Monthly Archives: January 2009

A perfect paper world: My ideal baseball magazine in a less than ideal magazine-starting world

Lance Berkman, Baseball Digest magazine

Lance Berkman, Baseball Digest magazine

Last year I had a subscription to Baseball Digest. Supporting a print baseball magazine felt like a good thing to do. At the same time, though, it highlighted the very well-publicized shortcomings of the printed page in a web-based media environment. Baseball Digest describes itself as “the oldest and only baseball magazine in the country.” Unfortunately, it feels that old. It’s not a glossy, the pages are a few steps above newspaper grade and printed completely in black and white and in small format, something in the range of 6 inches by 8.

The word “digest” is defined by the fast dictionary as “a periodical that summarizes the news.” It is hard to come up with a more obsolete tool in the media and information toolbox if you are a baseball fan or even a regular citizen. And the association with octoganerian favorite Reader’s Digest does not help at all (though RD has a far more impressive web presence than BD). The first problem is that “a periodical that summarizes the news” already describes the entire Internet. Hordes of bloggers post links and summaries about the news of the day, from Drudge on down, to say nothing of the baseball second-person link pages like MLB Trade Rumors. When many volunteers scour the web by the minute and post the results at the same pace, a “digest” sounds like it should be next to the Boston News-Letter and the Columbus Citizen-Journal in the index of dusty, deceased periodicals.

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bigPumaLinks: The good king Kaufman edition

bigPumaLinks

bigPumaLinks

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Reading into the micro-narrative: The hot stove league then and trade rumors now

ru-mor

-noun
1. a story or statement in general circulation without confirmation or certainty as to facts.
2. gossip; hearsay.
3. Archaic. a continuous, confused noise; clamor; din.
-verb
4. to circulate, report, or assert by a rumor.

Lee Allen, HOF historian

Lee Allen, HOF historian

According to baseball historian Lee Allen in The Hot Stove League, “No one knows when baseball followers first began to gather in winter around the hot stove of a barber shop or country store.” Also, “the phrase, ‘hot stove league,’ is of uncertain origin.” The 1955 doesn’t linger long on the etymological details. Instead he revels in the odd stories of baseball, and wacky player names of which my favorite is Wedo Southern Martini. Allen, however, does spend a few sentences to describe the nature of the hot stove leagues around mid-century: “If winter, for the baseball fan, is a time to look ahead and visualize successes for his favorite team, it is also a time to look back at the bittersweet patch, to review the triumphs and the heartbreak of the past,” what he calls “a lull in the action that permits the fan to take pause and consider what he has seen and read about.” The writer sounds like a peaceful guy who likes a nice quiet time pondering people like Wedo Martini, and as a historian for the Hall of Fame he found the right occupation.

Vinegar Bend Mizell

Vinegar Bend Mizell

In reading one account of the hot stove league from another era, I think it bears considering what today’s winter reverie is like. Allen’s view of what is currently this time of year is a pensive one, full of not just future-hopin’, but past ponderin’ too. It is a literary time when fans would not only argue vigorously over the politico-strategic details of next year’s team, but also share the calm moments talking about old times, conjure their best yarn. The hot stove as the gathering place could not be a more bucolic, romantic symbol. It is warming, soothing. Outside it’s cold as nuts, but around the piping stove it’s possible to imagine that summer ever existed and will exist again. Shivering at a train stop, for example, doesn’t spur the desire to ramble on about HOF second basemen William Jennings Bryan Herman or Vinegar Bend Mizell.

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Knowledge-able in an infinite world: the navigation of the decentralization of baseball stats

//tinyurl.com/7ngt7u

The Baseball Encyclopedia, 1969. fr http://tinyurl.com/7ngt7u

The Baseball Encyclopedia, published first in 1969, blew peoples’ minds. The baseball public had never before seen every baseball stat gathered in one place with such authority and finality. Players from the old days that had been entirely forgotten were suddenly right there, on paper, in this impressive fat book that staked an unprecedented claim to truth and accuracy. Statistical books around for a while by that point, but they were limited to recent seasons and oriented around trivia and barroom argument-settling. Scraping up the name, age and number of every Johnny to put on a uniform seemed as reasonable as counting blades of grass on the lawn.

