Defending Murray Chass
by Ken Arneson
2007-03-04 1:32

If you spend any time working as any sort of designer or engineer, you quickly discover that human beings are absolutely horrible at explaining what they want. A client will come to you and insist on some crazy feature (“We need a big photograph in the middle of this web page”) which to an expert is just obviously a bad idea for five reasons you can think of right away, and another couple dozen reasons lurking beyond, and so you have to delicately steer the conversation to dig down beneath the surface of this seemingly stupid request to find the real reason they suddenly want this change. You ask dozens of questions and pick apart what they say until you discover that the problem has nothing to do with a lack of photographs at all, they just want the page to have more three-dimensional depth. So you simply add a drop shadow to the border, and all is well.

The human mind is like that. We’re very good at sensing when something isn’t quite right, but we’re really awful at consciously understanding what the problem is and how to solve it. Still, that doesn’t stop us from guessing. Weirdest of all, we convince ourselves that our guess isn’t a guess: this really IS the problem, and we really DO need this solution.

So when Murray Chass goes rambling that these newfangled statistics are ruining the game, I thought, I recognize this pattern. It’s an obviously preposterous statement. But this isn’t coming from some ignorant blowhard message board troll, it’s coming from a Hall-of-Fame writer. There probably is a real problem here, but the problem is not VORP, and the solution isn’t to ban it.

Here’s the key statement:

But their attempt to introduce these new-age statistics into the game threatens to undermine most fans’ enjoyment of baseball and the human factor therein.

The idea that statistics can undermine the enjoyment of baseball is obviously preposterous. It’s easy to provide plenty of counterexamples to prove that statement false. The real problem, if I can read between the lines a bit, is this: Nobody has any friggin’ idea why fans enjoy baseball.

When we ask the question, “Why do teams win?”, we can respond with precise measurements like OPS and WARP and VORP. But when we ask the (IMO) more important question, “Why do we watch?”, we fumble around for answers like, well, design clients.

Baseball is a sort of Age of Enlightment when it comes to understanding why teams win. The Bill James, Nate Silver, and Tom Tango characters of this era are transforming our understanding of how teams win, just as Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton transformed our understanding of how the universe works.

But when we try to understand why we’re so fascinated by this sport, we’re still in the Dark Ages. Sure, we’ll make guesses, but our guesses are pretty much the equivalent of describing the sun as a burning chariot traveling across the sky. We talk not in measurements, but in vague terms like “the human factor.” Basically, when it comes to why people watch baseball, we’re primitive barbarians who still believe in magic.

Never get between a barbarian and his magic. I’d explain why, but it’s a long, tall tale.

Comments: 7
1.   Adam B
2007-03-04 06:21

1.  This is the same guy who made up a story on the Dodgers considering filing tampering charges against the Red Sox over J.D. Drew because Chass let his homerism out when he wrote an article about the issue. Seth Mnookin (author of Feeding The Monster) debunked those claims.

2.   Xeifrank
2007-03-04 08:55

2.  at best case, I'd say it's a sense of "Who Moved My Cheese" on Murray's behalf. You know the whole deal about people getting comfy and not adjusting well to change. Just out of curiousity how old is Murray and what is his baseball background? ie-journalist in Boston paper for 20 years
vr, Xei

3.   Bob Timmermann
2007-03-04 09:08

3.  Murray Chass's Spink Award bio:

4.   Elliot
2007-03-04 09:51

4.  My first thought was basically was Xeifrank just said. Matt Cerrone of Metsblog let out some interesting information when he noted in passing this week that Murray Chass once emailed Matt, basically scolding him, asking "What gives you the right to write about baseball?" In various ways, Chass' reaction isn't surprising at all. Imagine being classically trained at carpentry or shoemaking or web design, and then having new technology render your training useless as just about anyone can make up the gap fairly easily. So I don't begrudge Chass for feeling like he does, only for his self-reverence in the first place and lack of class and grace.

5.   yankz
2007-03-04 10:57

5.  I've been a baseball fan for a very long time, and for the past few years, I've been trying to figure out why I'm so addicted. One day it just hit me, and it was amazing, and I wrote a really long essay about it. It has a lot to do with the "magic" you describe. I'm sure there's more to the reason, and I'm also sure it's different for every person.

6.   Andrew Shimmin
2007-03-04 14:17

6.  If long and tall, the tale was also excellent. I'm sorry I missed it the first time around.

7.   Tangotiger
2007-03-08 13:09

7.  The reason we watch baseball, in graph form:

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