“Narratives” vs. analysis: can’t we all just get along?


source:  Let’s talk about narrative.

It’s a word that has come up a lot in baseball writing recently, in everything from the AL MVP debate to the Red Sox meltdown and now to the Yankees listless ALCS performance.  In response to most baseball stories in which, well, stories are told as opposed to a focused analysis of game action, it is not uncommon to see comments dismissing the storyline angle as “narrative,” with the implication that it should be ignored as something superfluous or even fake.

What has me thinking about this is a Twitter exchange between two smart people who, though I’ve never met them personally, I consider friends in that way you think about people you have interacted with on the Internet: Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan and Baseball Prospectus’ Colin Wyers.

The exchange was prompted by that Passan article I linked a few minutes ago about the bad crowds and angry fans in Yankee Stadium. It broke down like this:

This prompted Colin to tweet a link to one of my absolute favorite cartoons ever. Yes, the one to the upper right of this post:

Jeff took exception to this:

Colin responded by, correctly I think, noting that a debate about that is not well-suited to Twitter. I hope he does address it at some point. In the meantime, I’ll opine that both of them are right to some extent and I think they’re kinda talking past one another.

There is nothing wrong with telling stories about what happens off the field or, in this case, the stands.  I know there are people who care nothing about anything that does not take place on the actual diamond — people who are not interested in clubhouse controversy, gossip, off-the-field news and stories about the politics of fandom — but that doesn’t mean these off-the-field stories are meaningless for everyone.  A lot of people want the flavor and the drama and stuff.

Where it becomes dicey, though — and where I think both Colin and the XKCD cartoon are rightfully focused — is when writers believe that the storylines they identify and write about, however legitimate in and of themselves, have a significant impact on the actual baseball being played. Or that said storylines must necessarily impact how a given person should interpret what occurred on the field in the way that the story teller would have it go.

By way of example, it’s legitimate and interesting to write a story about how Miguel Cabrera accomplished a rare and cool feat in winning the Triple Crown.  It is specious reasoning — and the imposition of unnecessary narrative, however — to say Cabrera carried his team into the playoffs by virtue of doing something cool and rare, without actually assessing those contributions.

It is legitimate to note just how poorly Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez are hitting right now and to talk about how it is killing fans’ enthusiasm.  It is specious reasoning — and the imposition of unnecessary narrative, however –to say that Yankees’ fans lack of enthusiasm for poor play means that the Yankees are an awful train wreck of an organization or  that the poor offense is a result of the hitters choking, being complacent or uninspired because the team has a big payroll and the crowd isn’t cheering them on (not that I think Passan is necessarily making all of these points).

Miguel Cabrera is a great player who had a great season and people should totally talk about that. When they do, they can and should use every literary device and express their every emotional reaction to it.  They should not, however, claim that their emotional reaction to it makes the feat something that it is not.  Likewise, people who empirically analyze Miguel Cabrera’s contributions and find them to be less than the prevailing narrative suggests should not claim that their empirical value should affect how people feel emotionally about him and his game.

It is news — and people should totally talk about — that the Yankees fans are pissed, booing former heroes and are not selling out their games.  They should not, however, use that as data for their analysis of what is actually happening in the ALCS or use that legitimately interesting stuff to oversell how bad off the Yankees truly are. Likewise, people who empirically analyze the Yankees’ poor offense and find it to be a less than dire thing than the prevailing narrative suggests should not claim that it it illegitimate for fans to be angry as all hell that Robinson Cano and A-Rod can’t hit.

There is a place for analysis in baseball writing. There is a place for prose. There is even a place for poetry.  And as long as people aren’t confusing one for another and claiming that their preferred means of understanding the game should necessarily be adopted by others, it’s all good and it can and should all exist.

Billy Williams, Bill Murray and . . . Fall Out Boy!

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 08:  Former players Ferguson Jenkins (L) and Billy Williams of the Chicago Cubs throw out ceremonial first pitches before the Opening Day game against the Milwaukee Brewers during the Opening Day game at Wrigley Field on April 8, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Major League Baseball has announced the on-field ceremonial stuff for tonight’s Game 3 of the World Series. There are a couple of good things here! And one bit of evidence that, at some point when he was still commissioner, Bud Selig sold his mortal soul to a pop punk band and now the league can’t do a thing about it.

