Locked in the Basement: The Strange Persistence of Nerd-Baiting as Journalistic Pastime, And What To Do About It
It’s out there, somewhere, on the internet: the column containing the first sour-stomached VORP joke, the first figurative blogger dismissively imagined hacking away in his mother’s basement. It wouldn’t be surprising if, even in that pathbreaking bit of on-deadline snarkery, those phrases came off tired. Those particular jokes were born tired, and born of tiredness: just some beaten-down coffee-breathed sportswriter type slapping away something outside of his experience, for the reason that it’s outside of his experience, over and over again forever. All to avoid having to unpack an acronym.
This is not where great thinking or writing comes from, of course — very little worth reading has ever been written in the service of advancing an objection to thought. While it’s tempting to write that this sort of self-flattering dismissiveness is where our terrible politics and obese and lazy national conversation come from — tempting because, on a different scale and in a different frame, this sort of huffy, self-pleased ignorance is the exact foundation of, say, Palinism. But true though it might be, it’s a temptation I’m going to work to dismiss. This is sports we’re talking about, and there are currently strawmen getting whomped in the discourse whose assault is a much bigger deal. Anti-nerd sportswriting is plenty stupid in its own right, and objectionable even in context, so I’ll try to leave it in that context. The question, for me, is whether it’s even worth addressing.
Obviously, I’m answering that question by writing this. And to the extent that the weirdly persistent subgenre of anti-nerd sportswriting/talk has given anything to people who read about sports — beyond a window into Marty Noble’s forbidden love for the weirdest homemade stats — it has been through the responses to it. Fire Joe Morgan was kind of the same thing all the time, but it was a very good and pretty important thing, all that kicking against the pricks and steadfast refusal to humor stubborn ignorance; at a time when people of that same mean small-mindedness were running the country, it almost felt significant to see commentators get busted for refusing to think about something and dedicating themselves to cheapjack mockery of those who were. (Yes, even when the “something” in question is the relative value of Willy Taveras or whatever)
And it’s not that there’s no reason to criticize or make fun of statheads, either. Enough time has elapsed in Billy Beane’s tenure in Oakland to draw some conclusions, good or ill, on his work there, but that’s not what, say, Buzz Bissinger wants to do. And the Internet Stat Lords can be peevish and group-thinky and are eminently mockable — witness the frenzied offseason pumping of gimpy 38-year-old catcher Gregg Zaun as a prime free agent by sabermetrically-minded bloggers, and you’ll believe that on-base percentage can be overvalued. But that conversation hasn’t even really been started. Lord knows that anti-nerd sportswriters aren’t interested in having it. They are, as far as I can tell, interested in getting those youngsters off the lawn, first, foremost and only.
And there will be a market for that sort of grousing, no matter how small-minded and predictable and boring and identikit it all is. The most rancid and ignorant and trollish sportswriter dudes will always find work; people will always be shocked when Craig Carton says on the radio that Jose Reyes can die at 50 for all he cares if he brings a World Series to Queens, and Craig Carton will always say that. This is because the aforementioned people are assholes, but also because people apparently keep responding to it. (One thing I wonder about: has the alternative been tried enough to say that Assholes are more popular than, say, your Joe Posnanskis of the world?) Our sports discourse is home to a great many of these glorified message-board trolls, and trolls are going to be trolls. For instance, WEEI’s Jerry Thornton (above) is going to be a troll:
There™s no escaping this conclusion: the Stat Geeks have quietly and insidiously taken power [with the Red Sox]. Every hot stove report I™ve read this offseason, every article written from Fort Myers, every statement from Sox brass, has the Stat Geeks™ grubby little fingerprints on it. They™re like the Communist Party plotting to take over Hollywood in the 1950s before Ronald Reagan got wise to them and kicked their pinko butts all the way back to Moscow and Harvard Square. Only, instead of trying to write screenplays full of anti-capitalists rants, the Stat Geeks have succeeded in making otherwise normal, decent, God-fearin™ Americans start talking about VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) ratings and UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) numbers like they really believe in this nonsense.
In its way, that’s a pretty impressive paragraph, just in terms of the sheer amount of hackish parochialism and sour stupidity packed into four sentences. But of course it’s also fucking ridiculous. The whole article is, and it’s not worth reading unless you’re in a scab-picking mood. There’s a kind of palpable delight in it, though, that should tell you where Thornton’s real intentions lie. He’s just trying to stir some shit up, piss some people off. He is trying to get linked to from… well, probably not from CSTB, but from Deadspin (which happened) and to elicit earnest outrage from people like SNY’s Ted Berg, who obliges in a post that’s as unnecessary as it is amusing and on-point. Berg’s post is pretty amusing and pretty on-point.
But it’s also counterproductive, I think. It is a drag, a profound fucking drag, that so many of the sport-pundits with the biggest megaphones and audiences are so steadfastly resistant to writing anything interesting or displaying any thought, and so content to bait their audiences with lazy provocations. The disjunction between how terrible someone like Jerry Thornton is at his job and how much better and safer a job he has than do a ton of better writers and thinkers is vexing and baffling — and not going anywhere. It’s not going anywhere because, on its own bankrupt terms, Thornton’s piece was a success. That is what the market does to the discourse; pieces like his, and people like him are the natural result of the downward intellectual pressure of the click-economy every bit as much as is, say, a true sub-basement dweller like TMZ Sports. I know that I often bleat about this topic, and I know there’s not much we can do about it. Except for one thing, I guess.
I’d really love to see the writers I respect ignore these empty, obvious provocations from empty, obvious doofuses like Thornton in the future. Or at least to address them in context, not point-by-point, since they really only matter when taken as a group; piece by piece and line by line, they’re obviously worthless. I’m not taking my own advice by writing this post, and I probably won’t take it from time to time going forward. But the way to critique the snarling trolls poisoning the way we talk about sports (and plenty else), I can’t help but think, is just to do better work, seek out better work, and avoid playing their dumb game. CSTB would cease to exist if we followed that to the letter, of course, and I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t enjoy reading (and writing) some of that stuff. But you lose an argument with Jerry Thornton just by humoring him to enter it.