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Only Connect: A Young Playwright Finds His Audience

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This is the second in a two-part series.

They were from Bronx vocational schools. All morning, as I milled around backstage at the Playwrights Horizons Theater in Manhattan, that was all anyone was talking about: our audience today would be students from vocational high schools in the Bronx. “FMA,” one older character actor muttered in the green room. When I asked what that meant, he flashed a dark smile. “Future Muggers of America,” he said.

Today, if I saw the kids who piled off the row of yellow school buses lined up along 42nd Street, I would think: ordinary school kids. They were mostly black, the guys wearing their trousers halfway down their backsides and lots of fake gold jewelry, the girls in colorful form-fitting dresses, their hair gelled into gravity-defying up-dos. If you have lived any part of your life in New York City you have seen plenty of busloads of these kids, and they are, at the end of the day, just kids.

But this was 1985, when the South Bronx was still a combat zone, and I was a nice white college kid from the California suburbs. Those kids scared the hell out of me. There were several hundred of them and they poured out of the school buses and into the theater, both deliriously happy to be in Midtown in the middle of the school day and somewhat perplexed at the prospect of entering an off-Broadway theater to see a series of one-act plays.

I was there that day because my one-act, The Irishman, had been one of nine plays selected for the Young Playwrights Festival, a national contest that each year produces the work of teenage playwrights at an off-Broadway theater. That year, one slate of plays, the top winners, received full productions at Playwrights Horizons. A second slate, of which mine was a part, were given “workshop” productions, meaning the plays were fully staged by professional actors, but props and sets were minimal and the actors held scripts in their hands all through the play.

This was my second year at the Young Playwrights Festival and this particular performance came at the end of a heady two-week trip to New York that had begun with meeting Jon Cryer and D.B. Sweeney, the actors for my two-character play. Jon is now, after a long career in movies and TV, the star of the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, and D.B., a handsome dog with an easy smile and leading-man charm, had a run of starring roles in movies like Gardens of Stone and Eight Men Out and now works steadily on TV and doing voice-overs. But back then, they were just two young actors struggling to make a living.

I have written about the downside of my Young Playwrights Festival experience; this was the upside, the chance for a few golden days to work with top-flight New York theater talent. For a week, I got to watch Jon and D.B. crack my play open, examine it inside and out, not changing the words I’d written, but testing out new line readings, filling pauses in unexpected ways, creating character tics and gestures. The little 25-page play I’d written late at night in my dorm room exploded before my eyes, characters who had been figments of my imagination came alive in three dimensions, far more complex and multi-faceted than I’d imagined. Before long, I was riffing with the actors, adding lines to support their new characterizations, taking out things that didn’t work with what they were doing.

So by the time the yellow school buses pulled up from the Bronx, I thought I had gotten everything I was going to get out of that production. My extended family — grandparents, aunts, uncles, everybody — had come to New York for opening night, and through the weeklong run I met actors and directors and agents and playwrights who graciously welcomed me into the New York theater family. This school matinee was late in the run, a seeming afterthought to a wild week, and my only thought as I watched those kids fill the auditorium from my seat in the back row of the theater was, “Man, is this ever going to be a train wreck.”

Audiences typically file quietly into a theater and speak in hushed tones or read the program until the lights go down, but these kids were nothing like a typical theater audience. The 200-odd Bronx high school students did not shut up for one single second once they entered the theater. Guys wolf-whistled at girls across the theater, and the girls hollered back, daring the boys to come down after them. Spitbombs flew. Paper airplanes sailed. One harried-looking teacher in a faded gray suit marched up and down the center aisle shushing everybody, to zero effect. Worst of all was when the director of the Young Playwrights Festival, a sweet young Brit named Gerald Chapman, who had the misfortune of possessing one of the world’s plummiest British accents, announced, “When the curtain rises, please remain quietly in your seats and enjoy the performance” — a request that was met with gales of laughter and 200 of the world’s worst fake plummy British accents.

My play, which was up first on the program that day, revolved around a drinking night shared by two teenage pals, Dave, who was essentially me, and his best friend, Kev, a tough, misogynist mess with a big secret. I had based Kev on a friend from home, whom I suspected — wrongly, as it turned out — of being secretly gay. This was, you will have to trust me, a more original theme in 1985 than it would be today. In 1985, AIDS remained cloaked in mystery and euphemism, and across America, the closet was still a densely populated place. The notion that an ordinary suburban teenager, particularly one who overcompensates by being loud and homophobic, could be secretly gay was still a provocative one for much of straight America.

It did not, however, seem a very promising theme for this audience. To make matters worse, the play opened with Dave and Kev playing an imaginary basketball game with a crumpled ball of paper and a trash basket. This was one of our more inspired improvisations in rehearsal, and with earlier audiences it had worked well to show the charged nature of the physicality between the two guys before the first line of dialogue was even spoken. With this audience, it was simply a joke. Catcalls rained down, criticizing the actors’ lame-ass moves, their scrawny-ass arms, to say nothing of their general and hilarious white-assedness.

