In September I wrote about Kenan Memorial Stadium at UNC Chapel Hill and its namesake, William Rand Kenan Sr., who murdered scores of blacks in the 1898 Wilmington Massacre.
This week I hosted NPR's sports show, "Only a Game," and produced a story about it.
Two weeks ago I wrote a story about the history of the namesake for the University of North Carolina's football stadium. The upshot: in 1898, William Rand Kenan Sr. -- for whom Kenan Memorial Stadium is named -- led a white supremacist paramilitary force which rode through Wilmington, North Carolina on a horse-drawn wagon, massacring dozens and possibly hundreds of black citizens with a machine gun. The aim: to commit a coup d’etat overthrowing the local government, led by blacks and their white Republican allies.
My aim in writing that story was to bring to light a dark chapter of American history the specifics of which had been long-buried, but the reverberations of which have lived on for 120 years. History has whitewashed the Wilmington Massacre itself, but a direct result of the massacre was full and thorough ushering in of the Jim Crow era, the effects of which are still felt socially and economically to this day. What's more, many of those responsible for Wilmington -- while having their crimes either excused or forgotten -- went on to fame, fortune, greatness and, in the case of Kenan, were immortalized in monuments to their memory.
When I wrote that story, I hoped that it would start a conversation that might lead to a greater awareness of just how much of modern American society rests on a foundation created by slaveowners and white supremacists. I hoped that, eventually, someone might ask whether or not a giant college football stadium, for example, should stand as a memorial to a guy like William Rand Kenan Sr.
I didn't think, however, that the conversation would last only two weeks:
UNC-Chapel Hill will change the name on a plaque at Kenan Memorial Stadium to distance the university from William Rand Kenan Sr., who was involved in the Wilmington racial violence of 1898. The plaque on the stadium will be altered to honor William Rand Kenan Jr., Kenan Sr.’s son . . .
While it's being couched as merely changing the plaque, the fact is that the place is "Memorial" stadium, with said memorial being the plaque. If you change who is being memorialized I think it's fair to say that, technically speaking, you are changing the name of the stadium. Or certainly the purpose of its name.
I likewise think that while changing the memorial to Kenan's son is something of a cute move by the university -- no new signs or letterhead or anything else needs to be ordered -- it is, in this case, significant enough.
As the university's chancellor noted in her official statement on the matter, the son -- William Rand Kenan Jr. -- is a far more important figure for the university. His multi-million dollar bequest to the university in the 1960s led to a $300 million+ foundation that continues to benefit the university in countless ways. While some of his money was, in fact, family money inherited from the Kenan's slave owning past, it was only a small fraction of it, earned at least a couple of generations before him. He built the vast majority of it through his work as an industrialist and inherited a great deal more through his sister who had married the oil man Henry Flagler who predeceased her.
To be sure, the slave holding past of the Kenans is significant and should be noted by the university (efforts are being made to do this) and, as I wrote in my story, Kenan Jr., like so many men of his time, chose to overlook and minimize what happened in Wilmington specifically and in America at large. They should not be absolved of that. It's the case, however, that Kenan Jr. was born after the Civil War, was not involved in Wilmington and does not have any documented history of active participation in white supremacist organizations, white supremacist history or white supremacist acts. Yeah, I realize that's a pretty low bar when it comes to memorializing someone, but in light of that and in light of his undeniable impact on the university during his lifetime and in the decades since his death, it does not strike me as inappropriate to memorialize him if UNC thinks it appropriate. Especially given that the alternative would be either keeping the current monument to a murderer or mounting a long and 100% certain-to-fail challenge to get any reference to the Kenans removed from the stadium.
Being satisfied with the move from Kenan Sr. to Kenan Jr. is not just a matter of pragmatism, however. I think there's a benefit to be had in doing it this way.
As a result of the removal of the current monument and the stadium's re-dedication, the university is committing to working with UNC's "history task force," which is charged with contextualizing the university's past. If they were to simply change the name of the place to "Tar Heel Stadium" it'd be pretty easy to paper over the Kenans and their history and pretend it never happened. By changing it to William Rand Kenan Jr., one holds out hope that there will be a bit more room, in the new memorial, to explain both his history and the history of the stadium's name change. That's what "contextualization" is, after all. William Rand Kenan Sr.'s actions in Wilmington were completely and utterly unknown by almost everyone before now. By keeping it Kenan, it'll be a lot harder to bury that uncomfortable history.
And that should make everyone happy, right? So many people who dislike the revisiting of our country's slave-owning and white supremacist past decry that to do so is to "erase" history. They should be pleased then, because this does the exact opposite. It brings history that had been intentionally obscured by darkness back into the light.
Good job, UNC. You have a long way to go to fully contend with your past, but at least in this instance you got it right.
On Saturday the University of North Carolina football team will host the Pitt Panthers in their home opener, kicking off the Tar Heels’ 92nd season in Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill. Almost none of the 40,000+ fans who will show up have any idea who the stadium is named after, and even those who think they do probably have it wrong.
They've likely heard the name Kenan, as it is an extraordinarily prominent name in and around UNC. One of the university’s founders was a Kenan. The business school is named after a Kenan as is a charitable trust that endows dozens of professorships and distributes numerous grants benefitting literacy, the arts, science, technology, and secondary school education. A Kenan is currently on the Board of Trustees for the UNC School of the Arts.
Almost all things Kenan at UNC are named after chemist, industrialist and developer William Rand Kenan Jr., an 1894 UNC graduate who, after teaming up with his brother-in-law, the oil man Henry Flagler, built railroads and made a fortune developing Miami and the Florida coast. When he died in 1965 he bequeathed most of his $95 million fortune to his alma mater. Today the trust that bears his name is worth over $300 million.
The football stadium is not named after William Rand Kenan Jr., however. Rather, at his request, and following a generous donation, it was named after his parents, William Rand Kenan Sr. and Mary Hargrave Kenan. It is they, according to a plaque affixed to a freestanding monument inside the stadium, who Kenan Memorial Stadium is intended to memorialize and continues to memorialize to this day.
Most fans entering Kenan Stadium probably don’t pay much attention to the plaque and, as a result, don’t know the first thing about William Rand Kenan Sr. Even if they did read it, though, they would not learn the most notable thing about him.
William Rand Kenan Sr. was the commander of a white supremacist paramilitary force which massacred scores of black residents of Wilmington, North Carolina on a single, bloody day in 1898.
For nearly a century the events which took place in Wilmington on November 10, 1898 were known as “The Wilmington Race Riot.” That very name, however, was a lie intended to obscure what really happened.
Long portrayed as a violent uprising of black instigators put down by heroic and noble white citizens fighting for law and order, it was, in fact, a massacre. It was simultaneously a coup d’etat in which a white militia, led by a former Confederate officer and a white supremacist named Alfred Moore Waddell, killed black residents in the streets and in their homes, chased even more out of town, burned black-owned businesses to the ground and overthrew the local government, led by blacks and their white Republican allies in a coalition born of the briefly-ascendent Fusion Movement, which had just been legitimately elected.
History has tended to portray the massacre as spontaneous. It was anything but. It was preceded by months of racial and political tensions, stoked by red shirt-wearing white supremacist Democrats who were aggrieved that in Wilmington, then North Carolina’s largest city, a Fusion government sought to protect the gains freed blacks had earned during Reconstruction. On election day in 1898 the red shirts attempted to steal ballots and drive black voters away from polling places. Those efforts failed and the black-Republican coalition held power.
That night a group of over 450 white men met at the courthouse and signed a so-called “White Declaration of Independence” which specifically called for the repeal of black voting rights and the banishment of black political and business leaders from the town. The following morning signatories to the Declaration burned the offices of the Wilmington Daily Record, — the town’s black-owned newspaper — to the ground and threatened its publisher with lynching. The massacre, planned out in advance and undertaken with deliberation, had begun.
History has likewise portrayed the violence in Wilmington that day as being carried out by an unruly mob. This is also a lie. The massacre was an organized paramilitary action in which the Wilmington Light Infantry, a state militia unit which had just returned from duty in the Spanish–American War, spread out over the city, taking it over street by street, killing black citizens in the process.
The most intimidating — and the most deadly — component of the Wilmington Light Infantry was was its machine gun squad, which commanded a rapid-firing Colt gun mounted on a horse-drawn wagon. The gun, capable of firing 420 .23 caliber rounds a minute, was not property of the United States Army or the state militia. Rather, it was purchased by local businessmen who, according to contemporary accounts, believed that the gun would “intimidate into quietude” those who saw the weapon and “overawe Negroes.” The machine gun squad was likewise itself not a military force. It was led by a Civil War veteran and local businessmen named William Rand Kenan Sr., with other local business owners under his command.
