New at Splice Today: Donald Trump and the Death of “Stick to Sports”

Just a quick note that I have a new piece up at Splice Today … today, about Donald Trump’s attacks on kneeling football players, and black athletes more generally, are not a “distraction,” but on the contrary show sports to be a part of our cultural discourse, and therefore our political discourse. This should (but won’t) put an end to the idea that athletes and sportswriters should “stick to sports”: sports are part of the culture war like it or not, and thus will always be inherently political.

One misunderstanding I’m risking by saying that these issues are not distractions is that, well, Trump is obviously distracted by them. There’s no doubt that he should be focusing on the disaster in Puerto Rico rather than dragging his attack on NFL protesters out for its fifth day. But by the same token, in the middle of a national emergency, he shouldn’t be going on Alabama radio and attacking John McCain either! And yet we wouldn’t say that politics is a distraction. Trump is just easily distracted, especially when the alternative is something he’s bored by, like people in trouble who need his help. That doesn’t mean that sports themselves are “distractions,” though, nor that, now that Trump has decided to attack black athletes, we should refrain from supporting them.

Hot dogs, sandwiches, and having a catch: The role of nonsense debates in baseball Twitter

On Thursday, Marc Normandin, baseball editor at SB Nation, tweeted something that might have seemed a bit cryptic to some readers:

To the uninitiated, it sounds like an unpublished Frank O’Hara poem, but it was actually a condensed manifesto, laying out positions on a number of mini-debates popular among the group of writers, analysts, and fans known as “baseball Twitter.” Specifically, the debates are:

  1. When you throw a baseball back and forth with somebody, do you call that “to play catch” or “to have a catch”? (This seems to be the latest hot-button debate in sports Twitter.)
  2. Is “gif,” the abbreviation of “graphical interchange format,” pronounced with a hard g or a j?
  3. In baseball, when a team is said to have “batted around,” does this mean 9 batters or 10 have come to the plate? (Devoted readers may remember I covered this topic almost exactly two years ago, and reached the same conclusion Normandin does.)
  4. Are olives good?

Only two of these questions, obviously, are at all related to baseball, and both of them are about inconsequential matters of terminology. Then you have one pronunciation question and one question of pure taste (about a food as far from ballpark fare as you can get). Yet anyone who follows enough of baseball Twitter knows that these debates are a core component of the culture, even during the baseball season when, like, games are being played and everything:

Please understand, I’m not disapproving of any of this. On the contrary, I love it (as the following 1000+ words will bear witness). But why do I love it? And why are these debates such a feature of baseball Twitter in particular?

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On becoming a Galaxy fan at age 35

Yesterday I read a very smart article on SBNation called “MLS has finally become a grown-up,” which convincingly made a case that Major League Soccer, which has been around since 1996, has found its footing as a league that has the confidence to draw fans by putting a fundamentally sound product on the field and emphasizing competitive, quality teams, rather than trying to be a pale shadow of famous European leagues. Anecdotally, I can say that interest in the MLS does seem to be picking up. A student of mine turned in a personal narrative essay in which he and some friends watched an MLS game. A kid at my daughter’s preschool sometimes wears a Steven Gerrard LA Galaxy jersey. The signs are everywhere.

But it’s a testament to how checked out I am as regards MLS that it didn’t even occur to me that the occasion for the SBNation article was the beginning of the new MLS season. I didn’t even have a rough idea of the MLS schedule. And, for the first time, that bugs me. I have no objection to soccer; on the contrary, I like it. I’m not currently saturated with sports; actually, I’d like to be paying them more attention, since I am a sports blogger and all. What’s my excuse?

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On Sticking to Sports in the Age of Trump

A few days ago, Ben White of Politico made a tweet that got me thinking:

One possible reaction to this is to dismiss it, because this wouldn’t seem to make it onto any reasonable list of things that are weird about Trump’s presidency. Some people like sports, some don’t, and at any rate in politics sports have generally been used as just another humanizing affectation, a set of rote keywords politicians recite to convince us that they’re just like us. I admit this works on me—I’m a sports fan, and I like feeling that my representatives are, well, just like me—but intellectually, I know it’s silly: obviously, having a lot of spare attention to give to sports is not really a recommendation for someone who wants to take on the most important and mentally taxing job in the world. Furthermore, it’s unavoidably gendered: it is for the moment still true that sports fans are more likely to be men than women, so the fact that politicians are expected to be conversant in them but not in more stereotypically female interests is a problematic double standard.

