gordonholland

Royals might actually know what they are doing

33 Comments

There was a time -– a time fewer and fewer people remember -– when the Kansas City Royals represented the cutting edge of baseball thinking. People often ask why Kansas City seems to have an inordinate number of advanced baseball thinkers and writers among its fan base (Bill James, Rob Neyer, Rany Jazayerli, Paul Rudd etc.). It’s easy to forget that, for a time anyway, Kansas City was the Athens of American baseball.

This may sound like an exaggeration to anyone who is younger than, say, 40 or 45 years old, but much in the same way that Oakland and Tampa Bay and St. Louis now seem to be the mecca of baseball thinking, well, that was Kansas City back in the 1970s. Before we get to the exciting Royals stuff of today, it is worth remembering.

In 1968, Charlie Finley moved the Kansas City Athletics to Oakland – this after many years of unrelenting Finley-inspired bleakness. Finley wanted to move the team, more or less, the day he bought it and so every day the newspapers were filled with threats of varying foreboding. Today it was Louisville. Yesterday it was Seattle. Tomorrow it would be Miami. By 1968, people in Kansas City were so sick of Finley’s moaning that they were happy to pack him sandwiches for the long trip to wherever.

Weariness wasn’t the only Kansas City reaction. Some people in Kansas City – led by my old friend and legendary local sportswriter Joe McGuff –- began laying the groundwork for a new team before Finley had even finished packing the trucks. Joe and company made a simple but irrefutable argument to the men who ran baseball: “You owe us. You stuck us with this nutjob owner and terrible baseball teams for a long, long time. You owe us a real baseball team now.”

The argument was persuasive. After one idle season, Kansas City was given an expansion team – the Royals. They would be owned by a level-headed man named Ewing Kauffman, who had started a pharmaceutical business in his basement and turned it into a billion-dollar industry.

The differences between the flamboyant and half-crazy Finley and the staid and utterly reasonable Kauffman are too lengthy to list, but they were apparent immediately. Finley famously loved gimmicks and promotions and schemes. He installed a mechanical rabbit in the stadium to bring new baseballs to umpires. He paid the Beatles some exorbitant fee to play after a game and then tried to pay them even more to play a little longer. He had a live mule at games, and he kept trying to move in the fences, and he designed gaudy multi-colored uniforms, and he fired any baseball announcer who did not sufficiently cover for the team’s awfulness, and he brought Satchel Paige out of retirement for one game at age 58 so he could pitch three innings.*

*This promotion should have been more fun than it was –- Paige was led to believe that he was being given a real chance to pitch again. When Paige threw three scoreless innings and allowed just one hit (to Carl Yastrzemski), his great competitive fire burned again. Satchel Paige was a showman –- that part Finley understood –- but Paige was also a proud athlete and that part Finley didn’t and couldn’t get. Finley just wanted the publicity and the photograph of Ol’ Satch in a rocking chair. Only nine thousand people attended the game.

Ewing Kauffman loathed gimmicks. He was a moderate baseball fan at most, and he watched Finley’s antics with detached disapproval. If THAT was what owning a baseball team was all about, he wanted no part of it. But people in Kansas City (again, with Joe McGuff taking the lead) convinced Kauffman that he could run the team his own way, based on his own ideals and principles. He had built his business on hard work and persistent innovation. He would build the Royals the same way.

When he hired baseball people, he made it very clear: “The Royals are NOT an expansion team.” He meant he did not want any excuses. He intended to win quickly, both on the field and in the box office. And it happened that way. The Royals had a winning record in their third season of existence, which was considered pretty miraculous at the time. They drew a million people in their fifth season which, considering Kansas City’s small market and the baseball attendances of the time, might have been even more remarkable.

Every move was inspired by Kauffman’s energy and his refusal to just do things the way others did. He created a group called the “Royal Lancers” –- this was a collection of prominent citizens who wore blue jackets and sold season tickets at every Optimists, Kiwanis and Chamber of Commerce meeting in town. He funded the Royals Academy, a program designed to find good athletes with limited baseball experience and teach them how to become ballplayers. He was the driving force behind what was then called Royals Stadium (now Kauffman Stadium) –- a whole new kind of baseball stadium, without girders blocking the view, with a seemingly endless supply of parking and with fountains dancing beyond the outfield.

