#BuckFiftyADay Since March, 2014

#BuckFiftyADay Since March, 2014

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

I Can't Help Falling (Back) in Love with You...

My Ledger column was a lifesaver
Time to ramble.

Tomorrow marks three weeks since I got laid off by the Star-Ledger. It's cliche to say it, but I truly believe things happen for a reason. Especially this thing.

First, it's got to be said, the Ledger saved me. In May of 2011, knowing my days at ESPN The Magazine were numbered, the Ledger threw me a life line, making me their baseball columnist.

What I learned in my two seasons back on the everyday baseball beat is just how much things changed in the 16 years I was working on features across all sports at ESPN. I have so much respect for the amount of work the daily guys churn out on a day-to-day basis.

Actually, change that.

I have so much respect for the amount of work the daily guys churn out on a minute-to-minute basis. You don't show up at the ballpark at 2:30 anymore just to prep. You show up to begin tweeting, blogging, taking cellphone camera photos. It's all good. It just wasn't for me.

And I know this will get me ridiculed, but the way baseball writers are expected to write about the game has changed so much. Basically, if you can't back up something somebody said, or something you observed, with a telling statistic, you're setting yourself up to get skewered.

There's a whole legion of folks out there now who are in the business of "debunking." I saw this at The Mag. Get a quote from Red Sox batting coach Dave Magadan about Dustin Pedroia's uncanny knack for putting the barrel of the bat on the ball and someone's got a stat to tell you he's only average at that. Heaven forbid you write that someone hits in the clutch.

Personally, I don't buy all of it.

I remember as a young writer sitting down to talk to Bob Boone, then a veteran catcher, about things he observed behind the plate. He didn't care about a guy's average with runners in scoring position. He talked about things he'd seen the day before, or the at bat before, that told him how to attack a hitter, or whether it was a good time to pitch around a guy.

"Writing about leadership is lazy," I was told.
Write the word "intangibles" into a story now and a whole slew of folks will ridicule you. Leadership? I was told this past season I was "lazy" for ever using the word. When I produced a story I'd written on Jason Varitek after the 2004 season, full of observations from teammates about Varitek's influence on the Sox, I was told, "so, he's a hard worker, you can't prove leadership."

Over the last two seasons, I had more than a few heart to heart conversations with Bob Klapisch, an old teammate from the New York Daily News who now writes a baseball column for the Bergen Record and for Fox Sports. I consider Klap among the best baseball writers of all-time (and a future Hall of Famer) because of his understanding for the game's nuances and subtleties, but also for the respect he gets from players, coaches and managers, who can easily see he's more than just a guy who pores through pages of stats.

"The game is an art, not a science, Bradman," Klap would say to me. "We can't forget that."

I'm not stat averse, but I prefer my advanced baseball metrics to be served in charts and graphs rather than sentences and paragraphs. Stories driven by stats remind me of the reading comprehension segment of the SAT, where I always felt the author's sole mission was to bore me to death.

 During my three weeks out of work, I've found myself searching the SI Vault for stories written by Peter Gammons, Steve Wulf and Tom Verducci. Love stories, if you will. For these were the stories that made me love the game of baseball even more.

My Rawlings XPG3 here was passed on to a Gold Glover
I remember when the leadership at ESPN The Mag started throwing the word "wonk" around. As in, "How about we do a more 'wonkish' take on this..." I had to look it up in the Urban Dictionary. (1) Noun - An expert in a field, typically someone who is fairly young and very intelligent. 

I knew I was no wonk. If there's a market for wonkish debunking, that's fine. I'm not going to be a regular consumer.

Tyler trusts the pocket of his Wilson A2000
I just hope there's still a market for baseball romance. Because that's what I read. I still believe in "clutch" and "intangible" as much as I still believe in batting average, RBI and...gasp...wins.

Which brings me back to the "everything happens for a reason" cliche.

In the aftermath of my layoff, my friend Paul Cunningham of Leather Head Sports reached out to me. Paul grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y, and is a hopeless baseball romantic, like me. Paul's passion is for leather-made sporting goods. Our friendship evolved over a mutual fascination with baseball gloves.

