Sunday, July 15, 2012

Nostalgia, Data, Pas de Deux: A Conversation with Dave Jordan

Sport tends to grow as it recedes into the past. Filtered through the imagination, feats on the field grow in mythic stature. In memory, long games are longer, become "epic," homers are hit further, higher, fingers are stretched beyond their limit; as in a surreal painting, ten yards is twenty. Nostalgia works in a similar way when we consider athletes who might have been less gifted in talent than the superstars, but who linger in memory as among our favorites. This is where sentimentality—nostalgia's cute twin sibling—might infect our clear-eyed view of accomplishments. "There are two worlds: the world we can measure with line and rule, and the world that we feel with our hearts and imagination." I've quoted this Leigh Hunt observation often, and it's on my mind now as I consider Sabermetrics—the statistical compiling and analysis of baseball players' offensive and defensive performance using objective evidence—and its stubborn, nearly joyless tendency to challenge, if not debunk, memory. There's some tension for you: the heat between data and nostalgia.

Where did you go...
Ken Singleton. Willie Randolph. Ruppert Jones. These guys were among my favorite players in the mid-1970s, players whose baseball cards I coveted, who I hoped to catch a glimpse of on ABC's Monday Night Baseball or NBC's Saturday Game Of The Week, and whose stats I'd pore over on Sunday mornings, when the Washington Post would run each qualifying player's season-total stat lines. These men lived in my head as much as on the field, acting out in real time the games I played in the backyard and, less enjoyably, on the CYO fields. Jones played for the exotic, briny Seattle Mariners, whose light-blue uniforms I loved, and when he went on the Disabled List as a rookie I made my first and only sports radio call, asking Ken Beatrice at WMAL in a quavering voice when Jones was expected to play again. (Pre-Internet = Glacial Era.) I wasn't a stat head as a kid beyond what Topps provided me every week, gum-scented data and trivia washed down with a Cherry Coke. I followed the usual numbers in charting my hero's rise or fall, but these days I'm not an obstinate purist. Over the years I've converted to the BA/OBP/SLG line, to OPS, WHIP and some of the other core metrical categories of statistical analysis that are clearly valuable, and superior to older, more conventional statistics. I'm not interested here in debating the merits of Sabermetrics but in wondering how objective numbers-crunching might be at odds with affection, how objective evidence might bump up against loving memories of a player who in our imaginations played with grace and excellence (or at least with "grit") but who when his numbers are crunched settles ignobly into the bottom half of career players. When the numbers tell you that a beloved player from your youth was below-average, what does that tell you about statistics, about your love for a game. About memory?

Dave Jordan, founder of Instream Communications, has wondered about this stuff, too. A former Wall Street trader who focuses on investing in media and advertising companies, Dave led a group of graphic artists last year in creating The 1975 Topps Traded Project, a visual reboot of every traded player and rookie in the original 1975 Topps to their proper ballclub. Dave's upcoming site Instreamsports.com is dedicated to giving a voice to ex-athletes outside of the mainstream media. Instream is based in the Princeton, New Jersey area, and is currently in Beta Launch.

Recently, Dave and I virtually sat down and talked about Sabermetrics, the past, and memory.

~~

Do you think that baseball particularly lends itself to nostalgia and sentimentality, or are they not unique to the sport? Do you hear and see football and basketball garner the same level of wistfulness among its fans?

I think baseball is a primary element of American folklore. History e-textbooks a hundred years into the future will recall the National Pastime as a major component to the American fabric in the 20th century and early 21st century. I do believe the emergence of NFL Films, the stolid, glorious voice of John Facenda, has gone a long way toward creating an early century baseball-like mystique for professional football, you know, all that "Frozen tundra" kind of stuff. For many fans, the NFL didn't exist before Vince Lombardi, and I believe the true narrative begins with the work of NFL films. Baseball is written in poetry ("Casey at the Bat"), on Broadway (Damn Yankees), the legend of Lou Gehrig, that shot of Babe Ruth at his final Old Timer's Day. There's little of that poetic imagery in Football—now college football, what with Jim Thorpe, All-American, Knute Rockne, you may have an argument there. What's there in basketball? The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh?  "TV's Mr. Kotter stars in Fast Break!" I mean sure, there's some sentimentality in hoops, but for every Willis Reed moment there's two to three Kirk Gibson-type moments. For every Michael Jordan shot to end the 1998 finals, there's two to three Joe Carter-style post-season game winners. You want to bring high school basketball and football into this, I suppose you could. Baseball was the primary spectator sport in the country by a lot until probably the 1960's, when the networks (with more than an assist by Pete Rozelle, then the NFL commissioner) began to realize the power on football on television. That said, baseball's long-standing spot as the National Pastime gives it the lead in terms of wistfulness. All that "When It Was A Game," sort of stuff.   

