01 December, 2006

baseball writing: anti-intellectualism and conservatism

i've been reading a good deal of the posts on fire joe morgan (damn you bacon!) lately, and it got me to thinking about american anti-intellectualism. how (or perhaps, why?), you may ask? it's very simple.

baseball, while no longer the most popular sport in the good ol' us of a, has long maintained the myth that it is the thinking man's sport (as well as being the national past-time). this is highly debatable. yet the perception (less vaild, i think, in the era of fantasy sports) is that baseball has always been the most statisically obsessed (major american is and will be implied) sport. most people who at least causually follow the sport know about batting average, rbi's, era, home runs. in the context of this, efforts in the past decade or so have rachetted up to develop improved statistics to evaluate players and their impact on the team's chances of winning.

enter the backlash. for, while baseball may be staticially obsessive, it is also an extraordinarily conservative sport. no modern player can ever be considered superior to someone who played in the golden days (say, the 20's). the older players "knew how to play the game" and didn't cheat like they do these days (only cause they didn't know about steriods. oh, black sox anyone?). and while statistics are good, these new fangled stats aren't. let us also not forget intangibles. ah, glorious intangibles!. the old stats were good enough (for moses!) then, so they are good enough now. the biggest knock though, is they have been developed by "nerds" who never played baseball professionally and thus cannot really understand the game (this comes often from former ballplayers turned analysts).

why does this attitude exist? partly because, like news in general, sports reporting and "analysis" has become all about TV ratings. so, if you use information readily availible to the public, where is your job security? you need an angle. that angle has become the idea that stats, particularly newly developed stats, cannot be the sole basis for player evaluation. nevermind that no one has ever claimed that they are anything other than an objective toolset to be used amongst a variety of criteria. they can't tell you about a player's heart and grit, damn it!

ah, heart and grit. we're tying ball back into the mythos of the american "self-made" man here. this, i believe, is where the anti-intellectualism of american society is best reflected. we worship the self-made man. the kind of person who suffered through hardship and succeeded when all others thought he'd fail; getting by not on skill or talent, but on grit and determination. we love the sort of guy who doesn't go to college, but winds up a millionare businessman (likely because of natural talent and skill, plus some luck, but no matter).

what causes this? my opinion is that intelligence is a method of creating an elite class. that is, it falls prey to the twisted interpretation of "all men are created equal". this phrase should rightly mean that we all start with the same chance. not that everyone is equal, in the end. those who are more intelligent often are more successful (not always, naturally, but that's a different discussion). those who are gifted thusly do not have the struggle of the common man, and this creates a sense of inequality that must be stiffled. moreover, we, as a nation, seem to still suffer the lingering effects of puritanical conservativism. intellectuals challenge the status quo, and for conservatism, that's a no no. the old ways are the best, don't try to change them. let experience be the yardstick. and so on.

had more to say, but work has distracted me. any comments are welcome though. plus, read that blog, even if it's just for the humor value.


Claude Scales said...

Some time ago, I read about Yogi Berra (at least I'm pretty sure it was him) having been asked if any of his teammates were intellectuals. He named one player, and, as his reason for naming him, said, "I once saw him reading a book that didn't have pictures."

In my twenty-plus years of Mets fandom, I've seen two pitchers sporting Ivy League degrees; of course, this is not a sufficient condition for intellectualism (would you call Pat Robertson an intellectual?), but at least implies a modicum of smarter-than-the-average-bear-ness. One of these, Ron Darling, a Yale grad, was a very successful starter. the other, whose name I can't recall, was an unsuccessful middle reliever who barely lasted one season, and had gone through alcohol rehab. Whenever I was watching a game at the Lion's Head and this guy was called in from the bullpen, my friend Zane would graon and say, "They're bringing in the Harvard drunk."

Keifus said...

Football has a different reputation than baseball, but it's no better. There's plenty of "angle" there too, because most people haven't played the sport, and there's a whole lot of nuance involved so far as the strategerizin' goes, and how the plays develop. Not taht you'd ever know from the announcers. Hell, they don't normally acknowledge substitutions or the defensive or offensive set msot of the time (it's a different game on the radio). I think it's funny that this sport, which is a hell of an intellectual game, is sold as the opposite: nothing but heart and grit (and violence).

My thought: the heart-n-grit is just the easiest way to sell shit to the masses.

To Claude: I'm really proud of at least one of the hockey nerds that my alma mater graduated.

Claude Scales said...

To Keifus: Wow! And I'm also impressed by the fact that the Engineers have two, count 'em, two, representatives on the ESPN all-academic football team.

maximo said...

my brain was turned off while reading and remains turned off as i comment here, so i'm going to muse on the matter.

baseball may or may not be a somewhat intellectual game. sorta depends on what you mean by intellectual. i tend not to consider the matter of sports stats to be especially "intellectual". sorta like calling someone with a prodigious memory a genius. (could just be my own weird view of the world, but there you have it.)

meanwhile, i do consider tactical maneuverings of the bill belichick sort to be intelligence... you know, an intimate understanding of the physics of a game--which i'm hoping is a more specific/helpful way of abstractly saying "knowing how to win".