|1984 Baseball Abstract: Inside Out Perspective|
Inside stuff is very big in sportswriting today. TV shows, newspaper
columns and sometimes whole books are dubbed "Inside Baseball" and "Inside
Football"; magazines run features called "Inside Pitch" and "Inside Corner"
and promote "Inside Scouting Reports." A book appears called "High Inside,"
and months later, another follows called "High and Inside." The
Society for American Baseball Research, an aggregation of dedicated outsiders
outside of whom one can scarcely get, compiles a collection of research
pieces into a book; this is called, of course, "Insiders Baseball."
Inside looks, inside glimpses, inside locker rooms and inside blimpses; within months we shall have seen the inside of everything that one can get inside of without a doctor's help, and now that I think about that I remember seeing a sample copy of a Las Vegas tout sheet that featured an "Inside Medical Report." In the collapse of the original "Inside Sports," perhaps the nickname shattered and the shards landed across the horizon.
What has really happened, of course, is that the walls between the public and the participants of sports are growing higher and higher and thicker and darker, and the media is developing a sense of desperation about the whole thing. It is easier to ape Steve Carlton's example in how to deal with a reporter than it is to mimic his dedication to excellence, so every day more players become unapproachable; the simple expectation of being able to communicate with the inside is decaying.
Silence, though, is but the ultimate weapon, the last line of defense. The first line of defense is the cliche: How do you feel today Jim I'm optimistic I've always had good luck against Lefty Grove what did he throw you that you hit into the seats I think it was a breaking pitch that didn't break is this the biggest day of your life no this is just the first step we still have to win the series has Willie helped the team Willie has added a dimension to the team that we didn't have before and how about Frank Frank has adapted to his role well and hasn't complained at all about not being used more why did you fire Charlie I've the greatest respect for Charlie but sometimes a change just has to be made and we were just happy Billy was available why did you sign this yoyo he's a winner and a gamer and you can throw away his batting average when the game is on the line.
Cliches are the soldiers of ignorance, and an army of sentries encircles the game, guarding every situation from which a glimmer of fresh truth might be allowed to escape. An occasional player -- a George Hendick here, an Amos Otis there -- can never learn to command the cliche, thus is forced to keep silence, unless he choose to see embarassing revelations about himself splattered in ink. Players used to have public nicknames, wild things like Circus Solly and affectionate names like Sunny Jim and Unser Choe (Our Joe) and media handles like the Commerce Comet and the Donora Greyhound. Now the big this is to have private nicknames. The players invent them and use them and then the reporters make a game of trying to overhear them and find out where they come from and reveal them to the public; once revealed, they evaporate, for their only purpose is to separate us from them, to designate in code the speaker and the one spoken to as true insiders.
This is outside baseball. This is a book about what baseball looks like if you step back from it and study it intensely and minutely, but from a distance.
You know the expression about not being able to see the forest for the trees? Let's use that. What are the differences between the way a forest looks when you are inside the forest and the way it looks from the outside?
The first thing is, the insider has a much better view of the details. He knows what the moss looks like, how light it grows around the base of an oak and how thickly it will cling to a sycamore. He knows the smells in the air and the tracks on the ground; he can guess the age of a redbud by peeling off a layer of bark. The outsider doesn't know any of that.
To a person who sees the image of anything as being only the sum of its details, to a person who can conceive of the whole of anything only by remembering this event and that event and piecing them together in a succession of images; such a person is likely to look at the Baseball Abstract and say, "What is this? This isn't BASEBALL. This guy James doesn't know anything about the chatter bouncing off the dugout walls, nor about the glint in the eye of a superstar, nor about routines and integral boredom of baseball's lifestyle, with which each player great and small must content."
No sir, indeed I don't. There will be in this book no new tales about the things that happen on a team flight, no sudden revelations about the way that drugs and sex and money can ruin a championship team. I can't tell you what a locker room smells like, praise the Lord.
But perspective can only be gained when details are lost. A sense of the size of everything and the relationship between everything -- this can never be put together from details. For the most essential fact of a forest is this: The forest itself is immensely larger than anything inside of it. That is why, of course, you can't see the forest for the trees; each detail, in proportion to its size and your proximity to it, obscures a thousand or a million other details.
