent different campus departments at the pep rally.
I won’t be addressing questions of form or protocol when it comes to “intersectional” writing, fruitful though those topics surely are for writers and editors. The question that interests me isn’t whether intersectional approaches are worthwhile for baseball, but why baseball as a place of political and social contestation and education is worthwhile for pursuits beyond it.
Sports are a form of habit, or perhaps more accurately habituation. We’re used to thinking of them as such, but when we do, it’s the grind that comes to mind. When men play baseball, they look to condition the movements and rhythms of their bodies into a repeatable process. A windup, a smooth swing. Minor leaguers lift and huff and strain to get closer to The Show. The conditioning works to house replicable action deep in their muscles. It’s work they hope will translate from diamonds in Fresno or Pawtucket to those housed in the game’s cathedrals. When the level of competition rises, players look to lean on those skills so that they might avoid being overwhelmed. There is an intentionality to that training; you don’t wake up one day suddenly looking like Bryce Harper.
For spectators, the conditioning is softer, and slower moving. Baseball is a game orchestrated and played by people who are participants in and shapers of a broader culture. Who appears on the field is dictated by the talent of the player, but who is positioned to take advantage of talent, why they make the decision to play baseball instead of other sports, how much they make, what power they bring to the negotiating table, and which racial and cultural dynamics they face when they stand up from it combine to form an intricate lattice work that go as far to shape the game as any tool. The game’s familiar rhythms bring with them opportunities for new discussion and scrutiny, the sort of debate that not only helps us to refine baseball, but to habituate ourselves to discourse surrounding labor, or race, or gender, without questions.
Those conversations are as vital as they are uncomfortable, but baseball’s debates and machinations outfit us with a context and a vocabulary for those debates that is more palatable for its stealth. That vocabulary isn’t always appetizing; sometimes it is racially charged, or insensitive, vulgar or too simple, when the conversation merits much more. Like more traditional forms of social contestation, it can be done well or poorly. But the sideways tumble we do into questions we might otherwise avoid is the powerful transfiguration it offers. It helps to open us up. Done well, it primes us with a sort of accessible critical engagement we need as citizens and parents and social beings.
Baseball is fraught because it is human; it is transformative because it allows for heady and heavy consequences to be interspersed with fun. There is a natural pressure valve in baseball that makes the discussion palatable. We are forced to acknowledge the reality that our game sits up on social constructs, but we aren’t always forced to look at them. As Annie Savoy tells us in Bull Durham, “Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it's also a job.” Politics more broadly understood as social contestation determines who peoples the field, how they are compensated, and how we understand their contributions and celebrations.
But once they get there, they play a game. Jose Bautista’s bat flip verged on an ecclesiastical experience for some, and a social revolution for others, but it was as much unfiltered joy and bravado as it was either of those things. Sometimes we want to laugh, or be silly. Sometimes we want to feel awe, to revel in Mike Trout robbing a home run, or Josh Donaldson rocketing one over the wall. Those moments stand out for their cleanness. They stand out, unmoored from the construct. Simple, shining thumps of baseball for our delight. They are joyful and expressive.
Sometimes though, as with Bautista’s bat flip or Chase Utley’s slide, or the scheming of free agent contracts, or the league’s domestic violence policy, there are moments that represent “Baseball and.” To try to separate them from the game is to deny the process by which the game is made. To focus on them exclusively is to sap baseball of its effervescence. And so we learn to pivot back and forth, building our opinion of a game without realizing that our education extends far beyond that. If that education is limited to the game, it serves its own purpose; we understand baseball better. But it can also serve something more.
We needn’t suffer delusions of grandeur. Baseball is not climate change or the national debt. We may ask questions that require us to engage immigration or domestic violence, but baseball’s role in those matters is best characterized as employer rather than diplomat. Baseball’s capacity for change is culturally visible but its ability to effect change is relatively circumscribed. Baseball is not the State, even if its stadiums sometimes host the State’s pantomime. The stakes for players and owners and municipalities are certainly high, but we don't have to take on the enormity of immigration to talk about Cuban players coming to the majors. The everydayness of the game and its issues mirror the sort of politics and culture most of us care most earnestly about. It is very serious business, but only because we’ve dressed a child’s game up in a suit and tie and cleats.
Baseball is a natural field of contestation, punctuated by dingers and poor behavior, inspiring moments and regrettable clashes. It is a game that has been unable to shake society’s broader imperfections, but has instead progressed itself through a series of mutations. Some of them are positive, offering resilience through quick, broad leaps in evolution, altering its genetic material to ensure its survival. Others are more malignant, growths in need of shrinking or lancing. We don jerseys and assume the role of partisans for particular teams. We long to win, but accept loss more readily than we might in normal politics. In democracies, other people often win. Those losses are a jumping off point for other, smaller, sometimes meaner disputes. But in baseball, we’re conditioned to loss as some of the beats of the season. We know the bright hope of the spring, the frenzied excitement of the early campaign, the long slog of July and August, the dejection or elation of a playoff berth, the tense grip of the postseason, and the inevitable snapshot of a pitcher’s arms raised in victory while the vanquished retreat back to the dugout. The journey through those beats is the point. The conversation continues, and so do our chances for understanding of the game’s politics. Deep divides might exist on the direction the game ought to take, but we all agree that it ought to soldier on.
And so in some ways, the plea for intersectionality is one for baseball writing to engage all the aspects of the game that matter. Sabermetrics help baseball organizations register wins, or try to, and they help fans filter their joys and frustrations through numbers. Just as we wish to understand catcher framing or unlock Statcast data, good intersectional writing can help to frame the conversation. But that writing isn’t vital in itself. It is valuable because it gives voice to a conversation that suits us for other things. It outfits us with a vocabulary, developed over innings and years. It helps us understands the game as it is, even as it habituates us for much, much more.
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