Now That I Think About It, The Unwritten Rules Of Baseball Are Actually Cool
1:52 PM EDT on October 31, 2023
Time for your weekly edition of the Defector Funbag. Got something on your mind? Email the Funbag. And buy Drew’s book, The Night The Lights Went Out, while you’re at it. Today, we're talking about pump fakes, league expansion, Swifties, parent terrors, and more.
Happy Halloween, you fuckers! Here’s an EXTRA-SPOOKY* batch of your letters:
*Letters not spooky at all.
The official rules of baseball state, in the Definition of Terms [underline mine]: "The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is...and the lower level is [etc.]..." The website of Major League Baseball says [underline mine]: "The official strike zone is the area over home plate from the midpoint between a batter's shoulders and the top of the uniform pants...and a point just below the kneecap. In order to get a strike call, part of the ball must cross over part of home plate while in the aforementioned area." These statements define a seven-sided. three-dimensional shape. A heptahedron.
When I see a baseball game on television, there’s square in front of the batter to represent the strike zone. Two dimensions do not signify three. The baseball strike zone is not a two-dimensional square. (It seems that the television strike-zone square is congruent with the edge of home plate which faces the pitcher; or maybe it's congruent with the midpoint of the antero-posterior axis of the batter's body? Who knows?). The three-dimensional strike zone is fundamental to baseball. The two-dimensional television strike zone is a lie. What in the fuck is going on?
You’re hardly the first person to have a beef with the strike zone graphic. In fact, you can read a comprehensive breakdown of its inaccuracies if you like. However, I am a fan, which means that I am DUMB. I like having that box on my screen so that I can scream at the ump whenever he calls a strike on any pitch that falls a hair outside of it. Makes me feel like I could do that ump’s job, which is the whole point of watching baseball. Also, to be fair to the networks, they almost always show a contentious strike from a side angle on replay, which gives me a second look at where the ball was as it passed in front of the batter. This is the third-dimension view you’re asking for. It’s not perfect, nor will robo-umps be perfect whenever they’re implemented down the line, but it’s more information than I had before. My basest fan instincts are down with it.
HOWEVER, John here is right that all of these graphic doodads sand away the nuances—the humanity—of both the strike zone and the sausage-fingered buttholes tasked with policing it. Here’s a report published this spring on robo-umps in the minors. The robot umps “worked,” but in some ways too well:
“There’s no arguing. Guys get rung up and they think that maybe that wouldn’t have been called with a human calling it, but there’s no yelling about it,” Worcester Red Sox manager Chad Tracy said after his team played a pair of games umped by the ABS system this month. “But you’re also losing some of the human emotion of the game, and the excitement of it. You know, coaches chirping from the dugout, whatever. You lose that,” he said. “It just becomes just this game.”
I have complained about umps for the majority of my lifetime, to the point where the idea of replacing them with computers genuinely excited me. But sometime this fall, I realized that it’s the stupidity of baseball that makes it fun. I love seeing managers bump chests with umps. I love ejections. I love seeing batters give the home plate ump a dirty look after a bullshit called third strike. I live for the DRAMA.
And you know what? I even like all of the unwritten rules shit, too. That’s right. When I saw Adolis Garcia get beaned by Bryan Abreu in Game 5 of the ALCS, I was fucking riveted. Abreu plunked Garcia for having the temerity to spike his bat—also way cool—after homering off of Justin Verlander in his previous at-bat. Did tempers flare? Buddy, you know they did. Benches cleared. Stocky relievers came pouring out of the bullpens. Everyone got all up in everyone else’s business. I had stood against MLB’s bro code for so long that my opinion on it had become automatic: it was bad. All of the written rules should be written down. No one player should feel slighted because, in his mind and perhaps his alone, some other player lacked proper ethics.
But do I really want, like, a fucking discipline committee to legislate all this shit? The NFL already makes rules for everything. Do I want another sport to be like that? I don’t. We can keep the pitch clock, but otherwise I’m all for anything that, justified or not, stokes visceral hatred between two teams and encourages frontier justice. I want more fake fights, more real fights, more beanings, more imaginary strike zones, more arguments, and more bases pulled out of the ground and thrown in anger. All of that is fun. All of that is baseball.
Which league, MLB or the NBA, goes to 32 teams first, and which league would be more successful with 32 teams?
