In Baseball’s Symphony, We All Listen Differently

On Wednesday, the New York Times published an editorial by author Steve Kettmann entitled, “Don’t Let Statistics Ruin Baseball.” I assume Ketterman didn’t write the headline, since the word “ruin” doesn’t appear in his article. There is probably some sort of calculation involved in writing a headline that implies something (“Technology is ruining everything!”) to an audience that is likely to agree (people who still, you know, read newspapers). But if we want to have a meaningful dialogue, we must ignore misleading headlines and focus on the meat.

So let’s forget the headline and discuss Kettmann’s actual point, which is that an obsession with stats is keeping baseball fans from truly understanding and appreciating the game.

Kettmann writes:

The importance of being fully present for a game, shorn of distractions, lies not in sentimentality about the nobility of baseball (even Mr. [Roger] Angell once groused that “The ‘Field of Dreams’ thing gives me a pain!”), but in continuously deepening one’s understanding of the game.

What “distractions” is Kettmann talking about?

In any press box, most reporters are texting, tweeting or Googling stats. This doesn’t work. You can go to the symphony and hear the music even as you’re texting with a client to close a deal. As your thumbs fly and you try not to be distracted by the dirty looks of the guy next to you, you might note the orchestra is playing Mahler’s Ninth. But with your attention so cratered, are you really listening to the music? Are you enjoying it?

I see two main issues with Kettmann’s arguments. First, he is talking about fans, but as evidence he presents writers in the press box. Almost by definition, sportswriters consume the games they cover differently from the fans sitting fifty feet below. It is their job to report the events of the game, which requires a bit of split attention, almost like a translator working on a speech — you have to pay attention to what is happening in the present, even as you are analyzing and passing along information about what has happened in the very recent past. Reporters in press boxes generally aren’t “texting, tweeting or Googling stats,” at least not in the detached way Kettmann implies — they are preparing to present the ballgame to their readers, which often requires research and always requires notes.

The second nit I would like to pick with Kettmann’s argument is the idea that an interest in advanced statistics and “deepening one’s understanding of the game” are diametrically opposed. To anyone who has spent any significant amount of time deepening his or her understanding of the game through a study of advanced statistics, this idea is laughable. To be sure, there are many baseball fans for whom an attempt to understand advanced stats would serve only as a massive distraction, but “many” is not “all,” and as the world continues to evolve and people become more and more accustomed to having information at their fingertips, I think “many” may not even be “most,” at least not for long.

Kettmann compares researching stats during a game to closing a deal via text while at the symphony, which implies that to him, baseball statistics and the game on the field are completely unrelated. I don’t think he actually believes that, which is good, but basing a column on an analogy that is so easily refuted makes you wonder if he ever had a solid point to begin with.

Everyone wants to think they have a monopoly on “the love of the game.” Either I love baseball more than you because I don’t let advanced stats distract from my enjoyment of the game, or I love baseball more than you because I care enough to dig deeper and understand the game in more granular detail.

General managers absolutely must understand advanced statistics. But fans? We can enjoy the game without any clue what BABIP is, or we can enjoy it from the nerdery with our calculators. Kettmann said, “If we can’t clear our attention span enough to focus on the action, if we don’t tune in to baseball the way we do music, we’re never going to hear the tune,” but he doesn’t seem to realize that we all hear the music of baseball in different ways.

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