But it is not obvios that that is also the one most essential fact of a pennant race -- the size of it, the enormity of it, the face that no one, no matter how hard he tries, can take in an appreciable portion of the details of any one race? Consider a single moment in a pennant race, a July moment in a minor game against a meaningless team, but a moment in which a ball is hit very hard but caught by an outfielder who is standing in the right place, but before it is caught it must be hit, and before it is hit it must be thrown, and before it is thrown this pitch must be selected, and this pitcher must be selected, and this batter must be selected, and there are reasons why he was selected to throw and why he was selected to hit, and there are reasons why this pitch was selected and why it was thrown this way and why it was swung at and why it was hit and why, finally, the outfielder chanced to be in the right place, so that in the single moment of a pennant race, there is a complexity that surpasses any understanding.
A game consists of dozens of batters and hundreds of pitches, and a season for one team consists of hundreds of games, and the league consists of a dozen or more teams. And how many details can you think about, to add up to a pennant race in your mind?
Is it not obvious, then, that it is only in stepping away from the pennant race that we can develop a vision of it? No one could remember at any one time a significant portion of the at bats that Mike Fischlin has in a season -- even Mike Fischlin's wife. How then, remember the season?
That is why statistics have such a place in baseball. Statistics look at games by the hundreds, and without the details. And that is why everyone who is a baseball fan -- everyone, everyone, everyone -- reads the statistics, studies the statistics and believes what he sees in the statistics. Without them, it is impossible to have any concept of the game, save for meaningless details floating in space.
Let's talk specifics. What, specifically, can you see from the outside the forest that you could never see from the inside of it?
For one thing, you can map the terrain. Let us consider the players, the main component of the game, to be as the trees are to the forest. These are cognitive trees, able to see and think and answer questions if they take the notion. Suppose that there is a place in the forest where the ground is a little higher than it is in another place. Insiders, surely, would become aware of this as they trekked from one place to another.
But when it came time to measure the heights of the trees, how would they ever adjust for this? Can you tell the height of a tree by standing beside it and looking up? No, of course not; it's too big. And can you tell how good a hitter someone is by watching him hit? No, of course not; it's too big. You could tell the biggest trees from the smallest; you could say in many cases that this tree is definitely bigger than that one. You could watch Dale Murphy and see quickly that he was a better hitter than Jerry Royster. But you couldn't guess the height of a tall tree when standing beside it within a 20-foot range, even if you stood beside it and looked up at it for a year, and you couldn't guess the batting average of a hitter within a 20-point range by watching him hit, even if you watched him hit for a year.
To get an idea of how tall the tree is, you must stand back and look at it from a distance. And to get a clear notion of how good a hitter someone is, you must look at him from a distance -- in the records.
So now you stand back from these trees, get out of the forest, and you see that one of them appears to be the tallest one. But then you remember: Isn't that where the high ground it? Maybe it only appears to be taller because the ground is higher over there.
Do you see where I'm heading? Let's talk Wade Boggs. Now he appears to be the best hitter in the league. But wait a minute -- isn't that ground a little higher over there? Didn't Fred Lynn appear to be the best hitter in the league when he was playing over there? And when they traded him for Carney Lansford, didn't Lansford appear to be the best hitter in the league in 1981? How much higher is the ground? What is the tallest tree? Who is the best hitter?
Now if you are a dedicated student of inside baseball, what you do next is, you ask Wade Boggs about it. Or if you don't ask Wade Boggs, then you ask Rod Carew, or you ask Freddie Lynn, or you ask one of the other trees. And they naturally are going to give you different opinions on how much difference there is between the ground over here and the ground over there, depending to a large extent on where it is that they are positioned.
But if you are a student of outside baseball, you take a somewhat different approach. You say, "Damn, this doesn't seem to be that hard to figure out. The average height of a four-year-old walnut tree over here is this, and the average height of a four-year-old walnut over there is that. Do I really have to be a tree in order to figure this out?"
It is not only that the trees have a vested interest in the subject, and thus they might lie to you or believe what it is in their best interests to believe. The trees really are not, when you think about it, in a very good position to evaluate the issue. I remember when Freddie Lynn went to California, he said he thought he'd hit better out there because he'd be close to his home. Now, he wasn't lying to us. He really thought that. The accomodation that he had made to Fenway Park was so subtle that it was subconscious. Remember this: All hitting takes place in the 4/10 of a second between the time the pitcher throws the ball and the time it reached the plate. There isn't an awful lot of thinking going on there; it's mostly reflex.