At the same time, sports are culture, and the ways we consume culture—or even pretend to consume it—tell something about us. In spring of 2009, I listened to Barack Obama speaking with the hosts of an opening day broadcasts and describing his love for the White Sox; when they asked him about his favorite White Sox; he uncomfortably dodged the question, making it clear that he simply didn’t know any: though a genuine basketball fan, his supposed love of southside Chicago baseball was pure affectation. Listening, I cringed, not just because of the inherent awkwardness of the moment but also because it revealed something unflattering about him: his overconfidence in his ability to wing it (didn’t he know he’d be asked to follow up?). That didn’t sink his presidency, but I think it’s fair to say a lack of preparation made his first term a lot less successful than it could have been. When Carly Fiorina tweeted before the 2016 Rose Bowl that, even though she was a Stanford grad, she had to root for Iowa to beat them, it was the final nail in her already doomed campaign, because it showed she was not just a panderer but an ineffective panderer, someone who thought that people love it when you make it clear you’re telling them what they want to hear. A politician’s engagement with sports gives us data just like anything else.

So dismissal wasn’t the reaction I had to White’s tweet about Trump. My reaction was that, while White seems to be right that Trump doesn’t care much about sports (except golf—but more on that in a moment), he cares a lot about sports figures. He’ll tout any relationship with any athlete, coach, or owner, even those who are despicable human beings, like Bob Knight or Ben Roethlisberger. Is it meaningful that Trump cares about these sports celebrities but not about the actual games that make them famous? I think it is. No one really believes that Trump thinks that Meryl Streep is a bad actress; he called her one because she criticized him on stage. His shot at her revealed him even more as someone to whom the entire concept of culture is foreign, except insofar as it feeds or bruises his ego. Similarly, Trump is incapable of caring about sports themselves, because those are narratives at which he is not at the center. His ability to know who these sports celebrities are without caring about the only thing that makes them celebrities to begin with is just another window on his narcissism, the way that nothing in his life other than self-aggrandizement gives him any meaning or happiness.

(This helps explain his interest in golf, as I mentioned earlier. Golf is an individual sport, of course, but it’s also inextricably bound up with business (including but not limited to his business), with the outward markers of wealth, and with important people hobnobbing with him. Even then, as far as I know he has no particular appreciation of any particular golfer’s technique or skills, apart from how their greatness rubs off on him.)

This week, of course, the news is dominated by Trump’s continual crowing about his friendship with Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Bob Kraft, the Patriots’ quarterback, coach, and owner, respectively. (That’s another thing—who else would discuss players, coaches, and owners in exactly the same way, and entirely in relation to their friendship with the speaker?) And so interest in the Super Bowl is taking a particularly political tone this year: rooting for the Patriots is taken to be equivalent to rooting for Donald Trump.

Personally, I find this last narrative kind of annoying, since it seems to me another case of using sports to trivialize, rather than elevate, significant issues like racism. It’s at least convenient, I guess, that the Trump support is all on the side of the insufferable dynasty that everyone outside of New England already hates. Rooting for business franchises owned by billionaires and marketing a stew of patriotism, traditionalism, and masculinity is going to involve us all in a lot of quandaries, so I resent Trump for (add another on the pile) making it seem so morally easy.

But that doesn’t lead me to agree with Ben Domenech, editor of the archconservative magazine The Federalistwhen he argues for leaving sports as a respite from politics. While I’m not at all sympathetic to Domenech’s politics, I am, unlike some I’ve seen, sympathetic to his request. It is true, at least for me, that paying attention to politics saps one’s ability to take an interest in sports. During the primary last year I found it very hard to focus on sports; now that Trump is president I find it hard to focus on, well, anything else, and that makes maintaining this blog a struggle. It’s natural to want an escape from that and I don’t blame anyone for treating sports as that escape.

