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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

December 28, 2007 at 4:24 PM

How “expert” are ball writers?

Hope everybody had a wonderful Christmas. Been checking in on what you’ve all been up to and I see this whole “do-or-don’t” debate on trading for Erik Bedard is really picking up steam. Lots of great points on both sides. As I wrote several weeks ago, there is no clear-cut answer to this question. Had to chuckle a little more recently when I saw the debate turn to the merits of my “expert” opinions on baseball. I start to get nervous whenever the word “expert” is employed in connection with baseball knowledge and I’ll tell you why.

This game frustrates the heck out of people. I mean, it should be easy. You pitch the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. Team that scores more runs wins the game, right? There you have it, now we can all go home. Sounds simple, right?
Oh, my.
Let me tell you, the moment you actually believe that to be true, this game has you beat. Absolutely walloped. In my “expert” opinion, the best way to be an “expert” at opining on this game is to accept that you are not an expert. Now, what does that mean, exactly?
In my interpretation, it’s to accept that no matter how strongly you believe in something, there is a fairly good chance that you are wrong.
It means that no matter how much you think you know about something, there is somebody out there who knows a heck of a lot more than you do.
Also, that no matter how much of an “expert” you think that other person (the one smarter than you about baseball) is, there will always be a time when someone else comes along and knocks him on his butt.
Baseball was not my game growing up. I’ve forgotten more about NHL hockey history and trivia than many U.S. beat writers will ever know about the game, but by no means can I write about the sport as “expertly” as they can.
I was a football guy, played at a decently high level in Canada, alongside many other guys (at least 10 by my count) who went on to play professionally. I know what it feels like, as an outside linebacker, to have to take on a 300-pound pulling guard and somehow plug up a hole so that the tailback doesn’t sprint by you on a counter-play. As a receiver, I know what it feels like to get jammed at the line by a physical cornerback capable of benching 350 pounds or more.
Does that mean I can sit down at my keyboard and get into a written debate with Times NFL writer Danny O’Neill about which blitz scheme is going to give you a better shot at knocking off the New England Patriots? No way. O’Neill is a seasoned NFL writer. If I go in cold, he will whup me bad.
Which brings me back to this whole “expert” thing on baseball. Here’s a tip. Nobody is an expert on it. No, thats not a cop-out. Just go online, to any site in which baseball debates rage, and see for yourself. Some people think Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane is a genius. Others point out that White Sox GM Kenny Williams, reviled throughout the book “Moneyball” has won one more World Series than Beane. Still more will argue that Williams isn’t all that bright even if he did win a title.
All I can say is, if a GM who built a World Series team isn’t viewed as all that bright by some people, what chance does a poor old ex-Little Leaguer like me (from Canada, no less) have? And that’s pretty much the way you have to go about looking at this whole baseball thing. I meet people on a daily basis who have spent 30 years or more working at this game on a professional level. A professional level! And I’m supposed to be more of an “expert” than they are?
Hard to swallow that argument.
I look at the whole baseball “expert” thing the way I used to approach playing football. You keep your head up all the time and learn to accept that no matter how good you think you are, how strong you think you are and how well prepared you think you are, there will be a few points in every game where somebody is just going to knock you on your tail. Learn to deal with that reality, shake it off, and come back strong and you learn to survive in this business.
Most writers are not professional baseball “experts” by any means. What we are is “writing experts” when compared to the general public. Anyone who doubts that should sit in front of their television monitor with a laptop and try to bang out a cohesive-looking game story in 15 minutes or less and limit it to about 700 words. So, the “writing experts” try to learn as they go along, leaning heavily on experience as the years pass, and try to tell you about the game the most interesting way they can.
Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it does not.
But do you know what? Joe Morgan was one heck of a baseball player and should be as expert a mind on the game as there is. How many of you out there believe the latter statement is true?
The one edge we do have as writers is limited access to the daily realities of the professional baseball world. Context is everything. You can create formulas on paper, draw up schematics for how something is supposed to work, then cross your fingers all you like. But things don’t always work out in real life the way they look like they should in theory.
I do believe that’s the one area where writers can lend more strength to their words. We see things that other people do not. Does that make us “too close” to our subjects? Maybe it does in some cases. But I find it difficult to believe that seeing as much as you can about the inner workings of something will ultimately weaken your position.
Hey, this isn’t an excuse for writers not to be versed about the statistical side of things. To ignore that component and go only with a first-person, “what my eyes tell me” kind of mindset removes much of the earlier, firsthand edge I talked about.
I don’t want this post to go on forever. What is the one element of professional baseball that I think most casual fans miss, or don’t take seriously enough? The constant need to win.
Yes, it exists. It is very real, not just a Hollywood scriptwriter’s fantasy. There is no real room in the major leagues, or minor leagues, for any player to ever feel comfortable about his status. The players do work. All the time. Behind the scenes. Sometimes, the most talented of them can dog-it for a while and get by, but those cases are rare.
It’s the same with the coaches and front office. They feel the pressure to win every single day. We can all wax philosophically about whether Seattle’s ownership is truly committed to building a champion (as opposed to just a decent team that draws fans and makes money) but I can tell you that line of thinking does not trickle down to the front office. It simply can’t. I don’t know a team out there that says “Hey, we’ll just blow off the next two or three years and then really go for it once we’re ready!”
Yes, plenty of teams do rebuild. But trust me, no GM is sitting there yawning through a 65-win season. No manager smiles and says “Wow, we came close to snapping that seven-game losing streak and by golly, we’ll get ’em next time!”
In pro baseball, there isn’t always a next time. No matter how supportive ownership may seem of a rebuilding plan. No matter how patient an owner may seem at letting his moneymaking team stay mediocre on paper. The pressure to win, day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out, in baseball is felt by everybody from the front office on down to the bat boys.
It’s worth keeping this in mind as we move ahead this winter and the debates intensify as to what the Mariners should do. I’m not trying to tell you how to think. I’m not an “expert” so I won’t do anything more than give you my opinions to either cherish or tear to pieces. What I am doing here is offering you some context. As writers, we can do that without becoming dreaded “experts”.



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