More, he engaged his baseball people –- led first by Cedric Tallis, then Joe Burke, then John Schuerholz –- to aggressively improve the ballclub. This mission led Tallis in particular to make a series of mind-blowing moves -– in a short span, Tallis traded for Amos Otis, Fred Patek, John Mayberry and Hal McRae. His baseball people drafted Al Cowens, George Brett and Dennis Leonard. The Baseball Academy produced Frank White. One year after Tallis was let go, the Royals drafted Willie Wilson, who might have been the fastest player ever in Major League Baseball. That was the core for a truly great baseball team that reached the postseason seven times, won two pennants and took one World Series.

Kansas City baseball was a phenomenon then. The Royals would routinely draw two million fans for the season when that was a big deal. People came from six states around, and it helped that the Royals rarely rained out (the artificial turf would just absorb rainwater) and that the Royals rarely lost at home. From 1976 to 1980, the Royals played .630 baseball at Kauffman Stadium; Earl Weaver used to talk about the nightmares he would have watching balls catapult off that springy artificial turf and seeing those Royals players sprint around the bases like 4 x 100 meter relay runners.

[RELATED: Home run hitters? They haven’t played in Kansas City]

Well, the team was built for that ballpark –- fast line-drive hitters, aggressive base-running, terrific infield defense, outfielders who could run down anything, pitchers who battled. Just about everything the Royals did in those days made sense. They unapologetically played a brand of slashing, attacking baseball — steal bases, take extra bases, break up the double play, catch everything. They gave Whitey Herzog his first real chance to express himself as a manager. They developed players; boy, did they develop players. Frank White came out of the Academy and evolved into an eight-time Gold Glove second baseman and offensive threat -– his number is retired now. Willie Wilson was a raw high school running back with impossible speed -– he hit just .268 in the minors. He hit .320 his first four full seasons with the Royals and won a batting title. Dan Quisenberry had no stuff at all –- he became the best reliever in the American League. Dennis Leonard became a 20-game winner. George Brett became a Hall of Famer. Players they acquired –- Darrell Porter, John Mayberry, Freddie Patek, Cookie Rojas, Larry Gura –- all had their best years while in Kansas City.

And here’s the larger point: Those Royals teams commanded faith. See, fans feel emotional extremes. It’s just what we do. We second-guess, we predict doom, we blame officials, we are blindly and absurdly optimistic. That, in a way, is what it means to be a fan. In our jobs, in our lives, we often must face reality. Yep, that job is going to take two months longer than we thought. Nope, the jury is not going to be sympathetic to your client. Sorry, next quarter is going to be rough for everybody. Life is a series of challenges, and to overcome them you generally have to see clearly.

But one of the joys of fanhood is not seeing clearly. You don’t have to be right. You don’t have to understand all the nuances. You don’t have to study. It’s like Dan Quisenberry said: “The best thing about baseball is there’s no homework.” The games are there for you to enjoy, and if you want to get mad at the manager for not intentionally walking someone or if you want to believe the backup quarterback is way better than the starter –- go ahead. True, the manager may have percentages on his side, and the coach might know a lot more about the quarterback situation than you do … but that’s THEIR problem. They are paid to do what they do. And you are not. You are in it for the fun.

Fans second-guessed those 1970s Royals too. They were ticked off when the Royals traded Roger Nelson for Hal McRae –- Roger Nelson was GOOD! They were not too happy when the Royals traded Joe Foy for some backup named Amos Otis –- Foy had power AND speed! They didn’t like it when the Royals hired Whitey Herzog –- that guy was a disaster with the Rangers!

But this is a final beautiful thing about being a fan –- it doesn’t matter how wrong you are (or right, for that matter) as long as the people actually running the team are right. And the Royals in the 1970s were right a lot. One of the best feelings in sports is knowing that the people running your team are going to be right. I imagine that’s how New England Patriots fans feel these days.

Those 1970s Royals did not fully cash in on their rightness -– they were a lot like Billy Beane’s A’s. They were really good in 1976, probably the best team in baseball in 1977, close to it in 1978, but they kept losing to the Yankees in the playoffs. The Royals finally beat the Yankees in 1980, but even then they lost to Philadelphia in the World Series.

[RELATED: Royals roll out the red carpet for fan from South Korea]

And, really, that was the beginning of the end. It’s a funny thing, Kansas City’s greatest moment –- the 1985 World Series –- came after, but I’ve always believed that the era when the Royals just did things better than other teams ended after the 1980 season. The team went through all sorts of turmoil in the early 1980s. There was a drug scandal. Kauffman began losing interest and sold half the team to Avron Fogelman (he eventually bought the team back after Fogelman had money troubles). There was some disillusionment, good players aged and faded and so on.

