I was talking with the sports editor of The Guardian a few months ago. I was raving about a visit to Fenway Park, and I was telling him how struck I was by the plurality of experience at hand while I was there. It was like I was sitting in an American piazza, I said, and that write-ups of sporting events felt very narrow, very routinized, and very staid compared to that, and that I’d love to try and capture something of what I felt — how small and deeply unnecessary the television broadcast felt when you wandered in from the stands to grab a hot dog and saw the muted boxes hanging from the ceiling like overweight bats, for instance (and this is before Joe Buck announced during the World Series that Roberto Clemente had been given the MVP a few years after he had died and no one caught the error) — but the editor wrote back and said that what I felt was what regular, everyday, normal people felt and that it took a real sports journalist to bring proper insight into the game.
It made me smile and giggle, and then it sent me to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference — if ‘true insight’ was found in analytics, then this was the place to go, after all — and it eventually brought me to a talk entitled “Automating Bill Simmons.” The talk highlighted software that brags at having “automated the job of writing everything from game recaps and historical retrospectives to trash talk and sports trivia,” and the man giving the talk spoke about the quality of his sports market penetration versus that of traditional media outlets. And if I was curious about a game between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals, I could watch a chart graph the possible percentage of victory inning by inning: come the bottom of the fourth, the Cardinals have a 78% chance of victory. Lo and behold: with technology like that, why would one need to go to Wrigley?
Well — Bill Murray could tell you. Bill Murray could answer the question, “Why go to Wrigley?” But if you’ve never felt the shock of a ball park’s green for the first time, then what am I looking for here? What am I looking to tell you about baseball? Am I looking for the return of Moe Berg? Am I hunting for the flash of a broad American grin to send George Packer’s The Unwinding on its way? (Not out of a fit of willful rah-rah optimistic blindness, mind you. Theodore Roosevelt didn’t read Jacob Riis or Upton Sinclair and then decide to lay on the couch and mope as a result.) I know I’m not looking to bring back Gay Talese, Chad Harbach, David Halberstam, or Roger Angell, so what is it? (And while we’re at it — what was with Angell’s little leisurely snit against the beards the Red Sox grew? Did he never have a beard while he was dating? And since when was ‘clean-shaven’ a marker of having ‘grown up?’ There are plenty of clean-shaven adults one simply can’t believe is an actual, functioning adult. Didn’t we leave this argument well and deservedly behind in 1952?)
Perhaps it’s best to start with the ballpark first. I first went to Fenway Park when I was six. I made a sign that said, ‘Red Hot Red Sox,’ but I made it entirely out of yellow, so it probably looked like I was holding up a white piece of poster-sized paper to any players who might have cast an errant eye up from the field (and that’s one thing I didn’t realize until I won a contest to see Paul McCartney for free at the ballpark and spent my time wandering around on the field and running my hand along the Green Monster: you could see every face in the stand. If any ballplayer had a sketching habit as a ‘nervous tick’ — think Wendy Macnaughton, for instance (our very own American Daumier!) — they’d have the time of their life.) Perhaps the players said to themselves, “Well, that’s an appreciably non-confrontational poster.” “Maybe they’re going to green screen the rest of the sign in later.” Perhaps there was a player on the field holding up a sign in response.