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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Disagreeing with the River: A Response to Jon Bois

Jon Bois is one of my favorite writers online, up in that Mallory Ortberg tier, but his stuff is harder to characterize than any of my other favorites. A lot of his humor writing, especially on Twitter, is in the style of “enthusiastic bumpkin” or “e-mailing relative”—see his 50 fast facts about Super Bowl XLVII, for instance—and yet he’s also capable of real poignancy. A lot of that poignancy comes from his appreciation of randomness and error in supposedly ordered systems: witness Breaking Madden, or my favorite post of his on the death of the NBA, both of which involve him setting up a sports video game with certain odd parameters and just seeing what happens.

Last week, Bois’s love of randomness got its most direct expression yet, through a post purporting to explain what exactly constitutes a “catch” in the NFL. This has been a frustrating topic in football, as high-def instant replay has turned what used to be a quick, if often wrong, decision by the officials into a thicket of legalese and post-facto rationalizations (as I’ve written about here previously). Bois’s piece on the matter—you should go click that link, before I spoil it here—starts off looking like it’s going to be another one of his “the naïf looks at a sports issue” posts, but it ends up going somewhere very different: to a philosophical look about why, exactly, we care about settling this issue and how we could choose to look at it instead. It’s an approach I’d like to see more of in sports writing, one that scrutinizes the assumptions that are so often unspoken in these kinds of issues. It’s also a piece I disagree with on a key point, and it motivated me to think about the beauty I find in sport’s order, as opposed to its randomness.

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Mizzou and the Revolt of the Amateurs

Let me start with a confession: I never heard about the racist incidents at the University of Missouri until its football team threatened to strike unless the university president resigned. Some of the blame for my ignorance is due to me for complacently living in my white coastal bubble, and some to the national media for not treating, say, a swastika made of human feces at a major state university as worthy of coverage. However you divvy up the blame, though, I’m confident I’m not alone in only having become aware of the story once the team got involved. The football players didn’t show any more courage than Jonathan Butler, the student who threatened to starve himself to death unless President Wolfe resigned, but they certainly showed more ability to attract media attention. And, of course, more ability to achieve the protest’s aims. On Sunday, President Wolfe was saying he had no intention of resigning. Early on Monday, he was gone, along with the campus chancellor, who will resign at the end of the year.

As several writers have noted, this is a watershed moment in the empowerment of college athletes: in effect, the football team deposed two major university administrators. The Mizzou strike has generally been cheered among progressive writers: football players, so often assumed to be aloof from the functioning of the college, took a bold professional risk to speak up for their fellow black students, who are under-represented on campus but over-represented on the football team. It’s a sign of solidarity and political consciousness that would excite just about anyone on the left. The progressive columnist Kevin Drum, however, was wary of celebrating, given what the incident says about the influence that athletics wields. “Are we really happy that college football players apparently have this much power?” he asked.

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Debut Post: Fixing Instant Replay

Hi! Welcome to the inaugural post of The Spiel, my new sports blog. Auspiciously enough, I’m starting this blog right as people are proclaiming the end of blogging, but hopefully that only applies to politics blogs.

I want this to be a blog about the kinds of sports discussions that tend to get bogged down in fruitless, repetitive arguments between, well, teams: purists versus moderns, traditionalists versus statheads. In these arguments, the advocates for each side tend to share the same points among themselves and then repeat those the same points back to their opponents; each side gets so used to responding to the other side’s tired arguments that the discussion calcifies. My point in this blog will not be to say that “the truth is somewhere in between”—personally, I lean towards the moderns nearly every time—but to point out the kinds of more nuanced points that get missed by this kind of polarization, in the hopes of making discussions fresher, more interesting, and more complex than they so often tend to be.

One good example of the kind of debate I’m talking about is the debate over instant replay review. Granted, this may not seem like the most timely time to enter this discussion, which—at least in football and baseball, the two biggest American sports—would appear to be resolved: both sports have replay review and they’re not going back. But in fact I think the discussion is as timely as ever, since the implementation of replay in both sports—in football since 1999, in baseball since just last year—has shown replay’s potential to both enhance and harm the entertainment on the field, which is after all the purpose of all rules and officiating: to keep the game as entertaining as possible. If this sounds like a radical idea, it’s only because we wrongly treat “entertainment” and “spectacle” as synonyms; conventional sports entertain by giving us a fair competition governed by clear and enforced rules. Replay aids in this enforcement, but whenever its benefit is outweighed by the harm it does to other aspects of the game’s entertainment, it should be considered a failure, and reworked.

It seems to me that the most common arguments for and against replay review have lost sight of the goal of entertainment: the anti side ignores the ways in which officiating mistakes hurt the product on the field, while the pro side sees correctness, not entertainment, as the ultimate goal. After a fairly lengthy consideration of the issues involved here, I’d like to suggest an idea that I haven’t seen anyone suggest before: a time limit on replay reviews, to distinguish between calls which are merely incorrect (and should be reluctantly tolerated) and calls which are bad (and should be eliminated at all costs). Almost everything wrong with replay, it seems to me, could be fixed by making this distinction.

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