Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Steps on the rubber, checks his sign, steps off the rubber, wipes his brow, adjusts his cap, steps back up on the rubber

I've really been struggling to truly scale back my news consumption. It is, I've realized, a project. And it is one I've been working on for two or three weeks now with some important but limited success. The impetus for my effort was my decision to go to grad school but it could have just have easily been related to burnout. Geopolitical affairs have seemed especially volatile for the last month and especially over the last two weeks. It is extraordinarily stressful to read the paper these days, especially for friends of the Gulf. The national discourse has seemed especially frantic and inconsistent.

I've also been interested in a couple of interesting pieces that question what our increasing use of the internet and gadgets are doing to how we think and live. Basically, our attention spans are being tested and so are our ability to analyze larger, long term phenomenon. I don't think I've fallen into the hole but I've certain walked around the edge and peered into it. Certainly, it took me a lot longer to read my latest book than it should have.


I've been trying to spend more time with my favorite past time, the great game of baseball.

I happened to be watching the Tigers play the Indians live when poor Armando Galarraga lost his perfect game bid to a horrendous blown call by first base umpire Jim Joyce.

The immediate reaction to the mistake from chatterers was to call for expanded instant replay use. The argument was that since we have the technology, we should digitize the baseball rule book in order to eliminate human error from the game.

Yet the incredible class with which the perp, Joyce, and the victim, Galarraga, conducted themselves after the blown call turned out to be incredibly heartwarming and wonderful. It was such that after the immediate calls for replay, there were glowing columns and reports about the great lesson America had just learned about sportsmanship. In all probability, Galarraga's near-perfect game will be remembered for longer and more fondly than an actual perfect game would have been.

And so had instant replay been in place, we all would have been denied what is undeniably an awesome reaffirmation of the beauty of imperfection and the irreplicable nature of the human touch.

(Though for the record, I do think there has got to be an unintrusive way to use replay to overturn really bad calls in baseball.)

The calls for the mechanized reduction of human error come amid a context in which player evaluation decisions are increasingly being made with the assistance of computerized evaluation of player statistics and ability. The movement within professional player evaluation and popular with fantasy baseball players seeks to project what a player "should" do statistically speaking. The popularity of these methodologies has ushered what some have probably already referred to the "Moneyball era" of baseball team personnel management. The idea originally was that teams were relying on less-than-appropriate statistical measures or on unquantifiable measures like whether a player's was "clutch."

But it's not hard to imagine what happens when the pendulum swings to far in that direction. I believe the success of the Phillies in recent years is due, in part, to the organization's emphasis on a player's individual personality and on team chemistry. It has gotten to the point where instead of a particular measure of player skill being poorly evaluated by baseball GMs, the most undervalued baseball commodity comes from imprecise and difficult to measure judgement of a player's character.

(Though for the record, I do think a lot of GMs are still foolishly making really boneheaded personnel decisions based on their 'guts' instead of on what can be and already is measured.)

The other area in baseball in which there is an increasing clamor involves the length of games. Some, even within the world of baseball fandom, argue that baseball takes too long. Indeed, baseball has lost market share to the NFL. There is so much irregularity in baseball. There is no clock so games can last from anywhere from one and a half to four hours. That makes it difficult for busy people to stay attentive and it complicates television broadcasts.

(Though for the record, I appreciate the initiative umpires may already take to keep players moving within the rhythm of the game.)

I've enjoyed considering these somewhat related movements in baseball toward mechanization, digitization, precise calculation, and strict time management. To an important degree, they seem antithetical to the whole point of baseball in modernity and related to my struggles with my attention span when it comes to gadgetry and the internet.

What happens when the very things that are designed to require intense concentration and attention to detail, and which are characterized by imprecise rhythm and artistry, become overrun by our impulse to eat, chew, and move on to the next one?

I am absolutely not concerned about baseball or worried about the encroachment of impulsive reactionaries upon it.

But I have been considering the tension between our apparently shrinking attentions spans and the nature of leisure and deep thought.


Leigh C. said...

Galarraga after that blown call was such a class act. I was angrier than that man was when I saw that.

And as for the shortness of our attention spans, friends of mine who rode out the storm, evacuated shortly after, then returned to the city in October told me how difficult it was to just sit down and read a novel. That kind of thing my pal Edie's daughter had taken for granted just wasn't coming. It took her a year before she read a novel the whole way through, and it was a real breakthrough.

And if we're feeling this way just from the news we're getting from the Gulf, think of the folks whose livelihoods as fishermen and women are kaput. We'll all be lucky if we can make it through short articles in US magazine at this rate.

Hang in there. ((((((hugs))))))

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