Here Are Some Dishonest Defenses Of Baseball
4:09 PM EDT on November 2, 2021
People are annoyed at the World Series. Even setting aside the particular reprehensibilities of these two teams or ownership groups or fan bases—which we will not!—really this is to say that casual viewers are annoyed by the same stuff in the World Series that they have found persistently annoying and/or alienating about big-league baseball for many years.
The games are too long, too slow-paced, and end too late at night. Constant pitching changes interrupt too frequently and prevent the games from developing any compelling rhythm or narrative. In older eras—the ones during which baseball ever grew in popularity, rather than grimly pointing to its mere continued existence as vindication of every change it has undergone—a given game's starting pitchers were able to assume protagonist/antagonist roles for the night; in the absence of that structure, because the starters seldom pitch much more than half the innings anymore, managers end up as the game's central personalities. This sucks because managers are gruff dullards and potbellied old men who spend the entire game standing perfectly still on the dugout steps or maybe occasionally sitting perfectly still inside the dugout; they contribute, overwhelmingly, by disrupting the game and sending the broadcast to obnoxious commercial breaks so they can bring in another mediocre, identical reliever to face not more than three batters. The Houston Astros, one of the World Series teams, are tainted by cheating; the other, the Atlanta Braves, by their racist name and iconography and the club and its fan base's proud rejection of reasonable calls for change. So no matter who wins this Series, it will be hard to avoid the feeling that the bad guys won it, which makes it hard to justify the choice to stay up until after midnight to see who wins it, assuming you were even enjoying the game to begin with, what with all the pitching changes.
All of this shit sucks; really none of it is deniable or debatable. That didn't stop Will Leitch, columnist for New York magazine (full disclosure: He is also the founder of Deadspin, where as you may know I and most of the staff of Defector used to work, and a nice guy with whom I've hung out a few times), from trying. If it occurred to you that Leitch's effort might be complicated by the paycheck he draws from Major League Baseball, via his other gig as a columnist for MLB.com, well, you certainly didn't learn that fact by reading his column defending Major League Baseball in New York magazine. That also sucks! But at least the column, titled "Almost All the Complaints About the World Series Are Wrong," is insultingly wrong on its own merits.
Let's take the complaints in the order he addresses them.
1. There are too many pitching changes
Here is some sleazy reasoning:
It is a little confusing as to why [constant pitching changes are] a problem. This is, after all, the World Series, in which playing matchups—figuring out the right pitcher for a given hitter and vice versa—is of paramount importance. Are managers supposed to say, “This pitcher is the right choice here to give us the best chance to win this game, but I won’t use him because a guy on his couch in Connecticut just went to the bathroom five minutes ago and therefore has nothing to occupy his time while my pitcher comes in from the bullpen?” Imagine telling a football coach that home viewers would like it if he benched his starting quarterback and started someone more aesthetically satisfying, and that if he doesn’t do so, he is somehow hurting the sport?Will Leitch, New York magazine
There's a sleight-of-hand happening here that only gets more obvious as the column goes along, a kind of reframing the complaint as something it isn't, and then arguing against that phony reframing instead of against the actual complaint. So far as I can tell, nobody's complaint about the rate of pitching changes is that changing pitchers is bad managerial strategy; nor is anybody—anywhere, ever—arguing that managers have a responsibility not to change pitchers for the sake of preserving baseball's entertainment value. When casual baseball fans out there find themselves feeling frustrated and alienated by the constant swapping of relief pitchers, that is not because they are bedeviled by a meta-concern over whether bullpen tinkering is harmful to the business interests of the sport of baseball. The complaint, very simply, is I don't like it when each manager changes pitchers six times in a single game.
The important thing about this complaint is that it is not possible for it to be "wrong," as the framing here would have you believe it is, unless you believe it's possible for a person to be incorrect on the subject of whether they, themselves, dislike something. It's self-evidently true, a bulletproof crystallized tautology 100-percent of the time, that if you don't enjoy something, then you do not enjoy it.
