Journalism and baseball: stats and stories

Mark Buehrle of the Chicago White Sox pitched a perfect game last week, and it strikes me (pun mostly intended) that the perfect game is the perfect convergence of two of the ways that you can understand and enjoy baseball (for those who do so): statistics and stories.

It’s also a good way to understand two ways to understand and enjoy the world, both of which are represented in strains of American journalism.

Baseball fans fall into two groups: the W.P. Kinsellas and Roger Angells on the one hand; and the Bill Jameses of the Moneyball school on the other. The Kinsellas–Kinsella wrote the novel Shoeless Joe, on which Field of Dreams was based–are the hagiographers of baseball, the mythmakers, the storytellers. There are varying degrees of the mythological part of this, but I’m more interested in the storytellers, including the journalists, than I am in the hagiographers. (It’s not, after all, supposed to be a reporter’s job to turn an athlete into a hero, though the standards of this are more flexible in sportswriting than they are elsewhere.) The storytellers try to craft some sort of coherent narrative out of baseball, and they appeal to those of us who like to understand the world through stories. As a journalist and historian, this view of things appeals to me greatly. Perhaps the classic example of this is Gay Talese’s “Silent Season of a Hero,” which is amazingly available, in its entirety, online.

The stats people–the math people–don’t interest me as much. I respect them, and I respect when someone devises a way of definitively measuring, say, who the most effective baserunner in baseball is, like in this Sports Illustrated article about Carl Crawford. And I can comprehend an ERA or a batting average at a glance like any more or less numerically literate baseball fan.

Where I don’t think this way of looking at the world is helpful (at least for me) is in articles like this one from last week’s SI (I recently got a free trial subscription). In it Bill James attempts to quantify what makes “the most perfect player who every did live” (maybe Albert Pujols). But I don’t want to know that definitively. I want to be able to argue it, endlessly. To tell stories about it. To disagree with a friend, or to someday change my mind. Or even change my mind every day.

What does this have to do with journalism? Maybe not much, except that it’s a good way of thinking about two very different ways of seeing the world. In the last few years for me, that split has been clearer between the qualitative and quantitative researchers in my doctoral program, but I think it works for journalism, too. Some journalism is about nailing down the facts: what happened? Who? When? Where? That’s important journalism. But I’m actually much more interested in the “Why?” journalism. Why? needs stories.

And that’s what’s so perfect about a perfect game. It’s a feat of statistics, but it’s also an epic story, and it’ll be remembered more for the latter than the former, because memories take the form of stories.

Two brief footnotes:

  1. If you haven’t seen MLB.com‘s Gameday application (online or on the iPhone), it’s worth a look. It’s a brilliant little piece of information design that takes statistics and translates them into stories for people like me. And they pack in an awful lot of numbers for those of you whose minds think the other way.
  2. I almost flew from LaGuardia to Minneapolis with Yankees perfect game pitcher David Cone a couple weeks ago. He was flying out to cover the Yankees/Twins series. I was flying out to see my adorable nephew (and take him to his first ballgame). But the flight was overbooked, and that travel voucher, in the end, was more appealing than sharing a plane with Coney.
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