The Sports Gack
Times scribe Jonathan Mahler freezes my distaste for Bill Simmons in carbonite — SEE WHAT I DID THERE?! — in just three grafs
The 31 May New York Times Magazine profile of Bill Simmons is standard for that genre: "behold the rise of a snarker from the AOL farm team to" blah blah blah "gol-lee, a Melrose reference in a piece about the AL West!" blah. I have had the pleasure of seeing my own everyday work taskery transformed by a Times Mag journalist into a cutting-edge undertaking; it's the nature of that publication to confer consequence on its subjects, so I don't blame Simmons himself for the damply admiring description of how he marries sports commentary with TV references.
But while the hype isn't on him, buying into it is, and I get the feeling — from this piece, from others I've read about him, and from his own work — that Simmons is content to let people believe he's the first writer ever to use pop-culture references in or adjacent to sportswriting. Hey, maybe he is. It's definitely part of his brand, as is the forthright homerism about the Red Sox, but it's a frattily self-congratulatory brand that, while I've occasionally admired the writing and totally acknowledge the work ethic, I don't care for.
Credit to profiler Jonathan Mahler, though; he crams everything I dislike about Simmons™ into three grafs on the sixth page, starting with Simmons's apparent sabremetrophobia:
Simmons doesn't write much about baseball anymore — he has been turned off by the fetishization of statistics that now dominates coverage of the sport — but he still likes going to games. In late April, I met him and a couple of other guys for a day game at Dodger Stadium. The ballpark was almost empty. "That Giant thing was not good," Simmons said, referring to the recent beating of a Giants fan in the stadium parking lot. "Also, the team being taken over by the commissioner — not good for fan support."
I assume that the "fetishization of statistics" line is a paraphrase of Simmons and not Mahler editorializing about baseball writing, but either way, it put me in mind of Lee Siegel whining about LOLcats. I suspect that Simmons wouldn't characterize it as "fetishization" if he understood — or, more to the point, tended to get credit for inventing — the statistics in question. Instead, it reads the way it inevitably did with Joe Morgan: he doesn't want to learn new stats or formulas, and he resents the fact that his failure to participate is not then the end of them, that they continue to exist and even, because he refuses to learn about them, seem to "dominate coverage."
I'd actually like to know if sports coverage now is stat-heavier than, say, 20 years ago, simply by volume…but I don't think it is. The stats themselves have changed, but it's not like Jerry Izenberg painted a portrait of Wally Backman's batting average during a Cubs series using only synonyms for "mediocre," back in the day. He wrote something like, "Backman hit .193 against Chicago pitching." That's a stat. Get over it. "But baseball is about the stories on th–" I know. I agree. Stats have stories in them; Bill James, who is the grandfather of many of these stats, and who works in the front office of the Red Sox, has said dozens of times that he created various equations because the existing formulae didn't tell him enough about the stories he saw or heard in the stands. He wanted to make shooting the breeze concrete. There is poetry in math, and it takes 14 seconds to learn what VORP is and how it's calculated, after which brief time you can bust on the likes of, say, Derek Jeter with more authority. Get over it.
And in the second place, even if we concede that arcane stats have choked the life out of baseball writing, that only explains why Simmons might not read about baseball much anymore, not why he doesn't write about it. If he really believes WAR and BABIP have swamped the boat of baseball coverage, wouldn't he want to get down on his knees and bail with regular columns of his own on the subject, to counteract all the mathy poindexter goings-on? Or does he just not feel like he can write credibly on baseball without using them himself — which perhaps is why he dislikes them to begin with?
Or is it that, now that the Red Sox have completed their transformation from official team of the Vale of Tears to perennial powerhouse, he doesn't care that much anymore? Is he a foul-weather fan? Hey, that's okay, if it's the case. Rooting for a crap team is really really fun in its way, especially if you do love baseball for the stories, because nothing has better, more plentiful punchlines than a team whose ace is a knuckler who's almost my age. (For example.) (Sigh.) I get it. But just say so. Don't make it about begrudging ideas whose time has come.