The ceremonial first pitch choice is fantastic: it’s Billy Williams, the Hall of Famer and six-time All-Star who starred for the Cubs from 1959 through 1974. Glad to see Williams here. I know he’s beloved in Chicago, but he has always seemed to be one of the more overlooked Hall of Famers of the 1960s-70s. I’m guessing not being in the World Series all that time has a lot to do with that, so it’s all the more appropriate that he’s getting the spotlight tonight. Here’s hoping Fox makes a big deal out of it and replays it after the game starts.

“Take me out to the ballgame” will be sung by the guy who, I assume, holds the title of Cubs First Fan, Bill Murray. It’ll be wacky, I’m sure.

The National Anthem will be sung by Chicago native Patrick Stump. Who, many of you may know, is the lead singer for Fall Out Boy. This continues Major League Baseball’s strangely strong association with Fall Out Boy over the years. They, or some subset of them, seem to perform at every MLB jewel event. They have featured in MLB’s Opening Day musical montages. They played at the All-Star Game this summer. Twice. And, of course, they are the creative minds behind “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark,” (a/k/a “light ’em MUPMUPMUPMUP“) which Major League Baseball and Fox used as incessant playoff bumper music several years ago. I don’t ask for much in life, but one thing I do want is someone to love me as much as Major League Baseball loves Fall Out Boy. We all do, really.

Wayne Messmer, the former public address announcer for the Cubs and a regular performer of the National Anthem at Wrigley Field will sing “God Bless America.”

Between that and Bill Murray, I think we’ve found out the Cubs strategy for dealing with Andrew Miller: icing him if he tries to straddle the 6th and 7th innings.

Imagining a daytime World Series game at Wrigley Field

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 27:  A overall shot of the scoreboard showing the postponement of the game in Baltimore because of riots before the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 27, 2015 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
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Night baseball first came to the World Series in 1971, when the Pirates played the Orioles in Game 4. The last World Series game played under natural light came in 1984, when the Tigers played the Padres in Detroit in Game 5 of that year’s Fall Classic. The last World Series game played during daytime hours was Game 6 of the 1987 World Series, but that came in Minneapolis, in the Metrodome, so it was still played under artificial light. All games since then have been played in the evening hours.

Ever since, there have been periodic calls for the World Series to include day games. These appeals are often grounded in tradition and nostalgia for bright sunshine making way for long shadows. For memories of sneaking transistor radios into classrooms. For the symbolism of the sun setting on both the day at hand and the baseball season as a whole.

It’s an appealing idea. Baseball in the daytime is a wonderful, wonderful thing. And while day baseball may be occasionally miserable for fans and players in the heat of August, October afternoons are often the loveliest weather there is. There is nothing better than fall sunshine. A baseball game in that fall sunshine seems like the closest one can get to heaven on Earth.

Unfortunately, it’s a wholly unrealistic idea in this day and age. Far fewer people would actually get to watch the World Series if it were played during the day. We complain about late games lasting into the wee hours, preventing kids from watching, but how many kids are going to be able to watch a World Series game when they’re in school? Or at after school extracurricular activities? And how many people can ditch work to watch a baseball game? Some say to put one of the day games on the weekend, but that clashes with other activities and, of course, with football, which is going to win the battle for the remote in more households than baseball would.

Yes, the networks and Major League Baseball are in it for the money and the TV ratings, but the fact is that the money and the ratings are a function of more people watching baseball games in the evening, kids and grownups alike. It’s pretty straightforward, actually. More people watching baseball is better for the people and for baseball, full stop, aesthetics and commercial motivations notwithstanding. For this reason the World Series will almost certainly be played at night for the foreseeable future. And it should be.

Still . . . it’s Wrigley Field, the last bastion of day-only baseball for decades. A place where, even if they now play most games at night, still features more day baseball than anyplace else. And it’s a sunny Friday afternoon on which the temperatures will creep into the 60s. I know it would never happen and certainly won’t happen today, but the idea of an afternoon World Series game in Wrigley Field makes even a hard-headed, bottom-line-appreciating anti-nostalgist like me sorta wish today was a day game. If I close my eyes I can imagine it. I can feel the warm breeze and smell the fall afternoon air. I’m sure many of you can too.

And even if you can’t, can we agree that maybe today should be a day game simply for public health purposes? I mean, get a load of this:

These people will have been drinking for at least 11 hours come game time. Many of them for much longer. You’re probably looking at some dead men walking, here. For the sake of their livers and personal safety, this game should start at 1pm, dang it. If even that is early enough to save them.