The bloodshed began when foot soldiers shot and killed blacks who had gathered on the street following the burning of the Daily Record’s offices. The massacre grew much deadlier when Kenan’s machine gun wagon crossed the Fourth Street Bridge into the predominantly black part of Wilmington known as Brooklyn. Its first fusillade came in response to what witnesses claimed to be sniper fire, though no sniper was ever found. According to eye-witnesses, the gun’s volley killed 25 blacks in a matter of seconds. Later, as Kenan’s machine gun squad proceeded past an area known as Manhattan Park, it was witnessed firing into a house where three black residents were killed. The gun was later used to threaten black churches into opening their doors to be searched for weapons whites believed blacks to be stockpiling and individuals white leaders deemed to be dangerous or subversive. No weapons were found but many black residents were marched out of hiding. Some were thrown in jail. Some were never seen again.
As the morning wore on, Kenan’s forces and other units of the Wilmington Light Infantry conducted house-to-house searches, intimidating residences into compliance, arresting blacks by the dozens and shooting those who gave even the slightest hint that they might resist. Some blacks who were specifically identified as influential in the community were hunted down and killed. As shots rang out, hundreds of black men, women and children fled town, some permanently, some to take shelter in nearby cemeteries and swamps until the violence subsided. By sundown, buildings in Wilmington’s black neighborhoods were pockmarked with bullet holes and anywhere from 60 to as many as 300 blacks had been killed. The exact number is lost to history due to white leaders’ hasty burial of bodies in mass graves and due to black witnesses either having fled town or having been intimidated into silence.
The next morning white leaders, with the backing of the Wilmington Light Infantry, forced the Republican Mayor, the board of aldermen, and the police chief to resign at gunpoint after which they and black leaders which had not been killed or who had not fled were marched to the train station and forced to leave the state under armed guard. That same day Alfred Moore Waddell — the white supremacist leader who orchestrated the events which led to the massacre — was named mayor, an office he would hold until 1905. The coup d’etat completed.
Within a year of the massacre the North Carolina legislature — determined to prevent blacks from holding political power like they did for a time in Wilmington — passed a new constitution which made it close to impossible for blacks to register to vote and imposed poll taxes and literacy tests that effectively disfranchised black voters completely. Nearly every other southern state would model laws on these North Carolina statutes. The “Solid South” of the Jim Crow era was secured and would remain in place, officially, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Unofficially, efforts to discourage blacks from voting continue to this day.
William Rand Kenan Sr. was hailed as a hero for his role in the massacre. The white-owned Wilmington Messenger newspaper lauded the Wilmington Light Infantry and Kenan personally, writing “[i]n the Revolutionary War, in the Civil War and in this race war, a Kenan was the bravest of the brave.” A few weeks after the massacre it was reported that Kenan held a massive barbecue for all of those who participated, after which the assembled men gave Kenan a vote of thanks for his service in the massacre. In February 1903 Kenan was named to the University of North Carolina's Board of Trustees. He died two months later.
For the next several decades the Wilmington Massacre was invariably branded a "riot," "insurrection," "rebellion," "revolution," or "conflict," necessitated by an unlawful uprising of black aggressors, with the violence of it all dramatically downplayed, distorted or cast as unavoidable. A typical example of this can be seen in Incidents by the Way, the 1958 memoir of William Rand Kenan Jr., the UNC benefactor, who wrote of his father’s actions thusly:
“As a small boy I was much impressed with the following: There was a riot of colored men in Wilmington and my father organized a company of men with all kinds of rifles together with a riot gun on a wagon and they cleaned up the riot very quickly, although they were compelled to kill several persons. My father rode the wagon and directed the operation.”
William Rand Kenan Jr. was, in fact, 26 years-old at the time and was working as a chemist for Union Carbide. He was almost certainly well-aware of the circumstances of the massacre and likely distorted the timeline of it, casting himself, erroneously, as a “small boy,” in order to distance himself and his family from its horrors as time passed.
It is highly unlikely that any of the thousands of football fans who come to Kenan Stadium each fall or any of the dozens of young men who play for the Tar Heels — a great many of whom are black — are aware of the infamy of the stadium’s namesake. Indeed, even those most familiar with the university and its connection to the Kenans know little if anything about it.
“The Kenans are an enormously generous family of benefactors to the University of North Carolina. Everybody knows that,” UNC history professor Harry Watson told me when I interviewed him recently. “The average undergraduate would say ‘oh, yeah, the Kenans, they’re a pretty important family who have given us a lot of money’ but the biographical details are not likely well known as even that,” Watson said. “Kenan Sr.’s role in the violence of 1898 is not widely known at all.”
“There are probably a couple of people on campus who know,” said UNC history Professor William Sturkey, who specializes in the history of Jim Crow and the New South. “I think a lot of people would be quite shocked. It’s just something that’s been buried and forgotten.”
It’s not the first thing that has been buried and forgotten about the history of the Kenans.
A plaque on Kenan Memorial Stadium refers to the Kenan family's wealth as coming from “chemicals, power, railroads and hotels.” That is true so far as William Rand Kenan Jr.’s adult fortune was concerned, but the Kenans were already wealthy thanks to plantation slavery. Indeed, according to an 1850 slave census, the Kenan family owned 49 people, including 23 people aged 10 or under. This would be the household in which William Rand Kenan Sr., who manned the gun in Wilmington and for whom the stadium was named, was raised.
Last February Sturkey, a member of the school’s Faculty Athletics Committee, introduced a motion recommending that the athletic department take steps to place a new plaque on the stadium to note the family’s slaveholding past. His intention was not to cast the Kenans in a bad light — he did not know about Kenan Sr.’s role in Wilmington at the time — nor was it his intention, as so many people are accused of doing when such matters arise, to “erase history.” To the contrary, Sturkey said, it was the history of the slaves owned by the Kenans that was erased. As a historian, Sturkey said, he just wanted the full story to be told.
“[Slaves’] presence and their lives were omitted. And not just omitted, but intentionally omitted.” Sturkey said. He said that, via his motion, he was suggesting that the Faculty Athletics Committee ask the athletic department to “take steps to recognize the existence of these people whose lives were so crucial to compiling the wealth which built the university . . . it was about simply telling the truth and not misleading people.”
Sturkey’s motion was unanimously passed but it has not been acted upon and the athletic department has given no reason why it has not done so. Not that the athletic department would be the first department which has chosen to ignore the slaveholding history of the Kenans. Over at the Kenan-Flagler Business school website there there appears a timeline of the Kenan family's history. It conspicuously jumps from 1793 to the 1880s, with no mention whatsoever of what the Kenan family was doing, and how it was making its money, during the intervening years.
“Kenan is a name that’s all over our campus, but in terms of how we’ve approached history, we’ve let the greatest benefactors tell their own history,” Sturkey said. “But by doing that, of course, we’ve allowed them to have the complete say in what that history is.”
Based on recent events at UNC, it would appear that, if the Kenans and the university continue to insist upon complete say in how history is told, they will do so at their peril.
Like so many other places in the south, North Carolina is no stranger to the ongoing controversy surrounding memorials and monuments of the Confederate and Jim Crow eras. It is unique, however, in not only its opposition to doing much if anything about them, but in its affirmative protection of such monuments.
For 105 years, a statue called “Silent Sam” sat on a prominent quad on UNC’s campus, facing the main street which passes the university. While ostensibly intended to commemorate the Civil War and its fallen soldiers, Silent Sam, like so many other Confederate monuments erected in the late 19th and early 20th century, was in fact a monument to the Jim Crow Era. If there was any doubt of this, one need only read the speech given by industrialist, philanthropist, and white supremacist Julian Carr at Silent Sam’s dedication ceremony in 1913.
Carr, who advocated for taking voting rights away from blacks and who referred to the Wilmington Massacre as “a grand and glorious event” after it occurred, did not mince words on the afternoon Silent Sam was dedicated. He talked openly, and with no small amount of pride, about how Confederate soldiers saved “the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South,” adding, “to-day, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States — Praise God.” He added that, in the days after the end of the Civil War he had, on the very spot where the statue now stood, “horse-whipped” a “negro wench” for speaking disrespectfully to a white woman. Given how it was spoken of at its very dedication, there is no question that the statue was not intended to memorialize fallen soldiers but, instead, to stand as a monument to white supremacy.
Silent Sam had been a source of controversy for years, but in the wake of 2017’s Unite the Right march in Charlottesville which, among other things, cast more light on Confederate and Jim Crow-era monuments, protests had increased significantly. The university listened to protesters’ arguments but claimed it could do nothing about Silent Sam because its hands were legally tied.