Speaking of crap teams, if Chavez Ravine is empty these days, it's likely because the Dodgers have not played good baseball to date. Or…because we've had a cold spring. Or…because it's still a tough economy, and a family trip to the park isn't doable for lots of people, or because the commute to Dodger Stadium is an ass-tear, or or or. The Wilponigans with Madoff and that New Yorker article and whatever else don't have thing one to do with whether I make it out to Citi Field, and it's a different situation, but if I'm a Dodger fan, I'm more psyched to follow the team now that MLB took it away from the McCourts, not less. I feel certain I heard Mike Schur say as much on Joe Posnanski's podcast (which is a great listen — loose, lo-fi, and fun) when the power transfer first went down. Any Dodger fans want to weigh in here? Simmons lives out there, so fine, but the remark didn't seem to proceed from that. It didn't seem to proceed from any actual information; it seemed like just something to say.
Simmons spoke with more apparent authority on the subject of Sox fans themselves, and while he's perhaps a foul-weather fan of the team, he's an all-weather fan of other Sox fans. Marvel at the hypocrisy (or don't; it's fairly typical of him) as Simmons — attired in a clothing item that, while it doesn't necessarily indicate fratbaggishness, is certainly strongly correlated with it — harshes on a Dodger fan's kit:
Simmons, who was wearing camouflage shorts and a T-shirt, got a hot dog with mustard and we found our seats behind home plate. "How do you feel about a guy with his own name on the back of his jersey?" Simmons asked, pointing out a man a few rows in front of us in a Dodgers shirt, the name "Scotty G" written across the back. "It's like a double violation. You'd never see that a Red Sox game. He's everything you'd want 'Scotty G' to look like, too, with the slicked-back hair and blue sunglasses."
How petty is Sarah? This petty: I actually checked baseball-reference.com to see if "Scotty G" might refer to a current or recent-past Dodger. It doesn't, and I agree that putting your own name on a team jersey is sort of smurfy. What it isn't is noteworthy. You see it on kids at Citi all the time. The guy probably got it as a gift. So what?
What bugs the most, though, is Simmons snotting that you "would never" see that at Fenway. What Simmons (and Mahler) fails to point out is that you'd never see that at Yankee Stadium, either — because New York and Boston do not put player names on their jerseys at all, only the numbers. You see names on t-shirts sometimes, but not on jerseys, so "never" seeing that at Fenway is not so much a point of comparison — and what you do see at Fenway, among other things, is a bunch of bandwagon-jumping Chi Psi twats and their Dane-Cook-fan girlfriends wearing the green or pink red-B ballcaps and bugging out unironically to Neil Diamond. I have nothing against the Red Sox (except Papelbon), Fenway, or the vast majority of Red Sox Nation, but acting like that fandom isn't the host organism for a super-strain of asshole at least as virulent as the L.A. variety is ridiculous.
Oh, look. Here's that asshole now.
A little later, Simmons spotted a trio of heavyset women in tank tops and cut-off jeans shorts, drinking what appeared to be frozen daiquiris out of plastic Dodger cups. "Look, it's 'Sex and the City'!" he said.
If he'd come right out and said, "NO FAT CHICKS!!!1!!", I miiiiight have a perverse respect for him, but no. He tried to sneak it in there, and the reference is limp in the first place.
Whatever I've thought about his writing in the past, Simmons is evidently hardening into that self-regarding, incurious, middle-aged well-in-my-day blowhard who mistakes endurance for relevance and decibels for insight. He's a talented writer, but he's coasting on shtick, and if he's not interested in letting any new information or opinions in, why should we give a shit about the ones that come out anymore?
Tags: bad baseball writing Bill James Bill Simmons Derek Jeter Fire Joe Morgan RIP fratty bubelatties Jerry Izenberg Joe Posnanski Jonathan Crapelbon Jonathan Mahler Lee Siegel mathy fun times Michael Schur sexism shut up Dan Shaughnessy shut up leprechauns Wally Backman