A reasonable person could find nothing whatsoever to argue against in this complaint. Just about the most you could do, if you did not share that complaint, is say so: "Well, it doesn't bother me," or "Well, personally, I like it." What Leitch is doing here is the equivalent of hearing someone say, "I don't like having the blinds open when the weather is rainy and grey," and in response shrieking, "Oh, what, and all the trees are supposed to just die forever because you personally think constant sunshine is better for window owners???”
2. Removing a pitcher throwing a no-hitter is why baseball is bad now
No one has ever said this. However, Braves manager Brian Snitker did remove starter Ian Anderson after five no-hit innings of Game 3 this past Friday, and Washington Post columnist Barry Svrluga did write a good and thoughtful column the next day reflecting on how that choice illustrated baseball's migration away from its older traditions. That column is linked in Leitch's, as an example of "hand-wringing from middle-aged sportswriters" about "the spirit of the game."
If you read Svrluga's column, you'll note that he has nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of whether or why "baseball is bad now"; at several points in his column, he's at pains to clarify that Snitker's choice was the strategically upstanding one. What Svrluga observes, thoughtfully and rightly, is a real change from older customs and norms of pitching strategy: away from basing the decision on whether to remove a game's starting pitcher on what has happened—on leaving the cruising starter in until he isn't cruising anymore—to a rigorously empirical and almost certainly correct wager on what is likely to happen—Anderson was about to face the most dangerous part of Houston's very dangerous batting order for the third time, and hitters tend to sock him around on their third attempt.
Svrluga is not wrong to note that this represents a transition away from human and/or superstitious ideas that once defined baseball, wisely or stupidly, for good or ill. If there were no value in calling thoughtful attention to how this transition came to bear on one of the game's human participants—on the minor human tragedy, for Ian Anderson and for fans watching, of the right tactical choice having snatched away a mathematically slight but real shot at history that might in earlier eras have been allowed to end on its own terms—there would be no value in having sportswriting at all.
Anyway, here's what Leitch has to say about it:
He is trying to win a baseball game, not write a sportswriter’s story for them. And his decision to pull Anderson was even more straightforwardly defensible than just playing matchups. As Snitker said in his postgame press conference, Anderson’s stuff was not so dominant that he was going to throw nine innings anyway, so it was not a matter of “if” he pulled him, but “when.” Had he waited until Anderson gave up a hit, well, it could have been too late. The goal is to keep the runners off base, not make sure the viewers at home are having a good time. If Snitker had left Anderson in and he’d given up a homer that caused the Braves to lose, he’d be getting roasted, and for good reason. Again: The goal is to win the game, not to advance a television-ready story line. Winning has been the goal in baseball for 150 years; we just understand a little better how to do it now. Yet it’s the traditionalists who are angriest! It’s almost as if it is, in fact, impossible to please them at all.Will Leitch, New York magazine
You'd never know, from reading this, that (its author draws a paycheck from the company he's defending in New York magazine, but also that) Svrluga himself upholds Snitker's choice as the right one; you'd never know that Snitker comes in for exactly zero criticism in Svrluga's article. You'd never know, unless you clicked through Leitch's link to "hand-wringing from middle-aged sportswriters," that Svrluga never comes within a hundred miles of suggesting that Snitker had any obligation to "write a sportswriter's story for them" or "advance a television-ready story line."
That's because Leitch isn't interested in engaging with Svrluga's thoughts about how changes to baseball's managerial calculus have changed the emotional landscape of watching and playing it—and he certainly isn't interested in engaging in good faith with those changes themselves. He's interested in dressing up a defense of Major League Baseball, the extremely powerful institution, as some kind of act of populism: We, over here, populistly wanting managers to do whatever it takes to optimize their team's chances at winning, even and especially at the expense of the pace or human drama of the game; over there the big bad pointy-headed sportswriters and TV networks, elitistly wanting the spectator sport to be entertaining and fun and to conclude before midnight.
