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To the uninitiated, it sounds like an unpublished Frank O’Hara poem, but it was actually a condensed manifesto, laying out positions on a number of mini-debates popular among the group of writers, analysts,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?

The king of all of these debates, of course, is the “is a hot dog a sandwich” debate, which three years ago had already reached such prominence that it was written up in Baseball Prospectus, with interviews of real ballplayers and everything. I alluded to it in my earlier post on the “batted around” debate, and I think it’s fair to call it representative of this tendency. The other day I saw a series of tweets (not from a member of baseball Twitter, it should be said) that helped me clarify my thinking on why this fight is so intractable—and, more to the point, on why baseball Twitter revels in it:

I’m not well-versed in Wittgenstein—inexcusable for a sports blogger, I know—but I find this to be a sympathetic way of approaching the problem. The attitude of a lot of the “hot dogs are sandwiches” proponents, including the BP article, is that mere usage keeps people from realizing the objective fact that hot dogs are sandwiches, but that all it takes is some logical thinking on the question to make it clear that they are. Pushing back on the idea that language is always objective in this way seems valuable.

At the same time, I think reducing the question entirely to usage is reductive, too. Consider that, in the picnic scenario of the above tweets, your friend would be just as nonplused if you showed up with hamburgers, yet the difference between a hamburger and (say) a patty melt seems totally arbitrary. Rather than choosing between exclusive approaches—all definition or all usage—I prefer a model that makes use of both, to cover how something may or may not be a sandwich depending on the situation.

Imagine I say, “There’s a bird outside the window,” and you look and see that I’m talking about a chicken, or an ostrich. I certainly haven’t said anything literally untrue; there’s a technical definition of “bird” and chickens and ostriches easily fit it. But I have said something weird, because saying “bird” evokes what we’d consider a generic bird: a small songbird like a sparrow or robin or such. So it seems that “bird” is not always used to mean “the scientific class Aves,” but a much narrower, more culturally-specific category. Wouldn’t we expect the same to be true of sandwiches?

This demonstration is basically lifted from the book Metaphors We Live By by linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, part of which is about how we informally group objects into categories. Lakoff and Johnson suggest that something can be a member of a category “par excellence”—that is, a prototypical member of the category—or only “strictly speaking,” that is, not a prototypical member. A chicken, or an ostrich, or an owl, is unquestionably a bird, but it is not a prototypical bird. The effect is that in much usage, the word “bird” functionally excludes the non-prototypical, “strictly speaking” examples of the category. And of course, context can change what’s prototypical: if I say “I’m thinking of getting a bird as a pet,” parakeets and canaries and parrots and cockatiels come to mind, because those are pet birds par excellence. If I’m talking about a bird to serve for dinner, now a turkey or chicken or goose or duck is par excellence while a sparrow isn’t.

This is what’s going on in the hot dog-as-sandwich debate: one side is restricting “sandwich” to prototypes and the other one isn’t. Strictly speaking, a hot dog or a hamburger or a taco is a sandwich: they’re all food enclosed by bread. But in most contexts they are not sandwiches par excellence, because they differ from the prototypical sandwich in several respects: appearance and materials (the prototypical sandwich is made with sandwich bread), preparation and function (the prototypical sandwich is uncooked and easy to eat by hand), cultural context (you generally buy these strictly-speaking sandwiches from different places than you buy par-excellence sandwiches). These prototypical features are not written down anyplace, but that doesn’t make them less real.

This insight—that the literal definitions of objects don’t entail all of the properties we attribute to those objects—is important for what it says about statements’ truth values, which are not absolute but depend on the situation. Lakoff and Johnson write:

In making a true statement, we have to choose categories of description, and that choice involves our perceptions and our purposes in the given situation. Suppose you say to me, “We’re having a discussion group over tonight, and I need four more chairs. Can you bring them?” I say, “sure,” and show up with a hardback chair, a rocking chair, a beanbag chair, and a hassock. Leaving them in your living room, I report to you in the kitchen, “I brought the four chairs you wanted.” In this situation, my statement is true, since the four objects I’ve brought will serve the purpose of chairs for an informal discussion group. Had you instead asked me to bring four chairs for a formal dinner and I show up with the same four objects and make the same statement, you will not be appropriately grateful and will find the statement misleading or false, since the hassock, beanbag chair, and rocker are not practical as “chairs” at a formal dinner.

In other words, depending on the situation, technical correctness may be less important than functional correctness. Lakoff and Johnson conclude, “This shows that our categories (e.g., CHAIR [or SANDWICH—ed.]) are not rigidly fixed in terms of inherent properties of the objects themselves. What counts as an instance of a category depends on our purpose in using the category.”

But of course “it depends” is not at all in the spirit of these discussions. This isn’t like the dress argument; no one arguing about whether olives are good or not, or whether the proper term is “have a catch” or “play catch,” genuinely thinks there is an objective answer to the question. It’s a performance of a genuine, resolvable debate, by people who know it’s no such thing. In fact, it’s essential that it not be resolvable, so that the argument will always be with us. The same goes for the sandwich argument; in the BP article, Craig Goldstein is quoted as saying, “I delight in taking matters of pure opinion and talking about them as though there are distinct borders upon which they operate, and this frustrates the living hell out of people.”

And I think this explains why these debates hold such appeal for baseball fans. Because after all, what is sports fandom if not eternally arguing about matters of opinion as though they could be precisely defined? The greatest pitcher, the greatest catch, the most exciting World Series. Most commonly of all, sports fans have these arguments on a team versus team level: “You will suffer humiliation when the sports team from my area defeats the sports team from your area.”

But that Onion article itself illustrates why this attitude is passé among self-conscious sports fans (and I’d modestly suggest that baseball has the biggest proportion of those right now, although basketball is catching up fast): these arguments are boorish and unintellectual, and always descend into the same cliches. Of course, plenty of mud-slinging happens among the hoi-polloi, but on higher-brow baseball Twitter everyone lives in harmony: Giants fans and Dodgers fans, Yankees fans and Red Sox fans, Cardinals fans and anybody else. The actual baseball-related fights that we have these days are over substantive matters: the DH, the relative value of old-school statistics, the game’s racial issues. But those fights, based as they are in (hopefully) reasoned debate, leave an itch unscratched: the irrational, unwinnable arguments that, when we were younger, defined us as sports fans. We crave an outlet. (This is particularly true in April—which is also when the batting-around debate surfaced two years ago, not by coincidence I think—when our attention is glued to baseball but we’re too smart to try to make a lot of debate material out of a couple dozen games.)

And so we’ve replaced the arbitrary and ridiculous fights about which team is better or which catch was greater with even more arbitrary and ridiculous fights over terminology and food preference. It is, in effect, a parody—or perhaps “sublimation” would be a better word—of the kinds of sports arguments we were raised on and that continue all around us. Some folks say that sport exists to sublimate our aggressive, warlike tendencies into socially acceptable forms; now, the sublimation itself is being sublimated. It takes some goofy forms sometimes, but that’s the price of civilization.

Image credit: “Subway Series” by Joshua Bousel is distributed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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

  1. Pingback: Pyrrhic Victories: An Essay On Polite Differences | The Kugelmass Episodes

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