I watched Jon and D.B. freeze in panic. There was a solid wall of sound coming from the audience, just a madhouse din, and there was laughter in it, but it was angry laughter, mean laughter. This bullshit show, the crowd seemed to be saying, is a joke and an insult, and we want it out of our sight, now. I could see the actors consider giving them what they wanted, just saying the hell with it and walking off the stage. But then — it was one of the most magical things I’ve ever seen on any stage — the two of them mutually decided to roll with it. Instead of performing the scene in the conventional way, with an invisible fourth wall separating audience and actors, they opened up the stage and made the audience a part of the play.

It was such a subtle, brilliant bit of acting. It wasn’t as if they looked out at the crowd and invited them in. Just somehow, while they were playing this imaginary game of basketball, the real sound of the crowd became the imaginary sound of the crowd roaring in approval of Kev’s drive to the basket, to the point that when he finally scored, twirling in the air and shame-dunking it over Dave’s head, a few kids in the crowd actually cheered.

I had never given much thought to the role an audience plays in the theater, for the simple reason that most theater audiences, especially at dramatic plays, work so hard to keep quiet during performances. But this audience wanted to talk about absolutely everything that was happening onstage, and once the actors opened up to that, the performance became a raucous, freeform conversation across the footlights. And the subject of this conversation, what it’s like to be a horny teenage guy with nothing better to do on a Saturday night than sit around drinking and talking smack about women, turned out to have surprisingly universal appeal.

The plot of the play, to the degree that there was one, was that Dave had a new girlfriend whom he was desperate to see, and Kev was doing his level best to keep his buddy from leaving. Dave’s solution to this problem was to suggest Kev find a girl of his own to go out with, which brought on a hailstorm of misogynistic comments from Kev about what a waste of space girls are. All this had played well with other audiences, but with this one, each new line sailed out over the footlights like a verbal beach ball, which then got batted around the auditorium, the guys tossing in their line-topping agreement, the girls laughing and arguing back. I remember a couple a row or two in front of me, who had been sitting close at the top of the show, arm in arm, like a couple in the back row at the movies. At one point, after one of Kevin’s most sexist remarks, the guy piped up, “Yo, that’s right,” and his girlfriend turned and boxed his ear. It was a playful swat, but still it rang his bell a little and it cracked me up.

When an audience is with you, it’s like running a rapids, that same raw power and unpredictability, and even the best actors can do little but hold on for dear life and hope the boat doesn’t capsize. Jon and D.B. were riding that river now, up and down, over and under, hitting an unexpected splash of laughter here, then a whoosh of current followed by a great whack of incoherent noise that drowned out everything onstage — all of which carried us pell-mell toward the climax of the play, which was a fight between Dave and Kev. The crowd cheered on the fight like a playground brawl, rooting for either Kev or Dave and calling out punches each of the guys should throw, so it came as a complete shock when Kev tackled his friend and smothered him in a desperate, slobbery kiss.

Total silence in the theater. Not a sound. Onstage, Jon wriggled out from under D.B. and stood up, backing away slowly stuttering Kev’s name. From one side of the audience, a loud male voice shouted: “What the fuck?”

Another pause, even longer, and then somebody else, also male, shouted back: “He’s a fag.”

We all sat considering this fact, for it was now undeniably so: Kev was gay. As the actors gingerly led us through the denouement in which Dave and Kev agree to pretend as if what had so obviously happened did not happen, the audience sat in silence, outraged that this guy who they had come to like, and even identify with, was gay. And yet it all made a terrible kind of sense: the fighting and the horseplay such an obvious plea for masculine contact, the rants against girls and “fags” such an obvious attempt to hide the obvious. In that silence, I felt as I never had at any time in the theater before or since: that I had broken through. I had spoken and been heard. What I’d said touched only tangentially on issues of sexuality. I’m not gay, nor were, I suspect, all that many of the guys in the audience. I was talking about male friendship and how hard it is to be vulnerable in those relationships. I was wrong about my friend back home, but I was right about the unspoken concerns of teenage guys everywhere, and I had told these guys, and the girls who were with them, something about themselves — and something about myself as well — that they might not have been able to hear in any other way.

The previous two weeks had been all about me. What a talented young fellow I was. What a promising career I had ahead of me. Blah, blah, blah. But, until that moment, I hadn’t really understood what I was doing there, why I had written my play in the first place. Now I knew. I had loved my friend back home, and we had drifted apart, as friends do, and I was trying to work all that out, what it meant to love somebody and have that end. Here I thought I’d written a topical one-act with a trick ending, and really I had written a love story. I never could have seen that if that audience hadn’t reacted to the play in the way they had, seen past the clumsy plotting and dime-store psychology to the core truth I hadn’t even realized I’d spoken.

That remains, to this day, my greatest moment as a writer. I will never forget it.

Image Credit: Flickr/Gamma-Ray Productions

Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with John Sayles

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In the 35 year period in which he has made 17 films (among which are Matewan, Eight Men Out, Return of the Secaucus 7, Men With Guns) MacArthur grant-winning director John Sayles has also published seven books, including the National Book Award-nominated Union Dues and two full-bodied novels, Los Gusanos and, most recently, A Moment in the Sun. And yet, as he mentions in the conversation that follows, he has never received one note or letter from anyone who has read any of his books — a correction the cross-country reading tour (in a rented Prius) Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi embarked on, will no doubt make.

