This month on the n+1 podcast, we talk about baseball. First, Will Augerot joins us to lay out the statistical qualities of the game. Then, Richard Beck and Cosme Del Rosario-Bell question whether baseball goes beyond group therapy.
Hosted by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen
Audio Engineer: Malcolm Donaldson
Produced by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen
Graphics by Eric Wen
Music from Dinosaur L, Peter Lang, Judee Sill, Kevin Morby, The Feelies, James Chance and the Contortions
Malcolm Donaldson: This is the n+1 podcast. This month, we’re talking about baseball, and we’re talking about talking about baseball. In the first interview, podcast editor Aaron Braun speaks with Will Augerot, our resident Mets expert. And in the other, Aaron sits down with associate editor Richard Beck and business manager Cosme Del Rosario-Bell. Will lays out the statistical qualities of the game, while Cosme and Rich question whether baseball goes beyond group therapy. Here’s Will:
SEGMENT 1: Interview with Will Augerot Part 1
Will Augerot: It’s simultaneously a team sport, but each moment and action in a game is discrete, and other than turning a double play, some things like that are more collaborative. But for the most part, each player is on his own. The pitcher is on his own, coordinating with the catcher of course, but the pitcher has to throw his pitch—it’s not the same as a point-guard getting an assist or something like that. And the batter is just there. He’s on his own. Unless someone’s stealing signs and telling him what the pitch is going to be, or something like that. But it’s less of a team sport than other sports, and it’s also more random because you can string together hits. If you get a few hits in a row, maybe you’ll score a few runs, and if you spread the hits out, if you get one hit per inning and you have nine hits in a game, and they’re all singles, you’re not going to score any runs. If you get nine hits in a row, nine singles in a row in the first inning, you’re going to score, you know, seven runs or something like that. And that sort of randomness and ordering of things doesn’t exist in other sports that I can think of off the top of my head.
Aaron Braun: No sport does statistics like baseball.
WA: Definitely not. And, yeah, statistics are really important. You can look at a box score and recreate the whole game and know everything that happened in that game pretty well, and you can write a play-by-play of the game. You can write a report on the game, just based on looking at the box score, and you couldn’t do that with basketball.
SEGMENT 2: Interview with Richard Beck and Cosme Del Rosario-Bell Part 1
AB: How do you feel when the national anthem comes on at a baseball game? Is it something that causes internal dialogue?
Richard Beck: Yes. Well, not dialogue—I just, I always dislike it a ton. Most of the time, when I hear the national anthem at a sporting event, it’s a baseball game, because I go to more baseball games than other sporting events, but it has always struck me as a horrible tick of U.S. chauvinism, that the national anthem gets played every time there’s a game played—and not just professional sports but every college sporting event, and I think high school sporting events have the national anthem, too.
RB: You really have to get down to small children before they’re not doing the national anthem anytime a game gets played.
Cosme Del Rosario-Bell: Right.
RB: You were talking earlier about standing up vs. not standing up.
AB: Yeah, I was saying that my family, historically, has not stood for the pledge of allegiance.
CDRB: Pledge of allegiance?
AB: Wait, what was I saying before? The national anthem?
RB and CDRB: National anthem.
AB: See, I can’t even tell the two apart. But that, too. Yeah, anything except for the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” because good leftists—
CDRB: Great tune.
AB: —appreciate and respect Abraham Lincoln. And we would always just go get snacks, except for this one time when my parents weren’t there and I was with my Australian cousin, and he had this strange way that he thought he was being really respectful. The way he explained it was, this is not my country, so I will not stand for it, because it’s not my country.
RB: Like not taking communion at a Catholic mass if you’re not a Catholic.
AB: Yeah. I mean, I’ve never done it, the communion, but yeah.
CDRB: But did he still get yelled at by some Long Island dad?
AB: Yeah. And his son was there, too, and it was clearly breeding the next generation of Trump voters.
CDRB: The Long Island dad’s son was there.
AB: He was definitely showing off for the son—
RB: Did your parents not stand for the national anthem in any context, or was it only at baseball?
AB: Yeah, almost in no context. At my sister’s graduation . . .
