Last week, we previewed 93 works of fiction due out in the second half of 2016. Today, we follow up with 44 nonfiction titles coming out in the next six months, ranging from a new rock memoir by Bruce Springsteen to a biography of one our country’s most underrated writers, Shirley Jackson, by critic Ruth Franklin. Along the way, we profile hotly anticipated titles by Jesmyn Ward, Tom Wolfe, Teju Cole, Jennifer Weiner, Michael Lewis, our own Mark O’Connell, and many more.
Break out the beach umbrellas and the sun block. It’s shaping up to be a very hot summer (and fall!) for new nonfiction.
How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky: Advice from “Polly,” New York magazine’s online column for the lovelorn, career-confused, adulthood-challenged, and generally angsty. Havrilesky pours her heart into her answers, offering guidance that is equal parts tough love, “I’ve been there,” and curveball. This collection includes new material as well as previously published fan favorites. (Hannah)
Trump: A Graphic Biography by Ted Rall: Just in time for the Republican convention, cartoonist Rall follows his recent graphic bios of Sen. Bernie Sanders and CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden with a comic book peek into the life and times of America’s favorite short-fingered vulgarian. Given that Rall once called on Barack Obama to resign, saying the 44th president made “Bill Clinton look like a paragon of integrity and follow-through,” it’s a safe bet that Trump won’t be flogging this one on his campaign website. (Michael)
Not Pretty Enough by Gerri Hirshey: A biography of Helen Gurley Brown, the founder and creator of Cosmopolitan magazine, following Brown from her upbringing in the Ozarks to her freewheeling single years in L.A. to her rise in the New York advertising and magazine world. The “fun, fearless” editor lived large and worked hard, embracing new sexual and economic freedoms and teaching other women to do the same by offering candid advice on sex, love, money, career, and friendship. (Hannah)
Bush by Jean Edward Smith: He did it his way. According to Smith, author of previous bios of Dwight D. Eisenhower and F.D.R., President George W. Bush relied on his religious faith and gut instinct to make key decisions of his presidency, including the fateful order to invade Iraq a year and a half after the 9/11 attacks. Only in the final months of his second term, with the banking system nearing collapse, did the “Decider-in-Chief” pay closer attention to expert advice and take actions that pulled the world economy back from the brink. (Michael)
Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman: Fans of This American Life might recognize Braverman from Episode 558, “Game Face”, in which Braverman, working as a dog musher, got stuck in a storm on an Alaskan glacier with a group of tourists who had no idea of the danger they were in. Her memoir describes her tendency to court danger as she ventures into the arctic, a landscape that is not only physically exhausting but also a man’s world that doesn’t have much room for a young woman. (Hannah)
The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese: Some questioned Talese’s journalistic ethics when an excerpt from this book was published in The New Yorker in April. Others admired it as an endurance feat of reporting. Talese spent decades corresponding and visiting a voyeuristic motel owner, Gerald Foos, who constructed a motel that allowed him to secretly spy on his guests. After 35 years, Foos agreed to let Talese reveal his identity and lifelong obsession with voyeurism. In the weeks leading up to publication, Talese has admitted that some of the facts in the book are wrong and told The Washington Post that he won’t be promoting it. Then he told the The New York Times he would be promoting it. We don’t know what to make of it all, either. You’ll just have to read the book and decide for yourself. (Hannah)
Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye: Drawing on interviews, unpublished memoirs, newly released government files, “and fifty-eight boxes of papers that had been under lock and key for the past forty years,” Tye traces Bobby Kennedy’s journey from 1950s cold warrior to 1960s liberal icon following the assassination of his older brother, John, in 1963. In an era when presidential candidates are routinely excoriated for decades-old policy positions, it can be instructive to recall that the would-be savior of the urban poor began his public life just 15 years earlier as counsel to red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. (Michael)
The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward: Fifty-three years after James Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time, and one year after Ta-Nehisi Coates’s scalding book-length meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Ward has collected 18 essays by some of the country’s foremost thinkers on race in America, including Claudia Rankine, Isabel Wilkerson, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. “To Baldwin’s call we now have a choral response — one that should be read by every one of us committed to the cause of equality and freedom,” says historian Jelani Cobb.
The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik: This parenting book takes issue with the culture of “parenting,” a hyper-vigilant, goal-oriented style of childcare that leaves children and caregivers exhausted. Gopnik, a developmental psychologist, and the author of The Philosophical Baby, argues that parents should adopt a looser style, one that is more akin to gardening than building a particular structure. Her metaphor is backed up by years of research and observation. (Hannah)
Scream by Tama Janowitz: A memoir from the author of Slaves of New York, the acclaimed short story collection about young people trying to make it in downtown Manhattan in the 1980s. Following the publication of Slaves, Janowitz was grouped with the “Brat Pack” writers Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney famed for their deadpan minimalist style. Scream reflects on that time, as well as the more universal life experiences that followed as Janowitz became a wife, mother, and caregiver to her aging mother. (Hannah)
American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin: As the author of The Run of His Life, about the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and A Vast Conspiracy, about the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, Toobin is no stranger to tabloid-drenched legal sagas, which makes him an ideal guide to the media circus surrounding Patty Hearst’s 1974 kidnapping and later trial for bank robbery. Drawing on interviews and a trove of previously unreleased records, Toobin, a New Yorker staff writer, tries to make sense of one of the weirdest and most violent episodes in recent American history. (Michael)
The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe: The maximalist novelist returns to his nonfiction roots with a book that argues speech is what divides humans from animals, above all else. (Tell that to Dr. Dolittle!) Wolfe delves into controversial debates about what role speech has played in our evolution as a technological species. For a sneak preview of his arguments, check out his 2006 NEA lecture, “The Human Beast”. (Hannah)
Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson: Anyone needing to be reminded that the problems in America’s prison system date back to long before the War on Drugs may want to pick up Thompson’s history of the infamous 1971 Attica prison uprising. After 1,300 prisoners seized control of the upstate New York prison, holding guards and other employees hostage for four days, the state sent in troopers to take the prison back by force, leaving 39 people dead and 100 more severely injured. Thompson has drawn on newly unearthed documents and interviews with participants from all sides of the debacle to create what is being billed the “first definitive account” of the uprising 45 years ago. (Michael)
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole: This first work of nonfiction by the Nigerian-American novelist best known for Open City collects more than 50 short essays touching on topics from Virginia Woolf and William Shakespeare to Instagram and the Black Lives Matter movement. In one essay, Cole, an art historian and photographer, looks at how African-American photographer Roy DeCarava, forced to shoot with film designed for white skin tones, depicted his black subjects. In another essay, Cole dissects “the White Savior Industrial Complex” that he says guides much of Western aid to African nations. (Michael)
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen: After performing at halftime for the 2009 Super Bowl, the bard of New Jersey decided it was time to write his memoirs. This 500-page doorstopper covers Springsteen’s Catholic childhood, his early ambition to become a musician, his inspirations, and the formation of the E Street Band. Springsteen’s lyrics have always shown a gift for storytelling, so we’re guessing this is going to be a good read. (Hannah)
Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil: Big Data is everywhere, setting our insurance premiums, evaluating our job performance, and deciding whether we qualify for that special interest rate on our home loan. In theory, this should eliminate bias and make ours a better, fairer world, but in fact, says O’Neil, a former Wall Street data analyst, the algorithms that rule our lives can reinforce discrimination if they’re sloppily designed or improperly applied. O’Neil has a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, and runs the blog, mathbabe.org, where you can find answers to questions like “Why did the Brexit polls get it so wrong?” and why the data-driven policing program “Broken Windows” doesn’t work. (Michael)
Words on the Move by John McWhorter: Does the way some people use the word “literally” drive you up the (metaphorical) wall? Before you, like, blow a gasket, try this book by a Columbia University professor who argues that we should embrace rather than condemn the natural evolution of the English language, whether it’s the use of “literally” to mean “figuratively” or the advent of business jargon like “What’s the ask?” If that’s not enough bracing talk about how we talk, in January 2017 McWhorter is releasing a second book, Talking Back, Talking Black, about African American Vernacular English. (Michael)
