Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sports, Writing, and the Internet (or, Why I Love Joe Posnanski)

The role of athletic competition in our society and culture is, simply put, staggering. Throughout history, a great many societies could probably say that athletics were important to them - the Greek Olympics, for example, point to an athletic aesthetic - but rarely has a culture been so sports-centric as ours is. That perhaps is a sign of stagnation in "high" culture. After all, what athlete attends the opera? But I'm hesitant to put a value on it. Sometimes a baseball game is just as moving as a symphony, after all, albeit in a completely different way.

Nothing demonstrates the importance of sports to our culture, however, quite like the subculture of writing about sports that surrounds it. There is not nearly so much writing about music, or writing about education, or even writing about politics as there is writing about sports. Sports are at the heart of what we confront every day on the television, in the newspaper, on the radio, and on the Internet. The "sports section" of yesteryear - back when newspapers were king - betrays import, but more important is the frequency with which "sports section" stories bled onto the front page, into the news.

Of course, that would never have been possible without sports writers. I won't pretend to know anything about the history or culture of sports writers. I'm sure that people have been writing about sports for as long as sports have been going on (or at least as long as writing has been going on, since sports likely came first).* What's interesting to me is not the whole history, but the transformation that the Internet has pioneered.

*Indeed, there's some interesting "sports writing" in Homer's Iliad, during the funeral games held for Patroclus. As I recall, they're mostly about who won what by how much, and who cheated, and who died in the process of the competition. Replace "died" with "got injured," and you've covered the majority of topics in modern sports writing.

While I'm certain something similar is happening in other sports, I'll talk mostly about baseball, because it's what I know best. Baseball writing, in the last few years, has become increasingly decentralized. This is incredibly problematic for organizations like the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), which was built as an exclusive club of newspaper men who (mostly) covered baseball across the country. These days, with newspapers dying, many of the best writers are to be found lurking in the corners of the Internet. They aren't paid by a large news corporation, and they may not even be professional writers at all.

All of that would hardly pose much a problem, but in baseball, awards are decided by - you guessed it - the BBWAA. Ironically, a great many current BBWAA writers don't even follow baseball anymore, and so when Hall of Fame voting time comes around, they simply submit blank ballots on the principle that "damn kids and their hip hop" don't deserve to be enshrined alongside Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Meanwhile, there are literally hundreds of excellent writers - usually a handful for each team - following baseball in excruciating detail, and writing about it with style and insight.

Not all of these writers are stat-freaks, or champions of the sabermetric revolution.* You'll notice, in my links section, a site called "Fangraphs" and a site called "Pitchers and Poets." Fangraphs is a site of stat-freaks (with occasional Proust references), where Pitchers and Poets says, on their banner, "Fangraphs this ain't." Both are excellent, both speak to the essence of what baseball is, and why it remains such an important part of our culture. Both, however, are completely different.

* The role of changing statistics in baseball I've touched on before, but may write a more detailed post about later. For now, I want to mention that I am a firm believer that modern statistics like wOBA, VORP, WAR, UZR, and the like do not detract from the sport at all, from any perspective. Not only can we understand baseball players better and appreciate their value with greater precision, we can still tell the same stories of greatness, only with a different language.

The argument that new statistics ruin baseball is wrought with fallacy, but perhaps nothing is sillier than the "anti-stat" guy's support of RBI, a statistic. Replacing poor statistics with good ones is does not ruin baseball.

Before the Internet, you were unlikely to run into such variety. There was a fairly formulaic way of writing about baseball, which led to a fairly formulaic understanding of the sport among general audiences. Bill James broke down the door, but it was the Internet that brought the masses - like myself - to a better understanding of what these new fangled statistics are, and how they work. But, more than that, the Internet has also proved a sounding board for the poets among baseball writers. And, what's more even than that, sometimes that stat-freaks and the poets are the same people.

Joe Posnanski
, who I have perhaps mentioned before, is one of those people who straddles the line between stat-freak and poet. He is certainly no mathematician, and certainly no Shakespeare, but there is a frankness about his writing that led one of his readers to once comment, "Joe, I wish you wrote everything I read."

What's so fascinating to me about Posnanski, however, is not his writing style or tremendous, award winning skill, but rather the place he occupies in this new culture of sports writing on the Internet, and the place that culture occupies in our broader culture. Joe is prolific, personal, and probing. Though he writes for a number of sources at the moment - most notably Sports Illustrated - I expect a great many of his readers read only his blog, which he writes in his free time, for fun.

That's the odd place that Joe occupies culturally, because while he is far from alone - there are, as I said, hundreds of excellent baseball writers who write in their spare time, for fun - Joe is a professional sports writer who also keeps a blog for fun. One might cynically argue that this is simply an excellent publicity move, that it helps him sell books and SI sell magazines, but something tells me the time he puts into his mammoth posts doesn't quite pay off on the monetary end.

But it does pay off in a different sense, and that's where culture write large comes in. Joe's blog so often tries to understand the human side of these strange cultural icons we make out of athletes. He's not deconstructing or criticizing what might come across as a strange, backwards culture, nor does he elevate it in the style of hyperbolic apotheosis so many sports writers are prone to adopt. No, Joe's writing places sports squarely where they are - whether they belong there or not - thereby reminding us why and how much we love the moment of tension between the release of a pitch and a swing, whilst keeping us ever-conscious of our own silly fandom.

Posnanski aside, the existence of that kind of writing - writing that deepens sports, making it culturally significant without making it so ESPN-sensationalist that it overcomes all else... Maybe that kind of writing has always existed. But the Internet means that you and I can read blogs by guys in Kansas and Boston and Tampa, blogs that might be better than the best our own newspapers have to offer. And what's more, it gives us access not just to those credentialed, "expert" writers, but also to the amateurs who, it turns out, might be mathematicians or economists or poets looking at baseball, which is infinitely more interesting than a baseball person studying his navel.

I guess the point is that sports writing is still writing, and that good writing is easier to find now than ever before, if only you're willing to look.

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