RB: They also sat?
AB: Yeah. Ken Burns gave the commencement address. It was so long.
RB: Nine parts?
AB: Yeah, seriously.
RB: Nine hour-long installments?
AB: And I was like, seven. I had no time for it.
RB: Did your parents get grief for not standing for the national anthem?
AB: I think that contrary to the stereotype, they took really strong positions but did everything possible to hide those positions from other people, because they wanted to be able to take those personal stands but still, like, avoid them.
RB: But not make a spectacle of them.
AB: But not make a spectacle of them. So, yeah, always get snacks during the game, things like that.
CDRB: My tactic has been, since I’ve only just recently restarted going to baseball games . . . usually I’m coming from work, and I’m already pretty late, and I like to take notes for the game. I like to do the scorecard, so usually I’m just furiously pretending, or actually putting in the lineups because I didn’t get them in on time. So if somebody looks at me, usually I think—I hope—that they are seeing somebody very dedicated to the sport, just, like, behind.
RB: Or just an oblivious nerd.
CDRB: Or just an oblivious nerd, yeah.
RB: Right. Not a political actor.
CDRB: Not a political actor.
SEGMENT 3: Interview with Will Augerot Part 2
WA: You can really relive something just by looking at the box score, and it happens less and less, but you’ll see, you know, if you go to Citi Field, you’ll see people with scorecards filling them out, and it’s because they want to remember the game. And when I’m writing about baseball, the most helpful thing for me is baseballreference.com. I can go back and look at any box score of any game that’s happened in the last hundred years, and know what happened, and when and it’s really helpful. I wouldn’t have been able to write those pieces without that resource. And I’m sure that anyone else writing . . .
AB: There are all these discrete points of data. This person was batting .260.
AB: But their slugging percentage was .400, as opposed to like .300.
AB: And the pitcher was this, and had had a really bad day the night before. Or something like that.
AB: If it was David Wells, he was probably hung-over.
AB: Is there a downside to what you were talking about earlier, with being able to, reduce games to numbers? Because usually, when I hear people talking about that, it’s in a negative light. They’ll talk about Statcast, for example.
AB: And the kind of churning of baseball into numbers and decisions by managers being made based on those numbers. Do you see that as a downside?
WA: I can see why someone would think that it’s a downside, that baseball is reducible to numbers in a way that other sports aren’t. But personally I think that the way that it is concrete allows a writer or a fan to create all these fantasies about what’s going on and have fun with it, you know, and I think that that’s why there are all these superstitions around baseball, and all these curses and stuff, because it’s . . . in a weird way, I think that baseball is kind of manageable.
AB: So in a way, what you’re saying is that the tendency towards reducing baseball to numbers—which at first glance would, at least to me, seem like a way of controlling, bringing order to something that seems completely random—is perhaps the very thing that kind of fuels superstition and, like, fantasy.
WA: I think so, yeah. You know, people who are really into math are really into baseball, and people who are really into writing are really into baseball.
AB: Is there something odd about that to you?
WA: No. I don’t think so. I think that it might not be the obvious thing, but I do think that it’s somehow transparent and mysterious at the same time.
SEGMENT 4: Interview with Richard Beck and Cosme Del Rosario-Bell Part 2
RB: Is singing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch . . . my recollection is that that did not happen before 9/11.
AB: At Yankee stadium, that’s how I remember it.
RB: That it didn’t happen before 9/11.
AB: Didn’t happen before 9/11.
RB: Because now they have—I mean, this is also just because there are so many more sort of special edition caps—but now they have the cap that has the American flag on the side. I forget what holiday that’s for.
CDRB: President’s Day, or something. All the holidays.
AB: All of them.
RB: Well, because now they have a Memorial Day cap, where they do it in camo—
RB: —which in addition to being obnoxious is just so ugly. It’s unspeakable.
AB: Yeah. And they also have the Fourth of July cap, right?
CDRB: Oh, where the logo is in stars and stripes?
RB: It’s in stars and stripes. And they do a different version of it every year. I don’t think there’s a Labor Day cap. But there’s one that has the flag on the side.