The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carré: The British intelligence officer turned bestselling spy novelist has written his first memoir, regaling readers with stories from his extraordinary writing career. A witness to great historical change in Europe and abroad, le Carré visited Russia before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and met many fascinating characters in his travels, including KGB officers, an imprisoned German terrorist, and a female aid worker who was the inspiration for the main character in The Constant Gardner. Le Carré also writes about watching Alec Guinness take on his most famous character, George Smiley. (Hannah)
Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb: Legendary editor and dance aficionado Gottlieb has had a career that could fill several memoirs. He began at Simon & Schuster, where he quickly rose to the top, discovering American classics like Catch-22 along the way. He left Simon & Schuster to run Alfred A. Knopf, and later, to succeed William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker. Gottlieb has worked with some of the country’s most celebrated writers, including John Cheever, Toni Morrison, Shirley Jackson, and Robert Caro. (Hannah)
This Vast Southern Empire by Matthew Karp: In the contemporary American mind, the Confederacy is recalled as a rump government of Southern plutocrats bent on protecting an increasingly outmoded form of chattel slavery, but as this new history reminds us, before the Civil War, many of the men who guided America’s foreign policy and territorial expansion were Southern slave owners. At the height of their power in antebellum Washington, Southern politicians like Vice President John C. Calhoun and U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis modernized the U.S. military and protected slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the Republic of Texas. (Michael)
Shirley Jackson by Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson, best known for her bone-chilling and classic short story, “The Lottery,” has to be one of our most underrated novelists. Franklin describes Jackson’s fiction as “domestic horror,” a pioneering genre that explored women’s isolation in marriage and family life through the occult. Franklin’s biography has already been praised by Neil Gaiman, who wrote that it provides “a way of reading Jackson and her work that threads her into the weave of the world of words, as a writer and as a woman, rather than excludes her as an anomaly.” (Hannah)
When in French by Lauren Collins: New Yorker staffer Collins moved to London only to fall in love with a Frenchman. For years, the couple spoke to each another in English but Collins always wondered what she was missing by not communicating in her partner’s native tongue. When she and her husband moved to Geneva, Collins decided to learn French from the Swiss. When in French details Collins’s struggles to learn a new language in her 30s, as well as the joy of attaining a deeper understanding of French culture and people. (Hannah)
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly: During the early Space Race years, female mathematicians known as “human computers” used slide rules and adding machines to make the calculations that launched rockets, and later astronauts, into space. Many of these women were black math teachers recruited from segregated schools in the South to fill spots in the aeronautics industry created by wartime labor shortages. Not surprisingly, Hidden Figures, which focuses on the all-black “West Computing” group at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, is being made into a movie starring Taraji Henson and Kevin Costner. (Michael)
American Prophets by Albert J. Raboteau: This fascinating social history profiles seven religious leaders whose collective efforts helped to fight war, racism, and poverty and bring about massive social change in midcentury America. It’s a list that includes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Raboteau finds new connections between these figures and delves into the ideas and theologies that inspired them. (Hannah)
The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs: The title of this essay collection comes from Boggs’s much-shared Orion essay, which frankly depicted her despair as she realized that she might never conceive a child. What made the essay special was Boggs’s eye to the natural world, as she observed fertility and birth in the birds and animals near her rural home. Boggs continues to focus her gaze outward in these essays as she reports on families who have chosen to adopt, LBGT couples considering surrogacy and assisted reproduction, and the financial and legal complications accompanying these alternative means of fertility. (Hannah)
Time Travel: A History by James Gleick: The tech-savvy author of The Information and Chaos shows how time travel as a literary conceit is intimately intertwined with the modern understanding of time that arose from technological innovations like the telegraph, train travel, and advances in clock-making. Beginning with H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, Gleick tracks the evolution of time travel as a cultural construct from the novels of Marcel Proust to the cult British TV show Doctor Who. (Michael)
Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild: Perfectly timed for the start of the last lap of the presidential campaign, this book endeavors to see red-state voters as they see themselves — not as dupes of right-wing media, but as ordinary, patriotic Americans trying to do the best for their families and themselves. A renowned sociologist and author of The Second Shift, a classic 1989 study of women’s roles in working families, Hochschild ventures far from her home in uber-liberal Berkeley, Calif., to meet hardcore conservatives in southern Louisiana. There, as in so much of working-class America, she finds lives riven by stagnant wages, the loss of homes, and an exhausting chase after an ever-elusive American dream. (Michael)
Eyes on the Street by Robert Kanigel: Anyone who has window-shopped in SoHo or marveled at the walkability of their neighborhood can thank activist Jane Jacobs who forever changed how planners thought about and designed urban spaces with her landmark 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Kanigel, author of The Man Who Knew Infinity, traces the roots of the great urban pioneer who wrote seven books and stopped New York’s all-powerful planning czar Robert Moses from running a major highway through Lower Manhattan, all without a college degree. (Michael)
Love for Sale by David Hajdu: In his previous books, Hajdu has written about jazz and folk music; in Love for Sale he tells the story of American popular music from its vaudeville beginnings to Blondie at CBGB to today’s electronic dance music. Hajdu highlights overlooked performers like blues singer Bessie Smith and Jimmie Rodgers, a country singer who incorporated yodeling into his music. (Hannah)
Future Sex by Emily Witt: In her first book, journalist and critic Witt writes about the intersection between sex and technology, otherwise known as online dating. Witt reports on internet pornography, polyamory, and other sexual subcultures, giving an honest and open-minded account of how people pursue pleasure and connection in a changing sexual landscape. (Hannah)
Hungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner: No, it’s not the second volume of Springsteen’s memoirs — instead, it’s an essay collection from a bestselling author who may be as famous for her defense of chick-lit as she is for her own female-centric novels. This is Weiner’s first volume of nonfiction, and she has a lifetime of topics to cover: growing up as an outsider in her picture-perfect town, her early years as a newspaper reporter, finding her voice as a novelist, becoming a mother, the death of her estranged father, and what it felt like to hear her daughter use the “f-word” — “fat” — for the first time. (Hannah)
Truevine by Beth Macy: One day in 1899, a white man offered a piece of candy to George and Willie Muse, the children of black sharecroppers in Truevine, Va., setting off a chain of events that led to the boys being kidnapped into a circus, which billed them as cannibals and “Ambassadors from Mars” in tours that played for royalty at Buckingham Palace and in sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. Like Macy’s last book, Factory Man, about a good-old-boy owner of a local furniture factory in Virginia who took on low-cost Chinese exporters and won, Truevine promises a mix of quirky characters, propulsive narrative, and an insider’s look at a neglected corner of American history. (Michael)
Upstream by Mary Oliver: Essays from one of America’s most beloved poets. As always, Oliver’s draws inspiration from the natural world, and Provincetown, Mass., her home and life-long muse. Oliver also writes about her early love of Walt Whitman, the labor of poetry, and the continuing influence of classic American writers such as Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Hannah)
Black Elk by Joe Jackson: A biography of a Native American holy man whose epic life spanned a dramatic era in the history of the American West. In his youth, Black Elk fought in Little Big Horn, witnessed the death of his second cousin, Crazy Horse, and traveled to Europe to perform in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In later years, he fought in Wounded Knee, became an activist for the Lakota people, and converted to Catholicism. Known to many through his spiritual testimony, Black Elk Speaks, this biography brings the man to life, as well as the turbulent times he lived through. (Hannah)
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: As the child of a white Dutch father and a black Xhosa mother who had to pretend she was her own child’s nanny on the rare occasions the family was together, comedian Noah’s very existence was evidence of a crime under the apartheid laws of his native South Africa. In his memoir, Noah recalls eating caterpillars to stave off hunger and being thrown by his eccentric mother from a speeding car driven by murderous gangsters. If you survived a childhood like that, you might not be so intimated at the prospect of replacing Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, either. (Michael)
My Lost Poets by Philip Levine: In this posthumous essay collection from one of our pre-eminent poets, Levine writes about composing poems as a child, studying with John Berryman, the influence of Spanish poets on his work, his idols and mentors, and his many inspirations: jazz, Spain, Detroit, and masters of the form like William Wordsworth and John Keats. (Hannah)
Writing to Save a Life by John Edgar Wideman: Ten years before Emmett Till was brutally lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, his father Louis was executed by the U.S. army for rape and murder. Wideman, who was the same age as Emmett Till, just 14, the year he was murdered, mixes memoir and historical research in his exploration of the eerily twinned executions of the two Till men. A Rhodes Scholar and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, Wideman knows all too well what it means to have a close relative accused of a violent crime: his son, Jacob, and his brother, Robert, were both convicted of murder. (Michael)
Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond: Diamond has established himself as an authority on/gently obsessive superfan of John Hughes with pieces on the filmmaker for Buzzfeed and The Atlantic (from where I learned the shameful fact that John Hughes was responsible for the movie Flubber in addition to his suite of beloved suburban-white-kid films). Diamond’s Hughes interest stretches back to his time as an aspiring, and doomed, Hughes biographer. Diamond commemorates this journey through a memoir and cultural history of a brief, vanished moment in the Chicagoland suburbs. (Lydia)
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis: Why do people go with their guts, even when their guts so often steer them wrong? Lewis stumbled onto this fundamental human question in his bestselling 2003 book Moneyball, about how the Oakland A’s, a cash-strapped major league team, used data analysis to beat wealthier teams. A brief reference in a review of Moneyball in The New Republic led Lewis to two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose work explores why humans follow their intuition. If Kahneman’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s a Nobel laureate and author of the 2011 bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow. That’s a lot of bestseller cred in one book. (Michael)
To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell: In his first full-length book, due out in March 2017, longtime Millions staff writer O’Connell offers an inside look at the “transhumanism movement,” the adherents of which hope to one day “solve” the problem of death and use technology to propel human evolution. If O’Connell’s pieces for this site and his ebook, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever, published by The Millions in 2013, are any guide, To Be a Machine will be smart and odd and very, very funny. (Michael)
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos: Following on the success of her debut memoir, Whip Smart, about her years as a professional dominatrix and junkie, Febos turns back the clock to examine her relationship with her birth father, whose legacy includes his Native American heritage and a tendency toward addiction. Interwoven with these family investigations is the story of Febos’s passionate long-distance love affair with another woman. Abandon Me is slated for February 2017. (Michael)
Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom: A much-needed examination of the recent expansion of for-profit universities, which have put millions of young people into serious debt at the beginning of their careers. Cottom links the rise of for-profit universities to rising inequality, drawing on her own experience as an admissions counselor at two for-profit universities, and interviewing students, activists, and senior executives in the industry. (Hannah)
Hunger by Roxane Gay: In our spring nonfiction preview, we looked forward to Gay’s memoir Hunger, which was slated to be published in June 2016, but her publishing date has been pushed back to June 2017. According to reporting from EW, and Gay’s own tweets, the book simply took longer than Gay expected. She also wanted its release to follow a book of short stories, Difficult Women, which will be published in January 2017. (Hannah)
And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: Millions Year in Reading alum and New York magazine’s The Cut columnist O’Connell will bring her signature voice to a collection of essays about motherhood billed as “this generation’s Operating Instructions.” Readers who follow O’Connell’s writing for The Cut or her newsletter look forward to a full volume of her relatable, sometimes mordant, sometimes tender reflections on writing and family life. (Lydia)
Years ago, I wrote a book about the women’s professional tennis tour. In 1973, the year Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, access to players at most tournaments was easy; few agents or managers walled them off from the press. Coaches? Unheard of. Nutritionists? Please. The very best female tennis pros in the country earned thousands of dollars for winning ($25,000 for the U.S. Open), not millions. To save money, they overnighted at the homes of local enthusiasts.
Now, like other sports, tennis is a billion-dollar enterprise and players like Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova rank high on Forbes “Richest Athletes” list. The inflation is just as obvious in my other favorite sport, baseball. A recent Wall Street Journal article on New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom, whose 2016 salary is $607,000, carried the headline “Baseball’s Underpaid All-Stars.” The average baseball salary this year is $4.4 million.
Mark McCormack, the agent and lawyer who made Arnold Palmer golf’s first millionaire, and Marvin Miller, the undaunted leader of the baseball players’ union, are among those generally credited as important nonplayers who helped turn sports into a business that benefited its “workers” as well as their employers. There are numerous others, though, and in his new book, Players, Journal reporter Matthew Futterman thoroughly investigates the financial revolution in pro sports. He describes how athletes like hurdler Edwin Moses, unheralded executives like the NFL’s Frank Vuono, and people like McCormack enabled players grab the power that once was in the hands of team owners and event promoters. The revolution, argues Futterman, has in many ways improved the sports that fans love to watch; well-played players who no longer need to work at other jobs in their free hours are better trained, better conditioned (and yes, better compensated). But has the revolution gone overboard?
Players might be the best book about the business of sports since Moneyball. Instead of investigating one sport through the lens of one team, Futterman looks at several major sports, focusing on key participants. He begins with McCormack, whose story has been told before but is still the spark that gave rise to the revolution. McCormack’s guiding principle was that “stars were the gasoline that made the engine of any sport go…They were a salable commodity that was being undervalued…” As a youngster growing up in Chicago in the 1930s and ’40s, he loved sports and even when “alone on his porch throwing a ball in the air all afternoon, he was always keeping score.” He became a lawyer and an excellent amateur golfer.
Arnold Palmer was a great golfer. But his earnings were tiny. His big paycheck came from an endorsement deal in 1954 with Wilson for $5,000, yet their clubs were not even premium products; Palmer crafted his own clubs in his home workshop. Moreover the company had the right to renew the deal each time it was about to expire. After convincing Palmer he could do better, McCormack became the golfer’s agent and finally extricated him from the Wilson deal, setting up instead Palmer’s own golf club company. “McCormack was playing a new game,” writes Futterman. “The object was liberation.” His plan to give Palmer control of his own name and marketplace worth would be the template for every other arrangement McCormack made.
McCormack moved on to tennis. After meeting the chairman of Wimbledon, he realized the most prestigious tournament in the world was not taking advantage of its image, and arranged to market the film rights to the tournament. Eventually came the windfall — a six year deal with NBC for Wimbledon TV for $5.2 million. It was, writes Futterman, a key element in his vision — to widen the popularity of his players, he needed to showcase them on a mass scale. TV would grow the prize money and thus the value of players’ names to sponsors. McCormack, like Hollywood czar Lew Wasserman, would control not just the stars but the venues. “Wimbledon doesn’t break a leg, sprain an ankle, fail a drug test or lose six-love, six-love,” he told others.
By the 1990s, McCormack’s influence was so pervasive that his company, International Management Company, or IMG, was referred to by nasty nicknames: “I Am Greedy,” “I Manage God.” By 2001 his management roster went well beyond sports — its list included Margaret Thatcher and the Nobel Prize Foundation.
Every sport had its own path to big money and professionalization. Before 1968, writes Futterman, the men who ran tennis “starved the sport.” Stars who went out on their own, like Rod Laver, barnstormed for peanuts on a pro tour while being barred from the top tournaments like Wimbledon, which was open only to amateurs. Although they were allowed to participate in the Grand Slams after 1968, the International Lawn Tennis Association raked in money while offering poor purses and no say to the players who made it great. This led the men, who had joined together in the Association of Tennis Professionals, to stage a boycott of the 1973 Wimbledon event. It severely hurt the career of American Stan Smith, the defending champion, who honored the boycott. Ultimately, the tennis lords caved, and Smith eventually got his measure of fame by having his name on a best-selling shoe.
The boycott was incredibly successful; it led to a boom as the sport was taken up by recreational players and pros reaped the rewards of wider exposure. The total prize money at the U.S. open was $160,000 in 1972. By 1983 it was $2 million. The growth meant the explosion in the care and nurturing of stars who hired coaches, physiotherapists, and nutritionists, and companies that produced new racquets made of space-age materials. By last year, the male and female U.S. Open winners alone earned over $3 million each.
Baseball, the professional sport most dominant in the first half of the 20th century, saw a similar upward dollar trajectory. Here, Futterman uses pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter to tell the story of free agency and the resulting monetary explosion. His career showed how an athlete from a poor farming family in North Carolina upended “the entire salary structure of sports,” showing every “athlete a better lesson in free-market economics than anyone could have gotten at Harvard Business School.” The lesson: “the person who gets paid the most sets the market for everyone else below him,” i.e. a rising tide lifts all boats. How big a lesson was this? In 1966, despite having its own union headed by Miller, baseball’s reserve clause that bound a player to one team meant that the average major league player’s salary was $14,000. Topps paid each exactly $125 to put them on a bubble-gum card.
