Tag Archives: media criticism

Just where the draft should be: my low key response to Posnanski’s critique of the draft on TV

Yeah, I saw him pitch, IU pitcher and first rounder Eric Arnett

Yeah, I saw him pitch, IU pitcher and first rounder Eric Arnett

Over at si.com, Joe Posnanski does a general bash of the 2009 MLB amateur draft as a television event.

So, this year, for the first time, they tried to make the First Year Player Draft a television spectacular. They broadcast it in prime time. Commissioner Bud Selig came out to the lectern every few minutes to make a dramatic reading of a name he clearly had never seen before. Then, some baseball analysts talked for a few minutes about that name, and how great that name would become, how that name had 60-power or three-plus pitches — scout talk — and everyone came to the inevitable conclusion that the name would really help the team in the future. Yes, it’s a familiar formula.

Only … the whole production didn’t work at all, at least for me.

On the whole I don’t have a huge problem with this critique, or with the claim that the draft is uninteresting because most of the player-participants will never make it to the majors. I’d add that I’ve never even heard of 99.9% of the players that get drafted.

I’ve got only a few points to add to the conversation, and a few examples of when the MLB draft as a television event in fact shines:

1. When a player gets drafted that you’ve got some kind of personal (or non-television-based) connection with.

For me it was only a tangential connection this year that added something to my viewing experience: a guy whom I watched pitch in a game this year ended up getting drafted in the first round. I was up here in Indiana, where first round studs are rare, and it was a simple treat to see him on the board and know that I’d seen top-rated talent.

And I think I can say that with all of the college and high school baseball getting played (not to mention the amount of minor league ball later on), and with the sheer number of players who get drafted, most baseball fans have some sort of connection with at least one if not more of the players drafted. That sort of connection is more than I’ve felt in a basketball or a football draft. You’re going to connect more with a player you’ve seen while one among several hundred on a random Thursday when you got a hankering for some live ball, as opposed to the not-so-intimate experience as one among 100,000 on a Saturday with all of college-town and alumni-ville turned out.

2. The market for this stuff is growing, and the MLB draft is perfect for the MLB Network.

As much as MLB has tried to make it a major TV event in Joe’s eyes, I think it’s still safe to say that 6 p.m. on the MLB Network is exactly where the draft belongs. It’s a specialized event on a specialized channel, and Bud Selig’s mug is a specialized piece of imagery to tune into. Anyone who is watching the draft already knows the implicit problems, that excitement will wane, &tc. So we don’t have to warn them. Hey guys! This is gonna be boring and slow! It’d be like warning Parrotheads that the Jimmy Buffett concert will involve inflatable palm trees.

The aforementioned flaws do keep it from being a great TV event, Joe’s right, but I happen to think that the NHL, NFL, and NBA drafts are terrible TV events because I don’t care about the NHL, NFL, and NBA. If I did care, they’d be great, and if you do care about the MLB draft, I’m sure it was great. I for one thought it was fantastic to see the brief synopses of each player, and to get a quick sense of the drafting philosophy of my and other teams. More college pitchers, fewer high school infielders, &tc. As long as the commentary is solid, which it was, then you’ve got something going.

I don’t think the MLB draft will supplant Lost anytime soon, but it is what it is, and how often do I get too see Craig Biggio read from a card in a suit?

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The Purpose of the Game: MLB, the WBC, and the psychological role of baseball

A game and The Game

A part of the game, not The Game

A part of the game, not The Game

For the purposes of the forthcoming discussion, I am outlining a distinction between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the game of baseball (the Game). MLB is a business-type operation, the premier baseball league in the world, and the focal point of American baseball culture. The Game, on the other hand, is the width and breadth of baseball, with all its historic and present-day implications; The Game includes the minor leagues, college baseball, Little League,  coaches, the best players and the worst at every level, tee ball or over 40 leagues; The Game includes fans, writers, historians, bloggers, fantasy players, statisticians. The Game includes even, yes, Major League Baseball.

A shock, I know, but it bears reminding that MLB is a subsection of the greater universal Game. To push even further: MLB serves the Game. Without the latter, there is no former. And the psychologically healthly standing of the Game only improves that of MLB. There are those who would consider themselves keepers of the Game, I imagine, but  few can truly claim ownership of such an unquantifiable solar system. An old sportswriter protecting the sanctity of the Hall of Fame has as much jurisdiction over the the Game as a City Councilman does over the Milky Way.

In our time, there is a mega-focus on the MLB. It is an understandable obsession, and one that I take part in myself. But right now our viewfinder is trained close enough on MLB to render other robust baseball culture centers across the country and world into an extended MLB scouting network. We talk about Japanese players jumping to MLB and we say that the Japanese leagues are somewhere near the equivalent of Triple-A; MLB academies (recent closings aside) pepper the Dominican and Venezuela; a couple of Indian guys who’ve thrown only javelins sign with the Pirates.  My quick overview and gross generalization captures the essence I think of the general attitude in American baseball culture, by which I mean the treatment of baseball cultures outside of the MLB as servants of the MLB. Again, it is understandable that the world’s most competitive league would garner the most attention.

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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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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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