OK, so it’s been a while. But I promise, I’ve been busy with other things, among them, getting rejected for funding for next year. i applied for a research fellowship with one of the research projects here at UCSB and they turned me down, despite me being excessively qualified for it. I’d get into it some more, but I don’t necessarily want to air my dirty laundry here. Just know that I got screwed.
The main reason I write this is because as part of the dissertation, I need to maintain funding for school, and I have found that to be somewhat difficult. Part of it is my topic, which doesn’t fit under the kinds of research that is usually funded. I understand that my work is not going to benefit any kind of social causes, but it’s still frustrating that generally speaking, people don’t think my research is worth supporting. I have a couple of more options for next year, so hopefully one of those things will come through, but if they don’t…well, I’d prefer not to think about it.
On the positive side, I have had a few more great interviews, including one with Alan Schwarz, the NYT baseball writer and the author of the book, The Numbers Game, which I have referenced many times here on this blog, and which I am also using very liberally as a reference source for my work. Alan was nice enough to waive the confidentiality of the interview, so that’s why I’m referencing his interview by name.
It was an interesting talk for a couple of reasons. The first is a logistical one. After several weeks of corresponding, Alan called me and wanted to know if could do the interview in an hour. I happened to be at work, so my preference would have not to doe the interview there, since I wasn’t at home where my computer is set up to record phone conversations. So instead, I just had to take notes while interviewing because I didn’t want to miss the chance to talk to him. Alan, like most of the people I am trying to talk to now are extremely busy, and I have found it difficult to schedule time to talk to any of them. It’s a bit frustrating since I feel I’m only asking them for an hour of time, but they’re busy, and I can definitely understand that. After all, they are the ones doing me a favor. It was a shorter interview than I normally do, and although I took as good notes as I could, it will be hard to get the same use out of it as I can from an actual interview transcript. Luckily, he’s already written a book about this stuff, so I will be able to get a lot of what he thinks from there, but alas interviewing is different when you’re doing it on the fly.
The talk itself was interesting in that he often reiterated a central tenet of his book. He thinks, and I agree with him to a point, that Sabermetrics is not any kind of insurgent movement that has taken the baseball world by storm. Rather, statistics, has always been a part of the game, and Sabermetrics is a natural evolution of the use of statistics. His book does a great job of outlining all of the things that led up to the Bill James moment, and the Moneyball moment. What was interesting is that he seemed annoyed with how his fellow journalists framed the sabermetric movement as an adversarial thing, with Sabermetricians pitted against scouts. His thinking echoes most of my interviews with the rank and file sabermetricians in that they also think that this is just the slow march against time. In Schwarz’s words, “the older people who don’t subscribe to this, are going to eventually die, sooner than later,” and new people who do understand sabermetrics will just replace those who didn’t.
While I do think that this is true to some extent, I also think it would be a mistake to simply chalk this phenomenon up to history. The gist of my research is to examine this thing we call “science” and examine its social origins and uses. I am arguing that science hasn’t emerged as the primary source of knowledge in our society, because it is inherently true (and i think any good scientist would agree with this next point), but rather because it has proven to be the most useful way of doing things for humans. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one nonetheless.
In other words, sports serves a certain function in society, namely to reinforce existing heirarchies of among other things, gender, class, and race. I think that the way this has traditionally been done is through what I have called mythmaking. In the same way that sports is supposed to be a paradigm of meritocracy, sports heroes are supposed to be a paradigm of the best in humans. The way fans used to do this is through storytelling and the promotion of a certain image of sports and athletes. My argument is that in an increasingly rationalized world, people aren’t buying it. And actually, I would argue that starting in the sixties, the same kind of dissatisfaction with US culture and governemnt that kicked off the civil rights movement is the same kind of dissatisfaction with sports that kicked off fans not using the normally designated avenues of experience sports. The newspapers and the television accounts weren’t doing it for the fans anymore, so they turned to their own devices, and in the case of the professors who were the very early precursors of the sabermetric movement, their device of choice was advanced statistics. I realize that there is a lot to unpack in that last statement, particularly as it pertains to the things with sports that people were dissatisfied with. And I’ll get into that another time. My point is, Schwarz seemed to want to obliterate the line between regular statistics and sabermetrics, which I understand why he wants to do that. Because in a real way, sabermetrics is nothing more than statistics, which as any good stats for social sciences teacher will tell you, is not about formulas and matrix algebra. Rather it is a way of gathering data to interpret what is going on in the social world. For example, the poverty line is not a magic number that tells everyone who is poor and who is not. It is a socially constructed number that takes into account a specific kind of poverty that may or may not be generally accepted by everyone as a definition of “poor”.
My own sense is that the interpretation is important and that fans interpret statistics differently than baseball franchises or journalists do. And they do so because they are doing different things with them. Sabermetricians, although they often do think that they would make better GMs than those who actually are GMs, do not do the analysis for the same reason, and that surely effects the analysis. And this is not a natural outcome of the “progress”. Rather this is a result of how fans are situated in relationship to the larger institution of sports and culture in general. I’m not sure if this is making any sense, but hopefully you will see that on the one hand, I do agree with Schwarz, that the story told by the media and that has been appropriated by “late adopters” of sabermetrics is overblown and that statistics has always been a part of professional baseball, and since baseball was the first major sport in the US, it has always been a part of sports. At the same time, I do think that it is more than just a natural progression, and that they way that sabermetrics has evolved has much to do with the social and institutional arrangements of science, sports, and fandom. Hopefully, my dissertation will show this.
On a personal note, it was great to talk to Alan. He was very candid and had strong opinions that am sure to use in my research. I just say this because it is so nice to meet someone whose work that you’ve read over time and to find out 1) he’s a nice guy, and 2) he’s just as knowledgeable in person as he is in his writing. So if you ever read this Alan, thanks.
Up next, I have a couple of interview that I’ve been trying to get going, but I am finding that scheduling interviews with baseball journalists and executives is difficult. On all of my funding applications, I’m supposed to detail a budget. Sometimes I wish that I could include the salary of an administrative assistant to handle scheduling and things like this. But as a lowly graduate student, I doubt anyone would ever pay for that. But when I’m done with this, hopefully I’ll have my own graduate students to slough off all this dirty work on.
Sorry I’ve taken so long between posts, but well, you know how that goes.
SCREW ME!!!! I just tried to add some links to this post and it redirected me to another website. My website has been hacked! CRAP! Sorry, no links to Alan Schwarz’ website for now, I have a brand new problem on my hands.