A Moment in the Sun, in nearly 1,000 pages, delves into a sketchily acknowledged period of American history — the rise of Jim Crow, effectively thwarting Reconstruction in the South, the road to the Cuban Spanish-American War, American imperialism running rampant in the Philippines, and the greed-fed Yukon gold rush. As it happens, the American involvement in the misnamed Philippine insurrection also serves as the setting for Sayles latest film, Amigo.

This, my second chat with John Sayles (we last met in 1995 for his Cuban exile novel, Los Gusanos), turned out to be a lengthy conversation touching on his new opus, his new film, the perils of independent film making, and any number of asides and anecdotes from a full and storied creative life.

Robert Birnbaum: Its International Free Press Day — in case things like that matter to you. I haven’t seen any reviews of your new opus. Maybe because it is too long for reviewers?

John Sayles: There have only been the publishing trade magazines, Kirkus and those. One of them called it a cat-squasher of a book.

RB: How imaginative. I saw an article on the fact that you are visiting every state including Alaska.

JS: Just about, yeah.

RB: Is that fun?

JS: Yeah, I like reading. The book is long enough so I am reading a different chapter every night so I don’t get bored with it. One thing that is nice is that it is almost all independent bookstores.

RB: The chains seem to be going out of business (laughs). Who would have thought it?

JS: Also the chain stores don’t do readings in the mall that often. I have written three novels before this and a couple of short story collections and to this day I have never gotten a letter from someone who has read one of my books. I run into people who have seen my movies all the time. Most people don’t know I write books.

RB: Didn’t you win a National Book Award or something?

JS: That didn’t change anything. I was nominated.

RB: You haven’t published a book since Los Gusanos [1991].

JS: A short story collection, Dillinger in Hollywood. But that was about five years ago or so. Nation Books published it — they hadn’t done fiction before so it was pretty new to them. Doing readings is kind of like theater, where you are looking at your audience. Which is nice for a book, to actually see somebody who is going to read the book or at least buy it.

RB: Unlike most book tours, which is one sealed tube after another — you are out among the people.

JS: We like driving across the country.

RB: Are you rejiggering your budget now that gas prices are soaring?

JS: No, but we are renting a Prius. I am almost too big for a Prius but it’s OK. Mexico is just about out of oil — which will be good for the pollution in Mexico City.

RB: The week I was there it must have been really unusual because it was not bad at all.

JS: They have a few good days, but the rest of the time it’s like breathing bus exhaust.

RB: I’ve lost track of Mexican politics — did they just have an election?

JS: They are about to have a big one. What’s happening is that the narcos have a bigger army than the government.

RB: That stuff is ripe for fiction — lots of books are coming out of the borderland. My favorite is

In Play – Runs: Baseball and the Internet

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I.  From 200 to Infinity
One of the popular fallacies of the internet is that it is “like cable TV on steroids.”  Just as cable had expanded the range of channels from 12 to 50 to 200, the internet would expand the number of information outlets from 200 to something like infinity.  The problem with this analogy is two fold.  For one thing, infinity is completely different from 200, so much so that it renders the analogy useless.  For another, it ignores a key component of the web – namely, its accessibility.  Cable TV was one-way information – the TV gave you information, and you took it.  Occasionally, maybe, one might appear on a Larry King-style call-in show, or find himself wandering across the stage on The Price is Right, but it was highly improbable.  With the exception of public access TV, a limited-range outlet at best, the TV viewer was exactly that and little else.  Not so with the internet, where the proliferation of user-populated sites – from YouTube to Facebook to blogs to personal sites to message boards – means that the primary producers of the internet are the viewers themselves.

It didn’t always seem that this would be the case.  When I first encountered the web, back in the mid-1990s, I had no idea what to make of it.  This was in the pre-Google days, and though there were plenty of search engines available to me, I wasn’t quite sure what I was searching for.  As a result, I turned to trusted sources from what we now think of as the old media.  I visited the New York Times website, the Boston Globe, and ESPN.com.  The latter provided my first “aha” moment on the web.  Here, at my disposal, were all sorts of facts and articles – updated every few hours! – on all the sports teams I wanted to know about.  The Syracuse Orangemen, the Washington Redskins, the Boston Red Sox.  It was like ESPN, but more so.

At the time, it certainly seemed like the internet would be a lot like cable TV.  At the very least, it would be run by the same people.  Even when I started to learn about sites that weren’t connected to any corporation, to read blogs and the like, I still figured it was only a matter of time until all of this turned into something corporate.  Maybe it would play out like radio, itself first a two-way form of communication later harnessed and controlled by corporations.  Maybe someday The Clash would be writing songs about pirate websites and such.

It didn’t happen.  At this point, it seems doubtful it will.  Instead, corporations sprang up to make money off the fact that anybody could write anything they wanted on a website (and eventually even appear on audio and video) and also to make money at the point of access – a continuing threat to the freedom of the web.  They monetized the web (parts of it at least) without corporatizing it.  The infinite number of niches and chasms remain, and while some sites have come to stand for expertise or quality through their association with some old media entity or individual, a sort of survival of the fittest remains on much of the web.  To be an expert, to know something, means only to prove it to your audience.  The web is fundamentally changing how we experience much of life, and nowhere is this more apparent to me than how we experience sports.