But to ask that sports commentary leave politics aside, that the entire sports world be turned into a political DMZ, is wrong, and insidious. Politics are at work in sports constantly; they bear on race, on violence against women, and of course on labor and economics. In fact, it’s by treating sports as an unpolitical space, a matter of pure common ground, that sports owners and their political cronies are able to wring money out of local governments. The president’s cozy relationship with billionaires, his business conflicts, his attacks on the diversity that underlies (and is exploited by) professional sports…all of this is on view at the Super Bowl and throughout the sporting world. There is nothing apolitical about ignoring it; it’s the most cynical kind of political silencing, like the calls not to discuss gun violence in the wake of mass shootings, out of respect for the dead.

To paraphrase Trotsky, Trump may not be interested in sports, but sports are interested in him. We don’t see politics in sports because we’re hopelessly partisan; we see politics in sports because it’s there, and when you build the habit of looking at sports with open eyes, that habit tends to follow you around.

Image credit: Donald Duffs by Steve Jurvetson is licensed under CC BY 2.0. 

The DH: How consistent should baseball be?

Happy New Year! And apologies for the long delay. Unfortunately, my mind has been far from sports, ever since the day my last proper post here instantly aged very badly, like the Nazi in The Last Crusade. Basically, an incoming Trump presidency makes it hard for me to sustain an interest in sports questions, the kind of in-depth attention that is what I enjoy about sports, and what I need to write about them. But since sports matter, since writing keeps the mind sharp, and since one form of resistance is to refuse to be devastated, I’m going to resume posting here, or at Wrigleyville, as often as I can.

My good friend Joseph Kugelmass, whose blog The Kugelmass Episodes has been an influence on my own writing, has helpfully given me a topic. He read one of my recent Wrigleyville posts, about the differences between the pro- and anti-DH perspectives and the fun of both of them having their own league, and wrote a reply over at his blog, in which he argued that the National League should follow the American League. I believe this is the first time The Spiel has been flattered with a disagreeing response, so it behooves me to engage.

Joe makes a number of good points, but I’m not going to respond point-by-point to his post, because I don’t want the discussion to sprawl out of control. Instead, I’m interested in one particular argument he makes in favor of a universal DH: that it is important to standardize the rules:

I cannot support your position on the two leagues because I’m a Platonist. Imagine that the American League did not allow instant replays for disputed calls, and the National League did. Obviously, this would be unacceptable and short-lived. Well, that’s the situation with the designated hitter. The rules of the game are absolutes. There’s no chess game in the world where you can’t capture a pawn “en passant.”

This is an important point, because, whatever one thinks of Plato, it’s true that standard rules are what give a game or sport meaning. They provide a common language—to talk about soccer, we need to have the same idea of what a “goal” is—and help to ensure that every occurrence of the game is rewarding the same skills.

And yet standardization is an interesting criterion to use when working out the rules of baseball, because baseball, for idiosyncratic historical reasons, is not standardized in one important regard: the dimensions of the field, which are simply not defined in the rules. Baseball isn’t unique in this—cricket, as I understand it, is the same way, as is Australian rules football, which is often played on modified cricket grounds. But besides those, all of the other team sports I can think of—hockey, all other types of football, basketball, etc.—are played on fields, pitches, courts, or rinks that are standardized, or nearly so (I was surprised to learn that football variants like soccer and rugby have varying pitch sizes, even within a given league, but the variance is generally only a few yards, and the shapes are standardized). The different dimensions lead to dramatic differences between sports; in a pub in Dublin once, I watched Gaelic football and soccer on adjacent TV screens, and the vast dimensions of the Gaelic football pitch (about 150 x 90 yards, compared to 115 x 74 for soccer) made the soccer match look as speedy as ice hockey.

With baseball stadiums, though, nearly all bets are off. Obviously the distances between home and the outfield fences vary widely from park to park, but more than that, the shapes are very different; soccer fields may vary in size, but imagine a league in which some were rectangular and some trapezoidal. Teams sometimes even adjust their parks’ dimensions to begin the year, hoping to increase or decrease the amount of offense in their park. But other elements are inconsistent, too: the bullpens can be behind the fence, on the field in foul territory, or even in play. The amount of foul territory can vary tremendously, meaning that a foul ball that’s out of play in one park might be caught for an out in another. The fences can be different heights, and made of different materials. Even the elevation of the field isn’t standard—in 2000, the Astros decided to put a 90-foot wide, 30° hill in center field in their new ballpark, and there was nothing to stop them.