Fortunately a group of lunatics with a publisher ventured to solve this information problem. Instead of using the highly limited old books of statistics, a guy named David Neft hired a team of college interns to scour old box scores and newspaper accounts across the country and record their findings. Using computers for the first significant time to gather data in a baseball manner, Neft and his crew–the team of college kids always makes me think about it of the hapless interns from the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou–reenacted the whole history of major league baseball. At bat to at bat, they tabulated and cross-referenced each tiny step towards the complete numerical narrative of the game. They depended on the original unsung heroes of baseball statistical analysis who had kept box scores and newspaper clippings and hand-assembled statistics long before anyone cared to see them (baseball’s early stat history consists entirely of these uheralded, isolated mavericks and mad men, as chronicled in the fantastic book The Numbers Game by Alan Schwartz). Continue reading

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Can baseball get a witness?: Umpires, computers, and the space between

“this is why ive been saying for years.. let k zone and all the computer things we see on espn and fox etc. call balls and strikes… this way it would always be acurate”  – comment from a forum user on OperationSports.com

“It ain’t anything ’til I call it.”  – Hall of Fame upmire Bill Klem

Rule 2.00

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a  horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniformpants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall  be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

The Umpire

The Umpire

There are two competing truths in any baseball game: the facts and the reality. The facts are what actually happen, while the reality is that mediated version of the game as delivered by the umpire. For example, the fact is that the runner’s foot contacted the base before the fielder tagged him with the ball-in-glove. The reality might be that the umpire couldn’t discern the fact, and so called the runner out. Like a couple of seagulls fighting over a piece of bread, the facts and the reality weave between and around each other constantly. Neither ever gains the ultimate advantage. An umpire is like a Jedi Master, bending the facts with a punched fist or two arms held out parallel to the ground.

For a lengthy discussion of umpires and the calls that they “make,” I suggest “Taking Umpiring Seriously: How Philosophy Can Help Umpires Make the Right Calls” by J.S. Russell (from the book Baseball and Philosophy). Russell discusses the “performative utterance,” a term coined by J.L. Austin, in which simply saying something creates an incident, or some kind of real thing (his example cites for one the “I do” statement of the wedding ceremony, in which saying it makes the marriage a real thing). The paradox of course is that an umpire’s judgement doesn’t actually change the facts of the play. What he says certainly goes, but the seagulls fighting it out still don’t get the bread, but continue their endless bobbing and weaving. If an umpire’s call is Truth, “it means that they can never make bad calls.” You can’t argue with the Truth, but managers and players argue umpire’s calls a whole lot. Continue reading

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bigPumaLinks: MLB Network debut edition

bigPUMA links - MLB Network debut edition

bigPUMA links - MLB Network debut edition

MLB.com provides a broad set of reactions to the new MLB Network. MLB.com

Awful Announcing weighs in on the MLB Network debut. Awful Announcing

Wrigley Field gets a temporary makeover to blow your crossover sporting mind. Chicago Tribune

A wrap-up of the year in sports advertising from columnist Dave Darling. Orlando Sentinel

Rob Neyer looks at the new hotness in SABRstats, Win Values. Rob Neyer Blog

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Adam Gopnik on Baseball

Adam Gopnik, Expos fan and art historian

Adam Gopnik, Expos fan and art historian

excerpts from a May 19, 1986 New Yorker article on aesthetics and baseball, “Quattrocento Baseball” by Adam Gopnik:

“Baseball can’t be grasped by a formalist aesthetic; the appeal of the game can’t be understood by an analysis of its moments. As in painting, the expressive effect, the spell, of baseball, depends on our understanding of context, of the way what is being made now collects its meaning from what has gone before and what may come next.”

“I have tried to imagine a pasture on the slopes of Parnassus where Bill Lee plays pepper with Giorgione, and Fra Filipo Lippi calls off Warren Cromartie.”

“…Each innings alters irrevocably the meaning of every inning that has preceded it: Henry Aaron’s first at bat in 1974, as he approaches Babe Ruth’s record, suddenly lends an entirely new meaning, an un-looked for centrality, to some nearly forgotten Aaron home run back in 1959. The significance of every action in the game depends entirely on its place within a history, on our recognition of it as one possibility, one choice, within a series of alternatives. The batter swings freely, the way the painter paints, but the swing itself is bound about by the ghosts of every other swing.”

