I was watching the NFL Draft this past weekend, and it made me think of my uncle. He was a huge Jets fan, as many in my family are. Around draft time each year, he’d usually give me a call, ask me about the new players the Jets would draft, whether they were a stiff, whether they’d be around awhile.
I’d say that if I knew that, I’d be running the team, to which he’d say that maybe I should be. Nevertheless, it was a little strange to watch an entire NFL draft being conducted remotely, with no bright lights or big stage, no players, agents, and families waiting to take the stage and be formally introduced as the newest member of their new respective organizations.
Even stranger was not getting a call from my uncle. He would’ve gotten a kick out of the footage they played of the Jets’ top pick pushing a pickup truck in the street. If the Patriots end up signing a pickup truck, the Jets will be ready.
Sports are another big community that brings us together. My passion for sports and the way sports can connect with people and bring people together was the reason why I started writing seriously in the first place back in 2010.
Over the course of the past few months, sportswriter extraordinaire Joe Posnanski published an epic project entitled The Baseball 100
, (subscription to The Athletic required and highly recommended
) a project that was intended as a celebration of some of the greatest players in all of baseball history, in the form of a collection of 100 essays, each dedicated to one player apiece.
Published throughout the 2019-20 baseball offseason, it is a superb collection of modern sportswriting that is a strong representation of the best of what the medium of sportswriting can be. It’s a collection of writing that I believe can stand the test of time as not just excellent sportswriting, but excellent storytelling, period. Done right, sportswriting can be just as impactful as any other kind of journalism or storytelling, even if the subject matter seems a little more trivial of a subject than others are writing about.
Baseball as a subject matter has endured as fertile ground for many artists, across many mediums. Having been played professionally for 150 years and counting, millions of people have connected with the game of baseball in some way, shape, or form. For those of us who are in that boat, whether through playing the game of baseball, teaching it, writing about it, or just simply watching it and enjoying it as a fan, I think it’s fair to say that there’s a degree of romanticism and mystique to this beautiful game that is special.
A collection of essays about 100 of the greatest players to ever pick up a baseball across the entire history of the sport is a pretty ambitious endeavor. Choosing the specific 100 subjects to cover was surely no easy task for Posnanski, who himself is one of the greatest of all-time in his profession.
Like anything in baseball, there are adjustments to account for when you’re evaluating such matters, like the different baseball environments and epochs that have spanned the vast history of the sport. Everything about The Baseball 100 is wonderful, from the storytelling to the meticulous rollout of the collection across the majority of the baseball offseason, to the community response to the collection. If you subscribe to The Athletic, it’s worth your time to explore every single essay in the collection, even for, and perhaps especially for, the players you may not be all that familiar with.
The order of the list is not as relevant as one might imagine, because it was never intended to be used as a tool to rank how much better Player X was than Player Y in any meaningful way. It’s certainly sparked some lively debate and discussion among people from across the broad spectrum of the baseball community over whose favorite got snubbed and things of that nature. But the best part of the collection as a whole is that each of the players who have an essay dedicated to them has a unique story, a story expertly crafted by Posnanski and his editors at The Athletic, and no two stories are the same.
When he’s not doing serious sportswriting, Posnanski has one of the more delightful podcasts you can find anywhere, The PosCast
, that he often co-hosts alongside Michael Schur, the television producer and writer who has created some of my favorite shows of the last few years, namely Parks and Recreation and The Good Place. Each episode, Posnanski and Schur yammer about sports and non-sports topics with a free-flowing conversational style in which irreverence is celebrated, and seriousness is nowhere to be found.
Roughly two-thirds of the way through the April 14, 2020 episode
of The PosCast, in which Posnanski is discussing The Baseball 100 with Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto and The Athletic senior writer C. Trent Rosecrans, Votto makes an observation that struck me as really profound.