This all leaves aside that baseball, whatever a manager's discrete responsibilities within a given game may be, is a spectator sport; it exists to fulfill the interest of people who want to watch it, for whatever their reasons for wanting to watch it. If you, as a viewer of Game 3, happened to find the question of whether Ian Anderson would throw a no-hitter, or the suspense of seeing how long he could keep it going against incredibly long odds and with the highest of stakes, a more compelling drama than the question of which of two dull and hard-to-root-for teams would win a non-decisive middle game of the World Series—if you complained when the TV show you were watching abruptly dropped the subplot you found captivating, in favor of the main storyline that was putting you to sleep—that's not something you can be wrong about. Once again, it's the equivalent of stating a preference for chocolate over vanilla, and Will Leitch parachuting through the ceiling to call you an out-of-touch media liberal clutching your pearls over the financial interests of the Breyers ice cream company.
The amazing part is that we haven't even gotten to the slimiest shit yet.
3. Jose Altuve is a cheater and should be booed mercilessly during every at-bat
This is not anybody's "complaint about the World Series," and Leitch can't even pretend it is, beyond asserting that Altuve has received louder booing than any other Astros players in this World Series. Altuve is the star and talisman of the Houston Astros; the opposing team's fans would boo him in the World Series, loudly and lustily, under absolutely any plausible set of circumstances. It would never be anything less than 100-percent asinine to characterize fans booing the opposing team's best player as a "complaint about the World Series."
Here's what Leitch has to say:
The Astros’ second baseman serves as the public face of the team’s 2017 cheating scandal, which is why he’s jeered even more lustily than any of the other (also deeply unloved) Astros every time he steps to the plate. But his villainy is one of those myths that has ossified into legend. Whatever your thoughts about the scandal—and you should know that I find it quite silly—Altuve is perhaps the least culpable of all the Astros. Not only did Altuve decline to participate in the “banging scheme,” he hated it and actively yelled at his teammates when they tried to make him take part. (Not out of any sort of higher sense of morality, mind you; he just found the idea of knowing what pitch was coming next distracting and intrusive.) And early reports that he was wearing some sort of “buzzer” under his uniform were entirely unfounded. You can call the Astros cheaters if you want, even if there are only seven players from 2017 still on the roster. But putting Altuve at the center of all this isn’t just wrong, it might just cost him a deserving spot in the Hall of Fame. Besides, injecting personal morality into sports is the quickest way to suck all the joy right out of them.Will Leitch, New York magazine
So, we've got:
A) People only boo Jose Altuve, the opposing team's best and most famous star, because they blame him for cheating; and
B) They wrongly blame him for cheating; and
C) It's bad to be disgusted by cheating; and
D) You have a responsibility not to [waves hands] imperil Altuve's Hall-of-Fame campaign; but also, having said that,
E) It's bad to inject personal morality into sports, because
F) Injecting personal morality into sports sucks the joy out of them.
I find that this tower of horseshit collapses entirely when you consider the possibility that booing Jose Altuve for any reason at all might actually bring a lot of joy to fans of teams other than the Houston Astros.
4. Games are finishing too late at night
Does Leitch defend the multiple post-midnight endings of these World Series games by characterizing all complaints about them as clueless and/or disingenuous concern-trolling about baseball's institutional health? Reader, he does:
Look: I’m tired, you’re tired, we’re all tired. These games are regularly going past midnight—only two of the five have finished the same day they started so far—and it’s certainly keeping everyone who stays up until the last out groggy the next morning (on the East Coast, anyway). My 9-year-old baseball-obsessed son hasn’t gotten to watch a whole game yet, and he’s plenty irritated at me about it.Will Leitch, New York magazine
This also makes him like every 9-year-old baseball-obsessed kid over the last 50 years. As pointed out by baseball writer Joe Sheehan in his newsletter, nearly every World Series game since 1971 has ended between 11 p.m. ET and midnight … and yet baseball has somehow survived.