The 1985 Royals were not a great team, and they were certainly not like the great Royals teams. Otis and Patek were gone, guys like McRae, Wilson and White were very much in the homestretch of their careers. That Royals team won the World Series because:

source: AP Photo
Willie Wilson pours champagne over the head of George Brett after winning the 1985 AL playoffs.

(1) A remarkable group of young pitchers, led by Bret Saberhagen, came together.

(2) George Brett had a fantastic season.

(3) Their division stunk.

(4) They pulled off a crazy comeback when down three games to one against Toronto in the ALCS.

(5) They pulled off an even crazier comeback when down three games to win against St. Louis in the World Series.

I could put a Don Denkinger comment here to entertain Cardinals fans, but I wouldn’t. As I’ve written before: You have to catch foul pop-ups before you can complain about bad calls.

Anyway, that was the last time the Royals made the postseason. The Royals soon became known as the team with Bo Jackson –- that was a fun time, but the winning slowed. The fun began fading after 1989. The winning stopped completely after 1994.

So what does any of this have to do with the Royals’ resurgence? Well, after the 1994 strike -– 20 years and counting –- the Royals’ entire character has shifted. In the 1970s, they were the team that did everything right. In the 1980s, they were mercurial –- some spectacular years and moments and some very bad ones. After 1994, they played the fool. This has been chronicled in excruciating detail on my blog. The attitude around the Royals through these years ranged from earnest to hopeless but more than anything you could count on them to make the wrong decision. Always.

The wrongness grew so repetitive that after a while it seemed like the Royals were incapable of making anything BUT wrong decisions. This, by definition, means that any decision the Royals made was wrong just because they made it. Put another way: You will sometimes hear baseball people talk about the wonder of a winning streak -– everything seems better, the sun feels warmer, the days look brighter, the food tastes better, the music sounds happier. For two decades, everything about the Royals was the opposite of a winning streak. Sure, they did many dumb things. But, it went far beyond that. Good baseball people lost their way. Reasonable chances backfired horrendously. Solid decisions went flying off of cliffs. It was like the Royals bought all their products from Acme. Two decades of that will batter the hope out of most people.

That, I think, is part of what has made this year’s fantastic run into first place so memorable and wonderful for Kansas City fans. When Dayton Moore was hired as the Royals general manager in 2006, he made a conscious effort to not only change the Royals team on the field but to change their very character. He wanted Royals baseball people to wear ties to work. He demanded that the team improve countless small and seemingly unimportant things, such as how they treat visiting scouts. More than anything, perhaps, he impressed upon David and Dan Glass the necessity to invest real money -– in scouting, in development, in good people, in infrastructure, in Latin America. The previous GM, Allard Baird, was and is a superb baseball man, but he was never able to get those things across to the Glass family.

And so, more or less from the start, the Royals became a more professional operation under Moore. He hired some excellent people to work with him. He dazzled people inside baseball with the team’s commitment to building a farm system. And, in short order, the Royals were not the joke of baseball. The Royals lost 100 games four times between 2002 and 2006. They have not lost 100 since.

That, though, is not exactly something you brag about on your resume, and while Moore made the Royals slightly more respectable, he and his staff could not do much more. They continued to make horrendous blunders on the Major League roster. Moore hired Trey Hillman to be the manager. He signed Jose Guillen and Gil Meche to team-record contracts. The Royals talked a better game but continued to feature an allotment of aging Jason Kendalls and Ross Gloads and Miguel Olivos and Scott Podsedniks, while mixing in relatively-young versions of Yuniesky Betancourt and Kyle Davies and Luke Hochevar. The results were, in their own way, as depressing as ever.

“We have to be patient,” Moore said.

“Trust the process,” Moore said.

“We are going to do this the right way, and it’s going to work,” Moore said.

In 2011, there were signs that Moore’s work was having an impact. That was the year I wrote my Sports Illustrated story about the Royals’ future dynasty, and the year various people around the sport began gushing about their minor league system. Then, last season, the Royals won 86 games, their most since the strike -– a season so promising that even Moore’s ill-advised “In a small way, I feel like we’ve won the World Series” quote at the end did not tarnish the optimism.