And, to a very large degree, they were. By both a university bylaw adopted in 2015 and by a state law passed in 2015 which prohibit the renaming or buildings and removal or relocation of monuments under all but the most narrow of circumstances. Given the timing of the passage of these laws and the events which inspired their adoption, they were, without question, aimed at heading off protests of monuments to the Confederacy and Jim Crow before they began. Absent those laws, the sign makers would be pretty busy: UNC has no fewer than 30 buildings named after figures tied to white supremacy.
Not that those laws are the only thing motivating UNC officials and donors. Some seem quite eager to protect monuments to the Confederacy and Jim Crow on their own terms.
Last month a series of emails were leaked and published in which one member of the UNC Board of Trustees called for cameras with night vision to be installed around Silent Sam in order to protect it and called protesters “criminals” and “entitled wimps” who should be arrested as a deterrence measure. In another email the university’s Vice Chancellor referred to university leadership’s interest in “preserving a piece of our history,” and defending the statue from “outside parties” who may protest it. Wealthy donors threatened to withhold six-figure contributions to UNC if Silent Sam was removed, with one calling protestors “spoiled intellectuals.” Whether it was because of that direct pressure and the interests of UNC officials in protecting the statue, or whether it was because university bylaws and the state law prevented them from taking action, in early August the UNC Board of Governors announced it had no plans to remove Silent Sam.
If UNC officials thought that would be the end of the matter, they were sorely mistaken. In the wake of the decision to take no action, protests intensified. On the evening of August 20 — the night before the fall semester began — hundreds of protesters gathered around the statue, threw ropes around it and, in less than ten seconds, brought Silent Sam crashing to the ground. What was left of Silent Sam was taken to a university warehouse in the back of a dump truck. His fate is as of yet unknown, but at the moment the University seems intent on re-erecting the Jim Crow relic.
While a statue can be toppled, a 60,000-seat football stadium cannot be razed by a few hundred protesters. Unlike what has happened with troublesomely-named buildings and monuments at Duke University, the University of California at Berkeley and what will soon happen at Stanford University, it cannot be removed or renamed, at least without the sort of political and legal action which no one in a position to do so seems at all willing to undertake. Which leaves UNC -- which did not return a call or email seeking comment -- in a precarious position. Indeed, the university would seem to have only two choices.
The first choice would be to acknowledge the role of William Rand Kenan Sr. in the Wilmington Massacre and to find a way, via additional plaques or interpretive materials, to tell the full history of that dark chapter of the Kenan family. In so doing it might, as Professor Sturkey suggested, begin to recognize the totality of the history upon which UNC was built and begin to remember those who have been intentionally erased from that history. Given the Silent Sam pushback and based on how even a modest motion to amend the misleading historical plaque about the Kenan family at the stadium was already ignored, it seems unlikely that the university would do such a thing.
Which would leave the only alternative: to do nothing. To continue to bury the history of its stadium’s namesake and his role in one of the darkest atrocities of the Jim Crow era, thereby allowing the largest and most prominent building on campus to memorialize a man who should, by all rights, stand in infamy.
Will the university do nothing? Better yet, will the people who toppled Silent Sam and those who supported them stand idly by if it does?
Special thanks to LeRae Umfleet, author of A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot (2009), published by the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, which served as an important source for this article
My daughter texted me from school today. She was in her freshman humanities class which is basically an English/social studies mashup. Anna texts me from school a lot. When she does so it's usually the best part of my day. Today, like most days, it was because she wanted to share something funny with me.
Today, however, my credentials and I were the butt of the joke:
Anna later explained that her teacher was not talking about me, my political science degree and my sports writing career specifically. Rather, she was just making a point about how, when you read something, you should be critical of the writer, who he or she is and what his or her background is. Today they happened to be discussing an article about the value of a liberal arts education and the teacher approvingly noted that its author had a history degree so, obviously, he knew what he was talking about. The crack about the political science degree-possessing sports writer was an imaginary horrible meant to portray a true ignoramus.
I won't lie: I was less than pleased about all of this. Not because I thought of it as some sort of personal attack, as I have never met her teacher and she doesn't know a thing about me or my career. And not because of the underlying lesson, as I agree it is vitally important to assess and be critical of one's information sources. Rather, I was pissed about how superficial a notion it is to look at a person's formal education to assess a person's credibility.
I've gone at length about my unconventional career path, but I'm not the only person doing something radically different than their college transcript might suggest they'd one day do. My father grew up working on cars at his father's taxi cab company and wanted to work on jet engines one day but, due to a typographical error by the United States Navy, wound up in meteorology school and spent the next 40 years as a weather man. Anna's mother has a degree in French but has spent the past 23 years working in the office furniture business. My best friend from college has an M.A. in history but has nonetheless spent most of the past 20 years working at technology companies in Silicon Valley. I'm sure all of us know many people who have careers that are completely unrelated to whatever it was they studied in college and who can speak as authorities on those topics regardless of what they happened to major in back in the day.
My displeasure with what I heard today was not, however, simply about a teacher who does not seem to appreciate that career paths are often crooked. It's about her seeming not to appreciate the value of a crooked career path in and of itself.
I am not exactly a typical or a popular figure in the baseball writing world. When I began this job a decade ago it was pretty unusual for a large media company like NBC to give someone with no journalism experience the kind of platform I have. One used to pay their dues for years, serving time as an agate guy, a high school football stringer, a backup beat writer and then, maybe, if everything broke right, they could be a columnist, which is roughly equivalent to what I do. I jumped the line. I had never been part of the baseball writing fraternity. What's more, my writing tends to skew pretty sharp and critical and includes a lot of media criticism as well so, while I have made many friends in the business over the years, I'm still not welcome in the club. If my credentials had been in order -- if I had gone to journalism school and if I had written game stories for the Des Moines Register or the Sacramento Bee -- I'd likely be invited to more meetings and parties.
But I'd probably also not have this job.
NBC was late to the online sports game and, when they launched my website, they wanted to make up for lost time. They did so not by aping what everyone else had done ten years earlier, but by making some noise. They hired a lawyer to be their football writer and, with that precedent set, hired one to be their baseball writer too. Our lack of a journalism background and our willingness to say and do whatever the hell we wanted to was a feature, not a bug, and nearly a decade later it's still working pretty well. It's working well, I'd argue, precisely because neither Mike Florio nor I approach our job like someone who went to J-school would and because, as such, we give readers something they can't get anywhere else. Our lack of traditional qualifications for our job were strengths, not weaknesses. NBC's hiring people with unconventional resumes helped them solve a problem they likely could not have solved (i.e. catching up with their competitors quickly) if they had done the conventional thing.
A couple of lawyers with liberal arts backgrounds are not alone in that, of course. There are a lot of people who contribute to society in ways far more important than writing about sports despite the fact that they are not doing what they had set out to do back in college. There are companies being run by people without business degrees, artists who never went to art school, musicians who never had lessons, and tons and tons of people making a difference in the world despite the fact that they simply fell into jobs adjacent to -- or often not adjacent to -- the disciplines they initially set out to pursue.
That's true even of the guy who wrote the article about the value of a liberal arts education they were discussing in my daughter's class today. The guy who was deemed OK by Anna's teacher because he had a history degree. His name is David Brooks. He's a columnist for the New York Times who didn't spend a day in journalism school and who hasn't spent a minute pursuing the academic study of history since he graduated from the University of Chicago 35 years ago.
There's probably a lesson in there someplace. If Anna doesn't learn it at school, I'll make a point to talk to her about it separately. I think I can do it too, despite the fact that I didn't study education.
I took my kids to Cleveland for the Orioles-Indians game on Friday night. They’re not really big baseball fans, but they like going to games. Partially because it’s fun and there’s junk food, but mostly because it provides them a new venue for the sort of savage and absurdist commentary for which Gen-Z kids are quickly becoming famous.
I’ve watched this from a front row seat for a couple of years now. Anyone who follows me on Twitter is familiar with how brutally my daughter Anna, 14, owns me via text messages (and some old timers around here may remember her greatest hits from WAY back in the day). Others who follow me know how deeply into absurdist and envelope-pushing meme culture my son, Carlo, 13, happens to be. Every day is a new, eye-opening adventure. I’m impressed by the level of savagery they’re capable of in their early teens and terrified at what they’re going to capable of once they reach adulthood.
