Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Opening Daze #1: ESPN's Enduring Failure

When Josh Beckett throws his first pitch, on April 4th, to officially begin the baseball season, I emit one of those involuntary ahhhhhh sounds that you occasionally hear when you walk out the front door of an airport and are surrounded by smokers lighting up for the first time in five hours.

I'm sure that I have a sincere and elaborate opinion somewhere in me explaining why baseball is the greatest game, but at this moment, only three explanations come to mind:

1. It's back, and football isn't. Also, the World Cup hasn't started yet.

2. You really don't have to pay too much attention. I mean, yeah, there's all that poetry in what doesn't happen — or so say people like George Will, who claim that social justice occurs when you don't do anything either. Basically, you can glean as much or as little from a baseball game as you like. If you want to observe defensive shifts and whether a pitcher is banging the outside of the plate against somebody, great. If you've got work to do, great. You can hook up the radio, worry away at something on the computer, do the dishes, make a dinner or tinker in the garage. Baseball is the most rewarding auditory game. Vin Scully proves this. Most people who get all uptight about how you have to watch everything are usually annoying, even if they aren't statistics wonks or bad gamblers. Most of them are probably dishonest, too. Practically everyone I know grew up with as much baseball on the radio as on the TV. And we grew up into having MLB cable packages.

3. It's a long season, so missed games and losses don't matter that much. Football is so immediate and so statistically compacted that everything seems pressing. With football, most of the games each week happen at the same time on the same day. If you're busy then, you miss out. Worse, it's on for less than half the year (20 weeks, counting the postseason), and most of those weeks feature so much head-to-head stuff that you can't see it all. Baseball happens for most of the year. Many of those days, there are games on at 1 pm, 4 pm, 7pm and then 10 pm (Eastern). Best of all, even if your team is absolutely amazing, they're still going to lose 60 times. You can afford to not sweat the small stuff — while in the garage, trying to fix your stupid lawnmower.

I didn't feel this way before the first pitch. Satisfaction got pushed back somewhere in my mind. ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball would be carrying the game, and the network was already abusing the concept of promotion an hour before the first pitch.

If you're ever stuck in a class or some protracted conversation with some libertarian fuckass, you can dispel all "wisdom of the market" theory with four syllables: ESPN. Never has monopoly, possibility, challenge, innovation and expansion met with so much commitment to the same thunderingly uncritical and self-congratulatory branding, selling authority without knowledge, and analysis without insight. ESPN co-opts competing personalities and ideas with dumber versions of their challengers (when they can't merely buy them and remove all challenge) and rides out superior numbers to excuse inferior product. Then they sell you the inferior product as something intrinsically as important as sports themselves. People mock Nike's advertising campaign as essentially advertising Nike as a cultural construct instead of a product. But in ESPN's hands, Nike's "Just Do It" mantra would probably be reduced to an acrostic:
Nothing exemplifies this quite so well as their annual recap shows which filter sports through the lens of how important they were that they were covered by ESPN — except perhaps their annual doubling down on the wisdom of ex-jock commentary, to the point that shows swell with on-field, in-studio, panel and on-location pieces filed by people who have limited communications skills and no credentials other than previously waving wood at balls.

ESPN isn't just a Sports Package; it's a Sports Retirement Package. The messaging of ESPN co-opts the meaning and mediation of sports so effortlessly by the fact that almost everyone looking to make a buck after retirement will probably look to the one outlet insistent that they respect it for whatever it is that it ostensibly contributes to the game. If you're a sports figure, you have to take it seriously because if you run afoul of it, you run the risk that nothing will take you seriously, at least not nationally, where the money is.

Naturally, for Opening Night, ESPN hired former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling and former Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to say things as former Red Sox—alongside John Kruk, who says things because he's fed food pellets whenever he does this at the same time camera lights are on. John Kruk is a living joke, but the Nomar and Schilling inclusions seemed like accidental halves of a coin.

Nomar seemed like a nice enough and sort-of articulate guy who has no other place to go. His career didn't turn out the way he wanted, and now he'd like to be in the game and cashing checks. Schilling, meanwhile, might as well be an avatar for ESPNness. He's always available, always opinionated, unafraid to be wrong and even less afraid to repeat himself after that last one's been proved to him. He can move effortlessly from one camera and one tautology to the next. When pressed, he can say the same thing only louder. Schilling was born for this, auto sales or a governorship.

Both Schilling and Nomar said things that weren't particularly novel or enlightening, but both got the details out all right. True to form, Schilling said the same thing in three different ways in one monologue and made weird gestures. Whatever. Probably the only real delight to their presence was the hysterical objections of Yankee fans. Schill and Nomar's being there indicated that ESPN has a supposed institutional pro-Sox bias, which is unforgivable, because it competes with the general fawning every announcer in the country gives Derek Jeter for no reason, or somehow runs up against the time-spans in which people could mention how many times the Yankees have won World Series, or 9/11 or something.

