Talking Baseball Dreams At SABR Day
October 1, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Official baseballs lay on the field before the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates game at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Last Saturday, I got the chance to speak with a group of people at the Society for American Baseball Research’s SABR Day in Kansas City. The KC chapter needed a last second fill-in for the Wonderdog Rex Hudler and asked Kings of Kauffman if we could send a representative. I volunteered, and I’m so glad I did.
I got up and did my thing, talking about different Royals players, answering questions about the upcoming season, and consistently making Jeff Francoeur and Luke Hochevar the butts of jokes. Most of my stuff was related to advanced statistics, or SAB(e)Rmetrics if you will. If you read my posts consistently, you know that I use sabermetrics a lot (though I don’t know if I’m actually a sabermetrician because I don’t do my own math; I borrow math from people).
After I spoke, a man named Bob Meyer introduced the audience to a book he’s just published. Bob was a semi-pro baseball player in Iowa for many years but lives in Kansas City now. He’s older, remembers the days of sandlot ball and more localized teams. He told stories about playing ball in the service and how he knew it was time to stop playing when he started arguing with umpires.
His book, Small Town Baseball—Big League Dreams*, is a reflection of the man himself. As Bob put it, “it’s not hard baseball,” meaning it’s not about how to construct a good team, and it doesn’t employ anything as intricate as wRC+. Instead, Bob’s book relates the most simplistic, elegant, and wonderful features of a game that is so much more than a game to so many. Bob’s book tells stories, or, more accurately, it lets people tell their stories, the stories of semi-pro baseball in small-town Eastern Iowa.
Of course, on the surface, Bob and my talks looked very different. I talked about how Francoeur is a less valuable player than Jarrod Dyson; he read from a story about a pageant that takes place at a tournament in Dyersville. Bob had stories of Bruce Kimm’s time in Eastern Iowa; I had opinions on Bruce Chens’ chances to win the fifth starter spot.
Perhaps those talks were very different, but I know that I was enraptured by Bob’s stories. I know that when I heard him talk about how semi-pro baseball is dying I was sad in the way I was sad watching Ken Burns: Baseball when I learned that there used to be vibrant small-town teams that died out as big-league baseball got increasingly popular (television and such). I felt caught up in the romanticism of funny stories from these old, semi-pro players, caught up in a way that I wanted to hold, like a good dream.
And Bob, though he seemed hesitant to talk “hard baseball,” sparked a great discussion during my talk about bunting for hits. He gave wonderful numbers off the top of his head about a player who had a high number of bunt hits many years ago. That conversation went on for 15 minutes or so, and I can say with no certainty that we exhausted the ways in which bunt hits can be talked about.
I sometimes worry that by emphasizing statistics so much that I’m excluding the things that bring us to baseball in the first place: narratives. Nobody watches baseball because Billy Butler has a terrific wOBA. We watch because the narratives weaving in and out of the game, transitioning across decades, being passed from people like Bob hopefully to people like me, captivate us. They grab us by the guts and force us to love something that may consistently let us down—Royals fans.
The great thing about this false dichotomy, statistics v. narrative, is that it’s so easily destructed. It holds up under examination about as well as that whole Mayan apocalypse nonsense (unless none of us are really here, and you’re not really reading this … whoa … mind blown). Statistical analysis only adds to those narratives. It provides context. It’s the realism to Bob’s romanticism. Both necessary, both compelling in their own ways. We do ourselves a disservice when we ignore the importance of one to elevate the other.
*If you’re interested in ordering a copy, you can e-mail Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org. All the proceeds go to charity (the CFCA and Camp Courageous). That’s the kind of man Bob is.