I always thought that HBO should've created a final chapter on Baseball in the '70's—"When It Stopped Being a Game." It's also when I believe the wistfulness ends. When ten year-old boys stopped placing bubble gum cards into their bicycle spokes and into plastic binders is when it stopped being a game. Also, when kids stopped calling them bubble gum cards is when it stopped being a game. 

What cultural value does nostalgia have?

Well, generally speaking, when you're eight, most of us knew nothing except the social biosphere of Mom, Dad and perhaps a toolish sibling or two or three if you were lucky.  That was your complete frame of reference, outside of television or those "Easy Reader" books you ordered through Scholastic once a month in class. When that girl at day camp, 1978, that girl with the golden brown hair and olive eyes caresses your fingertips without thinking because she saw it in some bad Mark Hamill movie with her babysitter a couple days earlier, next to the knock-hockey table in the camp's open-air rec room, "Summer Lovin'" fights through feedback on your camp's crappy, third rate P.A. system. She makes this awkward attempt at arching her eyebrow in the most innocent manner, she's letting you know, you, that seemingly anonymous third grader, you exist. Your passive actions are affecting the cosmos. You're in play in this universe. That's nostalgia. That memory allows you to remind yourself, I affect things and human beings. Every time you hear the phrase, "Me, too," in reference to an event you witnessed decades ago or were a participant, it's another indication that you're not alone. The other side of this of course, is that you're one of a million-plus, the wager is loneliness vs. conformity, but that's a beer we'll have another time. Nostalgia confirms your existence in a time and place and that to me is the value.

You're a proponent of metrical evaluation of baseball players past and present. What's the value of Sabermetrics?

I believe that highly intelligent baseball fanatics in the late 1970's were getting bored with the same old "Mantle vs. Mays"-style arguments in the context of the value of players, the intentionally vague definition of the "Most Valuable Player," things like that. That's what you had, tons of barroom chatter that never really went anywhere. Bill James (influential early proponent of metrical evaluations) wanted to write about baseball, but had few connections into the only avenues of the time, newspapers and periodicals. Leagues were employing ex-players in talent-evaluation front office positions, and presumably James wanted to be part of the establishment, but was blown off. Ultimately, what Sabermetrics is supposed to do is create a benchmark for evaluating players from different eras with an equalized measurement, first James' "Runs Created" measurement. The primary measurement is now Wins Above Replacement (WAR). So now when someone pipes up "Mantle was better than Mays," you can chime in about Willie's 150 WAR vs. Mickey's 105. There's an assortment of formulas out there to determine WAR, but they are all based upon the same principle, that being the comparison of one player versus the theoretical 25th man on the roster. I also believe when fans began playing Rotisserie/Fantasy Baseball for money is the when the measurements dramatically improved. Obviously, when commerce rears its ugly head is where you'll find intellectual and technological advances. 

The side effect of all this is that greater knowledge removes a certain subjective element from the conversation. I remember a major baseball journalist wondered publicly if Johnny Damon was a Hall of Famer. I replied that if he achieved 3000 hits, he was in, end of story. The writer was highly offended by my phrasing of "end of story," like this was the worst thing a journalist could hear.  He's right about that, I suppose, because a journalist thrives in a subjective atmosphere and benchmarks like 3000 hits and 300 wins are pretty much the opposite of that. In my view, there's nothing to discuss. If you achieve 3000 hits in ten seasons, you're a God in this game.  15 seasons, you're Derek Jeter, a great player. 20 seasons, you're the most consistent .277 hitter in baseball history, or perhaps you're Craig Biggio. Lou Brock would be another example, but his average was .293, with only a .343 career On-Base Percentage (OBP). In today's baseball game, with the focus on OBP, you won't get 20 years to play 156-game seasons with an OBP less than .350, even if you're batting .277, or .280, because with the increased influence of statistical analysis, there will be voices of those analyst-types in the front office of the organization saying things like "So what if he has 165 hits a season, they're all empty singles." Faster than you could say Adam Dunn, that player will be replaced by someone batting .256 but who walks 90 times a year with 25 dingers. A guy like Daniel Murphy could hit .280 forever—if he started at age 23 and never got hurt, he could collect 3000 hits. In reality, at this rate, Murphy will be the next Dave Magadan, hitting .280 off the bench for 200 to 250 at-bats until the age of 38, the spot where that single base-hit matters. For someone in this generation to come this close, there has to be a darn good reason he's on the field, outside of "empty batting averages," as some like to say.  I will go so far as to go on record that Johnny Damon might be the last guy to get this far in terms of hits and not make the Hall of Fame.   

