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.
4. to circulate, report, or assert by a rumor.
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.
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.
The hot stove is an antiquated piece of imagery, but it has by now far outlasted the technology on which it’s based. That speaks to the appeal of the image itself. First off, a stove is not a fireplace and these aren’t cavemen. A fireplace is for families, and the kids don’t want to talk ball, they want to play ball. And there is the iron and industry embedded in the stove symbol, to counterbalance our nostalgic tendencies. Let’s not forget that if you lose yourself too much, if your stargazing and reminiscing causes you to forget yourself and place a hand on that stove, you’ll get the shit burned out of it. The center of the conversation is quite literally a molten box of flame. Just make sure you don’t forget that.
So that’s the version of Then I’ve concocted from a limited account, though it’s not hard to imagine. In fact imagination is probably the key term. Much can be imagined and remembered without a continuous stream of television imagery to occupy the active brain. My Then version of the hot stove season is an ode to shorter life spans and fewer media entertainments. Conversation filled the evening hours now occupied by the MLB Network and The City (omg like he asked her out b4 he said like 3 words to her).
So what is the hot stove league like today?
It is my humble judgement that a ginormous part of the hot stove baseball conversation looks forward rather than back. By conversation I am referring to the daily, bloggy offerings and interactions; the conversations that the baseball fan checks in on first thing, and follows through the day, the ups and downs. So much of the conversation looks to next season, and the next several seasons based on the length of the contract in question. As much attention goes towards the future, just as little is given to the past. As soon as the World Series is over– and even in the middle of it as Alex Rodriguez’s agent tested in 2007–and the victory confetti settled, our eyes turn to the list of available free agents, arbitration eligibility, team and club options, supplemental draft picks, prospects who might move, and older players looking to sign on somewhere. The collective Baseball Fan hurtles forward like a man in a raft whose just tumbled over one waterfall and can only afford to stare fitfully down river as the next one approaches.
(The exception, in regards to the collective consciousness, is Hall of Fame voting. This quiet time does in fact turn our attention to the past, to lively debate about the legacy of players and eras. In writing this piece I’ve realized for the first time that I should be way more patient with the pundits who go on and on about Tommy John and Tim Raines. I should be happy that there aren’t any contracts involved for like a minute.)
And yes, that is the focus of today’s hot stove league: contracts. Not since law school have so many active minds focussed on the minutiae of lucrative contractual negotiations between two parties, two litigious bodies. If Wal-mart were so well-scrutinized, there might be a few hardwood trees left in southern Russia and there might be a union and other things I am under qualified to discuss. Point being, most of the conversation would in any other context be really really boring. Given that subtle twist though–the baseball twist–the mundane becomes fascinating to a particular focus group, ie. us, ie. the baseball fan (the same could be said about statistical analysis. I stopped taking match classes in my junior year of high school from total disinterest and inability, and yet I’ve CAREFULLY reviewed graphs and charts and ordered digits enough to put a smile on any trig teacher’s cold, callous mug).
More hallowed, even, than the contract, to today’s hot leaguer, is the trade rumor. Typing that phrase, even, my mouse hand starts to twitch and inch the cursor towards my Firefox bookmark for MLBtraderumors.com, the new standard of rumor-tracking online. Nothing marks the lust for trade rumor mongering than the meteoric rise of this site. The concept is beautifully simple: a blog that gathers all of the MLB rumors from around the country and repackages them in one or two sentences. Hundreds of column inches from Denver and Tampa and Philly are distilled into easily consumed bits. This is not to say that the job is simple; it’s actually a well-choreographed and highly aware task to track these bits. Rumor-meister Tim Dierkes is a skilled information manager. He has to keep track of transactions and tendencies and contract statuses from every team. I have enough trouble staying on top of the Astros.
Last year, as I recall, was the first in which mlbtraderumors entered the general awareness as true baseball authorities like Peter Gammons admitted to tracking notes from around the league there. Baseball rumor guru Ken Rosenthal offered a short interview on the site as recently as a few days ago. Ironically, I suppose, mlbtraderumors survives because of the labor of these men. It is an act of immense generosity to reward Dierkes’ ingenuity, rather than scolding him for his almost exclusive use of these reporters’ words as content for his site.
The rumor’s embrace by the pro baseball reporters suggests that the trade rumor is now as significant a part of the baseball fan’s landscape as other reportage, injuries, commentary and what-not. But let’s take a moment to dissect what it is that we are buying into here. A rumor is by definition a piece of unconfirmed data. It’s a whisper, a sidenote, a hint. It is not actually news as we’ve long been taught. A rumor suggests vaguely that a piece of news is imminent or likely or unlikely. Essentially it’s a piece of gossip. And when I think of gossip, I think of the Perez Hiltons and the TMZs. It makes perfect sense! We the baseball fans have taken a genre–the gossip column–and shaped it in the image of our choosing. The speed of media (Rosenthal mentioned that his articles can go online in “one to two minutes”), the nature of online reading, and the highlight-oriented cultural framework has bled into the information itself. As an internet meme hurtles from computer to computer and hits 10 million people 30 seconds at a time, so too does the MLB rumor make a little edible something out of very little and pass it out en masse.