And then, yep, Royals style, Moore started acquiring old guys like Omar Infante and Nori Aoki. That didn’t seem too great. Then the Royals’ season began, and it was somewhat blah. Manager Ned Yost said something. Third baseman Mike Moustakas wasn’t hitting. The season offered more blah. Manager Ned Yost said something else. Moore offered words of encouragement. More blah. Eric Hosmer couldn’t buy a home run. More blah. The Royals talked about doing a lot at the trade deadline but they did nothing. More blah. The Royals were 48-50 on July 21 and a full eight games out of first place.

[RELATED: Lorde gets an autographed jersey from George Brett]

Everyone knew where this was going.

Only, no, it went a whole other way. They started winning. It was imperceptible at first. The Royals did not seem to be playing any better. They squeaked out a 2-1 win in Chicago after the White Sox catcher dropped a throw. The next day, they beat Cleveland 2-1 in 14 innings. Against Minnesota, they got out of a ninth-inning jam to win by a run, and in Oakland they beat Sonny Gray 1-0. Then they went into Arizona and beat the diamonds out of the Diamondbacks and came home to take five of six from the two Bay Area teams. After all that the Royals had won 18 of 22 games. And they were in first place. They have won six of eight since then and are now in first by two full games.

The surprise is the wonderful part. It’s not only the surprise of the team winning baseball games … it’s the surprise of Royals’ decisions actually working. It is notable that the Royals, for the most part, are NOT winning because of those talented young prospects I wrote about in 2011. Moustakas still isn’t hitting.  Hosmer’s power disappeared, and he’s hurt. Wil Myers is gone. John Lamb is on the comeback trail in Omaha.

No, they are winning because they made a series of quiet decisions that did not necessarily seem great at the time but are working. When they made the much-discussed Wil Myers trade, Moore said the key was acquiring pitcher Wade Davis, who they intended to make a starter. That idea flopped, but then they put him back in the bullpen where he has been a revelation -– the league is slugging .156 against him. Again, that’s their SLUGGING PERCENTAGE. He has given up two extra-base hits all year –- both of them doubles.

Then, it was the Royals’ plan to build an overpowering bullpen, and so they loaded it up with power arms and now they have a power bullpen. In their hot streak, they are 13-1 in games decided by two runs or less. That bullpen has been fantastic.

It was the Royals plan to have James Shields lead a solid five-man rotation that would give the Royals a chance to win every night. That may seem like an obvious thing, but in the bad years it was almost impossible for the Royals to find even one good starter, much less five. The Royals kept drafting pitchers and drafting pitchers and, other than Zack Greinke, it just didn’t work out. When the Royals traded Myers for Shields, Moore knew that he was potentially trading a future All-Star for a couple of years of good starting pitching. He believed that it would be worth it.

And … it is working. Shields has been the good pitcher the Royals expected. And the Royals’ rotation has been altered. Last year, the Royals led the American League in ERA. This year, they have five pitchers who are on pace to throw 170 innings and win 10-plus games. I’m no fan of the pitcher-win statistic, but it is telling that the last time the Royals had five pitchers with 10 wins was, yep, 1985.

It was also the Royals’ plan to build the best defensive team in the American League. People say that sort of thing all the time, just like basketball coaches like to say that they are going to play up-tempo. In the early years of the Moore regime, the talk about defense did not seem to match any of the actual moves the team made. But you know what? The Royals are now one of the best defensive teams in the American League. John Dewan’s Runs Saved statistic -– my favorite defensive team statistic –- has them third in the league with 24 runs saved behind Baltimore (43) and Oakland (28). But if you look even closer you see that the Royals outfield is by far the best in the league with MVP candidate Alex Gordon in left field and a couple of excellent fielding center fielders. Kauffman Stadium has one of the biggest outfields in baseball. The Royals’ defensive excellence out there matters.

So, yes, this too was part of the plan –- building a team to take advantage of the ballpark.

And what makes all of this so satisfying for Royals fans because most never saw it coming. They were the same old Royals until, suddenly, they weren’t. They were defined by their blunders until, suddenly, some of their plans actually worked.

There is a lot of baseball left in the 2014 season –- more than enough games left for the Royals to not only fall out of first place but fall far enough that nobody even remembers that they were there. But that’s old Royals pessimism. This is a team playing great baseball, and their confidence grows. Fans confidence grows too. It has been a long time since anyone thought this: The Royals might actually know what they’re doing.