I’m likewise suffering from no small amount of whiplash. I mean, I once thought my fellow Gen-Xers and I had perfected ironic emotional detachment and that whole “whatever, nothing matters anyway” stance. I also thought that a decade’s worth of Millennials restoring an earnestness and emotional honesty to the lexicon of our nation’s youth — the likes of which we haven’t seen for probably 60 or 70 years — had all but buried that jaded sentiment once and for all.
Nope. The Gen-Z kids are going to stomp on the Millennials’ throats and pour acid all over their hopes, dreams and pretensions of an earnest and hopeful world. Then they’ll laugh mockingly at the Gen-Xers as we’re exposed for the amateurs that we are, and will rhetorically kill us, like some warrior coming back to vanquish their sensei. The only saving grace is that whatever Boomers are still left as this happens will just die of shock and outrage. Gen-Z will not be attending their funerals either unless they need some pics of dead grandpa for a devastating meme or two (Carlo has already told my father that he’s going to meme him once he passes away; my father does not quite know what to make of that, mostly because he’s 74 and does not know what a meme is).
Anyway, I’ve blocked out most of what they had to say during the game as a means of psychological self-defense, but trust me when I say that it was three straight hours of running commentary at turns hilarious, frightening and truly disturbing in ways that are hard to pin down. I do, however, remember or have documentation of a few things that went down in between the hot dogs and bon mottes:
All of that being said, I don’t want you to get the impression that Anna and Carlo’s entire existence is savage owns and joking and ironic detachment. They are actually smart, sweet and sensitive kids who, when they’re not joking around, possess more empathy for their fellow humans than most adults who have seen and experienced far more than they have do. I am proud of my kids for that. Truly proud. Indeed I worry that the jaded exterior I’ve been describing is a defensive perimeter they and their generation have been forced to erect because the generations which came before them have thrown so much fear into their world and, perhaps, are even ruining it before my kids get a chance to live in it as adults. That’s a lot to put on anyone, but the fact that we’ve put that sort of weight on our children is a tragedy. Knowing that the’ll have to cope with what we have done to make their lives harder and, quite possibly, shorter, breaks my heart.
Those thoughts were swirling around my head as the game neared its end Friday evening. As they did, I looked over to Carlo and Anna sitting next to me. They were watching the game intently. And, even though it had started raining, quite contently. They seemed happy. The cynicism and the wiseguy routines had been left back in the middle innings somewhere. When Cody Allen struck out Kyle, er, I mean Joey Rickard, for the game’s final out, they both stood up and cheered a genuine and exuberant cheer. When they did, I figured it was a good opportunity for some rare heartfelt sincerity.
“So, Baseball. You like it, eh?” I said in my proudest dad voice, thinking that, just maybe, we had bonded over something near and dear to my heart. Anna looked at me and smiled. Then she said something I’ll never forget.
“Not really. But I guess I sort of have to respect it because if it wasn’t for baseball you’d be unemployed and I’d probably be homeless.”
This evening I did a segment on BBC World News about today's announcement that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will play a two-game series in London next year. They allowed me on the air even though I spent most of the day trafficking in the silliest British stereotypes and mocking the monarchy.
Come for me talking about baseball, stay for the Shrek Funko Pop! figurine I had forgotten that my children put on my mantlepiece.
Are you watching the World Series? Oh, I'm sorry, "The World Series Presented by YouTube TV?" If you are, than you're well aware of just how intrusive the ads are this year. Some distract the viewer from in-game action. Others make one question whether the media covering the Series is bought and paid for.
I wrote about it all this morning over at the baseball site.
In the past week President Trump, first through a spokesperson, and then personally, demanded that United States citizens lose their jobs because he does not agree with their political views.
We can disagree about the underlying issues which led to him saying this. We can debate the nature of protest and the mode and manner of expression of views with which he takes offense. We can discuss the propriety of sports figures wading into non-sports topics. No matter where you come down on any of that, however, we are left with the President of the United States saying people should lose their jobs because he does not agree with their political views.
No one, no matter their views about the protests or comments of athletes, should find this acceptable. Whether one holds far right or far left views, every last American should find it abhorrent that a government official, let alone the most powerful government official, is demanding people's jobs because he does not like what they believe.
This is not a controversial assertion. It is not a close issue. It is, perhaps, the most basic and fundamental issue there can be when it comes to our rights and our liberties as Americans under the Constitution. It is the entire goddamn point.
I’m an Ohio State graduate who, for close to 20 years, watched and obsessed over Ohio State football. I dropped Ohio State — and college football entirely — cold turkey in the fall of 2011, however, and I’ve never looked back.
There are a lot of reasons for that, some of them personal and some professional, but the biggest one was seeing how truly exploited college players are. It’s especially easy to see when you live in Columbus, worked with the university at times, and see how big a business college football truly is at its highest levels.
This month Baseball Writers Association of America members with ten years or more of tenure will cast their ballots for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Many already make their ballots public with some writing columns explaining their choices. Next year they will be required to make their ballots public. Fans and non-voting writers like me lap all of this up. As a result, in baseball, December is the month for Hall of Fame arguments.
For some voters, however, it is the month for complaints. Complaints about the process for voting for the Hall of Fame and complaints about the arguments their very own votes set off
There has been a lot said lately about fake news, echo chambers and bubbles. A big part of that involves how, rather than obtaining information, people consume news a source of confirmation of their ideological biases, which in turn leads to polarization and things like people believing that a New York real estate developer who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth is the savior of The Common Man.
It’s hard to identify let alone stop this pernicious pattern, but today I got a great view of how it starts. In my little world of baseball news of all places
I was quoted extensively in a story in the Columbia Journalism Review about sports writers who do not, as a rule “stick to sports."
Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein, talking about why he decided not to be a sportswriter:
“I realized I didn’t want to be a sportswriter when I was interning with the Orioles back in ’92, ’93, ’94. I did do a lot of media-relations stuff, and I saw that the life of a sportswriter is pretty lonely. You kind of work by yourself, sit there by yourself in the press box, go back to the hotel bar.”
The best parts of being a sportswriter – not having to work with anyone else and getting to drink on an expense account – is what made him not want to be one? Weird.
Alex Rodriguez played his final game last night.
I’ve always been drawn to the controversial and unpopular players. I’ve written about A-Rod and Bonds and Clemens and all of those guys a lot and I defend them more than almost anyone in my line of work does. It’s not about really liking them. I love watching them play, but I don’t really think much about them personally. When I do I often don’t think too terribly much of them. Some of them did some pretty bad things off the field separate and apart from baseball and that all counts too. Believing that great athletes are great people will steer you wrong more often than it will steer you right.
I think I write about them a lot out of a desire to defend and advocate that never really left me even after I left the law. It’s not reflexive or contrarian — I believe what I say when I defend them and their records — it’s more about overreach. It’s not enough for an athlete’s critics to say he cheated or was a dubious character. They have to paint him as truly evil. Same goes for someone they like. If what a player does on the field is good there is a tendency to say, implicitly or explicitly, that he’s a good and admirable person.
That’s ridiculous. I don’t believe that baseball accomplishments or baseball transgressions make a person good or evil. Good and evil is for real life. Sports are just a small part of it.
Mickey Kaus – who, yes, I realize is now kind of crackpot, but let’s forget that for a moment – wrote a book many years ago called “The End of Equality.” The thesis of the book was that America’s status as a relatively classless society – socially speaking anyway – was breaking down. We had always had rich and poor here, obviously, but until recently money couldn’t buy someone out of being a citizen like everyone else all too easily. Sure, you could buy your luxury goods and, if you were very rich, you could have servants do your dirty work, but most people – including the professional and educated classes – still had to go to the train station or the post office or to hospitals or to libraries or to public schools or any number of other places where the stuff of society happens and interact with people as rough equals irrespective of financial means. It was this very coming together in the public sphere, Kaus observed, that made America America.
Kaus worried that, while the very rich could always keep themselves separate and apart, larger and larger numbers of people were using money to increasingly insulate themselves from everyday life. Elite status, VIP sections, priority lines, “Cadillac” healthcare plans, private schools and all manner of other luxuries created a situation in which there was becoming “routine acceptance of professionals as a class apart” and created some implicit and insidious assumption that the affluent and educated were demographically superior to the poor. Kaus wrote the book in the early 90s so it didn’t deal much with the Internet and technology, but I would argue that the ability to shop and socialize apart from your actual physical community – not to mention the fact that the more money you have, the more access to all of the conveniences of the digital age you have – has exacerbated this dynamic, perhaps exponentially.