But there’s something deeper going on. Sure, everything is fast these days so trade rumors are fast, too, that’s not an earthquake. So let’s look at an example, taken from a very recent post on mlbtraderumors:
Braves Offer Four Years, Close To $60MM To Lowe
By Tim Dierkes [January 13 at 9:12am CST]
9:12am: ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick has a source saying Lowe is “leaning strongly toward signing with Atlanta.”
7:34am: According to SI.com’s Jon Heyman, the Braves’ offer to Derek Lowe is close to $60MM over four years. The two sides are in serious discussions. Heyman says Lowe prefers the National League. The reported offer seems fair; it’s difficult to see the Mets matching it.
I realize that Lowe has already signed with the Braves. I’ve taken this post (basically at random) from a few days ago as a way to look at the “rumor” aspect over the hard news “signing” aspect. So in this post, we’ve got a good bit of hard news, with the actual figure the Braves offered Lowe. Next we have the timestamp, and the quotation from the authoritative, mainstream media source, Jerry Crasnick, who cites another source–that’s the third layer that we the reader encounter if you’re keeping score–who in turn describes the general kind of “leaning” of Derek Lowe towards accepting the offer. When you really map it out like this, it sounds crazy. The reader is three steps removed from a piece of information that is as hard to get a hold of as one of Lowe’s sinkers. All of this without anything actually happening, without a particularly newsy action item to grab onto.
To say nothing of the 7:34am stamp (do they sleep?). Jon Heyman’s contribution involves, yes, the offer news, but also the mention that Derek Lowe prefers the National League. Another vaguery just floating like a single Evian bottle in that swirling island of garbage out in the ocean. It’s cloud matter. The end note about the Mets matching the offer captures the entirety of the Mets approach to the off-season in one sentence, a perfect mlbtraderumor report.
Funny thing, though: every time I read a rumor like that, I feel less satisfied than I did at the outset, like eating a fast food burger. I don’t become actively upset, but I don’t feel like I’ve actually learned something. Instead I feel as though there is a world of deal-making that passes on without me. I feel conscious of that world without understanding it. As Carl Jung states in the essay “The Stages of Life,” “There are no problems without consciousness.” This is to say that kids don’t have any problems because they don’t know that they should have problems. Growing up is the process of acquiring problems as we acquire consciousness. Trade rumors do this to me: they raise an awareness of the world of the hot stove that I can’t see, while at the same time reinforcing the uncertainty of it and my lack of control or agency. I don’t really want to know whether Derek Lowe likes the National League, but once I learn it, I feel like I should do something with the information, form an opinion or juggle the various possibilities that such a preference represents. But I can’t, because I don’t know Derek Lowe, and really also more importantly I don’t care about Derek Lowe until he’s pitching the Sunday game.
In the context of hot stove baseball, this is Jung’s “problem,” these bits of consciousness that don’t have a psychological resolution. Lee Allen’s version of the hot stove leagues sounds a lot more peaceful, less harried, devoid of the breaking news story. Instead of passing around rumors, Allen’s hot stovers offer up opinions, about how a team will do next year or what they should’ve done differently last. An analysis, rather than a conjecture. The rumor, on the other hand, suggests a movement towards an event. This will happen, that may happen, etc. This is very different than this should happen and we didn’t do this the right way. The former constructs a facade of authority then undercuts it; the latter presents no authority at all as long as you don’t take Mac the Barber too seriously.
Trade rumors like those on Dierkes’ site are micro-narratives. They are stories compacted so tightly that the mind–more accustomed to long stories about heroes and villains–doesn’t quite know what to do with, especially when another micro-narrative is chasing right behind it. Lee Allen’s hot stove is novel-length and collaborative. Our eons of sitting around the primeval campfire conjuring histories and origins grants us the capacity, in spite of our dwindling attention spans, to absorb and engage in the long form. Like fast food, we want the chicken nuggets, but should we eat them at every meal?
This is an admittedly limited and incomplete argument. There are many great things about both trade rumors and about today’s hot stove. I haven’t mentioned them in depth here because what interest me are the new phenomena, and how these new phenomena impact the way we watch baseball. Many of the old entertainments persist, and trade rumors spur them on as much as any cranky home furnace would. The new culture of rumors, of almost military-style marching troupes of information, joins other new inputs to heat the sand of our brains and altogether reshape our points of view like blown glass.