As spring sets in, and the soft breeze cools us during a pleasant evening turning into night, our biological clocks click in unison and we all know what time it is: It’s the time when Fun In Baseball becomes A Thing again.
Inexorably, like the salmon returning to spawn, the baseball writers of America and the young fans of the game stop whatever they’re doing to examine player actions and determine what’s so fun about watching a baseball game anyway. Is the Papa Slam fun? Is Dellin Betances fun? Is this fun?
— MLB (@MLB) April 20, 2016
The question matters because, when it comes to column fodder, each side inevitably believes the game has not enough of their kind of fun and too darned much of the other kind of fun.
(Before we ask the question, though, let’s dispense with the easy contrarian’s line right away: What’s so fun about baseball? Nothing. There, that’s out of the way; we all knew it was coming, and now it’s past, so we can all get down to business. After you’re done laughing. Yes, you back there stop tittering. Great.)
So what is so fun about baseball? Well, it depends on who you ask. To my understanding, there’s an old school baseball fan who wants one thing out of baseball; a new school fan who wants another, different thing out of baseball; and some third fan who maybe can appreciate the game through a mixture of both perspectives. GWF Hegel—and he’s not the only one—calls this style of thinking dialectics, and to put my philosophical cards on the table, I’m a fairly firm believer in the process.
Dialectical reasoning takes one point of view (a thesis), identifies a contradictory point of view (its antithesis), and by thinking through both resolves them into a synthesis, which is our third, utopian fandom here. Old school meets new school in an effort to make a better school. Cue the John Lennon and call me a dreamer, but I think it might work.
So to begin, let’s consider our first set of fans: the old school fans. While I think a lot of these fans exist as some sort of nebulous silent majority, at least in theory, one rarely hears them actually speak up themselves. Or maybe one does, but I don’t. There could be a number of reasons for this, not least of all that they’re not on Twitter (or at least not on the list of people I follow), but I think it’s just as likely that this group is some idealized segment of society that doesn’t strictly speaking exist. They merely exist as an idea, as the beer-drinking, steak-eating, selfie-hating set that remembers when the game was great, back when, I don’t know, Jack Morris pitched.
I also say that this group might not exist because the “back in the old days” crowd so often is phantasmal, dreamed up by the journalists and politicians who see it as their duty to hold the traditionalists’ interests up above the floodwaters of innovation. And so we get the breathless articles about Jose Bautista’s bat flipping that come up every April and September, when baseball matters to circulation numbers in the national press. We get the hand-wringing over the emoji Bryce Harper puts on the end of his bat, with smug assurances that he’ll certainly be fined for the breach of decorum. Even famous mullet innovator Curt Schilling found a moment during what I’m sure was deeply incisive commentary on Opening Night to make fun of Chris Archer’s hair.
All of these complaints speak to a desire for decorum that the complainers imagine existed someday back in the mists of time. And while there are a lot of arguments against this mystical vision of the past—ballplayers gambled, were crass and cruel, took drugs, and did things that scandalized former 1890s ballplayers prior to 2016—let’s not be too quick to dismiss it entirely. Yes, there is a racial quality to these complaints about hair, demeanor, and style, and we need not bother with the dialectic in rejecting that completely. But beyond the regressive nativism and normativity, there’s a yearning for what these writers and commentators seem to remember as “fun baseball.”
This baseball had a seriousness to it, what Schilling might troublingly call “self-respect,” but at the core of the game was at least an imagined competitive fun that these writers want to encourage. Unadorned, with fewer unambiguous outcomes like strikeouts and home runs, and defined by mental and physical toughness—this is the baseball that these writers remember both from their childhood and from stories of their parents’ childhood. And if there is indeed some sort of supermajority silently hating you and yours for enjoying dingers and K’s, understand it’s probably not you they really hate. They probably hate some moment in history—maybe the 90s, maybe the McGwire-Sosa home run race, maybe Barry Bonds’ record—that made them feel that the sport as they knew it was over. As one stop-motion effects artist reportedly said after seeing the initial CGI renderings of dinosaurs in 1993’s Jurassic Park, “I’m extinct.” This first group is worried about becoming obsolete, mostly in the face of the new crop of fans emerging as they fall into their perceived irrelevance
This new crop comprises the game’s younger viewers, viewers who are far more vocal on social media and who are far more experienced in self-fashioning for a crowd. This category probably describes many, maybe most, Baseball Prospectus readers. It certainly describes me. I’m the fan worried about the league’s inability to recognize that its biggest untapped fanbase (the under-40 crowd) and the skills of its very best players are symbiotically linked. I’m the fan who wants more strikeouts, more home runs, more velocity, and more power. I’m the fan who appreciates lead-up to the draft, the super prospects, the stars, and the individual performances of the game even when my team is down in the standings. And classically, I’m the sort of fan who is set in stark opposition to the “old-school” fan I described above.