II.  J.D. Drew as Baseball Litmus Test
A few weeks ago, as the Major League Baseball season was coming to an end, Theo Epstein, the general manager of the Boston Red Sox, appeared on a local Boston sports talk radio show to discuss the season and the upcoming post season (You can listen to the audio here).  It wasn’t long before Epstein brought the conversation to one of the show’s favorite topics, Red Sox right fielder J.D. Drew.  Drew is a controversial figure in Boston, and to a lesser extent, around the league, as he embodies the dichotomy that exists between how two divergent groups of fans and commentators see the game.  As one of the posters on the popular Red Sox fan site Sons of Sam Horn put it, “It’s reached the point where I can judge someone’s knowledge of baseball based on how they view JD Drew.”

To get an idea of what these people meant by these comments, we need a bit of historical perspective.  By now, even the most casual baseball fan is aware of the so called “Moneyball” concepts, popularized in Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, about Billy Beane’s work running the Oakland Athletics – that the economics of baseball have forced teams to find value in players other teams have disregarded, and for most, statistical analysis has become the tool they use to find these players.  As a result, certain once underappreciated statistics, such as On-Base Percentage – the measure of how often a player reaches base by hit, walk or hit-by-pitch – have replaced the more traditional measurements of greatness, such as Batting Average or Runs Batted In.  Those who appreciate the value of statistical analysis are often called students of sabermetrics, a word derived from the acronym “SABR,” for the Society of American Baseball Research, a group dedicated to studying the game.

One of the tenets that sabermetricians adhere to is that the best thing a batter can do for his team is not make an out.  This doesn’t necessarily mean get a hit, but rather get on base and avoid being thrown out once you do so. In the field, of course, the object is reversed – convert as many batted balls into outs as possible.  To be a complete ballplayer, one would need to field his position well.

All of which brings us back to J.D. Drew.  Few players in the game today are better at not making outs at the plate and converting outs in the field than J.D. Drew.  He consistently ranks near the top of the league in OBP, and this season, he was second among all outfielders in the American League in OPS (which measures on base percentage plus slugging percentage, the latter a measure of power hitting).  He’s also a solid fielder with above average range playing in the quirky and spacious rightfield of Fenway Park.  In addition to these skills, he’s also a talented baserunner, scoring a very high number of runs as taken as a percentage of opportunities.

Based on this, one might reasonably expect J.D. Drew to be a fan favorite in Boston, respected for his good play and admired for his non-out-making prowess.  But this is not the case.  In fact, he’s arguably among the least popular players on the team.  The radio show on which Epstein appeared scapegoats Drew for his frequent injuries (he typically plays less than the average number of games) and for not driving in enough runs (only 67 in 2009).  They call him soft or aloof, in part because he sits out games with minor injuries rather than playing through the pain, and in part because he has a calm demeanor.  You aren’t likely to see Drew attack a water cooler with a bat or slam his helmet down and curse after grounding out.  And so they say he doesn’t care.  In fact, it’s so often said about Drew that it’s become a joke on the SoSH site.  Whenever Drew hits a double, someone on the site will remark, “If he cared more, he’d have hit a homerun.”

Why this disparity between reality and the fans’ perception?  Why don’t more people recognize the greatness of a player like J.D. Drew?  The answers lie at the very heart of how we interact with sports and what we want sports to be.  As the web and mobile technologies make their way increasingly into the world of sports, the nature of being a fan or an expert is changing, as well.  As we’ll see, this change is hardly unique to the world of sports.

III.  Sports Talk Radio:  The Fresh Take
Radio is the medium of failure.  My limited exposure to political talk radio is of the guest ticking off the multiple failures of the opposing political party.  “Barack Obama failed to get his health care bill through Congress in any meaningful form.”  “Congress failed to pass Obama’s healthcare bill.”  Sports radio, I can attest, is positively obsessed with failure.

It’s a cliché that baseball and the radio were made for each other.  Every hack writer and pundit has waxed rhapsodic on the charms of Harry Caray calling Cubs games on the porch, of Vin Scully’s dulcet tones filling the midsummer air.  Like most clichés, there’s some truth to it.  Baseball is slower and more contained than a “continuous flow” sport like basketball, hockey or soccer, and more open to description – due mainly to its lack of action – than football.  There’s room in baseball for storytelling, and radio broadcasters can use that room to describe the game, to fill in its gaps and to reveal its secrets.

What baseball wasn’t made for was sports talk radio.

A confession here:  when I’m in the car, I do enjoy listening to the idiocy of sports talk radio.  I imagine the pleasure is similar to listening to Rush Limbaugh and saying “wrong,” over and over again.  There is pleasure – the pleasure of superiority – in listening to someone who you believe knows less than you do prattle on about a given subject.  Perhaps it’s the host’s failure I revel in.