I broke in a few gloves for Beau, my defensive wizard
Both of us were "sorta" college baseball players. Paul played at Drew University. I played on the JV team at North Carolina. Paul told me he always played under the (wrong) assumption that he was the perfect glove away from getting drafted. I always had the best gloves, thanks to my brother, and earned my varsity respect at UNC for my ability to break-in gloves. My absolute best work occurred when I helped a future Gold Glove winner in Walt Weiss by donating my Rawlings XPG3 to him when we were both freshman and he was having backhand issues with his Wilson A2000.

It doesn't get any more romantic in sports than a baseball glove, does it? The smell of the leather. The way the perfect glove earns your undying trust. Just put it out there and the ball will stick.

Paul and I are going to launch a line of baseball gloves under his Leather Head brand. It's going to be a lot of hard work, fueled by passion. Fueled by baseball romance. There's going to be trial and error. But we're going to make some incredibly sweet gloves, and I'm going to be calling on so many people who helped me learn the game over the last 40-plus years. Old teammates, coaches, dads who've sat in the stands the last decade with me watching our sons play ball.

Now, I'm sure you could throw a stat sheet at me that will tell me we have no chance to succeed. Give it to me and I'll throw it right in the trash. I'm going to believe baseball is an art, not a science.

And I don't think there's a wonk out there who can teach me a thing about baseball gloves, about what makes a good pocket or what makes a web double play friendly.

Paul and I know this stuff.

I'm not going to stop writing (as you can see above, I still like to tap on a keyboard, and I'm going to look to dive back into writing about soccer in the near future), but I'm going to try something new, with something I love. And I'm going to lean hard on "things happen for a reason."

And trust my intangibles.

Also, check out...

The Wall Street Journal thinks Leather Head may have invented "The Perfect Football"

How to make a Leather Head Football by Paul Cunningham


pasoc said...

Great article. And yes, the game is so much more than stats. How does a player feel on a particular day. Was he out too late the night before and is a little sluggish. Do the wonks have stats on day game performance after consuming 12 rum and cokes after the previous night game before sneaking into bed at 6:30 am?

Unknown said...

Great piece and I agree that Klap is a great baseball writer. Great prose without ever overwriting, a rare blend. REally knows his subject.
Forgive stat freaks for spewing so much venom. It dates back to their days of being picked last on the playground.In their minds, the game finally belongs to them, not those who dominated them between the lines.
Moneyball was a very well-written, interesting book, but my guess is if you went back and looked at the minor league players mentioned in the book, the guys the scouts liked had better careers than the guys the scouts liked. If I felt like it, I could sit down and crunch numbers to try to "prove" Player A is better than Player B. I could not watch a baseball game with a scout and see anywhere near as much.
Watch 10 baseball games and arm me with all the stats and don't let the scout see any stats. Then let me try to pick the best player at every position and let the scout do the same. He'll come up with the better team every single time.
And since when is on-base percentage being more important than batting average anything new/ Nobody in baseball ever though otherwise.
And I love it when the numbers-crunchers point to an outifelder's assists as an indication of his arm.
If 100 baserunners try to take an extra base on Don Baylor and only three try to take it on Roberto Clemente, Don Baylor's going to have more assists.

Jeff Bradley said...

I should have also mentioned that I loved the writing of Tom Keegan, who loved the game, understood the game and had a knack for being able to write critically about players and managers without making it sound like he could do better. Thanks, Keeg.

Unknown said...

That's exciting about the glove biz. Best of luck with it. You might want to check out Michael E. Gerber's the E-Myth Revisted, which I found to be a very helpful business book. I mention it because it gets to the whole issue of art vs. science--specifically, how most entrepreneurs (The "E" in the title) focus on the product (let's call it the art) and forget to focus on the business (let's call it the science). Personally, I'm all about the art, so it's good for me to get that balance. That way one can prove all those skeptics wrong--the ones saying, "You won't succeed. Most small businesses fail."

The writing is a little hokie, and would seem so particularly to a pro like you, but it's a quick read and has some good nuggets. All the best!