AB: If they’re going to do camo caps, they should do the trendier camo that’s like the trees . . .
CDRB: Oh. Realtree.
AB: Yeah, like Realtree. It should be Realtree.
CDRB: I would buy a Realtree New York Yankees jersey.
RB: What’s Realtree?
CDRB: Realtree is what hunters wear.
RB: I remember that baseball, like everything else, got really nationalistic when 9/11 happened. And of course the World Series in 2001, the Yankees were in it. They had to stop the playoffs for a few days. That was the only playoffs that were happening when 9/11 occurred.
RB: So they postponed things for a little while. And then everyone was so excited that the Yankees got to the World Series, and sad that they lost, I think, to the Diamondbacks that year.
CDRB: Oh my god, yeah.
AB: Wow. I had forgotten about that.
RB: But it was still this very, very sentimental, heartwarming thing that they made it back. And that’s where George W. Bush threw out the first pitch, right?
CDRB: I think you’re right, yeah. I mean, my entire memory of that World Series is that one little hit by Luis Gonzalez off of Mariano to win in Game 7.
AB: I definitely remember being in PJs watching those games.
CDRB: Yeah. It was devastating. All other political, contextual—it was very much overshadowed by that dumb hit.
RB: The actual mechanics of the game and the way it’s played and who plays it I think map very poorly onto old-time American nationalism, because it’s such an international sport.
RB: It’s got all these, you know, literary qualities, it’s slow, it’s fairly effete. Whereas when you watch someone play football, you think that must be American.
RB: Who else could possibly invent that sport?
AB: But also, it’s meant to replicate war.
RB: And also, the engine of the game is violent hyper-masculinity. That’s how you play football well: by embodying this ethos of violence and aggression.
CDRB: I mean, imagine if after every single groundball out, every single infielder just butted heads and slapped each other’s butt, every single time.
AB: That’s what was amazing about the Wilmur Flores thing: he cried on the field openly, the Mets shortstop, because he thought he was being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, and he had basically been raised, had always been in their farm system, and he started crying—
RB: Yeah, since he was seven or eight.
AB: —he started crying, and everyone just loved him more for it, even though he wasn’t doing very well. There was a reason he was maybe going to get traded. He hadn’t been doing very well.
AB: And, you know, fans aren’t that forgiving. And then—
CDRB: And even though he—
AB: —and then he cried and all these dudes, older dudes from Queens were like, that guy’s for real, you know?
RB: “Good kid.”
RB: And I think football is also particularly nationalistic now because baseball, I don’t know what the percentage is, but some huge number of professional baseball players is not born in the US.
AB: And baseball has always been kind of sucking talent from other countries, other places. The star pitcher for the Yankees right now is from Japan. And a lot of the reason why . . . I think if you asked Cuban fans, the average speed of pitches on Cuban baseball teams is lower than American teams because the upper, echelon of players, like Yasiel Puig, all go to the US.
RB: They all defect, or escape.
AB: To what extent are you cynical about the fact that there will be trading of players between the U.S. and Cuba, and to what extent are you optimistic about that? You know, in the same way that somebody can have an argument about whether it’s going to be okay that Walmarts are going to start popping up in Cuba. How do you feel in terms of baseball?
CDRB: In terms of baseball’s potential effect on the Cuban . . . I’m not an expert, but the thing that I think needs to be realized is that the Cuban political, cultural, economic situation is not a good situation. Like at this point, it seems, from what I can tell, it seems that all of the hope for the revolution is pretty much gone. You know what I mean? There’s like . . . I grew up with parents who were very much supporters—sympathizers of the revolution. My mom goes to Cuba every other year and has friends there, and so does my dad. But it seems that has all has been drained . . . so, like, I guess what I’m trying to say is I don’t think that baseball needs to be the point. I think at this point, we just need to figure out harm reduction.
AB: Just a note—because we were talking about this earlier, off tape—there has been a proposal to form some sort of association that represents Cuban baseball players and the Cuban government and other sports professionals, Cuban sports professionals, so it’ll be interesting to see what that will look like.
RB: I think what you were saying is right, that whatever is happening with the government there and the U.S. relationship with Cuba, baseball’s not going to play a huge role in it, aside from a symbolic one.