For my money, the best sports radio program is The Jungle with Jim Rome. Full of bluster and arrogant to the point of parody, Jim Rome manages to execute the delicate balancing act of mocking the incessant parroting of call-in shows (he gleefully refers to his listeners as “clones,” much as Rush Limbaugh’s listeners self-identify as “Dittoheads.”) while simultaneously promoting the very qualities the show espouses to critique.  Rome welcomes calls and emails from listeners, each missive layered with his own brand of jockish patois.  A call might contain an oblique, abbreviated reference to the caller’s hometown (“Jeff in C-Bus, what is up?”) as well as certain bizarre Rome-isms that callers perpetuate (use of the word “war” to mean “I’m in favor of,” for instance).

The Rome show is built around the call of the day and the email of the day (emailers frequently send in humorous emails in the name of some disgraced athlete, or even, in a few cases, in the name of an idea itself), challenging listeners to craft their best Rome-esque “take” on any subject they choose, often in the form of a series of insults hurled at the fan base of another team.  This leads to most callers memorizing their takes, as Rome will disconnect anyone he believes to be reading a pre-prepared take.  Have I mentioned yet that the Rome Show airs smack in the middle of the workday for the average American?  Where do the clones find the time?

It’s the absurdity of the Rome Show that makes it so entertaining.  Rome’s personal cadence is so specific that it only plays on radio.  His forays into TV have been relatively forgettable with the exception of the infamous episode in which he provoked football player Jim Everett to attack him after repeatedly calling him by name of (female tennis star) Chris Everett (more on this in a moment).  For those who have never heard him, imagine a monologue delivered with the cadence of a Fugazi song, complete with numerous dead air pauses.  If anyone can vocalize an ellipses, it’s Rome.  When coupled with his trademark disdain for the audience, the combination can be lethally entertaining.

The Rome Show, more than any other sports radio show, examines sports culture as much as it does sports themselves.  Much of the time, the actual game serves as nothing more than a starting point for a longer discussion of fandom.  After a recent Monday Night Football game between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills, Rome spent the opening segment of the show discussing not the fumbled kickoff that ruined the Bills’ chances, but rather the behavior of one fan after the game (the fan took out his frustrations on the fumbler by carving an obscene design on the player’s front lawn).  While Rome is almost always critical of these troublemakers, one can’t help but detect some tincture of amusement beneath his contempt.  After all, without obscene lawn carvings, he and his clones would have to talk about the game itself, which they don’t want to do.

Rome discusses baseball less than he does the other sports.  When he does talk about it, it’s more gossip column than box scores.  He’ll talk about A-Rod dating Kate Hudson or Manny Ramirez being suspended for steroids.  Just this past week, when the World Series was in full stride and Pedro Martinez had just returned to face the Yankees for the first time in years, Rome was busy talking about Andre Agassi’s drug use.  A previous show talked at length about Magic Johnson’s new book, rather than the upcoming series.  Rome isn’t as interested in baseball as he is in failure, and in that, he’s not alone.

You’d think baseball would be perfect for talk radio, as it’s all about failure, something talk radio loves more than air itself.  In baseball, a great offensive player makes an out roughly 60% of the time.  That’s incredible failure right there.  Couple in the unique “walk off” aspect of its structure, in which the other team gets an equal chance to come back, no matter the score, and there’s the recipe for real, gut-punch level losses.  That’s the stuff of talk radio bliss.  But baseball lags well behind football and basketball in the trinity of sports talk fodder.

In part, this is simply the result of baseball’s status as the least popular of the major sports, garnering smaller TV audiences every year, its long season causing fatigue in the casual fan. But there’s something else at work here, and it has to do precisely with why J.D. Drew remains a figure of some ambivalence in the world of baseball.

As demonstrated by the Jim Rome show, sports talk radio is an intellectual-free zone.  Despite the intelligence level of those running the shows (likely quite high, in most cases), the fan base is decidedly anti-intellectual, and the audience, rather than the host, sets the agenda.  The discourse on the shows is to varying degrees sexist and homophobic.  Even the most progressive shows – Dan Patrick’s smartest guy in the country club shtick, for instance – have trouble transcending the hypermasculine rhetoric of sports.  Jim Rome’s lone transcendent TV moment came from insulting a football player by calling him the name of a female tennis star, after all.  Additionally, sport’s infatuation with militaristic pomp and corporate involvement (“Guests appear via the Subway Fresh Take Hotline”) create a climate not unlike the Republican National Convention at most sporting events.

This comes as no surprise.  Much of the discourse about sports is couched in a conservative ethos, regardless of the political inclinations of those in the dialog.  This stems, I think, from sport’s status as a relatively pure meritocracy.  The best players rise to the top based on nothing but their performance on the field. It was long ego exposed that so much of the announcing in sports is inherently racist:  black players are often called “articulate,” while white players usually get credit for being “gamers” or for their exceptional hustle.  It’s assumed a white player would be well-spoken, while black athletes must be more naturally athletic than white ones.  Even this latter “compliment” is actually an insult, implying that black athletes’ success stems from natural ability rather than work ethic (This isn’t unique to sports, of course; Joe Biden once referred to Barack Obama as articulate).  With this in mind, it isn’t surprising that most sports rhetoric embraces another aspect of conservative thought, a disdain for intellectualism.