I took and still take issue with many of Kaus’ suggestions on how to counteract the dynamic he observed. A lot of those he offered ended up in the misguided and counterproductive welfare reform initiatives of the late Clinton Administration. In addition to being punitive with respect to the poor, they did nothing to solve the problems with which he was concerned. Far more significantly, his discussion of race and of racial divisions and discrimination as a social destabilizer was superficial to the point of being non-existent. Even today, as is evidenced by the Clinton-Sanders primary race and the writings of each side’s supporters, people on the left can’t agree on how economics, race and class should be properly weighed and approached when it comes to addressing societal problems, so I suppose one idiosyncratic center-left (now all over the place) dude like Mickey Kaus couldn’t have been expected to do any better in this regard. It’s all still kind of a mess, really. That aside, Kaus’ prescriptions look less desirable or even plausible with each passing year and I would not recommend the book to anyone for its practical ideas.
Nevertheless, the book’s central observation still sticks with me. I think it’s true that the public sphere of life has broken down in many important ways. I don’t believe we come together as a society, across economic classes, in anything approaching the way we did even when I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s, let alone the way we did in previous decades (again, with the acknowledgment that in those previous decades race made this civic coming together a decidedly whites-only affair). We drive too much and live in isolated and increasingly cloistered communities of like-minded people. Indeed, “success” is increasingly equated with being able to buy one’s way out of the public sphere altogether. This is bad for democracy and social health. It takes us out of the role of stakeholder and, at best, puts us in the role of voyeur when it comes to the challenges we face as a nation. In many cases it causes us to simply turn away altogether and to believe the entire country is doing as well as we are in our little economically and technologically homogenous cocoon.
I write about baseball for a living. Baseball takes place in stadiums with tens of thousands of people coming together in a single place, focused on a single purpose, all with an overlay of something approaching civic pride. Even if you only consume baseball via TV or online there is a communal aspect to it. If you watch it on TV you can share the experience of the game with people at work the next day. If, like me, you’re a multi-screen baseball consumer who is plugged in to social media as games go on, you are sharing, however virtually, some sort of public experience. Each evening there are only perhaps nine or ten and never more than 15 games going on at any one time and a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds are talking about it. For many years, even after reading “The End of Equality” and worrying about Kaus’ observations, I felt like sports was a bulwark against the degradation of the public sphere. Not a perfect substitute, but better than nothing. I mean, look at this for cryin’ out loud.
Increasingly, however, I don’t believe that to be the case. Indeed, in the past two days I’ve written baseball stories at NBC which remind me that the world of baseball is no different in this regard than anything else. It’s a world in which money is a great insulator and divider. Indeed, if the Lords of the Realm aren’t careful, it could very well become a world that has little if any use for anyone other than the rich.
Yesterday I wrote a longish piece about baseball’s post-cable future. Currently, baseball owners are raking in money from extraordinarily large cable television deals built on the back of some extraordinarily large cable television bills for viewers at home. Until recently the demand for cable in general and sports on TV in particular was relatively inelastic and the prices could go up, up, up with very little risk to the providers and, in turn, baseball teams. Streaming services like NetFlix and Hulu are changing that equation to some extent for non-sports programming and more people are cutting the cable cord as a result, but baseball does not seem anywhere close to allowing people to consume large swaths of it without also subscribing to cable. Especially those who want to follow the team located in their very own city and who are blacked out from their local nine on MLB’s streaming service. Between the need to pay hundreds a month for cable and the obvious fact that the price to attend games has gone way, way up, baseball has become a sport most easily consumed by the rich over the past 20 years. Its fan demographics – mostly older, whiter and wealthier – bear this out.
In another story, one I just wrote this evening, we see evidence that it’s not simply a matter of the rich being passively favored by the economic dynamics of the game. They’re now actively favored and catered to by team management, which has simultaneously developed actual disdain for the less-wealthy baseball fan. Hyperbole? Not really. Here’s Lonn Trost, COO of the New York Yankees, answering a question about why the Yankees have pursued a secondary market ticket policy which they own and which, unlike Stubhub, puts a hard floor on the price of tickets:
“The problem below market at a certain point is that if you buy a ticket in a very premium location and pay a substantial amount of money. It’s not that we don’t want that fan to sell it, but that fan is sitting there having paid a substantial amount of money for a ticket and [another] fan picks it up for a buck-and-a-half and sits there, and it’s frustrating to the purchaser of the full amount … And quite frankly, the fan may be someone who has never sat in a premium location. So that’s a frustration to our existing fan base.”
That’s right. He’s worried that wealthy Yankees season ticket holders will be “frustrated” by having to sit with common people. And that, like some stockholder, their investment will be diluted by virtue of the presence of people who found a way to see a game at a cheaper price. I presume that in the next 24 hours Trost and the Yankees’ PR staff will find a way to walk those words back or shine them up a bit, but they strike me as a Kinsley Gaffe, which is not a lie or a misstatement but, rather, the revelation of some truth the speaker did not intend to admit. Indeed, I would bet my life on the fact that the swells in the luxury sections have told Trost that they really don’t like it when the hoi pilloi are near them. They’re not just paying for good sightlines, you know. They’re paying to be separated from the common fans. I mean, after all, Yankee Stadium has a literal moat built into it for just such purposes. How did these barbarians storm the gates anyway? Have you seen some of these people?
Maybe I’m willfully blind for not having seen baseball reflecting society in this way, as it reflects society in most other ways, until now. Maybe the fact that, increasingly, I attend games with press passes and thus don’t have to buy tickets and wait in long lines quite as much as I used to has caused me to overlook this stuff going on in he ballpark. Maybe the fact that, because I don’t live in the same town as the team I root for, I can watch most of their games with a relatively inexpensive streaming service rather than have to pay for a big cable package (coincidentally, I just cut the cable cord myself in the past week). The social insulation which Kaus described is not necessarily a function of an active choice or malice on the part of anyone, after all. It’s a thing that happens, often without its participants realizing it. I’m no different than any other member of the professional class this regard.
I don’t have any better ideas about how to fix the problem of social stratification in society at large than Kaus or anyone else. But Major League Baseball is a pretty bite-sized portion of that society. It can, if it so chooses, try to reverse the trend as it manifests itself inside its own relatively small world. It can seek out ways to democratize the fan experience and make the sport more accessible for people who don’t happen to be wealthy. It can find ways for people to watch games, at home, on mobile devices or at the ballpark, that do not require a six figure income or hard budgetary choices on the part of fans. It can make a choice between punting away the young and the poor in favor of older and wealthier fans or it can punt the Lonn Trosts within its ranks to the sidelines and begin to look at its game as something for everyone, not just those folks in the Legends Suites.
I don’t know if it’s too late to restore civil society. But I don’t feel like trying to restore baseball to its status as game for the common people is an unreasonable thing to ask.
Over in Baseball Land I recently wrote about how I was getting out of the business of mocking the Hall of Fame ballots of other baseball writers. There’s no real point in it and I find myself not really caring much about it anymore. I made an exception, however: I won’t mock ballots just because I disagree with them, but I reserve the right to comment on vile, petty and borderline defamatory reasoning in the course of columns explaining a given writer’s Hall of Fame votes. We’ve seen a lot of that over the years and, upon reflection, that has always bothered me more than the actual votes with which I disagreed.
A great example of this can be seen in today’s Washington Times. There, columnist Thom Loverro dives into the messy politics involved in the candidacy of players who took performance enhancing drugs such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Like many voters, Loverro will not vote for them. Which, while I disagree, is not really a problem. Roughly two-thirds of Hall of Fame voters don’t vote for those guys. There is a legitimate ethical debate about their careers to be had and if that’s where Loverro falls, that’s where he falls. Battling over those particular ethical considerations is that business I decided to get out of when it comes to the Hall of Fame.
Loverro’s column, however, goes beyond merely reasserting his position regarding drug cheats. He goes after Bonds and Clemens’ supporters, including fellow Hall of Fame voters, and equates them to the Black Lives Matter movement and mocks them as the “No Justice/No Peace Wing of the Baseball Writers Association of America.”
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will not get in. But don’t worry about them — they’ve got the No Justice/No Peace wing of the Baseball Writers Association of America fighting for them.
The Black Lives Matter movement on which Loverro thoughtlessly plays was born in 2012 following the murder of Trayvon Martin. It campaigns against violence against black people, particularly killings of black people by law enforcement officers, which typically go unpunished and, sadly, unnoticed. It works to combat racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system. In short, it concerns itself with serious business. Matters of literal life and death, justice and tyranny. Matters every bit as significant in the grand scheme of things as someone’s Hall of Fame ballot is insignificant in the grand scheme.