RB: So, to your question about whether I’m cynical or optimistic, I think basically optimistic, because the very good players in Cuba who want to play in the major leagues should be able to without having to try and escape to America via a cigarette boat. We were talking about this earlier, but—I had sort of known this story—but it seems wild to me that this isn’t an extremely famous story, that Yasiel Puig, in order to get to the U.S., had to contract with a drug cartel, and was essentially kidnapped for a while, and he paid somebody a bunch of money to kidnap him.
CDRB: He was, like, sequestered in a hotel off the coast of Cancun, or something like that.
RB: Right. They threatened to chop off his arm if someone didn’t show up with the correct amount of money.
CDRB: Because this was all being negotiated through some sort of talent handler in Miami, or something like that.
AB: Well I had read that, because of the baseball regulations, it actually makes more sense for players—or players are more likely to get a better deal if they defect to Mexico—
AB: —and then try and get into the U.S. through Mexico, instead of just defecting and going straight—
AB: —to Miami.
CDRB: Somehow paying drug dealers, or paying, like, actual cartels money for Cuban players is better than giving Cuba money—
CDRB: —for, I guess, sports development? I would really want to hear somebody making that very hardline economic argument, in a political context.
RB: Well, Matthew Yglesias will get right on it.
RB: I think someone died during Yasiel Puig’s trafficking process. I think someone was killed, so that he could come to the U.S. to play baseball for the Dodgers. So—
CDRB: So he could get all the conservative baseball fans in uproar about his Latino bat flip and how it’s ruining the game.
RB: Right. Although this is an area where I salute Bryce Harper, who . . . I’m a Phillies fan, so I dislike the Nationals as much as possible.
AB: Yeah, where are you going with this?
RB: Bryce Harper is the most prominent person to say openly, cut it out. Let people celebrate and have fun if they want to. It’s a game. It’s supposed to be fun. So I give him credit for that, about this dynamic that happens where any time a non corn-fed American player wants to celebrate or smile or clap or high-five on the baseball diamond, Peter Gammons and whoever come out of the woodwork to say oh, you’re disrespecting the game, and then Jonathan Papelbon throws stuff at your head, and everyone’s mad.
SEGMENT 5: Interview with Richard Beck and Cosme Del Rosario-Bell Part 3
AB: That Chris Archer interview.
RB: Do you just want to set it up? Or just explain . . .
AB: Yeah. Absolutely. So Chris Archer is the star pitcher of the Tampa Bay Rays, no longer Devil Rays.
CDRB: No brighter light is coming from the organization currently than Chris Archer.
AB: Chris Archer, bright light, going to Cuba. He just is looking really good for the Rays, and he seems like a really sweet guy. And when the Rays played in Cuba—and this was at the time of the Brussels attack—and Chris Archer was the one person who kind of really introduced himself to President Obama, tried to give him one of his gloves, talked with Sasha and Malia—
CDRB: The glove was actually from the starting pitcher, who wasn’t able to shake his hand, I assume, because he was warming up. But he, being a good teammate . . .
AB: But see, he’s just a mensch, is the thing. And we were just listening to this interview, ESPN doing their best to kind of talk about Cuba with political seriousness, and . . . what did you guys think? What did you guys think about what he said about iPhones?
RB: Oh, he had a line in the interview where he was talking about his experience of Cuba and what it’s like meeting Cubans and walking around. And he had a thing where he said, it’s just great, they’re the most enthusiastic fans in the world, their love of life is contagious, and they don’t have phones so they have to interact with each other more.
CDRB: Which is just a classic kind of understanding of third world peoples in general.
CDRB: Just like, oh, their lives are just so much more communal because they just don’t have what we have. I mean that’s just classic.
RB: And also . . . this is not to denigrate his intelligence, but this is also a professional athlete talking, and I think about the David Foster Wallace essay a lot—not the Federer tennis one, but he has one about that second-rate tennis player, or someone who’s ranked 98th in the world, someone who’s good enough to be a professional tennis player. The point he’s making is just that when you’re a professional athlete, in order to be good enough to be even the worst professional athlete in the league, you’ve never done anything else with your life. All of your time has been spent playing that sport and thinking about that sport, and the extent to which you get to think about other things is very limited. So whenever I see a well-intentioned athlete say something a little clueless like that, I just think about that.