It is radio’s defiance towards intellectualism that creates this climate for J.D. Drew bashing.  To give Drew his due is to allow the cerebral back into the discussion, and that’s a losing game for the sports talk radio caller (or host, for that matter).  After all, what’s left to say when one side argues with facts and figures and the other with insults and names?  If we actually talked about the game on the field, what would Jeff in C-Bus do?

IV.  “In play – runs:”  Baseball was made for the Internet
Moving to the West Coast killed baseball on television for me.  East coast games start at four in the afternoon, long before I leave work most days.  To be honest, even the radio is out of the question.  I’m lucky to catch a few innings in the car on the way home (back when I used to drive to work) or as I make dinner in the kitchen, and then it’s the Angels or the Dodgers, neither team a favorite of mine.  Ten years ago, I might have been finished as a baseball fan.  But ten years ago, the fan didn’t have the resources I have at my disposal now.  Thank God for the internet.  Specifically, thank God for Gameday.

Gameday is a browser-based program offered on the Major League Baseball website that allows one to follow a baseball game live via a series of graphic representations of the on-field play.  In plain English, this program tells you who is up, who is pitching, what the count is (how many balls and strikes) what pitches have been thrown and how many, and the result of each pitch.  In some ways, Gameday is the descendant of old telegraph systems that gambling parlors would use to reflect the results of a game in play, moving baserunners about a large board and reflecting balls and strikes and outs with colored light bulbs (such a system appears in the movie Eight Men Out).

It may seem absurd to follow a game this way – you’re neither watching nor listening – yet to a baseball fan with little recourse, it’s a lifesaving invention on par with the telephone or whiskey.  And believe it or not, though it can feel soulless and dead, when paired with a game thread from a fan site like Sons of Sam Horn, it can be incredibly engrossing and fulfilling.

Gameday watching, if one can call it that, is a strange thing.  In many respects, it is a poor substitute for watching the game or for listening to it.  It presents an incomplete picture of what happens on the field, a picture filtered through textual description.  As the ball is pitched, Gameday tells you whether it is a ball or a strike (each is color coded as well) or whether it has been hit in play.  If it’s been hit in play, it will say one of three things:  “In play – out(s),” “In play – no out,” or “In play – runs.”  Depending on the situation of the game, a blue dot – signaling a ball in play – can induce paranoia or euphoria.  Many are the times I’ve prayed to a God I don’t believe in for an “In play – runs.”

Of course, this is where the incompleteness of Gameday becomes apparent.  “In play – runs” can mean a great number of things, depending on circumstances.  For instance, in a situation in which the bases are loaded with no one out, it might mean a grand slam or it might mean a double play producing one run and leaving two outs and a man on third.  Those are two radically different outcomes, both of which would be reflected with a little blue dot in Gameday.

Yet Gameday also provides information that doesn’t appear on television or radio broadcasts.  For one thing, Gameday uses Pitch FX, a computer system that tracks the speed and movement of a pitch to determine what type of pitch it really is.  Compare this with the work of your average analyst who often calls a curve ball and change-up and vice versa, and one can begin to see the wealth of information that Gameday provides.  At the click of a mouse, the Gameday watcher can have just about any stat imaginable.  He or she can check back to see how a particular batter was pitched to several innings prior.

By putting an absurd number of statistics and tools at a fan’s disposal, the internet makes several very important things possible.  First, it exposes many so-called experts as charlatans.  For instance, let’s say a manager decides to bunt a player from first base to second base in the fourth inning of a 0-0 game.  The announcer might say “That’s a smart baseball move.”  In the past, the average fan would have no way to know whether it was smart or not.  If it worked, it must’ve been smart.  If it didn’t, well… Now, that same fan can fire up his Fangraphs iPhone app and discover that the win expectancy of that play is negative.  In other words, the bunting team has a lesser chance of winning after the bunt than before it.  Stupid move.

While I’d much rather listen to Vin Scully or even Dave Campbell than watch a game on Gameday, it has saved me from suffering through the Tim McCarvers and Joe Morgans of the world on many a night (Morgan is so terrible there was a website dedicated to having him fired).  These color commentators continue to play a role in the press box, but it’s one that must change with the times.  No longer do we need to rely on witchdoctors like Joe Morgan to tell us what makes sense and what does not.  We have a better way.  Which leads to the second thing the internet encourages – objective analysis.

It is no coincidence that the rise of “Moneyball” and sabermetrics has coincided roughly with the emergence of the internet and the ubiquity of the personal computer.  While there were isolated statisticians and theorists toiling away with pencil and paper in the pre-wired era, the web has given those people powerful new tools and brought them together into meaningful groups.  In turn, it’s had an impact how the game is thought of at both the level of the fan and in the front offices around the league.  As a fan, sites like Sons of Sam Horn and their brethren give intelligent fans a place to discuss the team free from the constructs of a corporate radio channel, where the discussion must plunge inevitably to the lowest common denominator.  They’ve created a community where none existed before, a sort of virtual sports bar where everyone understood the value (and limitations) of OPS.  The internet is a sports fan’s utopia, a place where, for once, we can just talk about the game, without all that other crap.