READ MORE JOE POSNANSKI PIECES ON HBT

Reds hire Lou Pinella as a senior advisor to baseball operations

pinella
1 Comment

The Reds announced on Twitter that the club has hired former manager Lou Pinella in a consultant capacity as a senior advisor to baseball operations. John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer adds that Pinella will also spend time with the team at spring training.

Pinella, 72, was last seen with the Giants in 2011, also in a consultant capacity, but he spent only the one season there. He has 23 seasons of experience as a manager, with his most recent four coming with the Cubs between 2007-10.

Stick to Sports? NEVER! The Intersectionalist Manifesto

Fans wait for autographs from Atlanta Braves players during a spring training baseball workout Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
23 Comments

At Baseball Prospectus on Friday, Rian Watt wrote something which opened my eyes. The article was entitled “What Comes After Sabermetrics.” It was not really about sabermetrics as such. It was about what we do here at HardballTalk and have done for a few years now. And what some others writers I admire have been doing as well. I had no idea until reading Watt’s article, however, that that’s what we were all doing, but we are and I think it’s worth talking explicitly about what that is and why it’s important.

But let me start at the beginning.

Watt starts off talking about what a lot of people have said in the past few years: sabermetrics has gotten stale. Or, since so many great analysts have been hired by teams and since most of the bleeding-edge stuff has moved in-house with clubs, maybe it’s just that sabermetric writing has gotten stale. There’s a sense that all of the big discoveries and insights have been made and that most of what happens in that realm now is niggling around the edges in ways that don’t lend themselves to big, broad engaging writing like Bill James used to do. Or, maybe, to written eviscerations of non-believers like Fire Joe Morgan or Joe Sheehan specialized in back in the day. Which, no matter what you thought of them on the substance, were entertaining reads.

I can’t really opine on the “all the big insights have been made” part. I’m no stathead. I also know well enough about how science and analysis works that to say that there won’t be something groundbreaking tomorrow or next year with any sort of certainty is a fool’s game. Someone with a database may very well revolutionize statistical analysis of baseball tomorrow. No one saw DIPS coming, for example. Voros McCracken is sneaky like that. There might be a major breakthrough on defensive metrics. There probably will be. But it is safe to say, I think, that sabermetrics is now a mature area of study and mature areas of study are in a lot of ways less exciting to lay people. When that big breakthrough on defense happens it will be great, but when people are merely refining established areas of any science, it’s mostly of interest only to the scientists.

So Watt asks: what’s next? What’s the next area of baseball writing that might be vital and might give us new insights or different things to talk about that haven’t been talked about at length — or with serious depth — before? The answer:

I think that a second major paradigm shift is already well underway. It’s being missed, however, and taken for something other than it is, because it’s not about sabermetrics, and it’s not about statistics at all. (How could it be, if those things form the bedrock of the existing paradigm?) It is, instead, about sports within the context of the broader society, and about the renewed humanity of the game.

The best baseball writing I’ve read this year has been about more than baseball. It’s been about politics, and race, and gender, and sexuality, and money, and power, and how they all come together in this game we love. It’s placed the game in its social context, and used it as a lens to talk about ideas that are bigger than the nuts and bolts of a box score or a daily recap. It’s engaged with difficult questions about how to be a fan when players you love are disappointingly flawed and human, and how to be a human being living in an often unjust world.

Watt calls those who do this sort of writing “Intersectionalists.” People who write and talk about the places where the sport and the lives of its participants, its fans and society at large intersect. About the business of baseball, labor relations, the culture of fandom and allegiance, the enjoyment of sports as entertainment and the prioritization of sports in people’s lives. Off-the-field things too.

This is exactly the sort of thing I have found the most interesting and about which I have written most passionately in the past several years. I had no inkling that it was part of any kind of paradigm shift — I have always simply written about what interests me — but having thought about it for the past 24 hours or so, and having thought about all of the baseball writing that I read and the writers I most admire, I think it’s safe to say that it is.

Since Friday, there has been a lot of discussion, some of it angry discussion, about Watt’s article. He has taken to social media to try to clarify what he meant and make clear what he was not saying. I and others have likewise had conversations about it and, not surprisingly, some of them have turned into arguments. That’s sort of inevitable with Big Insights like Watt’s, I suppose.