I’m sorry Futterman did not mention the two-man holdout by the Dodgers’ great pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale before the 1966 season, when the two asked for a million dollars over three years and settled for about $130,000 for Koufax (in what became his final season) and $105,000 for Drysdale. It was a landmark in the struggle for free agency, which culminated in Hunter’s battle with the “perhaps the greediest and most penurious” ballclub owner, Charles O. Finley of the Oakland A’s.
Players details the almost unbelievable tale of how Finley’s stupid missteps allowed the owner to be declared in default of his contract with Hunter. (Among other things, Finley claimed it was awkward for him to get his estranged wife’s signature on a document.) The pitcher was declared a free agent, an open market bidding war began, and the Yankees signed Hunter to a multimillion dollar contract “worth roughly fifteen times more than the next highest player.” The rest is, well history, right up to Jacob deGrom’s measly $607,000 salary, which is so low because with only three years in the big leagues he is not yet eligible for free agency.
In football, Players dates the revolution not to Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who is often hailed for dragging the NFL into modern times, but to the league’s actions in 1978, when it adopted rules that made offenses more potent. The owners were persuaded by Tex Schramm, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys that unless the game permitted higher scores, it would stagnate. Indeed, once rules limiting defenses in hampering receivers and offensive linemen, and once the “west coast offense” gave quarterbacks a chance to move the ball with lots of short, high percentage passes, it was, in Futterman’s words, “easier for players to thrill fans.”
The star system took hold. In 1990, the league created the Quarterbacks Club, to which the likes of Troy Aikman and Dan Marino lent their names to lucrative licensing arrangements. Where NFL players lost was that, previously, their union had handled the licensing. The new arrangement bled the union dry. Today, football generals get huge salaries but the privates get nonguaranteed contracts.
Players also demonstrates how the business revolution worked in licensing, with Nike manufacturing Michael Jordan sneakers that youngsters would literally kill for, and in developing their own cable networks. If there is a villain in the book, it is Lance Armstrong, who for Futterman represents the “win at all costs” mentality that has been foisted on fans by Nike and other greedy sponsors. This seems too simple. Armstrong’s desire to win came in the context of a sport that had long had a doping problem, even before there was millions of endorsement dollars at stake.
In the end, the author notes that despite the wall-to-wall TV coverage of sports, both viewership and youth participation in team sports has declined. “Money in sports isn’t on its own, a bad thing. But when money becomes the motivating goal and main purpose in sports, that is a bad thing,” because it leads to stars who are more concerned with endorsements than with team victories, and to teams more concerned with TV revenue than individual players. Agree or not, it is a complex tale, compellingly told. Players is more fun than watching a major golf tournament and certainly easier than playing in one.
Baseball pitchers’ salaries have correspondingly risen precipitously, especially those of closers, who can make more than $100,000 per inning, as Jason Grilli did last year for the Atlanta Braves. When Sandy Koufax finally agreed to that low-ball contract back in 1966, he was not only baseball’s best pitcher but perhaps its most pain-wracked one. His left arm was crooked. It “ballooned to cartoonish sizes” in between starts and had to be drained. He had to swab a hellish chili-pepper hot “balm” on it to mask the pain. But that was before Tommy John submitted to surgery in 1974 by Dr. Frank Jobe. His torn ulnar collateral ligament in the arm was replaced by a tendon from his wrist. A year and a day later, John was able to retake a major league mound. Grilli, too, underwent this surgery, which led him to the payoffs with the Braves.
In a fitting complement to Players, sportswriter Jeff Passan peers into this surgery and its aftermath in The Arm, looking at how huge salaries for pitchers — the quarterbacks of baseball — have affected their quest for longevity. These salaries have also infected the attitude of kids who hope to emulate professional players. The book is principally an exhaustive look at the development of Tommy John surgery through two major league pitchers, one of whom has rebounded from two TJ procedures.
Passan suggests that the TJ phenomenon has gone way overboard. A recent study of five years’ worth of records showed that half the surgeries were performed on teenagers, an idea Passan regards as frightening. What’s more, there are only guesses when it comes to successful rehab and post-surgery plans. Should pitchers limit their innings? Slow their velocity? Alter their mechanics? No answer is definitive. As long as major league teams are willing to shell out $150-million over six years for a proven starter like the Cubs did for Jon Lester (plus $250,000 to ferry his wife and kids around in a charted jet), pitchers in search of millions will undergo the operation that Passan describes in grisly detail. What is amazing, as Passan tells us, is that despite major league teams operating “more than $600 million in the black” in 2014, they have spent next to nothing on injury-prevention research.
As for that underpaid Mets all-star Jacob deGrom, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, let’s hope he has a great, healthy season, so he can sign for closer to his rightful worth. He’ll be eligible for salary arbitration next year. Surely he looks forward to 2020; that’s when he becomes a true free agent. And if you happen to see him pitch in short sleeves, notice the long scar on the inside of his right arm; it looks a bit like the seam on a baseball.
Image Credit: Flickr/401(K) 2012
In the early years of the digital age, it was common to hear dire warnings about “the death of narrative.” Storytelling, the thinking ran, is an artifact of a world where every bit of information requires its own patch of physical space – on a page, on film, in someone’s memory – that must be located and read separately. This quickly becomes unmanageable, so for millennia authors have organized information into little cause-and-effect narratives that helped audiences make sense of complex sets of facts.
But as early technologists pointed out, with the web browser making vast swathes of information instantly accessible, narrative becomes less crucial. Readers can find what they need by following links, bouncing from, say, a Wikipedia profile of George Clooney to TMZ posts on his sexy new girlfriend Amal Alamuddin to YouTube clips of him looking young and foxy on old episodes of ER. Twenty years ago, such a search would have required sifting through piles of clippings and old video tapes – or, more likely, reading a biography of George Clooney in which an author did the sifting for you and organized it in the form of a story.
Digital connectivity enables us to find and manage huge amounts of information, and we now spend our lives immersed in it, on Wikipedia and social networking sites and on our work computers that crunch the data we need to do our jobs. But as bestselling author Michael Lewis recently demonstrated with his new book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, narrative still trumps hyperlinking when it comes to hugely complex sets of information – especially when powerful inside interests are working to make sure we can’t understand what that information means.
Flash Boys, after all, breaks little new ground journalistically. The high-frequency trading (HFT) strategies the book describes have been part of the Wall Street landscape for a decade and HFT firms have been siphoning tens of billions of dollars from the exchanges that we all depend on to grow our retirement accounts for nearly as long. Major newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have been on the story from the start, and Lewis himself name-checks two earlier books on the subject, Scott Patterson’s Dark Pools and Broken Markets by Sal Arnuk and Joseph Saluzzi.
We had the information, but very few of us could make sense of what we were seeing. The facts were just too abstruse to take in. HFT firms use super-fast computer connections and complex mathematical algorithms to predict the intentions of Wall Street players and trade ahead of them, snapping up stocks before the slower players can get to them and then selling them back to the slow-movers at inflated prices. This doesn’t sound good even to the uninitiated, but it also sounds technical and complicated, and, well, kind of boring. Before we know it, we’re back looking at those pics of George Clooney and his hot new lawyer girlfriend on TMZ.
This is why we need a storyteller like Lewis, the author of twelve books, including bestsellers Moneyball and The Blind Side, to help us see what HFT firms are doing and why we should care. Essentially, Lewis says, HFT firms offer to buy or sell small numbers – typically 100 shares – of huge numbers of publicly traded stocks. When a big bank or mutual fund expresses interest in a stock, the trade on those first 100 shares triggers a lightning-fast reaction in which the HFT firm buys up the stock elsewhere in the system before the bigger, slower trader can, and pockets the difference between the price the big trader was willing to pay and the actual price of the stock on the open market.
High-frequency traders can do this because their systems for connecting their computers to the stock exchanges – there are 45 of them now in the U.S. – are faster than the less specialized programs used by big banks and mutual funds. How much faster? Sometimes it’s just a few thousands of a second, but that’s enough time to enable HFT firms to skim tens of billions of dollars, penny by penny, out of the market. “It was like a broken slot machine in a casino that pays off every time,” Lewis writes of the system. “It would keep paying off until someone said something about it; but no one who played the slot machine had any interest in pointing out that it was broken.”