It isn’t hard to see the effect statistical analysis on the average baseball front office.  It’s as common now for a 35-year-old with a business degree and no on-the-field experience to be at the helm as is it for a grizzled former player or scout.  The industry has undergone a sea change, a transformation that is still underway.  The underlying principles are pretty simple – if we can determine who the best players are through statistical analyses, then with the right tools, anyone should be able to do it.  No baseball experience is necessary.  Carried to its logical conclusion, this idea leads to something still fairly unthinkable in the other major sports – a woman making the decisions about the players on the team.  The San Diego Padres recently gave serious consideration to Dodgers Assistant GM Kim Ng (They ultimately settled on Red Sox assistant GM Jed Hoyer), and it is likely that Ng will land a GM gig in the next few years.  This would have been impossible ten years ago, and in many ways, the internet and technology, by making the game knowable and quantifiable, made it happen.

V.  Do Something:  J.D. Drew and Femininity
There are few more frustrating moments in sports than watching a baseball player take a called third strike.  The player seems passive, his fate claiming him rather than the opposite.  “Do something!” the fans shout.  “At least if he’d swung he might have gotten a hit.”  And if that same player then walks slowly back to the dugout and gets his glove, not even pausing to curse or hit a water cooler, then that player might look like he isn’t even trying.  He might look like he doesn’t care.

J.D. Drew takes his fair share of called third strikes – it’s the necessary byproduct of seeing lots of pitches – but what he doesn’t do is overreact, slam his helmet to the ground and steam in the dugout afterward.  He gets his glove, and he gets ready to play the field.  And this, it seems, pisses off a whole lot of people.  They see his selectivity as passivity, and, I think, they see this as being somehow less than masculine.  As proof, I’d offer the many homophobic and sexist insults hurled at Drew, but, really, I’d rather not.

Baseball is unique among sports for many reasons, and one of the more important ones is that it is the one of the few sports (golf might be another one) where one can’t ‘try’ their way to greatness.  You can’t swing harder and expect to get a hit.  In fact, added effort often leads to worse play in baseball.  Pitchers overthrow, missing the strike zone badly.  Hitters flail at pitches they have no chance to hit.  In football, a player can “dig deep” and overpower the man on the opposite side of the ball, simply by brute physical force.  In basketball, you can out hustle the other team, finding a reserve of strength to dribble past a defender or out work someone for a rebound or a loose ball.  Not so in baseball, and I think this bothers a lot of people.

We desperately want our sports to reflect the best of our society.  If you show up everyday and try hard, you can succeed.  Isn’t this why we celebrated Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive games played record?  Here was the embodiment of work ethic, a guy who showed up everyday.  It was baseball’s award for perfect attendance.  But I’ve always thought of Ripken’s streak with ambivalence.  How many times did he cost his team by playing through an injury?  How good was Ripken at sixty percent, and might the Orioles have been better off with a healthy player in his spot occasionally?  I see this at work, as well, where employees come into work with colds, work at diminished capacity and infect others with their germs.  Wouldn’t it have been better to stay home and recuperate?  I think it would be, but that’s the not the American way.

J.D. Drew is the anti-Ripken; he sits out roughly a game a week, often at his own behest.  If he tweaks his ankle or pulls a muscle, he sits out rather than play through the pain.  The result is that he averages 130 games played out of a possible 162.  He doesn’t play unless he’s nearly completely healthy.  This earns him the label of being soft or fragile, not a tough guy.  It makes him seem almost feminine, and in sports, that isn’t a compliment.

There are other aspects of Drew’s game that, at first blush, appear less than hyper-masculine.  For instance, he rarely dives to catch a ball in the outfield.  Some fans see this as soft, that he’s afraid to hurt himself by diving to the ground (Many baseball analysts judge a player’s level of effort by the dirt on his uniform).  Of course, the reason he rarely dives is that he’s often in position to catch the ball without diving (He gets to an above average number of batted balls for a rightfielder).  When he makes an out, he doesn’t throw a tantrum or sulk.  When he’s going well or when he’s in a slump, his demeanor is always relatively constant.  You’re not likely to see J.D. Drew instigate a brawl with the opposing team, as fan favorite Kevin Youkilis has been known to do on occasion.

I think it’s no coincidence that this year is the first season I’ve really appreciated Drew’s talents.  This year I watched fewer games on TV than ever before.  When Drew makes an out on Gameday, his avatar just disappears, same as Kevin Youkilis or Derek Jeter or any other player.  When Drew makes a catch in right, I can’t see whether he dove or not.  I can’t see how dirty his uniform is.  It’s easier to appreciate J.D. Drew when you aren’t watching him, as so many of his skills come with the double-edged sword of frustration.

This is also precisely why sports talk radio hates him – all of their analysis is based on what they can see and what their gut tells them.  To give J.D. Drew his fair credit is to admit that preparation and skill are more important than effort, that raw aggression isn’t worth much in baseball, that hyper-masculinity doesn’t reign on the diamond as it does on the gridiron or the court.  It’s also, I think, to acknowledge that there are real measurements for greatness in baseball, and that those measurements, with a bit of effort, are equally accessible to everyone – professional and amateur alike.  To acknowledge that is to admit that, for lack of a better phrase, you are full of shit.