One might object that these variations aren’t changes in the rules, but functionally, they are: “home run” means something different in Oakland than in San Francisco. Just because the oddity of the Green Monster isn’t stated in the rulebook—”a ball that is 38 or more feet high when it passes 310 feet from home plate shall be scored a home run, but one less than 38 feet shall be in play”—doesn’t mean that it doesn’t adjudicate between different on-field outcomes, which is what a rule is.

So is baseball’s lack of absolutism in the rules in this regard a problem? I would say that the variation in stadiums makes baseball a worse game, but a better sport. It’s worse for fairness and record-keeping that different stadiums play very differently; it’s hard to internalize the difference between a run in a low-scoring park and in a high-scoring one, and that has costs when it comes to honors like MVP awards and Hall of Fame inductions. And variation certainly doesn’t make things any easier for outfielders, who have to learn a bunch of different outfield arrangements. But it’s better for baseball as spectator entertainment: who would prefer baseball without the Green Monster or the ivy on the walls at Wrigley Field? Without idiosyncratic ballpark design, Babe Ruth wouldn’t have hit 60 home runs and “The Catch” by Willie Mays in 1954 would have been just another three-run homer. (Though I say good riddance to Tal’s Hill in Houston, which is being flattened for the new season: ballpark quirks should be organic, not added as focus-tested gimmicks.)

But this isn’t to say that any such variation would be an improvement on the game. Ballpark dimensions matter only on deep balls to the outfield or into foul territory; that has a significant effect on games but not a fundamental one. A situation in which one league had three outs per inning and the other had four, or in which one stadium was 90 feet between bases and another was 80—something fundamental, which affects nearly every aspect of the game—wouldn’t be enjoyable, because we would be constantly readjusting our assumptions about what’s happening on the field.

So if I’m right, rule variations can be beneficial to baseball’s entertainment, provided they only affect the game on the margins and not at its core. If you agree with me, then the question of a universal DH isn’t answered by the fact of rules variation, but raises two further questions:

  1. Is the DH the kind of rule that matters on the margins, and so can be an enjoyable variation between leagues? Or is it something more fundamental, such that a lack of uniformity on this point harms the game?
  2. Assuming for a moment that the non-universal DH is an enjoyable, marginal variation, is it enough of a benefit to the sport to make up for its costs to the game? (And yes, I know that I’m using these words in an idiosyncratic way to make this distinction.)

The first question I find surprisingly difficult. On the one hand, there’s a good argument that the DH (or lack thereof) doesn’t fundamentally change the game. A pitcher’s spot only comes up every three innings, give or take. Pitchers are not generally going deep into games these days anyway, DH or no DH. Nor are there a lot of players in the Edgar Martinez mold, whom we wouldn’t be able to see were it not for the DH. If you look at it as just one lineup spot out of nine, it’s a pretty slight impact.

However, viewed another way, the DH is fundamental, because the effects of a single lineup spot ripple outward. With the pitcher batting ninth, it’s harder for the number eight hitter to have good at-bats: especially with two outs, the opposing pitcher can just walk him and go after the pitcher. With only three outs an inning, a roster spot that’s a nearly automatic out has a substantial impact on the way the game unfolds.

I don’t see any way to definitively settle this question; it seems subjective. For me, the DH is significant, but not so momentous that it needs to be standardized between the leagues. But I can see the other side: if you think the variation in the DH hurts the sport, then certainly you’ll want it to be the same in both leagues.

However, the second question—does the DH variation add enjoyment?—is easy, from where I’m sitting: absolutely it does. In his post, Joe draws an analogy to a situation in which one league uses instant replay review and the other doesn’t. The comparison isn’t apt, I think, because instant replay addresses how the rules are adjudicated, not how play proceeds on the field, and the variation in play has the power to add interest. This is what I was trying to demonstrate with my Wrigleyville post: the choice between an emphasis on strategy (no DH) and an emphasis on elite performance (DH) is itself an interesting one. I’m glad we get to see it both ways.

