Two pieces, one in the NYT Magazine in their annual sports issue, and one in the “First Person” Column in the today’s LA Times, center around two Sabermetric related items, Baseball Sims, which I wrote about in a previous post, and Retrosheet. The links are to the articles on the newspapers’ websites, but if over time the links become outdated you can read the NYT article here and the LA Times article here. 1
The articles present two views of Sabermetrics that are different, yet united by a common thread, that I think are relevant to my work. The NYT piece, written by well known writer, Neal Pollack, revolves around Pollack’s involvement in a Baseball Sim league. Meant to be a humorous piece, the first sentence really sets the tone.
Even the name of the piece, “Shut Me In for the Ballgame” makes participation in Sabermetrics to be an antisocial thing. One of the things that I hope to show in my work, is that it is not an anti-social thing, but rather a very social thing with a particular social agenda; namely, installing a different ideology about baseball as the dominant ideology. Or at least integrating that ideology with the dominant ideology. Not that I don’t understand Pollack’s point. After all, this is more of a humorous piece than a social critique, and in the end, Pollack tells of the joys of winning one of these leagues. However, he does end the piece by writing:
Eternal promise, indeed.
On the other hand, the LA Times piece is not meant to be a humorous piece. Rather it is a typical sports column of the human interest variety. Written by Chris Defresne, who I believe is just a writer on the LAT sports staff is about the Retrosheet project. For those of you who don’t know, Retrosheet is a non-profit started by University of Delaware biology professor, Dave Smith.2 Retrosheet houses a website and a database that contains box scores and play by plays of basically every professional baseball game ever played. Actually, according to the website they have every box score from between 1957 to the present, but they have many box scores and game logs dating all the way back to 1971. Anyways, the column consists mostly of anecdotes of how Retrosheet has allowed people to connect memories of baseball games with the written record. There really isn’t any mention of how Retrosheet has its roots in Sabermetrics. As an offshoot of Bill James, Project Scoresheet, the purpose of the project is to provide more accurate data for Sabermetricians to analyze.3 Dufresne acknowledges this somewhat, but then subverts that goal. He writes:
Even the quote from Smith reinforces the emotional nature of baseball and when he comments on why people would ever want to look at old box scores:
What I find interesting about this take on a Sabermetric organization is the idea that the true worth of this Sabermetric organization is found in its emotional contribution, not its statistical contribution. What this really reinforces is the overall mythology of sports. Sports is ineffable, and transcends any kind of rational system of thinking. I think that Sabermetrics is viewed as a knowledge movement that works against this idea of sports. And this is one of the reasons why the Institution of Baseball is quick to dismiss it. By breaking baseball down into a quantifiable, and thereby able to be explained phenomenon, it causes baseball to occupy a less special place in the mythology of American culture. Many sociologists have said that it is this quality that makes sports the only institution that is comparable to religion.
However, what I think really unifies both of these pieces is their use of nostalgia as a way to frame their topics. For Pollack, he is able to make his childhood heroes come alive through the baseball simulation league. For Dufresne, Retrosheet is able to provide tangible artifacts of the emotionally resonant experience of going to a baseball game. This is interesting because when we usually think of science, I think actually think about the opposite of nostalgia. Science is about forward progress, and thinking ahead to the future. However, I don’t think that you can deny that one of the principal motivating factors in getting involved with statistics is nostalgia. To revisit the days of your youth, when so and so was your hero…you know, that kind of thing. And while much of the Sabermetric work revolves around predicting the future (i.e. PECOTA), much of Sabermetric research up to this point has, in fact, involved providing more accurate understanding of past events. And in that sense, Sabermetrics represents a different type of scientization of culture.
I’ve read a few studies on nostalgia and music, and the basic gist of those articles seems to be that nostalgia is a way to package the idea of authenticity. These were how things really were, back when the world was a better place, etc. This idea of authenticity is wrapped up in this idea of morality. After all, no one is nostalgic for, say, the Holocaust. But at the same time, the packaging of authenticity also makes it easier to sell. We see this in rap music quite a bit. 4. I wonder if the Sabermetricians think of this on a conscious level, I guess I will have to ask some questions about it in my interviews to find out.
I am interested to see what orientation Sabermetricians themselves take on this point, and will add that to the interview guide I suppose.