The internet has given birth to a new generation of sports expertise.  Drew Magary, writing on one of the web’s most popular sports blogs, Deadspin, theorized that we are seeing the end of “privileged sports reporting,” that is, reporting that relies on access to athletes, coaches and owners:
Reilly assumes that, if you haven’t been in a locker room, if you’ve never had access, then you can’t possibly have any sort of valuable insight to offer on sports. This is wrong, of course. I’m pretty sure Bill James didn’t set foot into a locker room before changing the fundamental nature of baseball scouting forever. He didn’t need to see Rich Garces’ tits in order to glean insight as to how he pitches (though I’ve heard Rich Garces’ tits are AMAZING). Shit, he didn’t even need to see him play on TV.
In the same way that these privileged sports writers are now giving way to legions writing from the fan’s perspective (the way Bill Simmons — now “Sponsored by Miller Lite” — used to, as Magary points out), so too are traditional baseball experts ceding territory to upstarts with a spreadsheet.  Make no mistake, this is having a profoundly democratizing effect on baseball, both the sport on the field and its perception by fans.

It’s even giving rise to a hybrid fan/expert, as countless message board posters use obscure stats like UZR and WARP, and learn to wield Pitch FX as a weapon.  These fexperts (a term I just coined) will probably never get on TV or radio as analysts (they might not be any good at talking, for all I know), but they’re making an invaluable contribution to my life as a fan.  They’re deepening my appreciation of the game, even as I get to watch fewer and fewer of the actual games themselves.

The Red Sox were eliminated from the post season early this year, falling in three straight to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  They held a lead for much of the final game, built, in part, by a J.D. Drew homerun.  The announcers were probably busy praising the Angels for “playing the game the right way,” ignoring that they would eventually win the series because of their superior plate discipline and control of the strikezone.  I wouldn’t know, as I was following along on Gameday. All I had to go on was a ream of statistics, some conversation with my fellow fans and the occasional – far too occasional – “In play – runs.”

It was after that last game, a sucker-punch of a loss, that I realized how different my life as a fan is in the wake of the internet.  I still called my father and commiserated over the loss, but afterwards I turned to Sons of Sam Horn, and found multiple threads – each one pages long – dedicated to specific decisions in the game, which moments actually led to the loss and what could be done to improve next years team.  There were eulogies for the team (a tradition is to post the text of A. Bartlett Giamatti’s essay “The Green Fields of the Mind“) as well as threads about the upcoming ALCS between New York and Anaheim (or Los Angeles or…wherever) filled with gallows humor.  But most of all there were dialogs and discussions based around facts as much as emotion.  Discussions where a fan could use his brain as much as his heart.

The next day, the radio call-in shows were no doubt full of vitriol and disgust – who should be fired, who should be ashamed.  Meanwhile, I was thinking about what happened to Jonathan Papelbon’s secondary pitches.  Thankfully, there’s a place for me now, a place where all of us who recognize that J.D. Drew is a valuable baseball player can talk about the game free from the noise of the ignorant.  Is it a tiny bit elitist?  Maybe, but I prefer to think of it as I do sports – it’s a meritocracy.  If you don’t know what you’re talking about or you can’t back it up with some facts, take it elsewhere (I don’t even post that much on the part of the board dedicated to baseball, as there are so many people there who know more than I).

Of course, getting most of one’s information through the web comes with a price.  Recently in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert reviewed a new book by Cass R. Sunstein called On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done.  In the book, Sunstein explains that while the net has given us more opportunities to find the information we want, it’s also given us unprecedented ability to ignore the information we don’t want.   This creates, in his view, “cyberpolarization.” Two sides of one issue move farther apart as they spend an increasing amount of time around their fellow believers.

Certainly there’s some of this on the web with regards to baseball.  There are those who argue that the sabermetrics crowd puts too much faith in numbers, even those that are plainly contradictory to what their eyes tell them.  Others say that the rise of the statistical baseball fan has sucked some vitality from the game, that it has, as the basketball site FreeDarko.com put it, “[turned] an art into a science.”  One might point out that as statistical analysis has increasingly gained acceptance, the game’s popularity has plummeted.  I don’t think this is the case, but it’s certainly an interesting coincidence.

But I don’t feel that experiencing baseball on the internet has turned me into a zealot.  On the contrary, I think it’s allowed me to become the kind of fan I always wanted to be – quiet, contemplative, cerebral and yet still occasionally irrational.  Maybe it’s because there are so many divergent opinions online – some of the members of Sons of Sam Horn continue to doubt J.D. Drew, for instance – and where each position is analyzed and cross-examined.  It seems to me that as the internet provides more and more tools to the average fan, it reveals more about what the fan wants from sports, and, in a larger sense, from the world.  One person might want tangible proof of something while another has faith.  One person might want to see the triumph of effort over skill or vice versa.  The greatness of the web, I think, is that it allows all of those people to have their say. In the end, fandom of every kind, might best be described by the signature of one of Sons of Sam Horn’s longtime members. “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

[Image credit: Wendy Harman]

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