But my point here isn’t really about the DH, but about the standardization debate itself. It’s a mistake to think that because uniform rules would be good for the orderliness of the game, they would be good for the entertainment value of the sport as well. More broadly, it seems to me that a lot of sports commentators tend to focus more on what makes the game fair than on what makes it fun to watch; such commentators are likely to dismiss complaints that replay review is boring, for instance, because they’re only interested in the benefit of improving the enforcement of the rules. (To be sure, plenty of people embrace the DH because they think it makes the game more entertaining.) That’s not a surprising perspective from professional sports analysts, who after all are going to be watching the game whether or not it’s exciting, and whose analysis is made easier by an orderly, uniform set of rules. But we fans shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the entertainment value of a little mayhem.

New post at Wrigleyville: The DH debate in World Series Game 3

Just a quick link to my newest post at BP Wrigleyville. It concerns Terry Francona’s decision to pinch-hit for Andrew Miller in the seventh inning last night, a decision which in my mind encapsulates the whole debate over the DH in a nutshell: is it better for Francona to be forced into an interesting tactical decision, of for an elite pitcher like Miller to be able to stay on the mound?

My main wish from these DH posts (here’s my other one) is not so much to convince people to see the debate my way, as it is to convince people that the debate has two legitimate sides, rather than being a no-brainer as it’s often portrayed by people on both sides. I know that writing this piece softened my opposition to the DH, as I realized that one of my all-time favorite pitching performances—Madison Bumgarner’s extended relief appearance to finish Game 7 of the 2014 World Series—probably wouldn’t have happened had the game not been in a DH park. Would Bruce Bochy really have let his pitcher, even a decent-hitting pitcher like Bumgarner, come up to bat two or three times in a one-run game? Probably not, which would have made it just another bullpen game. So I hope that reading this piece will help people on both sides of the debate see the merits of the other side—just acknowledging that there are merits would be enough.

Clinton, Trump, and Reverse Sour Grapes

You’ll have to pardon me, but this is a political post—not sports politics, like stadium deals, but politics politics, presidential politics. But as I wrote a while back, the way we generally follow electoral politics is as a sport, so understanding how we relate to sports can help us understand how we relate to politics. So with that in mind, I want to use the closing days of the Trump-Clinton race to think about how we talk about losing.

One of my favorite sports paradoxes is the expression, commonly heard from a losing team or its fans after a game, “They didn’t beat us; we lost.” It’s paradoxical because “we lost” implies “they beat us” (except in the case of a forfeit, I guess), and yet it makes intuitive sense: in theory, a sports result reflects a gap in performance between the winner and the loser, and that gap can be created more by the winner’s good play (“they beat us”) or by the the loser’s poor play (“we lost”). “They didn’t beat us; we lost” suggests that in this case, the gap was 100% due to the latter. Partly, this is bitter self-excoriation: we could have won if we had played up to our potential. Partly, though, it’s a way of denigrating the winning team. The message to the winners is, “you don’t get credit for winning; in fact, you’re irrelevant to the contest. We alone determine who wins. Fortunately for you, we failed ourselves this time, but given another match it would probably go differently.”

Obviously, this is a form of sore losing, for which I propose the name reverse sour grapes. The ordinary form of sour grapes says that a loss doesn’t count as a loss, in effect, because the goal wasn’t desirable. Reverse sour grapes says that a win doesn’t count as a win because the winners didn’t prove their superiority over the losing team. Either way, the losers are spared the humiliation of having been beaten in something they wanted to win.

This is relevant now because Hillary Clinton, by all indicators, is about to blow out Donald Trump in the November 8 election. (A nice thing about politics as opposed to sports is that, since the actual “scoring” is done by voters rather than by the candidates themselves, it doesn’t feel like a jinx to talk about the likely results in advance. The odds of Clinton losing may be the same as the odds of an NFL kicker missing a 30-yard field goal, but it wouldn’t be Clinton missing the field goal; it would be the voters, or perhaps the pollsters.) Naturally, people who would prefer a candidate other than Clinton to be president are looking for ways to feel better about her impending victory, and that’s exactly what sore losing provides.

