THE RITUAL OF BASEBALL’S spring training marks the true beginning of the year; a time for reflection, for pause, to consider the errors of years passed, and to be hopeful for a season not yet written. You miss that girl, but maybe it’s time to move on. You regret August, but there’s another coming just after July. You were so close to the postseason, but the postseason never came. For many of us, it’s a way out of the February blahs, from winter’s depression, the sight of crisp untouched diamonds and impossibly high uniform numbers lending promise to possibility. We’re all tied for first. We’re all batting a 1.000. We’re all in love. We have a 21.2 UZR/150.
In so many ways, technology has improved the manner in which we both enjoy and disseminate sport. HD television brings you as close to being there as imaginable. Scores and injury updates fly across the Twittersphere in moments. Fantasy leagues are assembled with friends around the world, not just around the block. I can watch the Habs on my iPhone, in both official languages, and Punjabi. But the advent of the smartphone and a readily accessible supply of infinite information has ruined the art of the discussion, the joy of the bar argument. We have become overly informed, and nowhere is this more evident than in baseball.
While not a Moneyball guy, I appreciate sabermetrics and I understand its role in the game, both in terms of evaluating talent and discussion amongst fans. We’ve evolved, even as casual fans, beyond batting averages and RBIs. I get that. But the beauty of baseball, its essence and charm, has always been in its never-ending narrative. The stories, the romance, the mystery and exposition of baseball cards. Shoeless Joe Jackson. Wally Pipp. Roberto Clemente. Sidd Finch. Morganna the Kissing Bandit. The game where the defense has the ball, where 1921 and 1981 can be measured in conversation, where there is no halftime, no quarters, no clock, no definitive end. Any given game on any given summer day, could possible go on forever.
My god, the doubleheader.
“It’s a great day for a ball game; let’s play two!”
While other sports attempt to create myth (hockey) or dismiss its flawed and injurious past (football) or revel in ego (basketball), baseball lives within the truth of its myth with every inning, with every game, and of course, each spring training. Arguing about who should start at second for the Jays, who should be the Pirates’ backup catcher, who should come off the bench first for the Yankees against a lefthander in a late inning afternoon interleague game in an NL park, was always the impetus of baseball discussion that found its arguments not in contrived acronyms, but in the hearts of its fans, in those who worship at its diamond temple. The arguments had no end, because they were not rooted in logic, but rather in love. And there is nothing as unquantifiable, as immeasurable, as elusive and impractical, as love.
Technology has also opened up the discourse to an infinity of opinion. Anyone can access an audience. Essentially, blogs and social media have taken the bar argument to the Internet, and it’s there that the essence of my displeasure is found. Those who believe and subscribe to sabermetrics as law, have no humility in their arguments. They believe their opinions to be absolute. “Ricky Romero should start today because when adjusted for league and ballpark, his ERA+ is 104, which is six percent better than the average pitcher.” Arguing against this evidence is often near impossible, because that lack of humility is bereft of compassion for romance.
I love baseball not because I can use statistics to argue whether or not Adam Lind is a better first baseman than Earl Sheely, but rather because I can construct a narrative that attaches the two. What the disciples of Fangraphs and Moneyball are incapable, or unwilling, to consider within their argument is that which cannot be measured, or quantified. The sun reflecting off a beer can on an August afternoon in Camden Yards. A pitcher whose girlfriend has discovered she can’t have children struggling against the prolific fathering of Melvin Mora. A shortstop whose hangover bled past an off-day. The infinity of intangibles, the unknowable, happenstance, aren’t reflected by WAR, or Z-Contact%, or rGDP.
It doesn’t matter what your PECOTA algorithm says. The games need to be played.
A few years ago, before terrorist meteorites and Biogenesis, the Barn’s Ian Orti and I ran a speakeasy of sorts in Montréal’s Plateau, affectionately and unfortunately called The Ashtray. We provided no alcohol, nor cigarettes, nor edibles, but the door was open at most hours, a Habs game was often on a TV, there were spare rooms for wayward poets to sleep it off in, the courtyard patio was equipped with a canopy and fireplace, and often filled with the comforting tunes of the Silver Jews, Marc Berube and the Patriotic Few, Wilco, and Bon Iver. The Ashtray was a place for lively discussion, informed debate, and discreet indiscretions. More often than not, the conversation would move to sport; how the Leafs sucked, or did not; how the Habs sucked, or did not; how the Jays sucked, or did not, and would inevitably deteriorate into arguments for or against our players of choice. And not once in those years did someone dare attempt a retort with the phrase, “According to Fangraphs,” because such an argument lacked what a good argument requires, what a good argument fueled by whiskey and late summer hours yearns for: passion.
Not all of the above paragraph is true, but it is rooted in truth as opposed to the appropriated artifice that provides the basis for the sabermetric sect. Its narrative is born of love and an affection for the past, as is baseball’s. In forty-one days the season will begin, life will turn a page, and everything once old will be new again. Virginal. Unknowing. Wins will be accompanied by losses. Strikeouts with walks. Home runs with impossible catches. There will be injuries, and injustices. There will be heroes, and no doubt villains. Come October the field will be reduced to a few fortunate teams hurtling towards November with grace and devotion. And in some Montreal or Toronto bar, a few of us will order pints of Guinness on a Saturday afternoon, and cheer for, or against, men in crisp starched uniforms destined for grass stains and hoping for immortality. And we’ll argue and predict that which is inarguable and unpredictable, citing not acronyms or mathematics, but rather love, and our own histories, a vicarity born in youth, until the ball is caught one last time, and we settle out tabs, and begin a long winter’s wait for another spring.