As a tree grows its roots in one particular place in the forest, Freddie Lynn grew his roots in Fenway Park. And he learned something there. He learned that when they threw him a fastball on the outside part of the plate, he could slap it to leftfield and the result of that would often be something positive. Success. People would cheer for him.
To him, this has nothing to do with Fenway Park; it has to do with that pitch and that reflex. Only when you get him out of Fenway Park, you can throw him the same pitch and he can execute the same reflexive action (he has, by this time, no choice: he must execute that same reflexive action; he is conditioned to do it).
Only the result now is failure.
He was, you see, the ultimate insider of a forest, the tree itself. If he had looked at the question as an outsider, he could not have possibly have been surprised by that failure. I mean, you take a guy who hits .380 in Fenway Park in some years and hits .260 on the road, you've got to figure that if you move him out of Fenway Park he's going to lose some points off the batting average. If you take a 330-foot elm tree and you move it to where the ground is 40 foot lower, you've got to figure it's not going to stick up in the air quite as far -- something more like 290 feet. But Freddie Lynn was surprised by it.
Another thing about forests is that they are awfully dark sometimes. There are shadows that reach halfway to the moon, there's a lot of underbrush, and there are many strange creatures who live in the forest, or who at the least are reported to live in the forest. Another important difference between inside and outside baseball in that baseball insiders see and report on lots of strange creatures that we can't really see from out where we are. Clutch hitters are a big favorite.
Several people who have studied the issue from the outside have concluded -- I hesitate to mention this -- have concluded that clutch hitters don't exist. Dick Cramer was the first of those, and at the time I didn't think he had much of a point. What are they, then? We say, "The shadows of possums and squirrels, blown up to the size of a bear by poor light." They say, "You idiot; of course they exist. We see them all the time; see their tracks every day." I am much more modest than Cramer; I say merely that I have no idea whether they exist or not.
You do notice, though, that clutch hitters are always spotted briefly and in poor light. "There's really no way to measure clutch performance," insiders like to say; occasionally some statistics will leak out about batting averages with runners in scoring position, usually based on 100 or 150 at bats, and never systematically available for scrutiny. Brief film clips of clutch hitters blazing through crucial October games are much treasured by the advocates, but then the guy probably doesn't play 30 games in October in his career, or if he does he starts going 2-for-17 in the playoffs, and when you see these clutch hitters in clutch situations during the year, they never seem quite so terrifying. "Bring me the carcass of a single member of the species," we say. "Show me the evidence that there is a single player in all of baseball who consistently and predictably performs over his head in 'game' situations. Name in advance a single player who this year, 1984, will hit just 30 points over his average in the late innings of close games." But when no such evidence is forthcoming, they say, "The forest is dark and deep, and there are many places for a body to decay without being found. We don't need that kind of evidence. We don't need to see statistics on them. We live in the forest with them; we know that they exist." Ah well; when Project Scoresheet is in place, we will answer this once and for all. No need to judge the issue until then.
So I go to look at the trees, as close as I can get from the outside. I go to baseball games, and (unlike sportswriters, who are there under deadline and thus not free to enjoy the occasion) I love going to baseball games. I go with my wife and friends and stay sober and get as wrapped up in it as I can.
But this book is not about the things that I see at baseball games with my own eyes, at least not mostly. This book has a breadth and scope in its vision of the game that requires a perspective that comes only with distance. It has an honesty in facing certain questions that a reporter, that anyone who is inside the game or even near it, could never afford. It has a sense of balance about all parts of the game about all the parts of the game that could not come from any point within the forest.
It also has blind spots the size of the World Trade Center with an oak tree growing in every window. There are a lot of things that you just can't see from out here, folks. Dedication and leadership and desire and committment; I see glimpses of all that, but you just can't see those things clearly from the outside, and it's silly to pretend you can.
I've never said, never thought, that it was better to be an outsider than it was to be an insider, that my view of the game was better than everyone else's. It's different; better in some ways, worse in some ways. What I have said is, since we are outsiders, since the players are going to put up walls to keep us out here, let us use our position as outsiders to what advantage we can. Let us back off from the trees, look at the forest as a whole, and see what we can learn from that. Let us stop pretending to be insiders if we're not. Let us fly over the forest, you and I, and look down; let us measure every tract of land and map out all the groves, and draw in every path that connects each living thing. Let us drive around the edges and photograph each and every tree from a variety of angles and with a variety of lenses; and insiders will be amazed at what we can help them to see. Or maybe they won't; who knows. But anyway, we'll have some fun. Snake oil, $1.95.