The most basic form of sore losing, in politics and in sports, is to claim that the game was rigged, the officials were biased, etc.; a loss doesn’t count if the competition wasn’t fair to begin with. We’re seeing plenty of that this year, but it’s crude and conspiratorial, and beneath many people’s dignity (though not Trump’s). Sour grapes won’t work here, obviously—you can’t pretend the presidency isn’t desirable (although “well, she won’t be able to get anything through Congress” is a move in this direction), so reverse sour grapes is a popular option. In the presidential race, I’ve seen two forms, which are mirror images of each other. The first holds that the defeated opponent is the only opponent the winner could have beaten; any other opponent would have won in a rout. This is the form you adopt when you wanted your team to go up against the winner, but they were eliminated before getting the chance. In sports this would mean the team from your league or conference or side of the bracket lost where a different team—your team—would have won (as when some bitter Cardinals fans claimed that the Dodgers intentionally let the Giants into the playoffs, out of fear that they would have to square off against the Cardinals). In this presidential race, you’d use this if you were a Republican who wanted someone other than Trump to be the nominee. All of these tweets are from the last week:

There are many, many more. (By the way, lest you think I’m egg manning, note that some of these accounts have thousands of followers.)

The other form of reverse sour grapes is to say that the winner was basically irrelevant, because the loser was so weak that anyone could have beaten them. This is the preferred stance if your chosen team would have faced the eventual loser but got eliminated before getting the chance. In this case, that means Sanders supporters who think that a Democratic victory would be just as assured with him as the nominee.

(By the way, left-wingers are capable of deploying the first form of reverse sour grapes too, as the below tweet shows, whereas a conservative can’t very well claim that Bernie Sanders would easily get elected president:)

I want to keep the political analysis to a minimum here, since it’s neither my point nor my specialty. I’ll just say that these points seem self-evident to me:

  1. Clinton certainly would have had a much more difficult election against almost any other Republican candidate, and it’s reasonable to think she’d be the underdog in such a race.
  2. Similarly, it’s reasonable to suppose that Trump’s many liabilities would have made it hard or impossible to defeat any Democrat, even one with views well to the left of the mainstream like Sanders (or Zombie Debs).
  3. At the same time, in a time of intense polarization like this one, very few candidates win the presidency by 10 points. Even Obama in 2008 only won 53-46. To say that another candidate would have “easily” won by that margin sounds less like analysis and more like hurt feelings.
  4. I voted for Sanders in the primary, but no Democratic nominee has had a program as far left as Sanders’s since…I don’t know, George McGovern? That makes it hard to say with confidence how such a platform would fare in the general election, even against Trump. Confidently suggesting, in effect, that there’s no point past which a left-wing platform would cut into a candidate’s support sounds to me like wishful thinking; I share the wish, but not the thinking.

But my point here isn’t to litigate the accuracy of these hypotheticals, which being hypotheticals cannot be accurate or inaccurate. And that’s exactly what I find annoying about reverse sour grapes: the hypothetical (if we’d played better, if you’d been up against a real opponent) frees us up to make whatever extreme claims the natural petulance of losing drives us to make, disguised as irrefutable analysis. You can beat me on the field, but not on the field in my head.

The other problem with reverse sour grapes is that it entails narrowing our thinking on a subject of real interest: how did the winner pull it off, and would they be able to adapt to beat a different opponent?

Christman is responding to an Ezra Klein piece that praises Clinton’s debate performances, and I actually agree with Christman that Klein’s piece is gushy and simplistic (the claim amounts to “her polls are better after the debates than they were before, so the debates obviously made a huge difference,” which has a serious post hoc/propter hoc problem). But going to the opposite extreme—that Clinton’s performance was indifferent or even laughable but she was bailed out by an even worse opponent—is simplistic too. First, on the narrow point, it won’t work to portray Clinton’s debate performance as identical to her try-too-hard social media outreach (“Alicia Keys”); yes, there was an occasional clunker like “Trumped-up trickle-down,” but in general she was substantive and wonkish. Treating a male candidate’s specific and policy-driven debate performance as kooky and trivial would merely make no sense; for a female candidate, it’s offensive, whether one wants to see that or not.

And on the broader point, of course, Clinton actually did mention an Alicia in the first debate: Alicia Machado, whom she used to totally sandbag Trump. Based on the dustup with the Khans, Clinton’s team knew that Trump could be baited into dragging out a feud; based on his past history, they knew that he would double down on misogyny. That perfectly set up the Billy Bush tape, which led to the sexual assault revelations, and here we are. Obviously, all of that is dependent on Trump being a horrible candidate and person…yet none of Trump’s primary opponents took advantage of any of it. Nor is it obvious that the Machado angle would have occurred to Sanders, and, if not, whether his preferred line of attack would have been as effective.

