Saturday, June 9, 2012

Reading Baseball

In Plato’s Apologia, he quotes Socrates as saying, “I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.” In a similar way, we have the quote I mentioned last time about baseball & sabermetrics: “"baseball is a game played by the dextrous but only understood by the poindextrous.” Parody, yes—but also a summation of an attitude.

My academic background is in both poetry—that is, the writing thereof—& literary criticism. If you haven’t undertaken these studies in any sort of focused way, you may well believe that they should go together hand & glove; in point of fact, the disciplines—as Plato suggested well over 2,000 years ago, are uneasy companions at best. If you talk to writers, they tend to approach literature from a perspective of technique & process; if you talk to critics, they tend to approach literature in terms of theoretical models & philosophical systems. That’s not to say that someone who is first & foremost a writer can’t read in the latter manner, but it is to say that when a writer is reading qua writer she/he tends to focus on technical & structural questions.

So we have writers, critics & readers. In theory, at least, in the act of reading, one participates mentally in both the creative, imaginative process (“the reader became the book”) & the critical process—the reader brings such critical tools as she/he has available to interpret the text.

In baseball: the player/coach; the statistician, & especially the sabermetrician; & the fan. These are not mutually exclusive groups—in fact, there’s considerable overlap, & in a way that mirrors the artist/critic/reader troika, “fan” ultimately encompasses the other two—even if the fan is, in most cases, a “player” only imaginatively.

I actually think the mirror I’m proposing actually is a key to understanding some deep questions concerning “fanhood” & the sometimes contentious divide between “the dextrous” & the “poindextrous.” In fact, baseball & sport in general is essentially a specialized form of the performing arts: somewhere between ritual drama & dance, but with teams & scoring. The ancient Greeks understood this: had they invented baseball, they might well have included it in the sacred Olympic games, right along wrestling, racing, sculpture & poetry.

Having existed to a great degree in all possible literary perspectives, & to a much lesser degree, in all baseball perspectives, I can see them as parts of a unified whole much more than as compartmentalized endeavors  & even at odds with each other. After all, as is both literally & figuratively true, Plato was himself a poet—not only did he compose poems, but he also used language to get at ineffable Being, which is (as Nietzche & others have pointed out), itself “poetic” in the extreme.

& yet, we see the traditionalists & the sabermetricians in  a war of words. When Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter was asked about the sabermetrical contention that there is no such thing as consistently “clutch performance,” Jeter replied, "You can take those stat guys and throw them out the window." On the other side of the aisle, one might read the sarcastic—I would say it doesn’t rise to the level of satire—introduction to the 2012 Baseball Prospectus that absolutely excoriates traditionalists who value intangible qualities such as “guts,” “hustle” & “leadership” as embodying not only stupidity but also fascistic tendencies—in 10 years time, the intro sarcastically projects, these traditionalists will have ensured that every copy of the publication you have in your hands will be destroyed.

Now, as I mentioned in a previous post, given the lucrative cottage industry based on sabermetric analysis, I don’t think BP’s dystopian vision is very likely to come to pass. Mainstream sports outlets such as the megalithic ESPN routinely use sabermertric analysis in their reporting & commentary. & well they should: as I said in previous posts, as statistics, the sabermetric figures do present a generally more rounded & complex pitcure of performance than traditional statistics.

But in any type of art, there’s also technique, & baseball is filled with complicated technique to such a degree that—for all the statistical overlay that’s accompanied the sport virtually since its inception—relatively small quirks & failures of technique can influence results to an extraordinary degree. Walter Alston, the longtime Dodgers’ manager, called pitching “a subtle thing,” & the same can be said of hitting as well. There are many “moving parts” involved in a motion analysis of either.

But are athletes—like poets in Plato’s version of the matter—unable to explain their sport & their technique? Is there no way for the fan to “read” the game except using statistical tools? It’s true that in some cases (but certainly not all) ex-players who are brought onto TV broadcasts & sports shows as “color commentators” & “analysts,” often do little but extol platitudes about “character” & “intangibles.” By the way, I disagree with the sabermetricians that these intangible qualities are unimportant or even don’t exist in any meanigful way because they aren’t measurable (if that’s really what they mean); but what interests me as a “reader” of baseball much more is the technique & thought process that a player brings to bear on a situation—just as this interests me when considering a poem.

We know that this isn’t true. Just as poets are able to write lucidly & insightfully about poetry, so are ballplayers able to speak (& even write, tho often with a ghostwriters aid) articulately about the techniques they employ: one need look no further than the classic The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams, certainly one of the very greatest hitters ever to play by whatever measures one brings to bear on the analysis. In addition, we know that when coaches work with ballplayers in practices, they are working on technique—the coaches, without exception old ballplayers themselves, are able to articulate technique. Are they also able to give a rah-rah spiel when the occasion calls for it? Of course, but there’s much more to playing the game than either the “intangibles” or the “numbers.”

So when “reading” baseball, I would wish to consider all three aspects: the intangible, the statistical & the technical. Certainly we can see that a baseball game, played as it is on a diamond, is poetry in itself.

Pix all link to their source
Plato & Aristotle, detail from Raphael's "School of Athens" (but you knew that)
Baseball Prospectus 2012
Derrida's Of Grammatology
Black-figure amphora c. 550 BC showing an armored race "Hoplitodromos." By Wiki Commons user Matthias Kabel, & licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
Artists & Readers: Pittsburgh Pirates in the dugout, fans in the stands, 1903 World Series
Poet Kings or Philosopher Kings? Nap Lajoie & Honus Wagner, 1904


  1. This was a treat to read. I especially liked the Plato/ poetry/ performance connection - this was fascinating: "In fact, baseball & sport in general is essentially a specialized form of the performing arts: somewhere between ritual drama & dance, but with teams & scoring." I'm also remembering those ancient Mayan rituals involving ball-throwing that were supposed to have both religious and sport elements...

    The connection you make between sacred/religious performance/ritual and "fanhood" is also really intriguing. I just read yesterday that people's heartbeats in an auditorium (stadium?)setting will tend to synchronize - which added another physical/bodily dimension to the religious experience (catharsis) that ancient greek drama was built around...

    I'll also add, as a marian catholic feminist, that in a world that wasn't characterized by the oppression of women, the Olympic Games would have involved sports that girls especially love, like jumprope, with their accompanying poetry and chant - and these would have evolved into a game with depth and richness, the way baseball evolved from boys throwing balls...just something to ponder. Thanks for this post!

    1. Hi Eberle: Thanks! I'll be doing more on the baseball/performing arts angle, so I'm glad to learn that was interesting--& what an intriguing note about the group heartbeat! Having been at stadiums during really absorbing & exciting games I can certainly believe that.

      The amount of women's participation in the ancient Olympics is a bit of a mystery. The common notion is that the Olympics were completely a male event, but there are some scattered records of women participants (& winners.) By the 8th century, the patriarchal tribes had more or less gained control of the Greek mainland, but as you are aware, the matriarchal underlay was always a significant undercurrent in Greek culture. But I do like the idea of Olympic jump rope very much!


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