The NBA will get to 32 teams first. Adam Silver has already said that the league wants to open up expansion talks as soon as 2025, when their current TV rights deals expire (and perhaps when it’s flush with new deals from the Apples of the world, although that windfall is not guaranteed). Both Vegas and Seattle have long been rumored to be the two big NBA expansion targets. I don’t want to tout the resurrection of the Sonics as inevitable, because Seattle has been hurt before. But if Silver is openly talking about expansion, he’s doing so with the blessing of his 30 current bosses. If they want more teams, they’ll get them.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred appears to have a similar green light from his bosses, but his league’s TV rights are staggered, and MLB ownership, even more than the NBA, is rife with cheapskates, corporate raiders, con-men, and weird old people. They love the revenue that Manfred has generated for them (they even gave him a raise; the more fans hate a commissioner, the more handsomely he is compensated), but who knows if they’d be willing to share that revenue with two more owners, or if any new owners would want to pay the sure-to-be-exorbitant expansion fee Manfred would cook up to appease the Reinsdorfs of the world. This is how the Saudis will finally infiltrate the big North American sports leagues: by ponying up to own the Oakland B’s.
As to which league would flourish with expansion, the NBA is the obvious answer. If the Sonics come back, they’ll already have a relatively huge fanbase awaiting them. And NBA rosters remain small while the talent pool is global, which is more than enough to keep the pond stocked with fun and talented players. It’s not like the NFL, where the players all predominantly come from one country. And it’s not like MLB, where the players all predominantly come from one hemisphere. Plus, even with the pitch clock improving telecasts, MLB suffers from an inherent strain of purism where fans STILL complain about playoff expansion and supposedly unworthy teams reaping the benefits of it. All of that shit would get worse with new teams, not better. I’m already annoyed by these takes, and they haven’t even been issued yet.
Speaking of annoying takes: I’m sick of expansion teams going to the Sun Belt. Most of the expansion teams in my lifetime have been plunked down in bullshit cities like Phoenix, Charlotte, Nashville, Houston, etc. Fuck these towns. We won the Civil War, dammit. Put an NBA team in Pittsburgh. Put an MLB team back in Montreal. Quit giving new teams to our most annoying citizens. No one wants a SECOND Tampa Bay Rays. That’d be awful.
I have two small kids: a three-year old and an 11-month old (yes, they are the most amazing creatures of all time). You have kids who are older than that, and therefore are an expert in parenting so I'm coming to you with this question. Did you/do you ever have the most horrifying flashes of the worst shit imaginable cross your mind? It happens during fleeting moments of quiet in my overworked brain. I'll be thinking of nothing when, out of nowhere, my brain jumps to what if my kid gets kidnapped and I never see them again. I think it's probably pretty normal but my biggest fear is that I won't be there when the worst thing happens. Is this just part and parcel? Is it just what happens when your heart expands to hold the love, your brain expands in kind to consider the horror? Also, babies are disgusting and make the grossest slimiest messes.
First of all, yes, I am an expert in parenting. Thank you to Lauren for pointing that out. People often don’t give me enough credit for this.
Secondly, yes to everything you just asked. To be a parent is to worry all of the time. That fear comes on immediately, because the first thing they warn you about when you have a new baby is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), the name of which is terrifying enough on its own, especially because it’s so apt. SIDS can strike any infant at any time, for no reason at all. So every time I walked into our nursery, I would hold my breath, praying that I wouldn’t be confronted with a tiny corpse. When each of my kids turned one, I threw a party inside my mind.
But the fear didn’t abate. It simply changed as my kids grew older and new dangers awaited them. So I have envisioned the absolute worst shit on earth happening to them. I have envisioned them being kidnapped. I have envisioned them getting hit by a car and then me choking the driver to death in fury, and then going to jail for the rest of my life for it. I have envisioned them contracting rare, incurable diseases. I have envisioned them bullied, rejected, and hideously overweight. I’ve seen it all in my head. I don’t ENJOY these visions, but they’re part of the parenting reflex. You worry to death about your kids because they’re yours. It’s your job to protect them, and it’s hard to let go of them, even once they’ve learned how to protect themselves.
I’ll give you a case in point. We have a 17-year-old daughter. She has an 11 p.m. curfew on weekends, which she does NOT like. We’re also not wild about her taking an Uber at night by herself. Every time we lay these rules down on the girl, she demands to know why. She’s smart, she’s responsible, she carries pepper spray on her. So why can’t she have more freedom? All of her arguments are cogent. You, a neutral observer, could say that my wife and I are being irrational. But that irrationality comes with the job. It’s not easy to assume your kid will be all right on their own, especially they aren’t a legal adult yet. The instinct to protect her remains strong.
So I’ve said to the girl, many times, “Listen, you only have one more year living under our bullshit. So please just deal with it for now, and then you’ll be free.” That’s usually enough to chill her out. She wants to pull away from us. We want to keep her close. Within that dynamic, there’s always gonna be conflict. You can’t avoid it, but you can manage it if your child understands, on an objective level, that having kids makes you into a fucking crazy person.
