Thursday, June 01, 2006

Postmodern Baseball

Or, why Joe Morgan hates Bill James.

Postmodernism is many things, far more than I can understand or can easily relate in a simple blog posting. But one thing that is considered postmodern is a relative antipathy towards narratives. A modernist will see a chain of events and look for cause and effect, how one thing influences another, arching meaning behind the sequence. A postmodernist rejects the universality of the narrative, and will contend that events are not as connected as we might think, and looking for cause and effect is pointless, or at least not always very fruitful.

This brings us to baseball. Baseball is a very interesting sport which has been related by writers almost since its inception. The marriage between the sport and the writer is so close as to be almost inseparable. To name a few examples: baseball rose as a national sport as newspapers rose as the major medium of national communication, the Yankees became the most popular team in part because New York newspapers were the first national newspapers, baseball writers are almost solely responsible for electing members of the Hall of Fame.

As a result of this marriage, the vast majority of baseball fans see games, seasons, players and entire teams as writers do; as part of a narrative story. In other words, most people who cover and follow baseball are modernists. One of the fundamental aspects of a story is they generally have a moral. To them, baseball is an inherently moral game.

I do not refer to morality as good vs. evil in a Christian sense. I refer to morality in the sense that virtues which the writer discerns and judges are, he believes, the causes of the success or failure on the field. There is always a reason a player, team, or season succeeds or fails. A moral to the story of the game.

Some familiar reasons given for the success or failure are: work ethic, chemistry, enthusiasm, self-sacrifice, intelligence, destiny, character, clutchiness and grittiness. The fact that most of these terms are vague only servs to enhance their value in the modernist's eyes. If I, as a modernist, deem player X to be a "clutch" player, who can really tell me I'm wrong? The very ambiguity of the word allows me to use it however I wish.

From the century long hold that modernists writers have held on baseball came the first great postmodernist, Bill James. Although he may not have been the first to break free from the narrative constraints of understanding baseball, he was the first to achieve a national recognition and following. In the 80s, his Baseball Abstract not only applied statistical analysis to the game, it completely changed the way a game (or player, season, or team) can be watched, enjoyed, and appreciated. Statements of cause and effect could be, for the first time, reasonably measured for accuracy. Theories upon which a modernist narrative can hinge were disputed, and sometimes either disproved or shown to lack any credibility.

Baseball had to at last acknowledge some of the sheer randomness of the game. The fact that, if player X has a one in three chance of getting a hit in inning one with the score tied, he will have a one in three chance of getting a hit in inning nine down by one with two outs and men on second and third. There is nothing that player can do to improve his ninth inning abilities over his first inning abilities. No moral reason why he may get a hit in one situation and not in another.

This is all extremely disturbing to the modernist. To the modernist, there is a moral reason for everything. Joe Morgan claims that clutch hitting exists. Bill James counters that if there is such a thing, the sheer randomness of baseball sufficiency obscures the ability so it might as well not exist. These two theories cannot both be held at the same time. Therefore, the intellectual conflict between the two sides.

Some would contend that a postmodernist cannot appreciate baseball as a modernist can. A modernist cares greatly about the outcome of a game, who wins, who loses, and why. While it is true that the postmodernist recognizes that who wins a game may not be indicative of which team is better, I believe that a postmodernist actually enjoys the game more, not less, than the modernist.

The postmodernist can appreciate the fascinating structured chaos that is an organized baseball game. In any one given at bat, there are only a few possible outcomes. Therefore there is structure. But the factors which determine that outcome are so many, and so interrelated, that simply understanding and appreciating why the at bat resulted as it did can be endlessly fascinating. For example: Pitching matchup, if there is a basestealer on base, if there is a power hitter on deck, the score, the inning, the pitch count, how hot the hitter is, how many times he has seen this particular pitcher, the temperature, the defensive alignment, the wind, the angle of the sun, how loud the crowd is yelling, and on and on. And that is just one at bat. Therefore, there is chaos.

A postmodernist could probably write a book full of analysis on every game played. A postmodernist can not only appreciate the outcome, but the journey to get to that outcome, and be intrigued by, say, the question of how a butterfly's beating wings in Australia might have affected the game's result.

7 Comments:

At 7:40 AM, Blogger Tom Goodman said...

A very fine post, pawnking. I am going to alert the other bloggers to it's value and insight.

 
At 8:15 AM, Blogger Pawnking said...

Thank you, Tom. I greatly appreciate the words of encouragement.

 
At 12:06 AM, Anonymous RickSchuBlues said...

Indeed a most thoughtful and well-written essay. Tom pointed the way to your blog and it's a nice find.

Can I be both a modernist and a postmodernist? Because I actually love Bill James as a writer, and believe it or not own many of his books. But (this is more believable) I disagree with the notion that clutch hitting - or performance of any kind - is a fallacy. To deny it exists is to deny that psychology itself exists, and that there are differences in the psyches of individual players. Some players absolutely have an ability to concentrate, to maintain clarity and confidence in big situations, and some either get too anxious or simply go up there hoping not to fail. Some are affected negatively by pressure and some can respond to it favorably. I think James needs to acknowledge there are some things that affect outcomes which can't be quantified, and so do the people who tend to follow his philosophies a bit too blindly.

 
At 8:52 AM, Blogger Chris said...

You should send this to the Fire Joe Morgan blog.

 
At 6:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You suck......

 
At 8:22 AM, Blogger Ruby Legs said...

There is a fire Joe Morgan blog!?!?!

awesome. I need to get myself a link to that bad boy.

 
At 1:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is no such thing as a random action on the baseball field. Also, sabr studies have shown that clutch does exist (or more accurately, negative clutch exists.) In fact, any body taking just one of the two stances you have listed in probably in error.

However, for the stances listed, you do seem to have point. I just don't think that either side is entirely correct.

Also, you have a typo or two in you work.

 

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