Omar, chugging since '89
The other aspect of this is consistency, which in my mind should be rewarded. To play this game for over two decades and consistently be out there day-in-day-out, through all the traveling, day-after-nighters, the extra inning games, the flights, the hotels, the psychological effects of being without family, wives or close friends, to play through that is an enormous accomplishment, and Sabermetrics doesn't always reward this. You wanna say even though Omar Vizquel played 16 to 17 years as a starter but his WAR comes up short and his hit total doesn't reach 3000, he's not a Hall of Famer, OK fine. You wanna say Johnny Damon plays 149 games for 18 years and somehow makes it to 3000, guess who gets to swing the flag past the finish line? Not only has he showed amazing consistency in remaining healthy through what is a grueling schedule, he achieved what 28 other men out of what , 5000-plus, could never attain. Guess what, he's great, he's a Hall of Famer, and anyone who wants to argue that comes off as a bit of a Sophist. 

I agree with the baseball writer, though; the worst words he could ever hear is "end of story." Sabermetrics, in many ways, might possibly curtail his reason for being.

It's funny imagining a fifty year-old in the future waxing nostalgic about the WAR, WHIP, or UZR stats recollected from his childhood, but of course that will happen. Do you see sabermetrics as devaluing nostalgia and memory? Undercutting it or complementing it?

Michael Weinreb, a sportswriter at Bill Simmons's Grantland, wrote a nice piece a few months ago about his love growing up for Statis Pro Baseball. I'd go so far as to say that that was the Sabermetrics of the 1980s, things like that. Whatever kids were doing at that point in life when they felt good and happy, will generate nostalgia. If that means getting an autograph, they'll wax on that. If it means playing SIM baseball with their dad at age nine fighting over Dave Kingman's worthless 37 HR season with the Mets in 1982, but spending time together and loving every minute of it, they'll wax on that, too. APBA baseball in the late '70s, Strat-O-Matic even more so—I used to have a blast with the 1981 strike season. Let me place it in these terms: no way do I believe Mookie Wilson will never see himself on a plaque in the Hall-of-Fame, but I remember Mother's Day in 1983 when I approached him for an autograph before the game and he smiled that Mookie smile as I shot off every positive statistic worth mentioning. "You know it all, dont'cha," he replied, as he wrote "Happy Mother's Day, Mookie," in my autograph book. No reminder of his lousy OBP or heavy amount of annual strikeouts will ever tarnish that.

How would you respond to someone who might see the accumulation and analysis of sabermetric stats as having a deadening effect on intuitive love of a given player?

I would say, "You never met Mookie." Seriously, this is a tough question, I think, because I don't know if kids love players the way they did back then. I'm not certain healthy, free-thinking people have such idols any longer in 2012. Going to the game is no longer the absolute 100% delight it was even 30 years ago. Think about this; the ballpark is basically the team's "store" and what they are saying to you is, "Come to my store and I will make you pay for parking to give me business." Think about how nuts that sentence reads. You have to pay for the privilege of patronizing their establishment. It's obnoxious and a leverage of your affection for the ballclub and its history. I think today kids like David Wright, they like Derek Jeter, they like players. They don't love them.

I think the accumulation and analysis of sabermetric stats in the context of your affection for a player is the same as your buddy trying to tell you that the girl in sophomore year high school you were crazy about was a terrible lab partner. Good to know, I suppose, but it doesn't really affect your overall perspective on the person. Unless of course, you found yourself in Physics class with her the following year.


Sabermetric statistics via Beyond The Batting Average, by Lee Panas. Photo of Omar Vizquel via SideLines.

3 comments:

LarryT said...

Fantastic perspective. Hard not to evoke childhood memories here. Looks like Dave already has some good articles from Doc Ellis and Claudell Washington at www.instreamsports.com

Jeffrey Orta said...

That people aren't as keen with baseball these days sure hits a chord. Sometimes you see pictures of old games and you imagine how fans, back then, would go as far as climb bluffs overlooking the stadiums (because they didn't have money to pay for tickets) just so they could watch their idols play.

Joe Bonomo said...

Yep. And those on Coogan's Bluff were probably wearing shirts and ties.

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