Here we've got: Hm, yes, the games do end too late, but it's normal, and nothing that's normal can also be bad. Also you're wrong to want to be able to see the end of a baseball game on the same calendar day that you started watching it, because clearly baseball still exists.
This argument is dishonest and gross; also, and more delightfully, it's also blinkered and stupid. Yes, "nearly every World Series game since 1971" has ended at 11 p.m. or later; something else that dates to the early 1970s is baseball's long slow decline from unchecked national pastime to fading regional curio with virtually no cultural relevance outside its dedicated fan base and no star players who could be recognized on the street by anybody but existing baseball fans. Could this decline have been in any way hastened by the fact that no school-aged child in three generations has seen the end of a World Series? Who can know?
But also, who gives a fuck? My reason for disdaining the prospect of watching a baseball game into the wee hours of tomorrow morning isn't that I consider this a novel phenomenon, or that I'm worried for the health of institutional baseball! It's that I don't want to stay up until 12:30 at night watching a baseball game. The thing fans are complaining about, when they complain about World Series games ending so late, is that they don't want to be "groggy the next morning" as a consequence of watching baseball. They would enjoy the experience more if it were compatible with a good night's sleep. They would prefer that an institution existing solely and entirely for the purpose of staging baseball games for spectators not to decide the best time to do that is in the middle of the night, instead of any of the perfectly fine other times of day.
Is it possible to be wrong about that preference? Reader, it is not. So Leitch has to fall back on portraying everyone who holds that preference as a blinkered East Coast elitist:
Complaints about the lateness of have been around just as long. One reason they’re so ever-present? Many of the loudest voices, in the media and in the larger populace, live in the Eastern Time Zone. If you live in California—and, you know, a lot of people do, as it turns out—the games are done in time for a late dinner.Will Leitch, New York magazine
"In the media" is doing so much smarmy work in this passage. Ah, so you see, therefore only being able to witness the end of a World Series game by staying up until midnight is not actually annoying. It is populism.
Apropos of nothing: Nearly half the population of the United States resides in the Eastern time zone. "Half of baseball's audience has been complaining about this for 50 years, therefore clearly it's not bad" is an incredible bit of rhetorical work.
Sure, I’d love afternoon World Series games too. But they’ve been televising these things for seven decades now. If it made sense to play the games at 3 p.m., it would have happened by now.Will Leitch, New York magazine
"If there were a better way, corporations would have adopted it already." I implore you to please read one (1) book.
Very funnily, Leitch goes on from here to acknowledge the complaint that the games are, in fact, too long; that the pace of play has slowed dramatically over recent decades; that three hours is an incredibly long time to ask people to watch a single baseball game. Separating this complaint out, as Leitch does, and treating it as an issue distinct from unhappiness around the number of pitching changes—one of its major causes— and the late ending times of games—one of its major effects—is a bizarre choice legible only in the context of Leitch starting with the premise of defending baseball, rather than engaging in good faith with fan dissatisfaction, and throwing in a concession at the end for appearances' sake.
I take no pleasure in singling out Leitch here. What this atrocious column most usefully illustrates isn't some set of grave shortcomings on his part (though it's endlessly disappointing to me that the founder of Deadspin does not inform readers of his business relationship with MLB in a column chastising them for complaining about MLB's product), but rather the brand of sweaty bad-faith argumentation every defense of baseball's present form must traffic in. It simply isn't possible to mount an effective argument against not liking an entertainment product: If someone doesn't find much to enjoy in a listless, slow-moving, three-hour TV show with no compelling personalities that only comes on in the middle of the night, yelling But all of the characters' behaviors make sense! at them isn't going to change their minds. I can't imagine what would impel a self-respecting sportswriter to that bleak and pointless task. The author of God Save the Fan should spare a moment to ask himself on whose behalf he's doing it.