It’s the sort of thing that calls for some sort of declaration of principles. A manifesto or three. Some carrying on of the conversation beyond its introduction. So let’s do that, shall we? I think Q&A format is the best way to handle it.

Major League Baseball Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Joe Torre, center, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, before the Senate Commerce Committee hearing on domestic violence in professional sports. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the panel, says he called for Tuesday's hearing because "until very recently, the leagues' records have not been very good" on the issue. Torre is flanked by Deputy Managing Director for the?National Football League Players' Association Teri Patterson, left, and Counsel for the Major League Baseball Players Association Virginia Seitz. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Q: So, is this some sort of repudiation of sabermetrics? Do the statheads and the intersectionalists have to fight now?

A: NO! As Watt notes, intersectionalist writing is not a rejection of sabermetrics, it’s an evolution that builds on what came before. Sabermetrics was a total game-changer that made people fundamentally reevaluate how we look at baseball. To reject old orthodoxy and take a fresh look at what was really going on in the game. Without that splash of cold water snapping us out of a century of baseball cliche and often-faulty conventional wisdom, intersectionalists would never even be able to ask the questions or to discuss the topics we discuss. Instead of taking a fresh look at, say, hitting, intersectionalism takes a fresh look at the athlete as role model. Or the allegedly hard and fast pillars of the culture of the game. Bill James asked “why are RBI so important?” An intersectionalist might ask “why should I care if the batter flipped his bat?” or “why should fans root for a guy just because he plays for their favorite team?” or “should the fact that a player committed a crime change the way we or his team look at him?”

Maybe the best way to think about it is through a somewhat old term: “The Liberal Arts Wing” of sabermetrics.” Former Baseball Prospectus editors Steve Goldman and Christina Kahrl coined that term to talk about the writers at BP as opposed to the number crunchers. I think it has wider applicability to describe people, like me, whose baseball fandom was energized or reenergized by sabermetrics and whose brains are wired that way but who aim our brains at other questions instead of analytics. I’ve often used the phrase “fellow traveller” of sabermetrics. Liberal arts works too.

 

Q: STICK TO SPORTS!

A: NO! That’s exactly what we will not do. And what we have never done here at HBT. The entire point of it is to understand and appreciate that sports are part of the real world, impact the real world and that the real world impacts sports as well. Why not talk about how they do so and what it means, both for sports and the real world? If you really want to be that dude who keeps their sports fandom hermetically sealed and, within their world of sports fandom, sports are everything, go ahead and be that dude. Just know that you’re boring. You’re David Puddy from “Seinfeld,” unironically painting your face at the game and making your friends uncomfortable. You’re the guy who calls in to talk radio and angrily rants about how some player is “stealing money” because he didn’t hit as well as you had hoped. You’re that guy Fox catches on the camera crying at the ballpark when your boys lose. Don’t be that guy. Even if you follow sports for escapism, understand that sports don’t take place in a vacuum. Understand that it is just a ballgame, that you can LOVE the ballgame with every ounce of your being and that we do too, but that the ballgame is not your entire life nor should it really be and that the players are themselves human beings with human failings. Understand that, once you make that realization, it’s interesting to talk about what sports means for life and what life means for sports.

 

Q: But I don’t want politics in my sports writing!

A: First of all, it’s not just politics. It’s sports culture.  It’s players’ lives off the field. It’s uniform upgrades and new ballparks. It’s TV deals and the business of the game. It’s drugs and addiction and punishment. It’s a team’s role in the community and a player’s status as a role model. It’s Billy Bean’s outreach for diversity in the game, Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities initiatives and the treatment of women as fans by teams in promotions and marketing. Politics comes up sometimes too, but intersectionalism relates to any conceivable aspect of the game, as it in turn relates to the real world in which its participants and its fans actually live.

But you also have to face facts: politics impact sports and sports impact politics. I write about that stuff sometimes. But with all of these issues, it’s still baseball that is the starting point. Baseball and what’s going on with the game that may invoke some political or cultural discussion is the driver, not the shoehorning of politics and culture into a baseball context or using baseball as a pretext for our political hobby horses. But the fact remains: baseball has a labor union and labor politics are relevant. Major League Baseball has a lobbying apparatus with direct contact with Capitol Hill. Major League Baseball is, by its own admission, concerned and interested with expanding outreach to minorities and women. Sometimes, quite often actually, legal and political stuff touches on the game too. The people who run the game contend with that on a daily basis and it directly impacts the product with which you the fan are presented. It’d be foolish for us not to talk about that.

