Frank Zappa famously said, “Jazz isn’t dead. It just smells funny.” You can get that quote on posters, coffee mugs and t-shirts. I’ve always liked it mostly because it encapsulates what jazz has become over the last forty years. Mostly critics but also some musicians have built a great wall around jazz. They try very hard to define what jazz is, but more importantly what jazz isn’t; what instruments are proper, what songs are standards, what records are important and on and on. And it is all very serious. In case you haven’t heard, jazz is the great American art form. Deviate from the cannon, even if you were once part of the cannon and you may face ostracism.
I often think of that quote when I watch the almost daily Twitter battles between the “old guard” of baseball writers and the “sabermetric” writers. I feel like the sabermetric guys are making baseball smell funny and the old guys are trying to hang on to a dead past that never really existed in the first place, also adding to the stench.
I’ll be the first to admit, I know absolutely nothing about math. I somehow managed a B in statistics and have no idea how that happened. I received steady C’s in classical Greek (one B+ and one D+ to offset one another) for two years and I feel like I have a much better grasp of that dead language than I do of the very alive language of mathematics. Even so, I don’t hate the new statistics I just don’t particularly like the people who champion them (at least their online persona, but that is an entirely different blog post.) To put it bluntly, they are condescending. Sometimes that bleeds into open contempt and hostility. Other times, they completely trash anyone who isn’t in step. They remind me of Jazz critics who insist on defining what music is and isn’t Jazz, but who also have a body of knowledge that acts as a litmus test to anyone commenting on Jazz. Don’t know Coltrane’s Crescent? Then you have no place to comment. Think Miles Davis best work is on Bitches Brew? Wrong. Don’t like WAR? Wrong. Don’t use ERA+? Wrong.
I get the importance of numbers to baseball. I enjoy the numbers too. However, if you think Miguel Cabrera was the MVP last year, I don’t think you are a war criminal (or WAR criminal, HA!) and I also don’t think you are stupid. The almost evangelical certitude that many sabermetric commentators have just turns me off. We are, after all, talking about sports. This isn’t the discussion of evolution versus creationism, yet it feels that way. Any time I encounter people who insist that they have THE ANSWER I walk away. I get away even faster if those people are mean. Unfortunately, I find many of those who discuss newer statistics at the very least to be sarcastic (hello Keith Law!) and some times just caustic. I watch baseball for fun. I write about baseball for fun. Maybe if I was trying to make a living at this I’d feel differently, but I doubt it. I’ve always found the worst arguments to be those that insist on putting the other side down.
The old guard, amazingly, might even be less tolerable. The old joke about stat guys and bloggers being in basements has pretty much gone away, but the previous generation still insists that they are the true protectors of baseball. These emperors haven’t had any clothes for a long time. I find people who take pride in their lack of knowledge and refusal to learn anything new just as annoying as the NEW TRUTH person. It feels like I’m caught between the Pharisees and St. Paul, neither of whom had much room for those that didn’t agree with them.
There are some who manage to bridge the gap, notably Joe Sheehan and Joe Posnanski. Unfortunately, I’ve lost a certain amount of respect for Posnanski, largely due to the Paterno book and the fallout afterwards. If someone is going to be lauded as the best sportswriter going, then Posnanski needed to dig deeper on the Paterno book. Simply put, he had unprecedented access to Paterno at a time, at THE time that really matters and he missed it. I’m sure my perception is colored by all of this, but I’ve found his columns after the whole affair to be right in his wheelhouse, safe and easy. I particularly found his hagiography of Alex Rodriguez to be a “Posnanski by the numbers” piece. I still think he is a good writer, but he needs to get his groove back.
So, baseball isn’t dead, but it smells funny (maybe better said, baseball commentary). I think it’s possible to like both sides of this divide, or better stated find bits and pieces from each and make one’s own reality. If the internet and all of its information has taught me anything, it’s that I don’t need to rely on any one point of view for my discussion and analysis of baseball. Even better (maybe you don’t think so) I can add my voice to the discussion too, which is the plan over the next few weeks. Some of it will be number driven, some of it will be drivel I’m sure. Either way, I like Giant Steps by Coltrane and Dark Magus by Miles Davis and Make a Jazz Noise Here by Frank Zappa and I like WAR, BABIP and RBIs. It’s all makes it into my cannon.