The great thing about this is that these fans will be the first to argue that ESPN isn't biased as soon as it hires Jeter, Posada, Rivera and a bunch of other aging Yankees as soon as they retire. Sure, Posada's a charmless sulk when he's not an overtly bilious asshole. Sure, Rivera's accented English isn't entirely discernible at times. And sure, Jeet's one of the most boring people on the planet, a wise media craftsman who's said the right things for 15 years now without putting a foot wrong, boringly done nothing of note in his personal life and boringly done nothing to indicate any intellectual curiosity beyond boringly hopping like a moron while throwing to first base. He'll be a fucking superstar on ESPN.

Whatever. At least none of them are or will ever be John Kruk or Joe Morgan. Speaking of which....

Beckett throws out the first pitch, and I feel that comforting reassurance that baseball is happening again, some sports dopamine roaring across my synapses for just one idle and wonderful moment. Then Joe Morgan starts talking.

Almost nothing has happened, and already Morgan's started in on how Beckett was a far better pitcher last season than his ERA (earned run average) would suggest. He doesn't explain this by using better statistics or even by explaining how ERA can be flawed.

(An example of this last one: say Beckett walks two men and then gets pulled from the game by the manager. Those two men on base are "his." Now let's say the relief pitcher who comes in for him throws a bunch of meatball pitches and gives up a bunch of singles in a row. Those two walked men, who were on base, get credited to Beckett. Those are his earned runs. But God only knows if he'd have pitched as poorly as his reliever. Maybe he would have gotten three straight-pop up outs and ended the inning without a run scoring. So ERA might not help tell you who's good. After all, if that reliever only gives up those two runs, that reliever doesn't get credited with any earned runs, even though he gave up the hits that scored them. It's sort of sloppy, right?)

Morgan doesn't explain why Beckett's ERA is inaccurate, because Morgan hates numbers. Numbers are things nerds talk about. Nerds who like math and never played the game. He's a ballplayer, so he can tell that Beckett's numbers were no good, just by watching, with ballplayer eyes. He doesn't have to quantify or demonstrate how the numbers were off, because numbers are generated by people who don't tightly grip bats and swing them while calculating things. The very fact that there isn't a number measuring "grittiness" or "consistency" or "heart" establishes their bankruptcy. Anyway, Morgan backs up his point about Beckett with this, literally this:

"He had a much better season than the statistics... than, uh, the statistics would verify."
VERIFY: |ˈverəˌfī| verb ( -fies, -fied) [ trans. ] (often be verified)
make sure or demonstrate that (something) is true, accurate, or justified

Morgan refuses to believe numbers by challenging them with usages of words that have no meaning in the context. The numbers are wrong, because the exact same numbers will verify the lack of verity the exact same set of numbers possessed. It wouldn't be an issue if this last statement was his opening argument, but it's the justification he has for an argument that already says the same thing. It's like showing up at a friend's barbecue and saying, "What you're cooking hasn't been barbecued. The barbecued meat inside will tell you as much."

As soon as he finishes, Orel Hershisher, who owes most of his mystique to the kind of sports journalism ESPN provides, opines that winners are "pitchers that have heart... to play through, to push through those errors." What this means is anyone's guess. All I remember is that someone patted CC Sabathia, or CC Sabathia patted someone. It was one of those "it's no big deal" moments in the dugout. Bad thing occurred; everyone will get over it anyway.

Of course, in Orel's world, a winner is a pitcher who just hugs the guy harder or forgives him more Christian-like or just really aggressively says, "LET'S PLAY THROUGH, PUSH THROUGH THOSE ERRORS." Or maybe he gets back out on the mound and throws so hard that the other team is like, "Whoa, we can't hit any of this. If the opposing team weren't so together, we might have a chance. But this guy's got an extra 10 mph on his fastball, and all of them are labeled 'team.' I wish we were together like that. Then we'd have a winner. Who is a pitcher. Only pitchers win games. With heart. Our hearts. Voodoo."

It seems like ten minutes pass, and then Jon Miller, Morgan and Orel all spend about twenty fucking minutes mentioning each others' — and other players' — nicknames. No, really, this goes on through commercial breaks.

Then my DVR stops recording in the seventh inning. It has reached the end of the normal duration of a baseball game. Because this was a Yankees-Red Sox game, on ESPN, this of course is not the end. Awesome. I take a cue from the clock, delete the recorded part, set the DVR to record three more hours of programming on this channel, then go do anything else.

This is opening night. This is ESPN.