A Record Should be Simple: context and narrative in baseball media, and silly stats, too

Frank DeFord, who I actually find delightful

Eminent sports opinionist and general Andy Rooney-school curmudgeon Frank DeFord recently posted a column about annoying statistical observations, “The Stupidest Statistics In The Modern Era”, like for example his example: “He’s the first teenager in the last 33 years with three triples and two intentional walks in one season.” Now in fairness he goes on to discuss the concept of “records,” but he starts the column with the tired claim that “we are inundated with sports statistics. Baseball is the worst, of course — but it’s getting harder for the statistics freaks in all sports to dream up anything original.”

DeFord’s opening statement is silly. Nobody is “inundated” with statistics who does not seek them out. We are far more inundated with SPAM email than with VORP email. But to the second point, the esoteric comparisons that finagle with the “sort” function of unimaginable databases somewhere to create the algebraic combinations of circumstance: DeFord is right. Those observations, in a certain abundance, can seem obnoxious, overbearing, needy.

Tim Kurkjian never met a "record" he didn't love.

What is their purpose? Why do producers and pundits continue to churn them out? Well, there is one pundit who sends them forth because he loves them, without shame nor apology, and that is Tim Kurkjian. Of the coincidences and oddities of baseball, TK writes in his book Is This a Great Game or What? that baseball:

is the best game b/c it contains so many elements and nuances, so much happening behind the scenes; it lends itself to strange circumstances, events, and plays, things that can only happen in baseball, things that make me smack myself in the forehead and say, ‘How great is that?’…How can it be that Dennis Eckersley could go four years between pickoffs, then the first guy he picked off in 1982 was the last guy he picked off in 1978, Kenny Williams.[sic]

I can see DeFord now at the Baseball Writer’s Hoo-hah dinner: “Stop indundating me with your strange tales of coinky-dink, Tim.”

For a further demo of TK’s love of the inane non-sequitorial stat round-up, see his slightly famous giggly reaction to a 33-7 Rangers game from 2007, here.

So Tim loves them and Frank hates them, more proof that we get out of baseball–and anything, really–just about what we want to. It never hurts to recall that we each have our reasons and derive our pleasure from different corners of the game. To suggest that we should all enjoy the same aspects of the game would be like suggesting that we should all want to read the same books all the time.

I suspect that there is a connection–if subconscious–between the “18th player to do X while carrying a Y to the northeast of a Z” urge and the ubiquitous “first” comments that appear like sticky burs on popular blogs. The “first” comment takes the concept of web content and user interaction and distills it to its barest essence. There is content–the declaration that someone was the first to do something–but no context, no commentary, no human experience or insight. It’s just a simple barbaric yawp into the chasmic blogosphere: “I am here, hear me. I am first.” Manifest destiny and the subconscious drive to span the continent that has driven madmen through mosquito-plagued swamplands and across bear-filled American plains to plant the flags and Europe and stake their flawed claims to firstness.

We all have this urge. It is why we don’t want our favorite bands to get big, or if they do get big we want others to know that we knew when they were small. And that is what comes through, in some way, when the media projects this “firstness” our “eighthness” onto baseball players and they reflect back to us just what we wanted to see in them in the first place. I think it’s fair to suggest that most ballplayers don’t care about being the 3rd someone to do some only mildly interesting thing to begin with.

So, again, what is the point? It is a matter of context.

Leonard Koppett, in his book The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball, writes that:

the media are every bit as essential to the whole [professional baseball] enterprise as the players and the signers of checks. Without some way to convey information to the public about past, present, and prospective events, the entire activity would evaporate. Millions might still play ball games, as they do every day all over the world, but Organized Baseball as a commercial mass entertainment could not exist without intermediaries to communicate with the masses wishing to be entertained.

So Koppett lays out the job of the media: to create context, or put another way, to maintain the ongoing narrative of the game. Each component of baseball is a self-contained narrative, from the career level down to the at-bat level. Organized Baseball needs the narrative to stay in business and to keep narrative-loving humans engaged with the product, and the media like to sell stories.

There are occasions when, in my opinion, the drive to tell stories gets warped and feels weird. Joe Buck is guilty of this affliction. He pushes storylines like a Plano smack-slinger. Think back to the 2008 All-Star game, starring recovered addict Josh Hamilton (“storyline here). Buck, with his unbearable partner Tim McCarver, pounces on the drugs-and-decadence tale as ferociously as Tim Kurkjian on a 33-run game. Watch them go after it–and before the game even starts–here.

The story

The story

Buck and McC mentioned Hamilton’s “story” every time his born-again mug showed up on screen. The broadcasters’ manic need to talk about it defied common conversational logic, and if they’d done the same thing at a dinner party they two would be the only two left in a shadowy corner of the den, screaming “Redemption!” into the other’s face.

The crux, again, is context. Bucks reminds of Hamilton’s “story” without any call to do so (for example if the camera caught Hamilton with a spoon and a lighter in the corner of the dugout, sure, mention the drug thing). But instead Buck spins nonsequiter bits of info that don’t allow the listener to do any work, as though it is job to narrate the contents of his viewers’ brains. We do enough work watching TV, and when we see J. Hamilton we immediately and involuntarily conjure the streaming media “Hamilton…drugs…redemption…home run derby…tattoos” &tc. With Buck yammering the same phrases, alongside our brains, it stinks of madness, of the inane rantings of the loony bin.

Without context, the world is a spinning morass of chaotic and unconnected ephemera. We would all go nuts in a minute. So the contextualization of baseball is, as Koppett notes, crucial. (Let’s commend the media for a moment, at the truly remarkable job that they do covering sports, writing stories, creating and following the storylines that engage us, even if they go overboard on occasion. It’s a delicate balance and it most often comes off brilliantly.)

This brings us back to DeFord and his gripe about seemingly haphazard stats or records or whatever you want to call them. These stats are not created for no reason, to terrorize older cranks who glare suspiciously at numbers on the screen. They are in fact a quickfire way to create context, and to place a player, game, or event in the broader baseball narrative. Quickening and tightening is in line with every conceivable media trend in the universe. I would overstep some bound to suggest that perhaps what truly irks Unky DeFord is that wider, scarier truth.

The current state of traditional paper media is not to blame for its state of decline. The technology has come too far too fast for any physically oriented information stream to remain relevant. There is not a value judgment embedded here, just the basic statement of fact. It’s not good or bad either way, just the way it is. And so DeFord takes the same risks that Will Leitch does, to suggest that “there is something wrong here.” There isn’t wrong or right, just a changing, evolving conversation.

Postscr.:

Watching a Spanish soccer game on TV, the announcer noted the number of passes that Real Madrid had attempted versus completed, suggesting that statistical abundance is not a purely American invention.

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