Reverse sour grapes insists on treating the winner as a fixed entity: sure that worked on Trump, but if she tried that on someone else she’d be destroyed. It’s limited in that it doesn’t consider how, in the counterfactual, the winner’s strategy would change too.  Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich probably don’t have a Machado in their closets, let alone a history of sexual assault. But it’s a mistake to think only in terms of Clinton’s tactics (mention Machado, goad Trump on his history) and not the attributes that made them possible: patience, psychological insight, political imagination. I have no idea whether any of that would be enough to beat a tougher opponent, given her own liabilities. But it’s unserious not to give it any consideration.

Sore losing is indulgent: losing hurts, and we want something to dull the pain. It’s a perfectly understandable impulse, and we’ve all given into its various forms at some point or another. But as a form of commentary, whether in politics or sports, the only proper response is a Yiddish saying, “As di bubbe volt gehat beytsim volt zi gevain mayn zaidah”: If my grandmother had balls, she’d be my grandfather.

Image credit: “The Balloon Drop at the End of the Democratic Convention” by Lorie Shaull is used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Racism Matters: A Note on Madison Bumgarner

I’ve been pulling my hair out trying to write something on the Kaepernick Kontroversy, which has graciously extended itself into its fourth week for me without any reward. I’ll try to have that up this week. For now, though, I have an opportunity to write something both pithy and timely for once, so here I go.

Madison Bumgarner got himself in trouble again tonight. For those who don’t know, the Giants pitcher has a history of getting angry at opposing players for all kinds of trivial, even indiscernible reasons. He’s the kind of player known as a “red-ass,” one who treats every game event with adolescent intensity and generally makes himself unpleasant to be around.

However, in the last couple of years, a number of people have suggested a pattern: a lot of the players Bumgarner has gotten in yelling matches with have been Black and/or Caribbean, a pattern laid out by Bill Baer in a post from May of last year. Probably unwisely in the context of that discussion, Baer left off a number of incidents that Bumgarner has had with white players—Ian Kinsler, Troy Tulowitzki, Matt Holliday, Wil Myers, even the umpire Joe West. (I believe some of these happened since Bill’s post last year; I haven’t checked the dates.) All in all, there’s plenty of material for those who want to argue that Bumgarner (who is from the South) is racist, and plenty for those who want to argue that he’s just an equal-opportunity asshole. This is the kind of thing—a thorny question on a controversial topic, seen through the eyes of sports partisanship—that is just about guaranteed to lead to mature and thoughtful discussion online.

So during tonight’s game, when he started yelling at Yasiel Puig after they had a staredown, instigating their third such encounter, the Internet had a field day:

I would like to use my considerable clout in the world of sports commentary to suggest that we should not make jokes of this kind.

Here’s my thing: racism matters. That means, when it happens, it should be called out, and that includes not only incidents that are overtly racist (a player uses a racial slur) but also those that may fit racist patterns (a player seems to have a predilection for seeking conflict with Black or Latino players). A lot of sports tropes, especially in baseball, are racially charged—everything from “natural athlete” to “showboat” to “plays the game the right way”—and they should be identified as such when they occur in word or deed, even though a lot of people, earnestly or disingenuously, will claim not to know what we’re talking about.

However, the other implication of “racism matters” is that we should treat accusations of racism seriously. If we’re going to accuse someone of racism, we should commit to it, not play it for laughs. A sentiment you read a lot online—about this, about all kinds of things—is, “Jeez, people get so mad when you call something racist.” Well, being racist or not is a big deal! It should evoke strong feelings! You cannot simultaneously send the message that racism is a serious problem, possibly our society’s most serious problem, and that calling someone a white supremacist is the kind of roll-off-your-back humor that only a pedant would get mad about. This should not just be grist for the meme mill.