Part of the problem, Lewis writes, is that the American financial system has ceased to be imaginable on a human scale. Most people, he notes, when they imagine the stock market still see “a ticker tape run[ning] across the bottom of some cable TV screen, and alpha males in color-coded jackets stand[ing] in trading pits, hollering at each other. That picture is dated; the world it depicts is dead. …The U.S. stock market now trades inside black boxes, in heavily guarded buildings in New Jersey and Chicago.”
The task Lewis sets for himself in Flash Boys is to pry the American financial system loose from those black boxes and reimagine it for us on a human scale. And to do that, he tells a story. If you have read Lewis’s earlier books, the plot of this one will sound familiar: a ragtag bunch of colorful geeks and misfits, armed only with their superior intelligence and moral rectitude, take on a corrupt system – and win! That this is essentially the plot of Lewis’ last bestseller, The Big Short, about the mortgage crisis, and eerily reminiscent of the plots of Moneyball, about the use of statistical analysis in baseball, and The New New Thing, about the early days of Silicon Valley, is frankly something of a worry. After reading a bunch of Lewis’s books, you begin to wonder just how many colorful geeks and misfits there really are out there, and how willing you are to believe a set of complex facts just because you want the good guys to win.
This is the danger of narrative as a tool for spreading information. A tale well-told taps into the primal need we all have for an emotionally satisfying story of good triumphing over evil. If we like the central characters and want them to win, we stop thinking and start feeling. Lewis, a supremely gifted storyteller, understands this and deftly transforms an office full of well-educated bankers and software experts into the motley crew of quirky outsiders and warped idealists he needs to tell a satisfying story.
Lewis never speaks to the high-frequency traders that the book’s hero, Brad Katsuyama, a former Royal Bank of Canada equities trader, is battling against (most likely, they wouldn’t talk to him). So the central events of the book are seen through the eyes of Katsuyama and his merry band of insurgents, who range from computer geeks who keep oiled Rubik’s cubes under their desks to executives like John Schwall, whose moral prism is shaped by his working-class background as son and grandson of Staten Island firefighters. “It just really pissed me off,” Schwall says of the HFT trading strategies. “That people set out this way to make money from everyone else’s retirement account. I knew who was being screwed, people like my mom and pop, and I became hell-bent on figuring out who was doing the screwing.”
As will be the case in the movie that will surely be made of Flash Boys, upon discovering that shadowy outfits using algorithms written by Russian-born computer programmers are stealing from Wall Street, Katsuyama assembles a team and concocts a crazily ambitious plan to combat the thievery – namely, a new private exchange, called IEX, designed to eliminate the advantages of high-speed trading. “I feel like I’m an expert in something that badly needs to changed,” Katsuyama tells his wife, Ashley, one night. “I think there’s only a few people in the world who can do anything about this. If I don’t do something right now – me, Brad Katsuyama – there’s no one to call.”
Right. And the next morning, he puts on his blue suit and big red cape and flies to work.
There is too much of this kind of comic-book hero-making in Flash Boys, especially in its later sections, but does it invalidate the book? Here, I think, context is all. On March 30, before Flash Boys appeared, few outside Wall Street had heard of high-frequency trading, and even many people in finance had little idea how HFT really works. Now, thanks to Flash Boys, and a high-profile rollout that included an excerpt in the New York Times Magazine and a feature on 60 Minutes, federal investigations into high-frequency trading have picked up steam and trading volume on Katsuyama’s IEX is up 40% in just two weeks.
All systems for delivering information are imperfect because the human mind can only hold so much at one time, and when things get complicated, something important always gets left out. As it happens, this has been a running sub-theme of Lewis’s own reporting for his last several books: what happens when two different systems of collecting and analyzing information clash. At the heart of Moneyball, about the 2002 Oakland A’s, is a disconnect between an older, mostly narrative-based system of player evaluation favored by the team’s grizzled scouting team and a newer data-driven system favored by its stats geeks. The Big Short, about the mortgage crisis, is similarly about two different ways of reading the abundant data about the state of the mortgage market in the lead-up to the 2008 crash.
What’s interesting is that, unlike a lot of less sharp-eyed observers of commerce in the age of data, Lewis never makes the mistake of thinking that the one with the most data wins. The bankers who drove the economy off the cliff in 2008 had more than enough data to demonstrate that the bets they were making made no sense, but they told themselves a story that, while fanciful, allowed them to ignore evidence that would have gotten between them and their fat year-end bonuses. In the end, though, they were wrong. The market crashed, banks went bankrupt or were sold at fire-sale prices, and many bankers – though not nearly enough – lost their jobs.
Surely, high-frequency trading is more complicated than the Manichean portrait of it Lewis draws of it in Flash Boys, but if he hadn’t found a way to boil down this highly technical issue to an emotionally satisfying tale of good vs. evil, most of us would never have known it existed. Thanks in part to Lewis’ storytelling, a system hidden away in black boxes in heavily guarded buildings in New Jersey and Chicago has been dragged into the light. Now, comes the interesting part. Will Brad Katsuyama’s IEX solve the problem, or will the high-frequency traders lure their customers back despite the disclosures in Lewis’s book? The truth lies neither in data nor in stories, but in results. How all this plays out will tell the tale.
College football was born in America on November 6th, 1869, when two 50-man teams from Princeton (née College of New Jersey) and Rutgers huddled in a rugby-like scrum on a patch of New Brunswick grass. No helmets were worn; passes were kicked; and players scored goals instead of touchdowns. The game’s rules, bastardized from those of the London Football Association, were a far cry from what you see on ESPN today, but the spirit of the intercollegiate rivalry was unmistakable: when Rutgers won the match 6-4, they ran the Princeton spectators — who reportedly sprinted to their horse-drawn carriages — straight out of town.
In the months that followed, the sport swept the nation, and within 25 years, administrators recognized the marketing potential of school-affiliated football teams: one of John D. Rockefeller’s first tasks for his University of Chicago president was the establishment of The Maroons, the school’s first team. Even in its infancy, few things raised a college’s visibility like praiseworthy pigskin.
Today 120 schools field football teams in the Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision, which is composed not only of the Big Ten (née Western Conference) launched in Chicago in 1896, but also of 10 additional conferences and four “independent” teams across the nation. In total, the member schools bring in annual revenues exceeding $2.7 billion (and offset by roughly half as much in expenses). Head coaches earn on average $1.5 million a year, and six of the 10 largest sports stadiums on earth can be found on American college campuses. Last night, when the University of South Carolina took on Vanderbilt to open up the 2012 season, their contest drew millions of television viewers around the country.
Of these schools, however, only a small handful has managed to build perennially successful (and lucrative) football programs. These lucky few are mostly recognizable to anyone who’s watched ABC in autumn: Michigan, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State, Alabama, and Oklahoma. Success in their stadiums became commonplace long ago.
Many fans of these teams will say that a year without a top-10 ranking is a year worth forgetting. Two losses are unforgivable; three are unthinkable. Call it optimism, call it hubris, but it gives them something in which they can believe. It also sets the stage for some Schadenfreude when an especially high profile, historically successful team falters. That’s precisely what occurred over the three years covered in John U. Bacon’s Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football (out in paperback this month), which endeavors to explain how the once-mighty program was reduced to a sputtering mess despite having one of the sport’s most talented coaches at its helm.
An argument could be made that the most interesting character in Bacon’s book is the shadow cast by the University of Michigan’s storied tradition, and the author wastes no time introducing readers to its particulars. If that sounds absurd, here’s some perspective: in 134 seasons, the Michigan Wolverines have won more football games than any other team in the country. Astoundingly, in that time the program has had only 19 head coaches. (By comparison, Alabama’s had 27 coaches over 120 seasons, and Bear Bryant was there for more than a fifth of them.)
Such steady consistency has resulted in an extraordinarily fervent fan base, one known to be “uncommonly loyal and knowledgeable, and gracious toward opponents — even in defeat.” Each week, the Maize and Blue faithful gather to excitedly watch their team compete, often from the comfort of their home stadium, “The Big House,” which is the largest in America and regularly sells out to more than 110,000 people. The school’s reputation is not some storybook trifle but rather the load-bearing wall on which the entire program stands. It’s why the fans show up in the first place.