Whatever happened to pump fakes? I feel like that was something QBs brought out every once in a while, and they were cool as hell. I can’t remember the last time I saw one.
The retirement of Ben Roethlisberger reduced total pump fakes leaguewide by 85 percent. That’s a fact that I just made up, because it’s true.
Pump fakes still do exist. I’ve seen Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen do many of them, along with other mobile QBs who pump fake because need a second to freeze oncoming defenders before they take off to the boundary. If you don’t notice these pump fakes, it’s because you’re so used to them that they’ve become invisible. Only Roethlisberger executed his pump fakes slow enough (so, so slow) and often enough (so, so often) that they would actually register in your mind. Boy, that big stupid asshole sure likes to pump fake a lot! Smoother QBs make the move a lot more seamlessly.
As for pocket QBs, you’re not gonna see as many pump fakes because there isn’t time. NFL defenders are too fast now for a Mac Jones–type to play grab-ass back there. Do you know how many times I’ve screamed GET RID OF IT! at my TV during one of my team’s games? A billion. It’s my No. 1 talking point. A pump fake only adds to my fury. For stiff QBs, it’s a written invitation to be sacked.
My partner and I recently watched an episode of a TV show where the premise was the characters living through the same two-week period 15,000+ times, a variant on Groundhog Day. If you had to choose between a groundhog day and a groundhog week, which would you take and why? I can see pros and cons to each, so I'm at a loss as to which I would pick.
The week. I didn’t even have to think about it. If you’re condemned to live the same day over and over, you have to endure the incessant repetition of that day’s weather, news, events, baseball games, etc. It’s Chinese water torture in a 24-hour format. If you stretch that period out to a full week, you at least have some breathing room in between those repetitions. Plus you get the rhythm of a full week. You get weekends to party. You get weekdays to devise ways out of your time loop hell. You even get a Hump Day to mark where you are in the cycle. Not bad!
In that way, having a full week on repeat lets you sketch out a seven-day routine to keep yourself sane. I have three kids, so my weeks already look the same pretty much all school year long. I like it this way. I like knowing when everything is going to happen and where everyone in my family is gonna be. It takes a load off. You get to my age and uncertainty is the last thing you ever want. So having a groundhog week fits more with my lifestyle than repeating an individual day would. Especially if that day is a Tuesday. Who’d want to live inside a Tuesday forever, I ask you? It’s Tuesday right now. Doesn’t it fucking suck?
Which NFL franchise has the fans that match the intensity, defensiveness, and whininess of Swifties? The Brady-era Patriots were probably the best fit, but for the current year I gotta got with the 49ers.
I can’t really complain about Swifties all that much. Not because I fear them, but because the bulk of them are just normal-ass people. Isn’t being a Taylor Swift fan the most normal possible thing a person can be in 2023? This isn’t a fucking cult. Saying you’re a Swiftie is like telling people you enjoy dining at Chipotle. It’s pretty basic shit. Swift’s mass audience says more about the steady decline of good pop music offerings around her—if I were a dipshit music critic, I’d call it popsolidation—than it does any kind of deranged herd mentality. Taylor Swift is pop music right now, and liking pop music is about as normal a personality trait that a person can have.
I say that as someone who has no real issue with Taylor Swift at all. I can still smell the leftover country music stains on her, and she’s still the fakest underdog that pop culture has ever produced, but she makes catchy songs and puts on a good show for people’s money. That along with popsolidation™ is how she ended up appealing to a demographic so broad as to encompass half the Earth’s population. So I can’t be like OMG THESE SWIFTIES ARE JUST LIKE RED SOX FANS! Some of them are stupid online, but so is everyone else. Wake me up when Taylor holds a Gathering Of The Swiftalos in the asshole of Illinois one day and then we can talk about what freakshows her fans are.
I work in sales, and the sales floor between the hours of 11-2pm are filled with the same type of hypothetical bullshit back and forth questions as you’d find in a football locker room. There was one so staunchly debated, and so WILDLY accepted, that I needed a take. The question is: do you think that with modern tech, radar, comms, etc that you could land a commercial airliner in an emergency situation? The obvious answer here has to be no, right? We had a lot of Mark Wahlberg ‘wouldn’t-go-down-that-way-if-I-were-there’ type of talk.
The answer is no. There have been several instances of civilians landing small planes with a lot of help from the air traffic control tower. But if we’re talking about like a 737, fuck no. You’re gonna die. The tower and autopilot can probably guide you to the nearest airport, but then you have to land the fucker, and that’s when being a licensed pilot is necessary to the endeavor.