It also shouldn’t be a matter of team partisanship. Yes, the people who are most likely to defend Bumgarner are Giants fans like me; anecdotally, the people who are most likely to jump on the idea that he’s a racist are Dodgers fans. This is a bad state of affairs. It’s one thing for us to judge steroids, or diving for a foul, or whatever, based on what uniform the perpetrator is wearing; I’m not in love with that inconsistency either, but it’s unavoidable (I’m just as guilty as anyone) and inconsequential. But reducing racial animus to just one more needle to wield against opposing teams and their fans—”STERRR-OIDS!” “RAAAAA-CIST!”—dilutes it absurdly, and insults the efforts of those who actually work to fight it.

And finally, because accusations of racism are consequential, we should care about getting them right. I don’t know if the list of white folks Bumgarner’s been mad at is long enough to defuse the idea that he’s a racist. I personally think, given the seriousness of the charge, that we should be good sabermetricians and treat this as a case of small sample size, but I also recognize that my Giants fandom inclines me to say that anyway. However, what I do strongly believe is that that list of white players, pedantic though may seem, is vital to include in this discussion, if it’s a discussion we’re going to have, because we should want to know whether or not Bumgarner really is racist. Yet when people question the premise, they just come across as desperate apologists, and are treated as such:

Baumann’s reaction to the Giants fans he’s talking about is absolutely understandable: people who defend others—particularly celebrities they admire—against racism or sexism or other isms really are being disingenuous a lot of the time, including many Giants fans in this discussion, so it’s fair that people would be leery of such defenses. Yet they’re a necessary evil of having this conversation in the first place. The one-way ratchet, where calling someone racist is fair game but defending someone against a charge of racism is not, may seem to redress the very real power disparity between those who enforce or tolerate white supremacy (who have lots of power), and those who fight it (who have very little). In fact, it does the opposite. It sends the message that these claims won’t stand up to scrutiny—that, again, they are not being made seriously. The message is, “If you don’t think there’s anything racist going on, I’m certainly not going to try and convince you otherwise.” This doesn’t persuade anyone; on the contrary, it inoculates them against persuasion. Sure, almost no one gets persuaded online anyway, but isn’t it worth making the attempt, if for no other reason than to prove that you take the subject seriously?

As I’ve suggested earlier, while I’m thrilled that the Internet has allowed progressive sports fans and commentators to find each other, that clannishness does present a serious risk of self-satisfaction. Let’s define ourselves, not just by our willingness to criticize racism in the sports we watch, but by our willingness to care about it—enough to debate and discuss it, enough to feel it. Joking about racism is a way of protecting ourselves from actually having to face the discussion squarely. Let’s deny ourselves that comfort.

Image credit: NLCS 8 by csulb gal is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Second Post at BP Wrigleyville: Tommy La Stella and Sugar

I’m pleased to be able to link to my second piece at Wrigleyville: a post looking at the Cubs player Tommy La Stella—who is trying to decide whether to continue in baseball following a demotion to the minor leagues—through the lens of the independent baseball movie Sugar, about a Dominican pitching prospect struggling to make it in American pro baseball. Admittedly this is a pretty esoteric premise for a blog post—you have to either be familiar with both La Stella and the film or willing to learn—but I’m proud of it and I hope you’ll check it out! If you want background on La Stella, the Grant Brisbee piece I mention in my post is a great starter, and Ken Schultz’s Wrigleyville piece anticipates mine very well. The movie unfortunately isn’t available for digital rental, but if you like sports movies I recommend it—I personally didn’t like the film, but it’s worth seeing simply because it’s so different from other movies in the genre.

I also have some work planned for here as well—a piece on Tim Lincecum’s fading career, and a piece (finally) on the Olympics—so watch this space for those.

New Post at BP Wrigleyville: The Cubs in the Age of the Auteur GM

I’m thrilled to announce that Baseball Prospectus’s Cubs site, BP Wrigleyville, has invited me to write the occasional Cubs-focused blog post for them! My first effort, The Cubs’ Curse in the Age of the Auteur GM, looks at how the presence of a genius GM, in this case the Cubs’ Theo Epstein (formerly of the Red Sox), reduces the focus we give to the team itself, and how that may, for some non-Cubs fans, lessen the impact of the Cubs’ first championship in over a century, just when it’s most likely to finally happen.

There’s another blog post to be had about the experience of writing for the fans of a team when you’re not one of those fans, but first I’ll have to see how this one goes.