That said, Bacon’s estimation of the tradition’s allure to would-be student-athletes can at times seem like wishful thinking. While important to establishing a durable fan base and securing the support of the local community, I find it hard to believe that most 18-year-old kids decide which team to play for based on their rosters of yore. Now that dozens of schools boast world-class facilities, what seems to matter most for recruits is whether or not they’ll reliably secure playing time, or whether a particular school is close to their families, or how many alums the school’s sent to the NFL. For me, having come from the University of Miami, a school whose football team came to prominence only after the 1980s, it’s hard to envision an 18-year-old kid from Pahokee or Los Angeles admiring one of Michigan’s old, dead white players from the early 1900s — more likely they grew up watching such modern stars as my school’s Ray Lewis and Ed Reed on TV. But who knows. Maybe things are different up North.
Regardless, Bacon’s grasp of Michigan’s mythology helps to make the book highly readable. Even fans of opposing teams will enjoy the author’s survey. His overview of the program’s most important figures — folks like Fielding H. Yost, their first great coach, and Bo Schembechler, who coined the term “Michigan Man” to evoke the Platonic ideal of a Wolverine sportsman — helps outsiders understand how the place’s reputation grew so large over time. It also serves to reinforce how utterly nerve-wracking it must be to go to work each day hoping to live up to such impossibly high expectations.
The book’s actual main character, and someone apparently crazy or masochistic enough to believe he can meet those expectations, is Rich Rodriguez, who Bacon takes care to note is every bit as radical and new as Michigan is traditional and old. Born in a small coal town in West Virginia — an unusually fertile ground for great coaches — Rodriguez is portrayed in Three and Out with equal parts admiration and befuddlement. On the one hand, Bacon makes clear that the man is unquestionably a football genius, the one-time youngest head coach in America and the first to pioneer the spread option, a high-octane offense dependent on speed and stamina over strength and size. (Here’s a typical play.) Yet on the other hand, Bacon shows that the man could at times be oblivious to his public perception, as well as incapable of successfully negotiating with his higher-ups to secure higher salaries for his staff and better facilities for his players.
But you can afford to lack polish when you’re the innovator behind one of the most successful offenses in college sports, so despite his occasional stumbles, Rodriguez managed to secure his fifth head coaching job in 12 years at West Virginia University, his alma mater. By 2000, his first year at WVU, Rodriguez’s offense had become so popular that it had inspired numerous imitators, and his salary had ballooned from $16,000 to more than $700,000.
As head of the Mountaineers, Rodriguez enjoyed a spate of winning seasons and postseason bowl berths. He also repeatedly clashed with the administration over the same old song: his team’s autonomy, his staff’s pay rate, and upgrades to the athletic facilities. While his team was consistently hailed as one of the most exciting ones to watch, national titles proved elusive.
In fact, the last school to win its first national title was Florida in 1996, and everybody who’s won one since has merely padded its trophy case with repeats. Today’s college football championships are for the taking, it seems, only if you’re a top-shelf program that’s held one before, and Rodriguez must’ve known he’d need to coach at such a “destination school” if he hoped to attain a trophy of his own.
So enter Michigan, which in 2008 unexpectedly found itself with its first coaching vacancy in 12 years. Unprepared, the school scrambled through the hiring process and, after failing to lure several of its first choice candidates, tossed out a lifeline to Rodriguez, who had never so much as set foot in Ann Arbor before accepting the job. Such is the program’s draw that, as Bacon writes, “Rodriguez assumed that moving to Michigan would not only rid him of the problems he faced in Morgantown, but would not add any of its own.” Naïve as that idea may have been, it wasn’t the only thing to foreshadow an uneasy union between Rodriguez and Michigan: having failed to secure the confidence of many of the most faithful and influential Michigan backers, the “aw-shucks” Rodriguez blundered at his first press conference by answering “Gosh, I hope not!” to the question of whether he needed to be a “Michigan Man” in order to coach the Wolverines. In Ann Arbor, that’s tantamount to saying you’ve never heard of The Beatles. Months later, he would be reprimanded for using the word “ain’t” in an interview.
Were it so simple that x’s and o’s alone won football games, nearly every school in the country could field capable teams. On the contrary, coaching today demands not only strategic ingenuity and a mastery of motivational techniques, but it also demands a full-time commitment to scouting and recruiting trips, fundraising, alumni meet-and-greets, hometown appearances, summer camp administration, and more. Coaches need to appease requests and demands from parents, assistants, athletic department staffs, and the university’s administration. The NCAA’s byzantine bylaws — which, for instance, allow schools to provide bagels and butter to recruits but not bagels and jelly — must be obeyed strictly.
As Bacon goes on to illustrate in his book — and which I don’t want to spoil for those who wish to read it — Rich Rodriguez’s consistent failure to balance these incredible, numerous responsibilities was what led to his and the school’s problems. We learn that the coach’s cardinal sins amounted not to one egregious offense, but rather to a witch’s brew of PR gaffes, hostile behind-the-scenes administrators, his former employer’s frustrations, his current employer’s impatience, and the quality of the roster he inherited in Ann Arbor. Together, these elements resulted in Rodriguez’s firing following the 2010 season, the last year Bacon followed the team. On the book’s front cover, Entertainment Weekly likens Three and Out to Moneyball, but the more apt comparison is to The Perfect Storm.
One of the book’s additional joys is Bacon’s Plimptonian quest to work out with the Wolverine football players throughout the season. As he proves in one particular scene, the idea that student-athletes coast through college on easy street is an utter canard. And speaking of fallacies, Bacon also finds room in the book to pen convincing arguments against paying players, who can already receive over $580,000 of education and expenses over their four year careers, as well as arguments against the sloppy reporting done by some selfish journalists advancing their careers by disingenuously claiming to “look out for the kids.” One such offender, formerly of The Free Press but now of Sports Illustrated, gets deservedly raked across the coals in this book. That Bacon spares the self-righteous NCAA itself and its quasi-legality from a detailed takedown is forgivable; nobody is likely to write a better such dismissal than Taylor Branch’s The Cartel, which was expanded from his article, “The Shame of College Sports.”
While a casual reader might find some of the book’s tidbits about Michigan traditions or Rodriguez’s career trajectory to be inconsequential or unimportant, astute football fans will agree that the most distinct aspects of football and baseball, America’s two most popular sports, are the outsized roles played by narrative and tradition. You see, both games practically beg for commentators to ascribe storylines and context in order to fill the gaps between bursts of live action. (Try watching a muted baseball game if you don’t believe me.) The games depend on their stories. Unlike the continuous game play in soccer or basketball matches, which force announcers to call second-by-second run-downs of the ball’s movement, baseball and football plays are punctuated by long lulls. See the baseball player who halts his at-bat long enough to scratch his crotch and spit some seeds. See the average football game, which manages to stretch a lean 11 minutes of live game play out for a broadcast lasting 174 minutes.
More often than not, these gaps are filled by stories based on a school’s sense of tradition: its fan base and how it travels, its past players and awards, its legendary coaches (if it’s lucky enough to have any), its rivals, the implications of this game’s outcome or the adversity faced by the team’s individual players — a troubled youth who earns his family’s first college degree, say, or a biochemical engineer kicking the game’s winning field goal. These stories nearly eclipse the games themselves, and fans eat them up. In Three and Out, Bacon serves up a feast consisting of all of these elements and all of these stories.
Image Credit: NMH
It would be difficult to overstate the ambivalence I felt toward the looming release of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, the new movie about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. Take whatever it is that’s important to you – knitting, perhaps, or mountain biking – and then imagine waiting for a feature windows10explained film about it. Would you be excited or nervous? Or a mix of both? Or would you simplymoncler black friday salebe dreading how Hollywood would manage to fuck up your passion? I’d wondered what an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball would be like ever since the film went into development…eight years ago. Would they be able to translate the plot, in so far as there is one, to the screen? Or would Moneyball be based on the book in the same way that Syriana was “inspired by” Robert Baer’s See No Evil, an adaptation in name only (So much so that Syriana was nominated for 300-206 Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars)?
By the time of the film’s release, I had overcome enough of my anxiety to be firmly in the excited camp. No matter how bad the movie was, at least I’d get to laugh at idiots like Joe Morgan for two hours, right? Before the screening, when my wife and I were standing 70-494 in the concessions line, she asked me what kind of Windows 10 Professional product Key sale candy I wanted. “Are you kidding?” I said. “We’re about to watch a movie about advanced statistical analysis in baseball. Get whatever you want.”