People tend to be arrogant with these hypotheticals, because they’re guys, or because they’re American, or because they think too highly of themselves and too low of others, or all three (usually all three). But in the case of the classic “Could you land a United flight safely?” question, the ease of commercial air travel for passengers is an added factor. Who among us sits on a commercial flight and is like Holy shit, can you believe this? We’re gonna fly in the air! That’s incredible!? Answer: no one. I’d ask to move seats if I sat next to a boy scout like that. The whole reason you fly is to complain. The flight was late. The food was shit. The WiFi was spotty. You had to sit on the tarmac for a whole 15 extra minutes after landing. Everything about air travel is designed for you to take it for granted, and you do.
Including the view. Take it from someone who rode in the cockpit of a helicopter over a decade ago and is still scarred from it: the difference between staring out the side of an aircraft and staring out the front of one is considerable. The ground is never far enough away. Every mountain looks like you’re about to crash directly into it. The pilot is an actual person next to you who’s flipping lots of strange buttons and working to keep the plane aloft instead of some disembodied, Charlie’s Angels voice piped in over the cabin’s loudspeaker. You gain a newfound appreciation for the difficulty of piloting when you’ve sat up in a cockpit. If I ever had to land a plane myself in an emergency, make no mistake about it: I would shit myself while taking all of you down with me. Bob on the sale floor wouldn’t be any different. We’re no Sully.
In university I worked security in a few bars, and I've discovered that some of the things I had to do in that previous job have transferred to my current job as a high school teacher, specifically crowd control and remaining calm in the face of an unruly emotional outburst. Can you think of seemingly unrelated jobs you had in your youth that provided you with some of the skills you use in your current job as a writer?
This isn’t really fair to ask me, since I’m a writer. I can just write about all of my previous jobs, and I have. I was a dishwasher at Little Caesar’s, a babysitter, a busboy, an amateur standup comedian, a table runner, a banquet setup guy, an intern, a focus group moderator, an ad exec, a copywriter, and a stripper. You’ve heard about all of that. I leave no meat on the bone.
But lemme get into the inner workings of my current job to answer the question more practically. Answering the phone at Little Caesars taught me how to keep a poker face when drunk/angry people shouted confusing orders at me, which was useful future training for NOT replying to comments and tweets from asshole strangers. Running tables got me used to being on my feet all day for a job, which is how I have to write now (doctor’s orders that I use a standing desk). Working in restaurants taught me how to take orders from moody head chefs without drawing their direct abuse, which got me ready for Nick Denton. It also taught me how to organize my workflow (prep the food, fill the water pitchers, run the tables, run tableware through the dishwasher) so that I could clock out as fast as I could. This is why I never write after 5 p.m.
Working at an ad agency taught me to keep an organized computer desktop, along with Inbox Zero. I keep both habits to this day. I also remember the job numbering system at every ad agency I worked at, something I replicated on my own while working at home. This column was written in word under the file name “DF231031.” You can probably parse that number yourself, but I’ll break it down for you. “DF” stands for Defector, as in this file is a Defector post. “23” is the year, “10” is the month, and “31” is the day. I’ve used this system for over 15 years now, and I can find old drafts quickly with it. From my ad days, I also learned how NOT to write a rude email to a co-worker (I got called into the boss’s office for telling an ad producer that she wasn’t doing her job; I was a 22-year-old assistant), and I learned how to be diplomatic with both unreasonable clients, arrogant commercial directors, and bratty creatives who fancied themselves artistes. I learned, in short, how to be a professional.
While I currently have a cool job, nothing about my experience is all that unique. All of your job experience will prove useful as well, even if it’s a job you can’t stand. You learn how businesses work (or how they don’t), and you learn how to deal with people, both in person and in writing. Everything informs everything else. It’s all one big messy education.
Email of the week!
What's the dumbest thing you've ever gotten in trouble for, that you didn't actually do? When I was in middle school, I was at the store with my Dad and asked him to get me a Mike's Hard Lemonade (I didn't realize 'hard' meant alcohol, I just thought that meant it was extra sour or something). He looked at me funny, so I tried to recover by saying I'd had one before and really liked it. Had the wrath of God fall on me for that one (including my Mom calling our parish priest for an intervention, fun!), and of course trying to tell the real truth after the fact didn't work at all, so my family forever thinks I was a juvenile delinquent instead of the huge nerd I actually was.
My dad used to routinely accuse me of eating the chair upholstery in our TV room. I was 12. I like eating food, not foam padding. He never once believed me. What the fuck, Dad.