But the old-school fan and I share some tendency toward territorialism. More and more, I’m not entirely sure that I’m the fan that’s being listened to by Major League Baseball, or that’s being marketed to. The league continues to hype its young players and its players of color more and more, and to see a proud MLB Twitter feed full of Yasiel Puig and Aldemys Diaz highlights warms my leftist heart. But the core of the game is still appealing to me, too, and I expect it is appealing to you. I tell people a story often of finally “getting” baseball. It was during the Phillies-Dodgers NLCS in 2008, and I remember watching, I don’t know, Grant Balfour pitch to Pedro Feliz or some such forgettable matchup and I suddenly had something click. “Oh,” I thought, “this isn’t like football [which I already loved]; this is more cerebral. More about the battle at the plate. Oh I get this. I like this.” And the rest is history.
To me, that history is maybe not best honored by focus-group-style “new” terms like “Papa Slam,” or “official” updates on which closers I should grab on my fantasy waiver wire. I may not be a pure traditionalist, but there is something unnerving about MLB trying to become millennial, like some sort of dusty shambolic golem wandering around Silicon Valley waving a Brooklyn Dodgers pennant. And while I appreciate some of the flamboyance of the players, I’m not sure I feel like I can tie my fandom to emojis or hilarious team dress-up pics. I like those things, don’t get me wrong, but—and this is where this piece gets bit a op-eddy perhaps—they don’t define the fun of baseball for me. The fun, to risk a stodgy comment, is still on the field. (No, the old-school doesn’t have a monopoly on stodge.)
So where does that leave us? It leaves us, oddly enough, in a space of agreement amidst the furor. What is fun about baseball? Tautologically enough, baseball is what is fun about baseball. The old school fan is no fan of bat flips, non-crop cut or mulletted hair, or expressions of personal style, and I like all three. And I love long home runs and high velocity strikeouts, and the old school fan might want to go back to smallball and 5.67 K/9 statlines for Cy Young winners. And that’s fine—we disagree on things. Excepting the covert racism of some of the more prominent complaints of the journalist and commentator class, there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing about style.
But we agree on more. We agree that flashy corporate-minded cynicism can sometimes wear very thin. We agree that the spectacle of watching a man try to use a thin wooden bat to hit a tiny hard-ball made of who-knows-what fibers and leathers and traveling almost too fast to track with the human eye is absolutely mesmerizing. We love the big plays on offense and defense. We have an emotional connection to the sport, and, often, to our own regionally arbitrary teams. We like baseball, in other words.
Even advanced statistics seem to be trending toward this synthesis. While velocity, strikeout rates, game and raw power all fascinate due to their profound ability to predict future success on the mound and at the plate, the relatively recent turn to defensive metrics is telling. Advances in quantifying catcher framing are the tip of the analytic iceberg concerning the deeply complex pitcher-catcher battery; catcher, perhaps the most prototypically “tough guy” position on the field, has absolutely been the most analytically fascinating one in recent years.
Added analytic emphasis on defense, on speed, on stolen base efficiency, on command and control for pitchers is also bringing back some of the aspects of the game that early efforts in sabermetrics, for non-malicious reasons, ignored. In short, as we try to learn more about the game and as we increase our knowledge as “new school” fans, we put the lie to the paranoia of the idealized old school fan. We bring their game back from the brink of extinction which it was never truly at to begin with.
So what is the synthesis of this “different” fan? What, in the end, is fun about baseball? On one hand, the answer is as tautological as I’ve made it seem: baseball itself is the fun and heart of the game, despite what we may choose to emphasize about its epiphenomena. Neither toughness nor grit can tell us why we enjoy the sport; neither corporate hashtags nor synergistic slogans can clarify baseball’s strange appeal. The game, with its unpredictability and deceptive simplicity, defines itself.
But more importantly what defines the fun of baseball is our conversations. These blockades that are artificially put up between old and new fans are part of the tyranny of stereotypes and arrogance. If you use ERA or xFIP; if you use pitcher wins or third order win percentage; if you use your gut or WARP, you’re still ultimately speaking the same language. Performing the terminological and cultural translation is where we can use the dialectics we’ve so relied upon here. And what’s more, we can use them not to craft academicized accounts of the game, but to form bonds, affinities, and connections. Connections that stem from a game that is, ultimately, an important international bond worth defending, whether you’re a traditionalist, a progressive, or somewhere in between.