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To the uninitiated, it sounds like an unpublished Frank O’Hara poem, but it was actually a condensed manifesto, laying out positions on a number of mini-debates popular among the group of writers, analysts,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

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.

Chapman, Reyes, and Redemption

For the first time, Major League Baseball has a policy allowing it to suspend players who commit domestic violence, whether or not they are convicted in criminal court, a policy that the NFL shares. Since December, two players have been punished under the new policy: pitcher Aroldis Chapman, who allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired a gun at their home, and shortstop Jose Reyes, who allegedly grabbed his wife by the throat and threw her into a window. Neither was charged with a crime—Chapman wasn’t arrested, while Reyes’s wife refused to cooperate with the investigation—but both were suspended, Chapman for 30 games and Reyes for 52.

On the one hand, this policy is a vital step forward for baseball in its treatment of women (see below for why I think so). On the other hand, the existence of a formal policy heightens a question that seemingly all sports fans have to consider at one time or another: what should our relationship as fans be to players who commit terrible crimes? Before Reyes and Chapman there were Albert Belle and Barry Bonds, Francisco Rodriguez and Josh Lueke, as well plenty of violence against women in other sports (Ben Roethlisberger, Ray Rice, Kobe Bryant), and that’s not even considering those who committed violence generally (Ray Lewis, Matt Bush, Hope Solo). When sports leagues simply ignored these cases, the sense of hopelessness led to a muted reaction even from fans who abhorred the players’ continued careers. Now, though, as players are beginning to receive (admittedly light) punishments in their sports, fans have more to think about regarding our stances towards such players—especially when those players are on our teams. And of course, both Chapman and Reyes had new major league teams waiting for them when their suspensions were over.

There have been two great pieces on this question recently—one by Mets blogger Maggie Wiggin, expressing her dismay with Reyes joining the Mets, and one by Giants blogger Grant Brisbee, expressing his desire that the Giants not trade for Chapman. Building off of their work, here are some questions I want to explore regarding the appropriate reaction when players commit violence, especially violence against women:

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Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson

A couple preliminary notes about Muhammad Ali’s legacy before I get to my topic:

1. It seems indisputable that almost anyone you might care to name on the list of the most important athletes in history is bound to be nonwhite. A white athlete, devoid of larger symbolism, has very little opportunity to influence anything outside the athletic arena; Babe Ruth had a tremendous impact on the game of baseball, and even on sporting culture generally, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a way he changed the world in the manner of a Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, or Muhammad Ali. The only exception I can think of is Billie Jean King, but her impact seems a bit more complicated to me: while she surely made a difference in the public perception of women athletes and women in general, we’ve made little progress on the cause she was most directly fighting for—women’s sports having an equal seat at the table with men’s sports—and her accomplishment is soured somewhat by the revelation that Bobby Riggs may have thrown the match.

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Opening Day Celebration Post: Charles North’s “Lineups”

Some seven years ago now, in the pitchers-and-catchers spirit of late February, my friend Scott Eric Kaufman posted to his blog a concept I’d never thought of before: a baseball lineup made up of writers, specifically modernist writers like Joyce and Woolf. Modernist literature was my scholarly specialty at the time, and I was fascinated by the way the form made intuitive sense applied to such an incongruous subject, to the point that I knew when I agreed and when I disagreed with Scott’s lineup (I’d trade Beckett to the Postmodernists and fill his spot with the speedy, slap-hitting William Carlos Williams).

Following the links on Scott’s post brought me to this, which presented another lineup (of philosophers—Kant batting cleanup, Plato pitching) by the man who’d come up with the whole form: a poet, Charles North, who wrote a whole book of them. Like a lot of poetry books, this one is ludicrously overpriced (about a dollar for every four pages), yet I’ve never regretted my purchase. Continue reading