CDRB: Yeah. Totally. And this is absolutely not to bad talk Chris Archer. He’s doing his best as a young, thoughtful athlete to comment on something that is so much older than he is, and so weighted, without slipping up and making any major blunders on television, which is just like a classic sports-athlete-in-front-of-a-camera thing. And the fact that the team trusts him enough to have him be their spokesperson, especially in such a momentous game, is a pretty big deal.
AB: I thought it was kind of incredible that he was as complimentary as he was. I get what you’re saying about how romancing failed revolutions can be really misguided. But I do think it makes a difference, for example, if you live in a country where all baseball players make the same amount of money. And they do—the players that they really like, they’ll . . . it’s not actually fair.
RB: I think Puig made 17 before he signed with the Dodgers.
CDRB: Yeah. And I saw somewhere else that professional Cuban players now make 300 a month, or something like that. But I don’t know.
AB: I think that that is different than what people might say in American sports and American baseball. It’s a much more kind of hyper-individualistic way of thinking about your work and your goals and your—
RB: You mean because the salary discrepancies are so huge?
AB: Yeah. Because it is this kind of race to the top that allows organized baseball in turn to make a race to the bottom, in terms of treating the players that don’t make it.
CDRB: I mean, I think baseball is probably one of the—and I don’t know the exact details—but baseball, from my understanding, is one of the worst in U.S. sports in terms of equality between teams, in terms of wage books, you know. Even in football, there’s salary caps—
RB: Basketball too.
CDRB: Basketball too. Soccer. In the MLS, you need to have a certain amount of homegrown players vs. foreign players, and I think there’s also a kind of . . . there’s revenue sharing amongst the teams in the league. In baseball, it’s almost—
AB: I would disagree just in the sense that I think maybe football is more oligopolistic than baseball is, because at the same time, baseball, historically, has a really strong players’ union.
RB: That’s true.
AB: And I actually think the percentage of money that goes to players as a whole, even though that might be unequal between teams, is much higher.1 And I think football might be the worst, actually. So it’s like with football, all of the owners are working together to make sure that all of their teams are doing the same thing, but they’re also collectively pushing down on the players, where I think with baseball it’s a little—
RB: Yeah, baseball has clearly rich teams and poor teams, and teams that just will never have a shot at signing a superstar player, like they’re not even going to be in the conversation, whereas football, that playing field is a lot more level because of the salary cap. But also baseball players just get paid a lot more. You frequently read stories . . . there’s cautionary tales about, first of all, your career in the NFL is extremely short. On average, you only play for something like three and a half seasons. And if you’re a rookie, if you’re not a star player, you can make something like a couple hundred thousand dollars over the course of 3, 4 years, and then that’s it. Your career’s over and that’s the money you’ve made. Whereas, there was a post a couple months ago that I think Deadspin put up, which just warmed my heart, where it said, just to remind you about how good life is in baseball, here are the lifetime earnings of eight middle of the road middle relievers who you’ve never heard of. And it’s some guy who’s just been on eight different teams, he’s been in the league for nine years, he’s made like $52 million.
Malcolm Donaldson: That’s it for this episode. Thanks to Will Augerot, Richard Beck, Cosme Del Rosario-Bell, Dayna Tortorici, and the Brooklyn Public library. The podcast is produced by Aaron Braun, Moira Donegan, Malcolm Donaldson, and Eric Wen. Thanks for listening.
Turns out I was only half-right when I cited the MLB’s reputation of giving players overall the greatest share in league revenue. This was certainly true following the last MLB strike in 1994, but the trend has reversed dramatically in the last 10 years (fangraphs.com recently laid this out in chart-form). The players’ share has decreased by a third since peaking in 2002 falling behind the NFL (second) and the NBA (first). Some have blamed the union’s crusade against salary caps, which has made them dependent on a steady stream of mammoth contracts for a select few. —AB ↩