Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Responding to Rosenthal

After no one was elected to the Hall of Fame today, baseball reporter Ken Rosenthal said, on the MLB Network, that the sabermetric community was similar to the Tea Party, presumably in its reckless zeal and narrow-mindedness.
A discussion ensued on Twitter which I, somehow, entered into. Here’s the play-by-play:
Rosenthal responded thusly. Then I chimed in (twice):


As you can see, I had two things to say to him. And would ya believe Ken Rosenthal answered me?

I was trying to say that in every endeavor, loud and mean people tend to be the most noticeable. What I wanted to say, but didn’t because I didn’t want to be too bitter, is that we sabermetricians have had to listen to blowhard know-nothings condescending to us for thirty years, and I’m not inclined to be sympathetic. But I didn’t say that. That’s why I added the word “colleagues;” I didn’t want Rosenthal to think I was talking about him. Because I wasn’t.
And really, that’s what frustrates me the most. I don’t always agree with what Rosenthal has to say, but I do respect the fact that he seems to work as hard as any reporter in the industry (nicknamed “Robothal”) and is at least receptive to the idea of sabermetrics, even if he doesn’t completely buy into it. Which is fine. Just acknowledging that our point of view is valid makes him a uniquely reasonable commentator. I do hate to say “our” point of view, because that makes us sound like a mob obsessed with “groupthink” – a word Rosenthal has used to describe us before.
Does Rosenthal have a point? Absolutely. There are plenty of morons, loudmouths and abusive pains-in-the-ass who I also happen to agree with. I haven’t checked his Twitter feed or looked at his email, but if I did, I’m sure I wouldn’t blame him for thinking less of humanity.
The anti-Jack Morris bandwagon, while something I agree with in principle, did become abusive towards the end. It seemed like every other comment from certain writers was another way to bash Morris or remind people of his shortcomings. This prompted Kevin Goldstein to remark:

I don’t know which “prominent” person Rosenthal was referring to in this case. I don’t follow all the same people he does; perhaps there’s a very vocal asshole of whom I’m not aware. But I’d be willing to bet that he was talking about Joe Sheehan.
I love Joe Sheehan’s writing, but he can be a pain in the ass. I doubt he’d by offended by the remark; coming from the right person, it’s an epithet* he might wear with pride. Sheehan’s greatest strength as a commentator is also his greatest weakness: a sense of utter disgust toward inaccuracies and the people who perpetuate them. It makes his commentary incisive, biting and often brilliant. It also means that he attacks an issue with an off-putting ferocity, with his podcast co-host, Rany Jazayerli, often serving as the target by proxy. Sheehan himself admitted on one podcast that where other people tend to see an issue as 60/40, he tends to look at it as 99/1.
 * - (I wanted to choose the word sobriquet at first, instead of epithet, then I realized that I’m not a douche)

Even though I bristled at the remark, I would have to say that his use of the word “condescending” is a pretty good descriptor for Sheehan. He is not one to agree to disagree. He will accept ideas different from his own, but as I’ve noticed on the podcast, the burden of proof is about 99/1 on you to prove him wrong, assuming you can get a word in edgewise. I don’t want to be too harsh on Joe, who’s one of my favorites. He is, as I said, aware of this part of his nature and is capable of being persuaded, albeit not easily.

And, reluctantly, I think we as the sabermetric community have to accept Rosenthal’s “condescending” remark as an often valid criticism. Our preference for sarcasm and snark is quite strong. I’m not saying that Keith Law is the king of snark, but he could be the subject of this poem.

As a response to this, I think we as a community need to ask ourselves something: are we more interested in communicating our point of view or in simply being right? The latter can be useful but, much like the flu*, can only survive by being communicated to others.

Mocking people and condescending to them will not convince them to change their minds. Indeed, many people have observed (and I agree) that the rallying of the BBWAA around Jack Morris is a defensive measure taken in response to the assault on Morris’s case by upstart outsiders (us). There are a few people who have been convinced that Morris’s case falls well short of Hall standards; however, I’d wager there are many more who never saw him as a superstar until he became the standard-bearer for their entire belief system. See also: Jim Rice, Dale Murphy.

Having said THAT …
(removes gloves)

I was really upset when Rosenthal dropped that Tea Party comp onto a community of generally good people (which includes myself, if only tangentially). I was even more angry when he complained about the mote of condescension coming from “our side” while essentially ignoring the beam of condescension in the eyes of the writers.*
* – This was a thing Jesus said.
The condescension that we – and I’m including any independent-minded fan in this – have endured from the writers for three decades is gross and inexcusable. Yes, it seems like we’re making great strides – and then Mitch F’n Albom comes by and drops this in the punch bowl. Does Rosenthal get this upset when Dan Shaughnessy, Murray Chass, Bill Plaschke or Bill Madden starts throwing mean-spirited, uncivilized barbs at all of us? Perhaps he does. Perhaps.

But he didn’t tag them as overzealous extremists on national TV. That was just "us."

Well, maybe the explanation is that Rosenthal is less likely to speak out against those who are his colleagues. Perhaps he is even forbidden (or discouraged) from doing so by Fox Sports. If so, however, he should be careful who he criticizes for zealous groupthink and condescension.

Now it's true that web-based analytical commentators are getting TV time now, thanks mainly to the MLB Network. You can see Jay Jaffe, Dave Cameron, Rob Neyer and Jonah Keri on there from time to time. Sheehan and Craig Calcaterra show up on NBC Sports Talk. But when it comes down to it, we are still the anomalies; we are not given equal space at the table. What ends up happening almost invariably is that it is the standard Sports TV drones and BBWAA members who dominate the airwaves and, thus, the conversation. It is left to the few BBWAA members who see our cause as at least somewhat valid to defend us. (If there were an award for such a thing, obviously, it would go to Peter Gammons).

Jim Bouton once said something to the effect that the owners had screwed the players for 100 years, and the players were due. I’ll admit that I feel a similar lack of sympathy for many baseball writers whose iron grip on sports narratives is starting to wither. When they all become so sad and irrelevant that they're reduced to blogging about "backne," I will not celebrate their tragic fall; but neither will I shed many tears.

It pains me that, for one day at least, Ken Rosenthal found himself in the unenviable company of the Luddites. I say this not because he disagrees with me because I do respect his opinion. I say this not because he’s wary of the sabermetric vigilante brigade*. No, I say this because someone as reasonable as he has no business sharing space with the empty suits and talking heads.
* – No, really, someone called us that.
All will be forgiven, Ken, naturally. I’m honestly not mad at you. I don’t even want you to join our groupthink (or anyone's groupthink). All I ask is that before you start throwing around labels, take some time to see things from our perspective.

We’re all being condescended to. So let’s break the cycle … okay?


Ken Rosenthal read and responded to my article on Twitter, which I thought was very fair; he played right into my depiction of him as "reasonable."

I spent the better part of an hour trying to "embed" those damn tweets, so I'll just quote him:

Ken: "That's fair, Aaron. I made it clear in later tweet that I don't like a patronizing tone from either side. And . . . as someone who often sides with sabermetricians in their positions, I would hope that my point would carry some resonance."

Aaron: "Indeed it does. I guess I hold you to a higher standard (perhaps unfair), because you seem able to respectfully disagree. But yes, yours is a reasonable voice and should be heard - no matter what "side" you're on (I wish there weren't "sides")."

Neither Rosenthal nor I occupy the extremes of the two "sides" I mentioned. But even if we did, I reiterate the importance of communication just like this. If people like me can listen to Ken Rosenthal, and if Ken Rosenthal can listen to people like me, the discussion WILL progress.

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