We weren’t, of course, about to watch a movie about sabrmetrics — the use of advanced statistical analysis to evaluate baseball players and teams — and how the cash-strapped Oakland A’s used it to remain competitive with free-spending teams like the New York Yankees. A part of me knew that going in; such a movie fridaysboutiquewould bore 99.9 percent of the audience and probably infuriate the remaining tenth of a percent. No, the filmmakers ADM-201 had to do something to make a more cinematic story of Lewis’s 2003 book. The question was not would the movie differ from the book, but how.
Moneyball is the story of an idea. The thesis of the book is that major 300-208 league baseball teams had long ignored valuable statistical information about their players, relying instead on eye-witness evaluation by seasoned scouts. These scouts used observation and intuition to identify the best players (For example, one scout in the film claims a player is no good because his girlfriend isn’t attractive enough. “He’s got an ugly girlfriend. An ugly girlfriend means no confidence.”). As one might expect from such an unscientific method, it produced variable results. One of the players traditional scouting misidentified as a future star was none other than Billy Beane, who fizzled out after a mediocre major league career. All of this led to an inefficient Windows 10 Professional product Key Oem sale market in baseball talent. Some players were radically undervalued, while others earned much more money than they deserved. Operating from a position of financial weakness, Billy Beane and his Oakland A’s bucked traditional scouting methods and employed deep statistical analysis to find the undervalued players they could afford.
To build a movie out of a book Windows 10 Professional OEM Key about an idea, the filmmakers made several important compromises. First, they decided to narrow the scope of their film to Billy Beane. Interlacing Beane’s backstory with the primary narrative of building a team from the scrap heap of unwanted players was a brilliant choice, as it provided a psychological motivation for his skepticism of traditional baseball scouting. From the very beginning, we see Beane’s doubt come to the fore. “If he’s such a good hitter, how come he doesn’t hit good?” he asks his scouts. “You keep giving me the same ‘good face’ nonsense like we’re selling jeans here.” He challenges Peter Brand (the stand-in for A’s Assistant GM Paul DePodesta, who refused to allow his name to be used in the film): “Would you have drafted me in the first round?” It’s obvious what answer Beane’s hoping for, and when he gets it, an odd couple is created — the athletic Beane (played by demigod Brad Pitt) and the, well, not-so-athletic Brand (a not-yet-thin Jonah Hill). Beane plays Galileo — the lone voice of rationality in a world that worships superstition– and Hill is, I don’t know…Galileo’s assistant?
The pairing works because it plays to each actor’s strengths — Pitt’s arrogance is tempered by his sense of humor and creates a fairly convincing portrait of a man obsessed with being right. Hill, for his part, stammers and blinks his way through awkward scene after awkward scene, his 300-320 comedic timing stealing many of them. Good casting also helps the film eke every ounce of goodness out of the story of Scott Hatteberg, the one-time catcher whose career CISSP appears to be over after a freak nerve injury. Hatteberg, played by loveable oaf Chris Pratt (of Parks and Recreation), sees his career resurrected by Beane and Brand, who value his innate ability to do the single most important thing in baseball — get on base. Pratt isn’t given much screen-time to work with, but he makes the most of it, giving soul to a character who might have easily been overlooked.
The other major compromise the filmmakers settled on is significantly 700-039 less successful. A major reason for Oakland’s success in the early 2000s was their dominant starting pitching. Blessed with “The Big Three” — Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito — three of the best pitchers in the game, Oakland was able to count on a solid performance from its starting pitching three out of every five games. For instance, during the 2002 season depicted in the film, the A’s got roughly 685 innings of all star-caliber 300-070 pitching from The Big Three alone, including 230 innings from Cy Young-winner and singer-songwriter Barry Zito (The late Cory Lidle was no slouch himself, contributing nearly 200 above-average innings, as well). Without these contributions, no number of walks would’ve mattered. Leaving these players out of the film is a bit like filming the New Testament and never mentioning that Jesus fellow.
And yet, the words “Hudson,” “Mulder,” and “Zito” are never uttered in the film. The only pitchers given any screen-time are relievers Chad Bradford and Ricardo Rincon. Bradford, whose bizarre throwing motion was so off-putting it disguised his extraordinary abilities as a relief pitcher, is a central part of Lewis’s book. In the film, he gets a 10 second mention early in the film, and then a condescending scene that plays his religiosity for laughs. It seems that the filmmakers feared the audience might not be able to handle more stats, and so they chose simply to focus on the offensive side of things, and hammer home the mantra of “get on base.” This might very well have been necessary for storytelling’s sake, but it means providing a skewed version of events. Scott Hatteberg had a fine year, especially when judged against his salary, but his 136 games of 116 OPS+ play was hardly the reason Oakland challenged for the pennant in 2002. Ironically, Moneyball may have succumbed to the casual baseball fan’s long-standing bias in favor of offense and position players.
More troubling, in my opinion, is the lack of depth with which the film explores the various “moneyball” principles that Beane employs. It’s all well and good to talk about getting on base, but why? Why is it important to get on base? Sure, you score more runs, and yes, you burn out the other team’s pitching staff, but the real reason is that you simply aren’t making outs. As Beane says at one point, “Why bother attacking? There’s no clock in this game.” Outs are the clock in baseball, and if you don’t make them, you can live forever. Likewise, if your pitchers get people out, you don’t much care whether they are throwing 100 miles per hour or using a herky-jerky delivery to do so. The reason Chad Bradford, with his funky underhanded pitching motion, got batters out was because he made the batter hit the ball on the ground. It’s very difficult to hit the ball over the fence when you’re hitting it on the ground (In fact, it’s impossible). But you’d never know that from watching the movie. Moneyball gets at the why of Oakland’s success without ever really examining the how.
Of course, from the average moviegoer’s perspective, I don’t think it makes much of a difference. The basic tenets of the sabrmetric philosophy are clearly presented in the film, and while it’s sometimes a bit broad, the movie does a remarkable job of dramatizing the concepts. The sins of the film – such as giving Beane too much credit for his strategy (Other GMs, including Sandy Alderson and even Branch Rickey, the legendary GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals, studied statistics as part of their evaluation methods) –are often those of the book, as well (and I would argue that Pitt’s performance does more to show Beane’s arrogance than Lewis’s somewhat rose-colored portrait does). The major argument against Moneyball has always been that Beane failed to win the World Series (or any other post-season series, for that matter). This is where the film truly shines, in my opinion, as the drama is not so much whether the A’s will win the World Series, but whether Beane and Brand’s crazy idea will work.
The idea does work, as demonstrated in the chapter of the book called “The Speed of the Idea.” This chapter produced my favorite scene in the film. Beane, after a remarkable season, is summoned to Boston to meet with the new owner of the Red Sox, billionaire hedge fund manager John Henry. Henry is enamored with Beane’s strategies and wants to hire him. Oakland has offered Beane a new contract, though, one Beane would be happy to accept. Henry asks Beane why he even bothered to come to the meeting then. “Because you hired Bill James, for one thing,” he replies. James, the patron saint of statistical baseball study, had never had a job in the game before Henry decided to give him one; he was too hated. This gives Henry an excuse to explain to Beane that whenever a new idea threatens the status quo — whether that’s in government, business, or sports — those in power fight it tooth and nail. What choice do they have? Their livelihoods are at stake. “Anybody not out there right now remaking their team with your principles is done. They’re dinosaurs,” Henry says.
Watching this scene in the theater, I found myself thinking not of baseball, but of another spectacularly inefficient industry that’s close to my heart — the publishing business. For the past two centuries, publishers have relied primarily on that most ephemeral and unscientific of qualities, editors’ taste, to decide which books to spend their money on and which books to decline. Their results are not much better than the scouts Beane summarily dismisses in Moneyball (Though, presumably, with less chewing tobacco). In a recent Vanity Fair article about the publishing industry, Keith Gessen writes: “If it is the writer’s first book, and she has no sales track, you can come up with similar-seeming books (“comp titles”) and see how many copies those sold. But this is precision masquerading as insight. No two books are the same book, and no two authors are the same author. The fact is: no one has any idea how many copies of a book will sell.” With that in mind, how long will it be before the Billy Beane of the publishing world finds a better way? After all, “We’re not selling jeans here.”
