Ray Ratto has been one of the finest sports writers in the San
Francisco Bay Area for many years, first with the San Francisco
Chronicle and more recently with the Examiner. The rest of the
country got their first taste of Ray’s work in the late, lamented
National. In addition to his local work, Ratto is a regular
contributor to ESPN.com. He answered a few of our questions about his job
and the role of performance analysis in mainstream baseball writing.
Baseball Prospectus: You’re a columnist, not a beat writer, writing
about many sports. How do you perceive your audience for your local writing
and for your Web writing? Do you write differently for each audience,
beyond the obvious point that your Examiner work is likely to focus more on
Bay Area sports?
Ray Ratto: The Web audience is different, because they get the
references without so much explanation. They like sports and know it
because, well, why else would they be on the Web looking at it? Thus, I
think I can take more chances on the Web because I figure anyone who’s
bothered to go this far is interested in plowing through the insider jargon
that the average person wouldn’t. But that’s just me; I could be wrong.
BP: In your experience, do sportswriters for local papers have a
solid knowledge of athletes and teams outside their own area? Clearly, beat
writers will know more about their assigned team than about others, but how
important is their overall knowledge of the sport and its players?
RR: It’s hard to answer that without going to the easy "some
do, some don’t". The beat writers largely do because they do Sunday
Notes columns of some kind or other, and in any event would keep up because
they are generally fans of the sport they cover. I suspect their knowledge
is very important, because without it, they’d look like dopes pretty
quickly, and who needs that?
BP: Baseball analysts like those at Baseball Prospectus
ideally write about what is–as close as possible– "demonstrably
true" as opposed to writing about "intangibles" like
"knowing how to win". Do you find this split between the concrete
and the intangible important in your own writing? Basically, this is the
Barry Bonds question: statheads are always astonished to find at
season’s end that local writers have voted Jeff Kent or some other
decent player to be the Giants’ MVP, rather than Bonds, and we wonder what
might be the thought process behind such claims.
RR: One of the things statheads cannot know, and that ballwriters
think they know more than they actually do, is the impact of one player on
his teammates. In the case of Kent, he has had a greater impact on his
teammates in the clubhouse and, to a lesser extent, on the field. Your
quibble may actually be, then, with the definition of "most
valuable". Some people think the numbers tell all; others seek out the
intangible through their own lying eyes. Hey, let a thousand flowers bloom.
BP: Over the years, you have seemed less likely than the average
writer to merely regurgitate press releases. You don’t waste column space
on the latest bleatings by Bud Selig unless you intend to offer an analysis
of the material. What kind of feedback to you get, from readers and from
the people on whom you focus your attention, to this approach? How
difficult is it to separate from the pack, to blend a critical approach
with good, readable writing?
RR: It isn’t that hard to separate from the "pack", since
the "pack" isn’t actually that large. A lot of writers offer the
kind of analysis you ascribe to me, so it’s not like I stand alone,
defending the nation against the evils of men in suits. Readers generally
don’t let me know unless they have decided that I am a hateful creep, and
the people who I write about range from the open-minded to the
mean-spirited to, finally, the ones who don’t talk to me at all. I like
that third group best of all. Less to worry about.
BP: Why did The National fail?
RR: Because it went through $100,000,000 in 17 months, which seems
like chump change now but was a big deal in 1991. It didn’t expand to
enough cities, and didn’t get the paper in enough people’s hands. Simple as
BP: Are websites like ESPN.com the 21st century equivalent of The
RR: No, because there aren’t as many long, thoughtful pieces on the
Web as there were in The National. You tend to make your point and
get out on the Web, whereas you might run a little in print if given the
BP: In his introduction to our most recent book, your ESPN.com
colleague Rob Neyer advises the reader to, "Be patient, my friends:
the Empiricists shall prevail". Yet, as I write this, a poll on
ESPN.com tells us that more fans think Willie McGee deserves
election to the Hall of Fame than does Tim Raines. How far has
analysis of baseball come in the past couple of decades?
RR: The Empiricists cannot succeed as long as the formulae they use
to determine one player’s value against another’s is not readily
understandable to the average non-physicist. Some stats, like on-base
percentage, have become part of the common parlance, but largely allegiance
is based on who played in your town rather than who had the best
strikeout-to-walk ratio. Willie McGee played in St. Louis, a hot baseball
town, in the prime of his career. Tim Raines played in Montreal.
BP: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk with us.
RR: Thanks for coming, and drive home safely.