Locked in the Basement: The Strange Persistence of Nerd-Baiting as Journalistic Pastime, And What To Do About It

Posted in Baseball, Blogged Down, Sports Journalism at 4:43 pm by

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.

9 Responses to “Locked in the Basement: The Strange Persistence of Nerd-Baiting as Journalistic Pastime, And What To Do About It”

  1. frank pepe says:

    in what universe is this guy not a geek? he makes gary cohen look like harley flanagan

  2. frank pepe says:

    *this guy = thornton. look at him

  3. David Roth says:

    That’s a funny comment, Frank, but it also hits on the real buried joke in this whole thing — sportswriters slinging geek-bombs at bloggers is kettles mocking pots.

    Joe Morgan’s got his own problems — there’s a great story Joe Posnanski tells about Morgan’s critical response to Bill James ranking him as the best 2B of all time that could keep a team of psychiatrists busy for some time. But Buzz Bissinger and this dude calling young blogger types creepy basement dwellers is just weird. I liked Berg’s response well enough, but his link to that hilarious pic of Thornton with two corny semi-strippers is a way more concise rebuttal than his mention of his HS football exploits.

  4. Jason Cohen says:

    Well, yeah, you lose an argument with most of the Internet just by entering it.

    this is one of the better generalized rebuttals:


  5. Ted Berg says:

    I agree with basically everything you write here, and to be honest, I regretted responding to Thornton’s post in that much detail by the time I was on my commute home. Initially, I just planned to link to it with a note that said it made me want to smoke crack, but I couldn’t decide if that was in poor taste, as I have a pretty terrible filter for that (taste, not crack-smoking) and the people I normally rely on to judge those matters were already gone for the day.

    (And I definitely regretted mentioning those high-school football exploits, since that’s lame on principle and because, as noted in the comments section, we straight-up sucked.)

    Picking on columns like that one is good for a few easy laughs on a slow day, which is what it boiled down to for me. But I think you’re right that the whole thing is tired, and that even fighting the fight just lends merit to Thornton’s nonsense.

    But I can’t say for sure I’ll stop. It’s fun sometimes, is all.

  6. David Roth says:

    Jason: that actually was very good, and very much what I would love to see more of.

    And I have to agree, Ted, that shredding lame columns is not just fun and easy, but also has its own worth if done right. I’m sure not going to abstain from ripping shit that I think sucks even though I know I should, and I know now that I won’t abstain. Just because Jason Whitlock is acting stupid in an attempt to make me mad doesn’t mean that he doesn’t (often) succeed at that, or that I won’t occasionally write about that. (Or comment when GC does, more likely) My angst over it just reflected my realization that there’s not really much you can do with a guy like this, although you sure made an admirable attempt. I can’t help but salute that.

    But as with the Mets and other things, I guess I’ll just reserve the right to groan about the futility of it all. Whoever makes the decisions that put guys like Thornton on payrolls is going to keep making that decision, I gather, and they’ll keep acting this way. It’s an existential problem, you see. But one that can always be related back to Gary Matthews Jr. and ineffable ballplayer gangsta-ness and the Mets making me sad, somehow. That’s my least favorite kind of existential problem.

  7. Scoring points by demonizing change or ridiculing the gifted never loses its luster for morons. I think the recent rise of stats fetishism is kind of cool, and I say that as someone who often finds stat-centric posts incomprehensible. It seems like not much more than a nerdy sideshow, Oakland notwithstanding (and Gio Gonzalez definitely notwithstanding). As a whole, statheads don’t displace or add nearly as much to the game as the complaints of reactionaries might indicate, but they do handily provide alien and easy targets for incurious imbeciles to fling their own poop at in print.

    I’m just happy that mathematical modeling is being used as benign, noninstitutional pure research as it has by baseball fans. Whenever someone with the rigor, training and math software gets to work in finding some hidden truth in a pile of tables, yet doesn’t quietly deliver the findings to some Wall Street pig, we should all applaud on general principles.

  8. Derek says:

    “Not much more than a nerdy sideshow”?

    “…statheads don’t displace or add nearly as much to the game as the complaints of reactionaries might indicate”?

    Rob, you’ve heard of Bill James?

    From his Wikipedia page:
    “…although James is typically tight-lipped about his activities on behalf of the Red Sox, he is credited with advocating some of the moves that led to the team’s first World Series championship in 86 years, including the signing of non-tendered free agent David Ortiz, the trade for Mark Bellhorn, and the team’s increased emphasis on on-base percentage. During his time with the Red Sox, Bill James has received two World Series rings for the team’s 2004 and 2007 victories.”

  9. Derek: No, I really hadn’t. Was signing Papi crazy on the face of it? That’s not a rhetorical question, I genuinely don’t know.

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