That Loverro applies a variation on that label – and “No Justice, No Peace,” which is a venerable slogan of the civil rights movement and other protests throughout history – in his typical mocking manner is pathetic and, frankly, disgusting. In so doing he simultaneously belittles and insults serious people with serious and legitimate concerns by equating them with those who, in his mind, are unethical and feckless crusaders for cheaters who should not be taken seriously in any way whatsoever. Based on the context it would appear that, to him, the criticism goes both ways. He takes neither the Black Lives Matter movement seriously nor those who disagree with him about baseball things.
Of course Loverro has always been like this. He’s a poor writer, a poor thinker and an attention-seeking troll who writes inflammatory columns so he can have fodder for his bad radio show and vice-versa. Nothing I say here will change that. Indeed, I am certain he will use this post and similar disapproval of his column as a launching pad for his radio show on Monday. Good for him.
But I’m not really aiming this post at Loverro. I am aiming it at his peers in the Baseball Writers Association of America in the hopes that, eventually, its members stop tolerating this kind of garbage and that, eventually, they’ll start calling out their peers who engage in it.
We rarely see that sort of thing, of course. “Takedowns” of other members of the baseball press are seen as impolite. It’s simply not done. You do not criticize a fellow credentialed writer. It’s mean. It’s an “attack.” In sportswriting, at least among the upper echelon and at least publicly, every opinion is good and valid and calling out your colleagues is considered rude. It’s the ultimate sin in the world of sportswriting. You can make up stories from whole cloth and be considered an institution, but don’t even think about criticizing another writer where anyone can hear you doing it. Many sports outlets specifically forbid their writers from criticizing other members of the media as a matter of policy.
This is why you see so much bad sportswriting. While no one likes to be criticized, it’s undeniably the case that criticism – even sharp criticism, as long as it’s aimed at the work and not the person – leads to a better product. This is the case in just about any field. Whether it’s doctors being put to the test in morbidity and mortality conferences, lawyers’ arguments being challenged by opponents and judges in appellate practice, academic peer review, competing columns and editorials of political and business writers or even through the application of generalized media criticism, the act of pointing out the flaws in the logic or the practice of one’s fellow professionals works to raise the discourse and improve the work. That a line is drawn with respect to this practice at sports writing makes little sense and it’s why sports writing is considered by some to be trivial. The “toy department” of journalism, as they say.
It shouldn’t be that way. Sports writing can be – and in the hands of solid professionals often is – vital and important and illuminative of both the world of sports and the world at large. We’ve all seen great sports journalism. We know how edifying and enjoyable and uplifting it can be. We know how, at times, it can even enhance our enjoyment of the game itself by its very existence. In some rare cases topics with importance and implications to life and society in general are better-handled by sportswriters and in a sports context than they are if they were set in a different, real-world milieu.
I will never stop wanting sportswriting to be better and, for that reason, I will never stop critiquing bad writing. I simply won’t surrender to the notion that sports are so unimportant that there’s no harm in sports journalism being bad. I talk to sports fans every day and it’s clear how many of them base their opinions on bad sportswriting and commentary. It’s easy for them to do this because that bad writing and commentary goes almost wholly unexamined and unremarked upon. I love to talk about sports with people and I want that discourse to be elevated as much as possible. As is the case in every other walk of life, the way to elevate the work is to critique it and seek its improvement.
But I’m just an uncredentialed blogger, easily dismissed by the Thom Loverros of the world as “the Internet mob.” How nice it would be if he and others who traffic in his sort of garbage were called out by people he actually respects in the industry. By the people he considers his peers. Maybe not in lengthy columns or posts like this one – they’re sportswriters after all and have sportswriting to do – but how about on Twitter? How about on radio shows and podcasts where the subject matter opens up a bit? How about, instead of merely presenting the bad work with a hands-off, “no judgments here” tweet, the giants in the industry call out the garbage for what it is?
I’m not holding my breath until that happens. But I sure as hell would like to see more of it.
The other day, a day before a Yankees playoff game, pitcher CC Sabathia left his team and checked into alcohol rehab.
If this had happened in, say, 2009, I am 100% certain that someone – a columnist, a radio host or a TV talking head, and maybe several of them – would’ve talked about Sabathia’s timing being wrong and about how he was quitting on his team or letting them down. And, of course, we would’ve no doubt heard some ignorant things about the nature of alcoholism and Sabathia’s weakness and toughness and stuff.
But generally, the opinion was this:
Good for CC. Glad he’s getting the help he needs. Baseball is not as important as one’s health and family. Thoughts, prayers and hope for him in these no doubt trying times.
This is a very good thing. Good perspective and evidence of an admirable empathy on the part of the commentariat. Empathy and perspective that, when I started writing about sports professionally six years ago, I don’t think would be anything close to uniform. Indeed, I question whether it would’ve been even a couple of years ago. We’ve come a long way.
Of course, even if the bulk of the professional commentariat has evolved on points like these, there are always going to be some sports fans who treat athletes like gladiators and get all pissed if they actually show human qualities. So in the wake of the Sabathia news I, not surprisingly, heard and read several people saying things about his bad timing or his weakness and who otherwise saw this only through the lens of their entitlement as sports fans as opposed to a lens of empathy for a human being going thorough a rough patch.
This sentiment came in the form of tweets and comments on blog posts. There weren’t a lot, but there were a decent enough number to where it can’t be said that only fringe loonies feel this way. I’ve been in the internet sports business long enough to tell the difference between fringe whackos and the merely misguided. This was the latter. And, as I often do when I encounter some misguided sports sentiment, I engaged with it. I responded to some. Tweeted in general about it a bit. Retweeted some of it to put the speaker on display and open them up to a wider audience so they’ll be forced to either defend or reconsider their views. A pretty standard practice in the world of internet sports arglebargle.
In response to this have come two columns taking issue with me and others who do this. One from Tom Hitchner, a reader and follower of mine and a blogger in his own right. Another from Dan Brooks, who followed on Hitchner’s. The upshot of both of their essays was that it’s wrong for professional writers with big followings like me to call out unpopular or misguided sentiment from random people on the Internet. Tom characterizes it as me “punching below [my] weight,” and asks “[d]o we need someone with Calcaterra’s credentials, audience, and power of expression to step in and crush [the commenter] like a bug? Whose side does that elevate, Calcaterra’s or [the commenter’s]?”
Brooks is more pointed in his distaste for calling out the arguments of the non-professional and non-widely-followed Twitter account or internet commenter. He says that to do so encourages judgmental sentiment and is an exercise in “the worst kind of piety:”
There’s value in refuting popular, wrong arguments. It’s not to my taste, but I’m willing to concede there might be moral strength in calling out people for believing wrong stuff. But looking for unpopular immoral arguments—the kind of arguments that need a search bar to find—so you can publicly rebuke them is the worst kind of piety. It’s the intellectual equivalent of being a pharisee. Punch your weight, as Hitchner says.
Each of their essays have a lot of good points to consider. But each of them presents something of a paradox as well. They tell us that (a) the practice of highlighting arguments advanced by non-professional types with few followers is illegitimate; because (b) It’s judgmental. But is that not itself elitist and exclusionary? If you take the substance of the argument out of the equation, are you not saying “you’re not worth listening to unless you have a certain status or a certain set of credentials?”
I won’t put too fine a point on that because I have a more important point to make here, but suffice it to say that getting into the business of deciding who is and who isn’t worth listening to based on their platform or follower counts can be a pernicious business. A business that, if everyone took to, would’ve kept me and many, many others from ever becoming sportswriters in the first place.
But there’s more to this than merely taking a democratic approach to internet and social media commentary. This goes to the nature of that commentary itself and the understanding that these seemingly random and bad opinions do not exist in a vacuum.
One thing I agree with Tom and Dan about is that there is a certain groupthink that exists these days, particularly on sports Twitter. There is in-group signaling and some thought-policing that happens. I don’t think it’s some toxic, “politically correct” sort of business in the way it is often described – if you don’t care about losing some followers you can say a lot of gonzo shit – but it’s certainly the case that the platform’s dynamic pretty quickly singles out and disapproves of less-than-widely-accepted sentiment, to put it as neutrally as possible.
But just because that sentiment is singled out and disapproved of among a certain class of Twitter users doesn’t mean that sentiment is refuted, diminished or let alone eliminated. Indeed, all that dynamic really does is cow people who are in the media business and who are more sensitive to public opinion than most. People like Twitter-savvy writers, TV folks, radio hosts and the like. Inasmuch as those folks are influencers of opinion, yes, it likely means that their, um, suddenly more enlightened commentary causes readers and listeners to follow their lead to some extent and, for lack of a better term, think smarter about stuff. But to believe that the Twitter-savvy media’s greater sensitivity to stuff like Sabathia’s alcoholism means that people in general are is to greatly overstate the influence of the Twitter-based sports commentariat.