Selling jeans or not, if you pay to see a sports movie you expect to see some sweat. It’s telling that the most physical exertion we see is not on the field but in the weight room, as Billy Beane prefers to pump iron in the bowels of the Oakland Coliseum rather than watch his team play. I found myself wondering at one point whether this was much of a sports movie at all. In the end, I decided it must be, since it looked a lot like Friday Night Lights — tortured close-ups, jittery hand-held camerawork, sports talk radio overlays, silenced crowd shots, and Explosions in the Sky-esque soundtrack. If Hoosiers were remade today (Note to Hollywood: Don’t get any funny ideas.), it would look a lot like this.
In the end, Moneyball isn’t Syriana. In fact, it has more in common with another adaptation of recent years — The Social Network. Both are compelling dramas about recent history that are probably better considered fiction than nonfiction. Still, I must admit that I felt something special while watching Moneyball. True, it didn’t cover everything I wanted it to (There wasn’t, for instance, any mention of Beane’s Ahab-like quest to acquire Mexican on-base machine Erubiel Durazo, and there was apparently no time to work in a vignette about the great challenge trade of Billy Koch for Keith Foulke), but it was still a rare thrill to watch a movie about a subject I cared about and to see it rendered with love and humor. We should all be so lucky.
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]
If you’ve been reading this blog for a really long time, you’ll recall that I was a big fan of Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ look at the inefficiencies of baseball as a business. What could have come off as dry, numbers-heavy, and “inside baseball,” if you’ll pardon the phrase, turned out to be a fascinating treatise that delved into psychology and economics and contained profiles a number of interesting people. With that in mind, I was excited to learn of a new book by Lewis coming out later this fall, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, which, if Malcolm Gladwell is to be believed, will be just as good. Says Gladwell, It’s about a teenager from the poorest neighborhood in Memphis who gets adopted by a wealthy white family, and who also happens to be an extraordinarily gifted offensive lineman. Simultaneously Lewis tells the story of the emergence of the left tackle as one of the most important positions in modern day football. I thought Moneyball was fantastic. But this is even better, and it made me wonder if we aren’t enjoying a golden age of sportswriting right now.As has been previously discussed here, the world could use more good books about football, so I’m pleased to hear about this one.Update: Here’s an excerpt. Thanks Patrick.
Opening Day is almost upon us, and that means that this year’s baseball books are already upon us. My friend Derek was once a Baltimore Orioles fan like myself, but then the Nationals swept into Washington, DC, and stole his heart away. I consider him a traitor, of course, but in his defense, I’m told that watching the Nats play at RFK has become one of the joys of summertime in the Nation’s capitol. Being a big Nationals fan, Derek has been bugging me about one baseball book in particular. National Pastime is an account of the Nationals debut season by Washington Post baseball writer Bruce Svrluga (an excerpt is available). The season was exciting and worthy of a book not only because the Nationals were unexpectedly contenders last summer, but also because the team became a phenomenon in a city that had gone without baseball for decades. It’s the sort of baseball story that baseball fans love (Even so, I’m still an O’s fan.)Every once in a while, though, there’s a baseball book that draws interest beyond diehard fans. A couple of years ago it was Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball that turned baseball on its head. This year it’s the book Game of Shadows by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, which presents, it seems to me, incontrovertible evidence that Barry Bonds’ monster performance of the last few years was, in fact, steroid-fueled as so many had suspected. Ever since Sports Illustrated ran an excerpt of the book a few weeks back, this has been the number one story in baseball. It seems likely to stay the number one story for a while, too. ESPN The Magazine recently ran an excerpt of another Bonds book, Love Me, Hate Me by Jeff Pearlman. That book will be out in May.Perhaps as important as baseball (and Bonds’ steroid troubles), though, is fantasy baseball. I’ll be tearing it up this year in a league put together by fellow blogger, Jeff. My team is the Ravenswood Ravens, a reference to both my neighborhood and Edgar Allan Poe. The team’s success will rely equally on my managerial prowess and on a breakout season by Wily Mo Pena. Fantasy baseball has clearly become a huge business in recent years and a summer long obsession for many sports fans. In Fantasyland, Wall Street Journal writer Sam Walker does what many of us fantasy baseball fans seem apt to do all summer, and that is chronicle the ups and downs of our fantasy team to anyone stuck listening to us. What sets Walker apart, though, is that he’s a sportswriter, a job which affords him real life contact with the players on his fantasy team. I don’t have access like that, so when I need fantasy tips I turn to the baseball geeks at Baseball Prospectus. Their annual Prospectus is indispensable, and this year also I managed to get my hands another new book of theirs, Baseball Between the Numbers, in which the BP folks use their formidable mastery of numbers to shatter more myths about the game.Update: Sam Walker is blogging this week at Powells.com.
Robert Boynton, a journalism professor at NYU, has taken a look at the journalism landscape and determined that the craft has moved an iteration beyond Thomas Wolfe’s anointing of a New Journalism in 1973. Boynton’s book, which he has titled The New New Journalism looks at the more recent crop of in depth journalists – well-known for their long pieces in magazines like the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly and for their bestselling books. A review in the New York Times describes the destinction Boynton is making this way: “If literary experimentation and artistic ambition were the New Journalism’s calling cards, reportorial depth is the New New Journalism’s distinguishing mark, Boynton insists.” Though the boundaries of this “new new journalism” may be fuzzy, it’s exciting to me that someone is assessing these books critically as group. My feeling is that these days books of in depth journalism tend to be more readable than most new literary fiction, and, perhaps more importantly, this “new new journalism” is able to deliver more of an impact.Boynton’s book is a collection of interviews in which he encourages the writers to discuss their methods (The New York Times review likens them to the Paris Review “Art of…” interviews.) Included in the book are interviews with writers like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, William Langewiesche, Eric Schlosser and Michael Lewis. Here’s an excerpt of his interview with Ted Conover. The collection is also well-received in the Columbia Journalism Review, which, however, expresses a wish that the book had come with a companion anthology. I agree that this would be nice, but, failing that, I though it might be worthwhile to list some of the books that these journalists have written (if only because I would like to refer back to it myself next time I have a hankering for some of the “new new” stuff.) So, here are the interviewees from The New New Journalism and some of the books they have written:Gay TaleseThe Gay Talese Reader: Portraits & EncountersThe BridgeThy Neighbor’s WifeJane KramerLone Patriot: The Short Career of an American MilitiamanHonor to the BrideThe Last CowboyCalvin TrillinThe Tummy TrilogyFeeding a YenToo Soon to TellRichard Ben CramerWhat It Takes: The Way to the White HouseHow Israel Lost: The Four QuestionsTed ConoverNewjack: Guarding Sing SingCoyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America’s Illegal AliensRolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s HoboesAlex KotlowitzThere Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other AmericaThe Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s DilemmaNever a City So Real: A Walk in ChicagoRichard PrestonThe Hot ZoneThe Demon in the FreezerFirst Light: The Search for the Edge of the UniverseWilliam LangewiescheThe Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and CrimeAmerican Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade CenterSahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the DesertEric SchlosserFast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American MealReefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black MarketLeon DashRosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban AmericaWhen Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage ChildbearingWilliam FinneganCold New World: Growing Up in Harder CountryA Complicated War: The Harrowing of MozambiqueCrossing the Line: A Year in the Land of ApartheidJonathan HarrA Civil ActionThe Lost PaintingJon KrakauerInto Thin AirInto the WildUnder the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent FaithAdrian Nicole LeBlancRandom Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the BronxMichael LewisMoneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair GameThe New New Thing: A Silicon Valley StoryLiar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall StreetSusan OrleanThe Orchid ThiefThe Bullfighter Checks Her MakeupMy Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been EverywhereRon RosenbaumThe Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy EnthusiasmsTravels With Dr. Death and Other Unusual InvestigationsExplaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His EvilLawrence WeschlerMr. Wilson’s Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic TechnologySeeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert IrwinVermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political TragediesLawrence WrightRemembering SatanTwins: And What They Tell Us About Who We AreIn the New WorldUpdate: Jessa at Bookslut compiles a set of links to articles by the New New Journalists.