Why America's pastime inspires such copious writing
Baseball may no longer be the "national pastime" if judged by TV ratings. Judged by the quantity and quality of writing it inspires, however, baseball is still the champ. And, really, would you rather emotionally invest in a sport best represented by television or in one best represented by literature?
There's no better measurement of baseball's hopeless entanglement with language than The Dickson Baseball Dictionary. This book tried to be the definitive word on the subject in 1989 when Paul Dickson published the first edition with 5,000 entries, but he soon discovered he had merely scratched the surface. Baseball fans tend to be avid readers and writers, and their response to the dictionary forced Dickson to publish a second edition in 1999 with 7,000 entries and a third edition in 2009 with 10,000 entries and 18,000 definitions.
And the Baseball Prospectus is the unusual reference book that people sit down and actually read. This annual analysis of the previous baseball season and forecast of the upcoming season is heir to the tradition of Bill James' classic "Baseball Abstract" series and has popped up on best-seller lists. It has become such an authority that other sportswriters now routinely refer to it when discussing a player's prospects.
But why does this 19th-century pastoral game continue to exert such a hold on writers and readers? Why hasn't basketball, the urban, contemporary hip-hop game, or soccer, the world's favorite sport, overtaken baseball on the book shelves? To answer this question, you have to understand the fundamental difference between the two kinds of team sports: those with continuous action and those with punctuated action.
It's easy to understand the appeal of continuous-action sports such as hockey, soccer, basketball, and rugby, where there are few timeouts and the play flows back and forth between the two goals. As each team gains possession, it switches from defense to offense without a pause. There's always something going on; you're always in the moment.
Sports of punctuated action, such as baseball, cricket, and American football, have well-defined pauses between each pitch, each bowl, or each snap. The stop-and-go pulse of play-and-delay reflects the pattern of action and analysis that are a writer's natural rhythm. Each delay offers time to dissect the causes of the last play and to anticipate the possibilities of the next. Each delay delineates a small chunk of action that can be compared to hundreds of thousands of similar chunks and, thus, analyzed in both numbers and words. Unlike American football, baseball is built around binary decision points--strike or ball, safe or out, home run or in-play--that make it even easier to break down into ever smaller, analyzable pieces.
The most common complaint against baseball is that it's too slow compared to football or basketball, but that's like saying chess is boring because it has less action than pinball. It's the leisurely pacing of baseball, the alternating current of action and reflection, that invites discussion. You don't dare venture into a theoretical discussion during a basketball game, because you'll miss the next three baskets, but baseball makes room for such talk--and that talk inevitably leads to essays and books. All that talk and writing needs a rich and varied vocabulary to sustain it and Dickson has made a valiant effort to collect it all in one place. His book is not an encyclopedia--proper nouns are included only if they have broken free of their original association to become universal terms. "Johnson & Johnson," for example, is a term inspired by the manufacturer of bandages, but it's included in the Baseball Dictionary because it's a slang term for any ball player who's injured frequently or who plays with an excess of adhesive tape showing.
Dickson defines the rules and basic plays of the game, but the reader can tell that his heart is in the more florid metaphors that baseball has inspired. When he gets hold of one that tickles his fancy, he'll let the dictionary definition run long, almost turning it into an essay. A "Jonah," for example, was a person, thing, or action that brought bad luck for early players--a term inspired by the Bible's whale-bait character. Dickson includes five different citations from newspapers in the 1870s and 1880s, including this one from the New York World: "It is a well known fact that a cross-eyed man will Jonah the squarest ball-game that was ever played."
As Dickson puts it in his intro-duction:
Dickson needed a third edition of his dictionary because the past decade has seen an explosion in terminology for new ways to analyze baseball. For example, the new edition has an entry for "equivalent on-base percentage," which Dickson defines as "an adjusted on-base percentage, featured in Baseball Prospectus since 2003." It's just one of many terms coined by the Baseball Prospectus folks that have become common parlance and thus belong in Dickson's book. Like many of the terms, the "EqOBP," as it's abbreviated, adjusts for the distortions of home ballparks and different major and minor leagues so the performance of any hitter in professional baseball can be compared to any other hitter.
The innovations designed by the Baseball Prospectus team grow out of the trail-blazing work of Bill James. Even today, though, James is a much misunderstood figure, thought of as little more than a numbers nerd. But his statistical analysis was the least important aspect of his work. James upended baseball thinking not with stats, but with the attitude that no assumption should go unchallenged. He didn't care if the sacrifice bunt was a time-honored part of managerial strategy or if hitters had always been judged by their batting average. He wanted proof that the conventional wisdom was actually wise. He wasn't interested in beliefs; he was interested in reality.
This kind of bull-headed insistence on facts drove old-school managers and sportswriters crazy--in much the same way religious fundamentalists or political ideologues go nuts if you question their assumptions about God or Ralph Nader. In looking for proof--or disproof--of received wisdom, James did invent some useful mathematical formulas, but those formulas were just part of the evidence he mustered as part of his brilliant, skewering prose. This is what he doesn't get enough credit for: He is the most gifted writer about sports in the Baby Boom Generation--in much the same way and for much the same reasons that Greil Marcus and Paul Krugman are in the fields of music writing and economics writing.
The writers at Baseball Prospectus may not be James' equals, but they are his apostles and they attack the subject of baseball with the same healthy skepticism, unapologetic passion, and biting humor. The latter is especially evident in the 2009 edition. In discussing the Washington Nationals' decision to sign ex-Oriole Daniel Cabrera, the Prospectus opines, "Perhaps a change of scenery and a move from a hitter-friendly park in a grueling division to a pitcher-friendly one in the easier league can help unlock some of his potential. And perhaps a talking giraffe will sing the National Anthem on Opening Day--a GM can dream, can't he?"
The staff does include Nate Silver, who had the obvious-in-retrospect notion that challenging conventional wisdom in baseball is not so different from doing the same in politics. Silver founded the fivethirtyeight.com web site, using polling data as a springboard to some of the best political writing of the recent campaign. His site was astonishingly accurate in forecasting the presidential and senate races, which should be no surprise after the Baseball Prospectus had predicted almost every stat that Evan Longoria would put up in his Rookie of the Year season during the same campaign. So much for the conventional wisdom that minor-league records have no predictive power.
This year the book is predicting that the Orioles' rookie catcher Matt Wieters will have an even better year--a year that should put him in the top 10 for batting average, home runs, RBIs, and on-base percentage for all of baseball. In fact, the book claims that the long-suffering Orioles had three of the top 20 prospects in the minor leagues last year: Wieters (No. 1), pitcher Chris Tillman (No. 16), and pitcher Brian Matusz (No. 19). Let's hope the authors are right--and with their track record, they probably are.
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