Tom and Dan characterize the seeking out of unpopular opinion like some sort of archeological expedition, but it’s nothing of the sort. One need not dig down deeply to find people who think Sabathia is some worthless drunk who quit on the Yankees. They’re all over the place. My comment section at HBT is full of ‘em. Just because the folks saying these things don’t have little blue checkmarks by their name doesn’t mean they’re buried under the dirt. These are people echoing the sorts of sports opinions you hear at every bar, every office water cooler and on every call-in radio show in the country. And, even if they aren’t as immediately visible on Twitter, there are WAY WAY more of these people than there are of well-followed and allegedly influential sports bloggers like me.
Look at the most popular sports shows and personalities in the country, and who do you see? Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless spouting 95% garbage at “First Take.” Collin Cowherd doing, well, Collin Cowherd things at Fox. Mike Francesa at WFAN and the scores and scores of talk radio hosts who followed his lead into the business trading, for the most part, on the lowest common denominator. These people dominate the non-Twitter, non-blog portion of the sports discourse. And that’s the vast majority of the sports discourse.
These guys aren’t popular and highly paid because no one listens to them. They’re popular and highly paid because LOTS of people listen to them. People who don’t have a lot of followers on Twitter but who spend a ton of time consuming sports and sports commentary. Each of these personalities have orders of magnitude more influence than the allegedly right-thinking folks on sports Twitter do, and all of them together render the notion that someone like me is squashing anyone like a bug – to use Tom’s phrase – laughable.
In our little Internet/Twitter bubble, we don’t see a lot of them. They may comment on the occasional blog post but generally do not. They may respond to the occasional tweet, but generally do not. But they are out there. In great numbers. And no matter how far sports discourse has come in the past several years, they still dictate the shape of sports discourse as a whole. They’re the ones who allow the Stephan A. Smith’s and Skip Baylesses of the world to make the nice living that they do and who continue to make sports a safe place for bros and neanderthals who, even if they didn’t slam CC Sabathia all that much this week, spend a lot of time spewing misogyny about Jessica Mendoza. Or offering thinly-veiled racial critiques of Latino ballplayers. Or when a domestic abusing football player is suspended immediately worry what it means for their fantasy team as opposed to the human beings affected.
When someone like me challenges those folks it may seem like I’m punching below my weight. But I prefer to see it as taking on a far larger, far more formidable fighter and working the body a bit before going for the head. And as a wise man once said: kill the body and the head will die.
Everyone used to bowl. Blue collar Michigan in the 1970s was the most bowlingest time and place in the history of the world. More kids were on bowling leagues than baseball leagues. Everyone’s parents and grandparents bowled. Everyone knew how to keep score (10 x 12 = 300).
Whether it was Southland or Galaxy or Town and Country, everyone had their lanes and where you bowled said something about you. The rich kids from Grand Blanc bowled at Galaxy with their fancy computerized scoring machines. Tough kids from Flint bowled at Town and Country and scored with pencils on paper. The Flint Township kids like us bowled at Southland – 76 lanes! – scoring with grease pencils on the transparent sheets projected overhead. But no matter where you bowled, everyone had their Saturday morning leagues – ”the Alley Cats” when you were young, the “Junior Strikers” when you were older – their towels, their rosin bags, their wrist braces and, eventually, their own ball.
I started bowling on leagues when I was five. As I got older fewer and fewer kept it up. Girls or football or some other things would distract them eventually. But I didn’t stop until I graduated high school, even though there were girls and and football and other things for me too. I just made time because I liked it and I was pretty good at it so I always wanted to do it. Once I moved to West Virginia it was even better because down there nowhere near as many people bowled and it was way easier to be a big fish in that small pond. Not gonna lie: my 170s-ish average and I were a pretty big deal around Emerson Lanes in Parkersburg and, later, Leisure Lanes and Acculanes in Beckley.
But beyond just liking it, there was a psychological and emotional element to bowling that I valued and, at times, even needed. I didn’t realize it then, but I see it now. When I started bowling I wasn’t that good. Certainly not as good as my brother and his friends were, all of whom were older and more naturally athletic than me. When I was five or six I’d bowl badly and I cry and whine and sometimes it would get so bad that my mom, who would be keeping score, would take me aside and tell me that if I was going to get so upset about it that I shouldn’t be bowling in the first place.
Even if I was upset I liked bowling so I eventually figured out that no matter how much the game frustrated me it wasn’t worth losing my shit over it because to do so would defeat the purpose. I figured out pretty quickly how to keep the setbacks in perspective or at least suppress my anger and sadness at them. I figured out that being derailed by unproductive emotion was nothing I wanted any part of because it’d keep me from doing what I wanted to do and accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish.
And so I bowled. I bowled quite happily, in fact, until I graduated from high school and found better and more important things to do.
I’ve not been doing particularly well lately. I’ve had some personal and professional setbacks that have sent me into something of a depression. It’s not unprecedented. A lot has happened in my life over the past four years. I’ve been in and out of therapy and on and off medication and I have grappled with a lot of things I used to just bulldoze over when I was younger and cockier and richer and more confident. I don’t want to be the man I used to be – he was awful and oblivious about so many things so much of the time and I like myself a lot better now than I liked that man – but I do wish I could slough off the things like he used to be able to do. I wish things didn’t linger and prey on me and keep me up at night like they do now.
But they do and, because they do, I’ve learned that sometimes I need help to deal with things. So after a long time off I went to a therapist this morning to talk through it.
I don’t know what I think of this guy. I had seen him before so it’s not like we had to introduce ourselves to one another, but I really don’t know if he’s the right guy for me. Maybe the biggest problem is that he’s a sports fan and he had a vague idea of who I was when I first came into his office, having heard me doing segments on the local sports talk radio station he has constantly pumping through his office. Both times I’ve seen him I’ve spent 40 minutes spilling my guts and the last five telling him that the Reds are gonna be OK eventually and that at least some of these young arms they keep running out there might pan out. I assume it’s possible he knows I’m lying about that. The Reds are a mess. Either way, the baseball conversation sort of undermines everything we talk about before that because it forces me to be confident in ways I don’t necessarily feel. And makes him think that I’m feeling better than I do.
As today’s visit was premised on me being fairly close to losing my shit altogether, the baseball talk was at a minimum and he sent me off with a bunch of worksheets and listicles for arresting depression and desperation:
So I went bowling.
Since I quit bowling regularly at age 18 I’ve only been back on the lanes, six or seven times. I think the last time I bowled was six or seven years ago. Why I decided to go tonight I’m not sure but I had an impulse to do it just as I was getting ready to knock of work. I went out to the garage and found my bag and opened it up. Inside:
Jesus Christ, what did I used to be?
I got to the alley a bit after 8pm. The Wednesday night leagues were still going on a few lanes down but I had some nice space to myself. I also had the exact soundtrack I remembered from back when I bowled on the regular pumping over the loudspeakers: “Too Young to Fall in Love” by Motley Crue, “Sharp Dressed Man” by ZZ Top and all manner of late period Whitesnake and Heart. I looked to my left down the lanes and saw the same sorts of people I remember from Southland and Emerson and Leisure and Acculanes going about their business. The only difference between then and now is that tonight they had to step outside to smoke and tonight I was old enough to have a beer or two while I rolled.
I did OK. My wrist hurt more than it did when I was 17, but the results were more or less the same. A 171 to kick things off. A 165 in Game 2. A not-so-great 153 in Game 3 as a couple of Pabst Blue Ribbons and 25 years on the odometer took their toll.
That aside, it was all the same. I still get more strikes from the Brooklyn side than I should. I still struggle with picking up the six and ten pins on spares, having all manner of trouble shooting to my right. I still find myself overthrowing in the middle frames. I still get that weird little blood blister on the tip of my right thumb like I used to every Saturday as a result of popping and snapping the Yellow Dot out of my grip and onto the lanes over and over again.
As I type this I’m looking at that blood blister and it’s reminding me of the thousands of frames I laid down back when Ronald Reagan ruled the world, everything in my life seemed much more simple and straightforward and bowling was just a thing I did instead of some therapy cum nostalgia trip I impulsively took this evening.
Did it work? I dunno. I’ve learned to stop making pronouncements about my mental health because you never know what tomorrow is going to bring and your life and your psyche can go sideways at any moment. I do know, however, that I feel better this evening than I did when I woke up this morning and that’s better than nothing.
I also know that I got two PBR tallboys, a cheeseburger and three games worth of something approaching catharsis for less than $25 bucks, and that’s not too fuckin’ bad.
