Back when Moneyball was first written, there was a huge backlash among baseball traditionalists that couldn’t even process the idea of nerds crunching numbers to come up with a competitive advantage in baseball. There was nothing that could replace years spent playing, managing, talking, and analyzing the game, they said. The debate still rages today, but I think we would all agree that the sabermetric community is starting to win out. Take a trip back in time though and visit this fantastic piece from San Francisco Weekly by Tommy Craggs (who is now a rockstar at Deadspin). In it, Craggs deconstructs the very essence of the traditionalists vs. stat guys debate, using former ESPN baseball play-by-play man Joe Morgan. The piece is now widely pointed to when you need to figure out what side of the debate you’re on and the picture painted of the grumpy, bitter Morgan leads you leaning towards one side in particular. This is a must-read for any baseball fan and anyone interested in the stats revolution in sports. From SF Weekly:
The earth beneath Joe Morgan’s feet is impossibly flat, every bump smoothed over, every blemish manicured into oblivion, all so that a white cork-filled ball might roll straight and true, the way it has for a hundred years. I am standing with Morgan, the ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame second baseman, at the edge of the emerald grass at SBC Park, where in two hours the San Francisco Giants will play the Oakland A’s, a game Morgan will explain to America from a booth high above the field. This is his job: to elucidate the game, or, more precisely, The Game, which is what old ballplayers like to call baseball, and which Joe pronounces with infinite reverence and implied capitalization, the way some people say, “The Pope.”
From the margin of the field Morgan half-watches the Giants go about their batting practice. There is an easy Sunday rhythm to the proceedings, and the field stretches out before us bright and green, a true American candyland. It’s on days like this that baseball — The Game — has its best stuff working, the kind of afternoon that has sent workaday newspaper hacks into deadline reveries and inspired every egghead dilettante in a bow tie to get a book deal. None of this is on Joe’s mind, however. In fact, he is shaking his head and looking displeased. “You guys are a joke,” he is saying, and it occurs to me that Joe Morgan might be thinking about strangling me.
He is a small man — they called him “Little Joe” in his playing days — and you can see his 61 years in the gray around his mustache and the slight hitch in his walk, but standing here, fairly gleaming in his ex-jock mufti, Joe looks young, fit, and content. His shoes are fine and tasseled, his suit is a resplendent cream, his jacket is slung insouciantly over his left shoulder — an iridescent look that falls somewhere between churchgoer and deckhand on the Love Boat. Morgan, who grew up in Oakland and lives in Danville, is the analyst for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. In a few hours he will appear on hundreds of thousands of television screens across America. He will have a microphone positioned beneath his chin and an easy, welcoming smile on his face. First-time viewers will think him a pleasant, patient, good-humored man. They will be wrong.
“You’re a joke, too,” he says to me now, and in a moment his right cheek will start to twitch, and his voice will hit its querulous upper registers, and a few sportswriters will crane their necks and listen in. Joe Morgan — the greatest second baseman who ever lived and an Emmy-winninganalyst who also happens to be the most insufferable sportscaster since Howard Cosell returned to his mother ship — is angry. And why is Joe Morgan angry? It has something to do with a book Joe Morgan hasn’t read.
“Both of you are jokes,” he is saying, and what I will learn is that there are many jokes in Joe’s world. We are jokes, those of us who dare have a thought or a theory about The Game though we have never worn the flannels of a baseball team; we are jokes, those of us who think a catcher has an effect on base stealing; we are jokes, those of us who believe in science and reason. The Oakland A’s, if I may extrapolate, are a joke. Their general manager is a joke (though he played The Game). The front office of the world-champion Boston Red Sox is a joke. The guy in the ESPN.com chat room who had the temerity to question Joe Morgan’s wisdom is definitely a joke. The author of Moneyball? Joe’s not sure who that is, but he’s sure he’s a joke. The writer Bill James is a joke, and so for that matter is the entire masthead of Baseball Prospectus. I’m a joke. You’re a joke. We’re jokes, if not all of us, very, very many of us.
So I wonder: Why isn’t Joe Morgan laughing?
Have a great Easter weekend everyone.