 

Q: Great. So the future of sports writing is political rants, political correctness and Social Justice Warriors telling me that I can’t enjoy anything?

A: Of course not. I’m a liberal dude so you usually know what to expect from me, but there is nothing stopping someone from writing about, say, the value of conservatism in baseball. Indeed, baseball is one of the most conservative institutions there is in many ways and, to the extent it has changed or evolved over the years culturally, that change has been led by commissioners, owners and players, the VAST majority of whom are conservative people. Oh, and they’ve made these changes,  in almost all cases, without intervention of the government. For example, there’s a great case to be made that, for all of Bud Selig’s detractors, he perfectly balanced tradition with “progress” however one wishes to define it and presided over the game as it slowly and deliberately evolved pursuant to a consensus which was built up in the community. That’s kind of the textbook definition of small-c conservatism. There’s also a good argument that, if he had done what more progressive types had demanded of him and made changes just to make changes, it would’ve been a bad thing. Anyone writing about that? Oh wait, this pinko liberal did, but others can too.

Yes, I will grant that many of the most prominent voices in intersectionalist baseball writing are liberal. But they don’t have to be. Social and political issues within the sport, as long as they present themselves organically and aren’t shoehorned in, are open for discussion by everyone. At the moment, yes, there is a good bit of writing out there which comes off as “Freshman social science student has SOMETHING TO SAY!” That discourse is improved and liberal doofuses like me will become less complacent if met with reasoned and respectful pushback from people who don’t share our assumptions. That’s how ALL good discourse works. Indeed, it seems to me that there is a great need for dissenting voices to weigh in NOW lest a certain sort of homogeneousness of opinion sets in and calcifies as the only acceptable form of discourse. In short: if I’m wrong, tell me why! Or, better yet, write a response of your own to it and explain why I’m full of crap. I really am full of crap sometimes.

 

Q: So it’s just now gonna be hot takes and opinion writing? Is actual baseball reporting going to continue to be denigrated the way it has been by some sabermetric types?

A: Not at all. Indeed, there is probably a greater need for good reporting than ever before. Reporting, like opinion, is undergoing its own evolution, after all. Off-the-field stories about players used to be used to explain baseball stuff (i.e. he’s a good guy, so he’s a good player). Such reporting was marginalized or denigrated by some after the rise of sabermetrics, thought of as irrelevant or as mere source-greasing (“The analytics can explain baseball. Why are we talking to Shlabotnik? He doesn’t know what makes him good!”). And to some extent there is some legitimate criticism to be made along those lines. There has also been a well-deserved backlash to it.

If anything, intersectionalism needs more reporting. Maybe fewer game stories and scoops — we’ve gone on at length about the diminished value of such things — but more off-the-field stuff about the athletes as people as opposed to gladiators. Maybe more about the business of the game and things like that. There’s a lot of that in existence already, of course. For starters, good traditional baseball reporters — and off the top of my head I’ll cite Tyler Kepner, Derrick Goold, Andy McCullough, Nick Piecoro, Bill Shaikin, Geoff Baker and many, many others — have always made a point to write stories that go beyond just the Xs and Os. They’re not just checking in with baseball bits, dashed off. Good baseball writing like theirs places baseball in context, describes players as human beings and makes the readers care about the game as it fits in their lives. It’s probably also worth noting that The Players Tribune is doing a lot of this too, delivering to us fresh looks at athletes as human beings. It’s probably the case — and you’ll be shocked to hear me say it — that Murray Chass was doing exactly the sort of reporting I’m talking about here with respect to the business of baseball before most of you were born. Yes, dammit, Murray Chass was an intersectionalist. A lot of old school baseball writers were, even if they were often considered oddballs for being so.

So yes, there have always been people doing this work and doing it well. But we could certainly do with more of it. And, perhaps, from some different sorts of reporters and commentators than those who have done it in the past. More reporters and commentators who question the assumptions of fans, owners, players and league officials rather than defer to them as much as they tend to. More reporters and commentators whose background isn’t necessarily just sports, whose work doesn’t just appear on the sports page and who aren’t necessarily beholden, implicitly or otherwise, to Major League Baseball and the clubs via their access or merely their familiarity and subconscious biases.