I love baseball so much that I turned it into my job. I love bourbon so much that I drink it like it’s my job. The drinking parts of baseball are pretty much owned by beer, so the two of those things don’t come together very often, but when they do I am about the happiest camper there can be.
I am midway through a fantastic new book by Reid Mitenbuler called “Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey.” It’s a bourbon history, basically. And so far a good one. My favorite part of it is that it is, in essence, a debunking. A debunking of the myriad myths surrounding bourbon, its history and its culture. About how those old frontiersman named on the bottle of your favorite whiskey had little if anything to do with it. About how hardly any of the stories about bourbon and its provenance are really true, even if you hear these tales on an actual distillery tour. Maybe especially if you hear them on a distillery tour.
“Bourbon Empire” is not a mean-spirited debunking by any stretch, however. Mitenbuler clearly has affection for his subject and the demystification of bourbon has led me to enjoy the two or three glasses of bourbon I’ve drank since I opened this book the other night even more than usual. There’s something uplifting about knowing the mess of history whence those glasses came. I’m a big fan of messes and chaos. Such things are far more amenable to the creation of great things than a neat and tidy order.
A lot of my baseball writing involves debunking the news and narratives of the day and a lot of my favorite baseball writing of others involves debunking baseball history, so this all has a natural appeal to me. Like bourbon’s origin stories, baseball’s origins were, for years, presented in as neat and tidy a manner as you could imagine. Baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday one fine afternoon. Or, if you don’t believe that, its rules were laid down by Alexander Cartwright. Or would you believe Henry Chadwick? OK, maybe we can’t agree on who the “father of baseball” is, but the idea that baseball was simply invented one day by some father figure is true, right?
Well, of course not. Baseball developed from any number of stick-and-ball games like rounders, bat and trap, and stool ball. The games which, over time, meshed together in important ways to form what we now know of as baseball. It’s a fascinating history, featured in a great documentary a few years back, which reveals that baseball wasn’t truly invented. Rather, it evolved like many other games, from some primordial common ancestor, probably in England, often due to pragmatism and random chance.
Modern baseball is likewise filled with neat and tidy tales. We don’t identify them as tales that often because they come to us in the form of news reports or commentary. But they’re tales. Whenever something can’t be sufficiently explained, fantasy is sprinkled on top of it in order to make it make sense. Sometimes that fantasy is old, unfalsifiable conventional wisdom. Things like a player’s “will to win” or “hunger” for success. Or his lack of fire, motivation or respect for the game. Sometimes people attempt to fill those empty spaces from another direction altogether. Analytics and sabermetrics which, though I am clearly partial to them, have their limits and are probably in need of some cosmic-level rethinking.
Such is the case with bourbon. It was born of a similar pragmatism. The availability of corn as opposed to other grains. The practicality of shipping it in barrels, which led to the serendipitous discovery of some interesting new flavors. The borrowing of distilling and aging concepts from other spirits like brandy and consumption and criticism habits regarding it from things like wine, even as the entire macho frontiersman gestalt of bourbon encourages a rejection of fancy-pants things like brandy and wine.
On page 52 of “Bourbon Empire” Mitenbuler quotes the author Julien Barnes in identifying everything you need to know about the marketing of bourbon. Specifically, that it can be characterized as:
“ … that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
And so it is with so much that is written about baseball. Most people in my industry are content to fill up that empty intersection with bullshit or false, tidy narratives. Hey, if you don’t buy it, prove them wrong! If they’ll stop appealing to their place of perceived authority long enough to even listen to you.
The longer I write about baseball, the more I prefer to allow that intersection to remain empty. And, at times, messy. The world is sometimes empty and messy, after all. Why should baseball, bourbon or anything else be an exception?
There was a little dustup this morning in the baseball blogosphere. Background: outfielder Josh Hamilton, a drug addict who has authored an amazing story of personal and professional redemption, recently relapsed. It was minor and his playing career will now resume, but it created a rift with this team, the Los Angeles Angeles. Yesterday the rift was resolved when the Angels traded Hamilton back to his old team, the Texas Rangers. You can read the background of it all here if you care.
Last night an Angels blog called Halos Heaven wrote an ignorant and hateful good-bye to Hamilton. It was vile, even by the standards of worst parts of the Internet, essentially predicting and almost wishing for, it seemed, Hamilton’s decline and death due to drugs. The company which hosts Halos Heaven – SB Nation – removed the blog post this morning, but you can see it preserved for posterity here. UPDATE: SB Nation and the guy who wrote that blog have “parted ways.”
This all interests me from the perspective of someone who, like the Halos Heaven guy, writes a baseball blog at a larger media company. A “vertical,” to use the parlance of the business. Just as that guy runs the Los Angeles Angels “vertical” for SB Nation, I run the baseball “vertical” for NBC. The biggest difference is that SB Nation’s entire model is verticals, essentially – they have hundreds of them across multiple sports – whereas NBC has a small number under the “Talk” brand like ProFootballTalk, HardballTalk, ProBasketballTalk, etc. while still doing lots of other things. Still, not terribly dissimilar in theory. And not uncommon in online media today. It’s been around quite a while.
The vertical model is useful. And robust. With it, a large media company can cover a lot of ground it wasn’t otherwise covering. People who use words like “scaleable” call this a “scaleable” model. (note: limit your interaction with people who use words like “scaleable” a lot). As opposed to having some central editor back at corporate actively managing and gatekeeping coverage in a zillion different disciplines, you get some “experts,” for lack of a better term, delegate and let them do their thing with much less day-to-day supervision.
But there are tradeoffs, of course. When you delegate you take risks. A big risk of the vertical model is that one of your vertical mangers may be a freakin’ loon who writes hot mess content like that fellow at Halos Heaven did. When that happens, it doesn’t just reflect poorly on the vertical. It reflects poorly on the entire company. In this case, SB Nation. The same scalability that works to the media company’s benefit comes back to bite it when things go sideways.
Of course, there’s a good way to protect against this. Not by having some editor look everything over first, for that defeats the purpose and kills the robustness of the vertical model. The protection comes from hiring adults to run your verticals.
You’d think this is obvious. I mean, who in any business would delegate responsibility to someone irresponsible or with no accountability? No one, really, except for companies which publish stuff on the Internet. There you still see this a lot. Companies getting contractors or even unpaid folks to provide content. Attracting writers who, quite understandably, are looking for any break they can get. Often media companies sell this to them as “providing exposure,” but let’s be clear about it: it’s just a way for a company to get someone’s labor on the cheap.
Sometimes it’s young people who, however talented and promising they may be, might not have the market cornered on good judgment just yet. It’s not just an age thing. Indeed, I’ve seen better work from younger people overall than I have from older people, at least in sports. And the Halos Heaven guy, I understand, is at least my age and may be older. But there is a certain risk in delegating to someone so green.
The far bigger reason you get questionable content, I think, is because a lot of it in this day and age is being produced by people who are not being paid a living wage or for whom the internet content biz is not their day job. These people, young and old, may be talented, but they can’t really be expected to have the same level of accountability as an experienced, dedicated and full-time person. If you have a term paper due or a end-of-year accounting to be done at the company which supplies your health insurance, it’s not hard to understand why that bit of sports analysis came up half-assed. People prioritize in life. And, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.
I realize this is self-serving and/or ass-kissing given that they employ me, but there’s a reason why NBC’s sports verticals work. And why they rarely if ever have stepped on it with questionable content: NBC hired grownups. Guys like Mike Florio, Kurt Helin and me. Adults who take our jobs seriously because they are, you know, our jobs, not our hobbies. Because we have been tasked with some responsibility and strive to demonstrate it in equal measure. Not because we’re better or more professional people or anything like that, but because that’s just how the basic social contract works when it comes to employment in our society.
The other “Talk” guys and I may write stuff that people disagree with. Heck, we do it often. But based on my experience in the real world back in the day, I know that an employer can deal just fine with an employee simply being wrong about something. I lost cases as a lawyer and I’ve blown bits of analysis as a blogger. It happens and will happen again. But what an employer does not like is having to answer constant questions about what the hell you just did from people who normally wouldn’t be paying attention. And what an employee can’t come back from is being an agenda item at a meeting to which he or she is not invited. These are the measures by which a model based on delegation is judged internally. And these are the things that happen when you delegate to people who aren’t as invested in your company’s mission and future as you are.
So: scale away, media companies. Achieve efficiencies and synergies with robust models until your heart and bank accounts are content. But understand that when you do so, you’re handing someone the keys to a truck with your name on the side. Make sure you give those keys to someone you trust and make sure you incentivize them to be just as careful with your truck as you would be.