The three are discussing where baseball’s current greatest player, Mike Trout, may ultimately land on the list of the game’s immortals when it’s all said and done, and somewhere within a long answer about how special a player Trout is, and the game’s greatest players are, Votto says the following:
“I do think that the game is his canvas,” Votto says, about Trout and his ability to play the game at such a high level that it’s almost akin to watching a master artist at work. “I think that the game is a lot of players’ canvases.”
“The game is his canvas.”
There’s just something really beautiful about the way that Votto expresses that sentiment, and I could not agree more. I’ve always found myself in awe of the way that sports, and baseball in particular, often feel like a blend of both pure artistic expression, as well as rigorous scientific precision. Even as the scientific parts that I find so fascinating have become so widely mainstream in baseball, my love for the artistic elements has never waned.
When I came of age as a baseball fan, it was the so-called “Moneyball” era, in which objective, empirical, evidence-based, scientific evaluation, and analysis became more and more prominent to the point that nowadays you won’t find a single major league organization today who isn’t using a significant amount of those fundamental elements in their evaluation processes.
This isn’t new, of course. Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen, wrote a book entitled, “The Science of Hitting,” back in 1970. The aggressive shifting of defensive players to specific batters’ strengths and weaknesses that is so common in today’s game was famously deployed against Williams back in the 1946 World Series. Science and evidence-based analysis is not an enemy of the artistic side of baseball, but a complement.
Nowadays, some fans get disillusioned by the fact that strikeouts, home runs, and walks (the so-called “Three True Outcomes” of baseball
) are reaching record highs year after year, and it’s understandable. Fewer balls being put in play and able to be fielded takes away from defensive opportunities by the fielders, which are oftentimes the most exciting elements of a given game.
But if you focus too much on what’s missing, you can lose focus on the beauty of what baseball has today. Pitching is an art form unlike nearly anything else in sports. The game can’t proceed until the pitcher throws the next pitch.
Players, coaches, scouts, analysts, and even fans who can access free public databases online are armed with more information than ever before. From traditional scouting reports of specific players’ and teams’ strengths and weaknesses to more advanced data science analysis reports that can measure everything from the spin rate of each pitch in revolutions per minute to the amount of biomechanical stress being put on a player’s elbow, the wealth of information can be daunting to sift through, but a valuable tool.
But the beauty of how simple a game baseball is? You still have to throw that pitch. You still have to get that batter out. There’s still no clock, no time winding down before a game is over. Three outs, every half-inning, always. You can use any measurements you want to predict the probabilities of what may happen next. You still have to get those outs, and you still have to score more runs than the opposing team. How you get there? There’s always been a science to it, but there will always be an art to it, too. It’s always been both.
Some players grew up playing stickball in the streets. Some grew up using empty milk cartons as gloves, or pebbles in lieu of an official game ball. There are those who have lived and breathed the game since someone who loved them first placed a ball in the crib. Some people discover the game when they’re a little older and find themselves absolutely captivated by it. There’s no wrong way to discover your love for the game and follow those passions.
There is such an art that goes into the game of baseball being played at or coached at a high level, and you can see it and feel it whether you’re in the uniform yourself or just watching intently from foul territory.
Appreciate the game for what it is today, what it’s been across generations for the past 150 years, and what it can become over the next 150. Don’t be a community gatekeeper who judges others for not being a “real” or “true” enough fan because they love the game a different way than you love it.
Appreciate that we’re all in a community together. Substitute baseball for any other community. Sports, music, neighborhoods, whatever community we’re a part of together. Celebrate your community, don’t put a litmus test on who gets to be a part of it. Celebrate the differences among us just as much as the similarities. Being together in spirit is beautiful. Appreciate the beauty.
As playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
We all miss sports, and when these interesting times we live in allow us to return to some kind of normalcy, I think we will see more of an appreciation for the romanticism of why we love what we love, and how we foster and maintain communities around the greatest passions in our lives. The more we do our part to flatten the curve
, the greater our chances are of lessening the burden on our frontline workers so that they can keep our communities alive and well. Hopefully in a year and change, we can return to the simplest of problems, like worrying about whether Team X drafted the right Player Y.