“…baseball’s most inspired observers are essentially historians…”

“Baseball inspires reminiscence not because of the sentiment of its devotees but, rather, because the meaning of its forms–of a crucial lapse, a fabled stat–can only be clarified by time.”

October these days seems to share the central, miserable feature of postmodernism–the displacement of the vernacular into a mode of irony.”

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MLB Network Debut: Year-round baseball on TV

MLB Network

MLB Network

So the MLB Network has launched itself. I scanned through the Comcast guide to find it and there it was, channel 5,349 or something like that (516, in fact). I am very excited. During the MLB off-season, it’s a challenge to find any baseball on TV. There is baseball chatter, hot stove excitement and what not especially online, but little footage or real conversation. The MLB Network is in good position to change that.

The network will start slow, it appears. The schedule for the next day or so includes three or four screenings of Don Larsen’s no-hitter in the World Series, with the Hot Stove show between them. It’s not the flashiest debut, but right away the programming changes the tenor of off-season baseball on television. There is a voluminous library of games in the MLB vault. They will now see the light of day, they will breathe, at a time when the old games are the best games. When the season starts again, each day’s games drown out history. In the middle of winter, history is all that we’ve got.

The great benefit of showcasing old games, in terms of the medium, is that it allows the audience to experience watching the game as it was done in the past. With poorer camera angles, black and white video, spare graphics (if any at all), the old game on TV is a chance to turn back the dial and learn how differently a fan in the older days experienced the game. This is valuable. We can appreciate what we have, and appreciate what they had, as well. I find often that I’m shocked at how good an old broadcast is, how much clearer the image appears than it seems it should.

Only a network run by baseball and committed only to baseball can get away with playing three hours of 1956-style baseball. Any risk is mitigated by the availability of the content. It surely doesn’t take much for MLB to scrape up an old broadcast, to which it owns the rights, and press play.  I am glad of that, that a small viewership will not crush the content as it would a network sit-com. Let there be little risk for once.

Matt Vasgersian

Matt Vasgersian

The MLB Network has a slew of old players in their stable, as well as a young play-by-play man turned “studio host,” a few on-air reporters, and a few baseball writers. Matt Vasgersian is perhaps the most notable addition. It must have taken a lot to pull him away from a primo major league play-by-play gig to work in the studio. You may recognize Vasgersian as the play-by-play announcer on the best baseball video game ever published, MLB 08: The Show. Even in the game he is smooth and chipper, with a quick ear for nicknames and culturally acute lingo, which is a testament as much to the game developers as to the voice talent. I expect to unconsciously jam on a non-existent controller in my hands whenever I hear his voice.

Harold Reynolds will be a studio analyst. He’s a fine one, and I am glad to see him emerge from his murky scandal of a few years ago. Other former players include: Al Leiter, Barry Larkin, Dan Plesac, Joe Magrance and Mitch Williams. There are a couple of fancy studios for the regular shows, which you can read about yourself here. One studio with a desk for talking at, and a second that is a small baseball field, which will feature a strong emphasis on “demonstration” in the now well-accepted manner.

During the off-season, the primary regular show will be Hot Stove. In this I think we see shades of the online culture of minute-by-minute transaction news transferred to the traditional TV medium. ESPN, etc., clearly cover hot stove news, but this would appear to escalate the focus. MLB Network will talk only about the hot stove. This mirrors, I believe, the razor sharp focus of the online hot stove sites, like mlbtraderumors.com. Tim Dierkes, the proprietor of that site, succeeds via succintness. He lets his readers and commenters debate the moves by aggregating and presenting the latest news with objectivity. I’m going to float a balloon and suggest that Hot Stove will not do so, and that instead audiences will hear some of the same punditry that has penetrated the rest of news and sport TV. As long as it’s baseball, right?

The MLB Network will only broadcast 26 live games during the season. Fair enough, there are plenty of live games on TV in most locations. What’s missing from the palette is non-stop programming for people who like baseball in all of its forms.

One could consider the “dangers” that lurk around the network. These would include threats like it becoming a mirror image of existing baseball coverage on ESPN, etc., and the barf-inducing graphics and visual presentation that are ubiquitous. Another threat might be that it’s really boring. A third is that Yankees and Red Sox coverage will dominate. These risks are small, however, given the potential rewards.

A final thought: I don’t much care how well or poorly it goes, as long as it’s baseball.

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