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To the uninitiated, it sounds like an unpublished Frank O’Hara poem, but it was actually a condensed manifesto, laying out positions on a number of mini-debates popular among the group of writers, analysts,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

I was in England on a study abroad program from 2001 to 2002, but I squandered my chance to cultivate an interest in English Premier League football [i.e. soccer]. Aside from a field trip to watch Oxford United, a third division club, draw 0-0 against someone or other, all the soccer I watched was World Cup matches, which offer entertainment that is immediately thrilling but mostly lacks the history and complexity of league play: when the US beat Portugal, it was a thrilling upset, but it wasn’t another chapter in the rich history between those two teams, or countries for that matter. It’s similar to how, a legal drinker for the first time, I failed to take advantage of all that great English beer and just drank Stella Artois and Kronenbourg and continental lagers like that. Not bad, you understand, just a kind of unsubtle experience that gets pretty limiting if it’s all you consume.

Consequently, I didn’t pick up any of the soccer discussions that were no doubt swirling around me all year…except for one, at a university karate tournament in Edinburgh (yes) between a competitor from another team and his two coaches. I don’t remember the guy’s name—only that he absolutely demolished me in the sparring competition, which he went on to win—but it came out that he was a Leicester City fan, and from the way his coaches were ribbing him I could tell that they were having a bad season. (Indeed, they finished at the bottom of the league, with a record of 5-13-20, and were relegated—i.e., sent down to the second division* for the following season.)

*The “second division” was actually called, confusingly, “First Division,” since the Premier League is technically separate from the Football League, but for clarity I’m going to call the one right under Premier “second,” and below that “third,” etc.

“You won’t be laughing next year!” this Leicester fan vowed, then caught himself: “Well, in two years, when they’re back from relegation.” Which they were, for one season. Then they went down to the second division, for four more seasons, after which they went down again, to the third division, for one season. Then back up to the second division, for five seasons, before finally returning to the Premiership. That takes us from 2002, when I overheard this exchange, to 2014—twelve years, of which Leicester were in the top flight for exactly one.

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Once and For All, is Baseball Boring?

Sports of all sorts interest me, and I can be a bandwagon fan of any Bay Area sports team: the Warriors currently, the 49ers a couple years ago, Cal football from 2004-2008. I’m watching Cal-Hawaii in March Madness as I type this. But baseball is the only sport I’m in for rain or shine (well, they don’t play in the rain, but you get me). It’s the only sport I’ve followed in some capacity every year since 1993, the year Barry Bonds joined the Giants and they won 103 games. It’s the only sport I’ve ever had a fantasy team in (two at once for a few seasons). Thinking about it, it’s the only sport I’ve spent any money on, like, ever, unless you count beers while watching basketball or soccer in bars, or provisions purchased for the odd Super Bowl party. (I’m even the sports blogger who doesn’t have ESPN, since, following only one sport closely and outside of my chosen team’s blackout radius, I can get by with an MLB.tv subscription.) My sports library is a bunch of baseball books (Bill James, Roger Angell, Moneyball) and one non-baseball book (Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, although I owned The Blind Side for a while before selling it). This blog is just an outlet for my thinking about sports, and I’ve thought far, far more about baseball than any other sport.

But a lot of the time, the more you think about something, the more you fail to think about it, because you fall into patterns of thought that become invisible to you, and you start to accept or reject premises according to those patterns of thought rather than according to your reasoning. So in honor of the resumption of baseball, I’d like to consider a complaint that is ubiquitous among those who don’t like baseball and reflexively rejected by those who do: the complaint that baseball is boring.

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The Sport of Politics

Welcome back! It’s the one-year anniversary of my first post here on The Spiel, and I’d love to spend this post reflecting on how it’s gone so far. However, my excitement at this milestone is tempered by the fact that it’s been almost two months since my last post here. Now, granted I’m more of a baseball fan than anything else, so my fandom always goes into hibernation a little bit during the long shadows of winter. But it’s not like there haven’t been sports stories in all of that time: the concussion crisis in football (they even made a movie about it, not that anyone saw it), the Patrick Kane case, Carly Fiorina’s tweet about the Rose Bowl, the Rams moving back to LA (as we discussed in this space a few months ago). And of course there have been a few (generally less depressing) baseball news stories in the last couple months too; a friend of mine even posted this story to my Facebook to get my thoughts, and I couldn’t summon an opinion. I started to worry that I was already entering the blogger doldrums, after about a dozen posts spread out over a year.

But then the other day it finally hit me why I couldn’t sustain an interest in sports all of a sudden: all of my attention, for months, has been sucked up by Presidential Primary politics instead.

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Why Teams Get Away With Public Financing Deals

Back in April, in response to this story about the Carson City Council approving a new $1.7 billion football stadium without a public vote and with no indication of who would pay for the stadium (any guesses?), I wrote the following on Facebook:

Municipal stadium deals suck, actually all sports deals suck, ban sports

And I stand by it. Public funding of stadiums is one of the most egregious sports-related abuses there are, especially if you consider the truly outlandish publicly-funded construction done for the Olympics and the World Cup: stadiums built for one event and then left to molder; facilities built with slave labor. (Which will be the more absurd and corrupt event of 2022: the World Cup, to be held in a country where summer temperatures reach 120° Fahrenheit, or the Winter Olympics, to be held in a city with no snow?) And one of the most maddening things about the public-financing scam is that it relies on one of the best parts of sports to operate: our quasi-civic pride in our sports teams.

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