Also — and perhaps most importantly — reporters who aren’t so heavily members of the same demographic. There’s no escaping it: there are a lot of white men between the ages of 40 and 60 covering baseball. People with different backgrounds have different perspectives and the entire purpose of intersectionalism in baseball writing is to give us new perspectives. A lot of the sabermetric people were from business and math backgrounds, after all. It took that new look to bring us fresh content. We should strive for greater diversity in baseball writing, not for its own sake, but for the sake of new, interesting work that asks questions which haven’t been asked before and which challenge the assumptions people who look like me or people who see the game only from a press box don’t even realize that they harbor. And, of course, us old white guys can stick around too as long as we appreciate that we do not have anything close to a monopoly on the cultural experience and realize that there is a lot which we try to talk about that, really, we know jack crap about and probably should leave to others who know better.

Children reach to high-five Seattle Mariners' Felix Hernandez after the pitcher participated an instructional clinic that included a game of wiffle ball at the Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, in Seattle. Earlier at the club, Hernandez presented $100,000 in total grants to five Seattle area nonprofits as part of the Major League Baseball Players Association/Major League Baseball Joint Youth Initiative Players Going Home program. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

While I didn’t know it had a name before the other day, baseball intersectionalism is very much the sort of thing which has interested me and animated my writing for many years now. Indeed, I find that the topics which truly inspire me are exactly the things Rian Watt spoke about on Friday and constitute the subject matter of the baseball writing I most admire. Likewise, the negative reaction Watt refers too — the “stick to sports” refrains — are exactly the sort of response I have received from detractors when I write about these topics, a response I’ve never truly understood and which constitutes a request I will not honor. Ever.

We need more of this sort of writing. We need more people asking the questions about sports that only a few of us have been asking and we need different sorts of people from different backgrounds and with different worldviews asking them.

More baseball fans and readers of baseball writing should ask why things are the way they are and whether or not the way things are are the way they should be.

We should be asking what we expect from baseball players and why we expect it in the first place.

We should be asking what role sports should play in our lives and in society as a whole.

We should look at sports through the lens of our real world experiences and real world realities and see if, through the lens of sports, we can’t make some insights about the real world in return.

I love baseball. My life always has been and always will be better for its presence. We must realize, however, that it’s a strong, strong institution that isn’t going anywhere. Our questioning it and its foundations and assumptions will not damage it too greatly. We should not be afraid to challenge it and its leaders and its participants and its fans to examine what, exactly, we talk about when we talk about baseball and what it is we enjoy about it and why. And perhaps, if enough people ask enough questions about the world baseball inhabits, it can even be improved a bit. Even if it’s just around the edges.

Fernando Rodney left a Caribbean Series game with leg tightness

Seattle Mariners closer Fernando Rodney celebrates after defeating the Toronto Blue Jays in AL baseball action in Toronto on Saturday May 23, 2015.  (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
7 Comments

Per MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez, new Padres reliever Fernando Rodney was taken out of a Caribbean Series game on Thursday due to tightness in his leg. It’s unfortunate timing, as the club’s one-year, $1.6 million contract with the right-hander was also finalized on Thursday.

According to MLB.com, Rodney has logged 2 2/3 innings for the Dominican Republic, allowing three runs (one earned) on three hits and a walk with five strikeouts.

Rodney, who turns 39 in March, posted a combined 4.74 ERA with 58 strikeouts and 29 walks across 62 2/3 innings with the Mariners and Cubs this past season. Most of his struggles came with the Mariners, as he compiled a minuscule 0.75 ERA in 12 innings with the Cubs, but pitched in mostly lower-leverage situations.

Diamondbacks have been in touch with Tyler Clippard

New York Mets pitcher Tyler Clippard throws during the eighth inning of Game 2 of the National League baseball championship series against the Chicago Cubs Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
1 Comment

Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart said on Thursday that while he hadn’t spoken with the representatives for free agent reliever Tyler Clippard, he would likely check in. It didn’t take long for him to act, as Jack Magruder of Fanragsports.com reports that the two sides have been in touch.

Despite his long track record of success as a late-inning reliever, Clippard’s market has been rather quiet this offseason. The soon-to-be 31-year-old posted a 2.92 ERA over 69 appearances last season between the Athletics and Mets, but he was shaky as the year moved along and saw his strikeout percentage fall by over eight percent from 2014. His velocity also continues to decline. Considering those warning signs and the late stage of the offseason, a multi-year deal is likely a stretch.

It was reported on Friday that the Rays are considering Clippard among other free agent relievers.