Well, here we are just two days away now from the beginning of the Milwaukee Brewers season. With that, we continue to count down the silly and sentimental reasons we love baseball and Opening Day.
Today’s magic word is Debate.
Sports seem to exist, at least in part, to facilitate debates. Baseball, with its deep history and plethora of statistics, thrives on the practice of arguing one side or the other. The fact that a game can switch momentum so quickly only adds fuel to the fire.
It is one of the best things about the game, however. There’s an argument to be made for almost every player, even without statistics, because the game leaves itself so open to personal biases. Normally, this is something you like to try and avoid in debating, but in baseball it is an open and honest part of the process. You can’t help it – you just like the guy.
And that argument, no matter how hard the other side will try to play it down, is somehow irrefutable. I remember, as a younger man, arguing with my brother about Geoff Jenkins ( I don’t remember the actual talking points or how we got there) and at the end of it, I just kept repeating “I think he’s pretty good.” He couldn’t come back from it – there was nothing to dissuade me. Now, the fact that I was driving a Geoff Jenkins bandwagon aside, there were several places I could have gone – WAR, fielding percentage, On-Base percentage, what have you – but I just stopped at “I think he’s pretty good.”
And at the end of the day, that’s what really counts as a fan. Does he pass your personal eye test? There’s no shame in just liking a player and sticking up for him. That’s part of the reason people love to argue about baseball.
The nature of debates around baseball have shifted dramatically over the course of my lifetime, and even more so in the case of previous generations. Information floods our lives now, and sorting through all of it – though intended to make things easier – can sometimes make it harder to distinguish what it is we are actually discussing.
I remember as a child, if there was something I wanted to learn about a player or team, my resources in finding that out were limited. I could peruse the backs of baseball cards, read the newspaper, or consult my father’s mammoth Baseball Encyclopedia.
Today, there are literally hundreds of places from which to gather information.
I don’t want to say that this has ruined anything necessarily (in fact, those that know me personally will tell you that this influx of information has probably made me more annoying), but it’s undeniable that it has refocused arguments. The advanced metrics developed by people like Bill James, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and Baseball-Reference have done some amazing things for baseball. They’ve given fans a way to dig deeper into the sport, to find out more about the game then previous generations thought possible. They’ve melded baseball into a more scientific pursuit – albeit still an imperfect one.
And the very fact that it is and will forever remain imperfect is why the debates continue to rage on. Because deep down we just know that we know better than any computer, any stat guy, any announcer and any manager how to run a team and how to pick out a good ballplayer. Otherwise, what’s the point in even arguing?
Of course, there is the off-chance that you might actually learn something. Which is the dirty little secret of all these shouting matches at bars and comment flame wars over articles. When you debate about baseball, you aren’t only voicing your opinion about a game, a team, or a player – you’re also expanding your point of view about the game and the way people enjoy it (at least, in a perfect world it would work this way). That’s how I learned about sabermetrics for the first time – by badly losing an argument.
That’s how people exchange their passion for the game. It may seem childish to some, unnecessary to others, and just avoidable by people who don’t understand it – but for baseball fans it’s part and parcel of the gig.
It’s how we communicate. It’s how we approach each other. It’s how we learn. And in two short days, a tidal wave of new debates will begin. Will Ryan Braun win MVP? Will Yovani Gallardo hit 200 strikeouts again? Are the Reds going to walk with this division? Can the Milwaukee Brewers get to the Wild Card?
It’s a long season, and part of what makes it so enduring are these story lines and arguments running throughout its course. Without it, we’re just a bunch of grown people watching a kid’s game – and that seems too weird. So we inject importance. We dissect and look for meaning. We’re only human, we can’t help it. For baseball fans, in the next two days’ time, it’s no longer a matter of not being able to help it – we’re full-fledged addicts to it.
And we absolutely love it.