Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Steven Goldman: Baseball Prospectus, Extra innings"

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If you haven't noticed, live in a bubble, and haven't been reading themacinator, it's the baseball offseason, also known as hibernation, or the Worst Season of the Year. I have, until recently, not found a cure for no-baseball-itis. That was until I discovered Nerdy Baseball Books like "Baseball Prospectus: Extra Innings." This hard-to-put-down book answers many questions and attempts to answer many others with complicated numbers- sabermetrics- in an accessible way. Sabermerics, editor Steven Goldman explains, "is concerned with the pursuit of fact," but the mainstream media hasn't caught up yet, and "is often hostile to sabermetrics because facts impinge upon their ability to pass of myth as knowledge and claim it as fact."

The Baseball Prospectus guys deal with this right away in their discussion of steroids. I'll admit, I haven't quite swallowed their argument that perhaps there was more to it than just steroids: historical swings in home run rates, new ballparks and changes to the ball might also have led to juiced numbers. I'm old-fashioned and not a fan of cheating, but the sabermetric breakdown is pretty convincing, as is the follow up layout of which steroid-era players should and shouldn't make the Hall of Fame. For example: Barry Bonds, yes- one of the best players of all time in terms of WARP (wins above replacement player), Sammy Sosa, no- he rates well below other right fielders and really is known for his homeruns that came at the peak of the steroid era. It's a fascinating and thought-provoking argument.

The book also deals with scouting and development, including a journey through a hypothetical prospect's career. Robert Elias's "The Empire Strikes Out" touched on scouting in a race/economics way and peaked my interest in MLB's (ab)use of the Caribbean, Central and South America as talent breeding/poaching grounds. Jason Parks guides readers through what it is and how it works, and I have no reason not to believe the guy, just because he doesn't talk much about the ethical implications. Combining his work and Elias's, along with some more reading I plan to do should keep me busy for more of the off-season. I will say that Parks gives some credence when he speaks of Latin America like this: "The region is stacked with natural athletes... The talent is superior, from a physical standpoint, to our domestic product: the athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster than talent found in other markets, and available earlier." Have you heard the one about Africans being better at basketball? Sabermetrics seem to go out the window for a minute when racist arguments are available. Fortunately this kind of thinking doesn't pop up much, and this book is as readable as a baseball book gets. I mean, how can you say no to a book with a chapter called "Is it Possible to Accurately Measure Fielding without Shoving a GPS Device Up Derek Jeter's Ass?" In fact, "Extra Innings" takes aim at Jeter pretty much every time they can, which is fine with me. The book also talks a lot about the A's, without glorifying them- another bonus point for a local girl. Read it, preferably in the offseason.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Mitt Romney Style

If you haven't seen the original, you'll probably want to do so first.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Baratunde Thurston: How to Be Black

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I have one and only one complaint about Baratunde Thurston's otherwise perfect "How to Be Black": even after reading cover-to-cover I have no idea how to re-pigmentize myself. There is no science in this book, and everyone knows I love complicated scientific things. Sure, the second sentence of the book is a disclaimer and the third sentence reads: "This book is not 'How to Become a Black Person If You Are Not Already Black,'" but the book was so good that by the last sentence I forgot about all that and wanted the magic potion he said that I couldn't have in sentence number four. Unfortunately sentence number six even says that I can't have a refund, and Thurston had no way of knowing I got the book at the library, so I guess I no have to take back this complaint.

"How to Be Black" is a phenomenal, satirical look at "blackness" that uses humor to get at very deep issues. For example, Thurston includes a token white person in "Black Panel," so I felt my voice adequately represented when he surveys a group of people he feels "do blackness well." Including one white voice (and the way he does it) is clearly beyond tongue and cheek, it's ludicrous, which, each time, points to the ways black voices are included and silenced. In Thurston's words, "the ideas of blackness that make it into mainstream thought exclude too much of the full range of who black people are. Whether it's musical taste, dancing proficiency, occupation, or intellectual interest, all nuance is ignored for a simpler, often more sellable blackness." Thurston "re-complicates" this picture in an eminently readable, thought-provoking way.

He starts by skewering Black History Month, giving readers ten activities one can follow in order to participate appropriately in February and then handing out points and awards for number of activities completed (ex: Negro Lover or Official Friend of Black America). Tell me none of these activities ring true: Avoid being explicitly racist, Watch BET, Hum a negro spiritual, read "The Autobiography of Malcom X." It rings true.  He also calls out the ludicrous nature of "Black History Month," those 28 days a year when black people have history. Baratunde also discusses naming, and language, through the lens of his name: "For non-blacks, it marks me as absolutely, positively black. However, most of the vocal Nigerians I've met (which is to say, most of the Nigerians I've met) use my name to remind me that I'm not that black." And then, just when he's softened me up, he hits below the belt. He talks about my favorite show ever, The Wire. His childhood neighborhood was just like the Baltimore hood depicted in The Wire: "We had the drug dealing, the police brutality, the murders." But something wasn't just the same, and here's where it hurts: "We had everything The Wire had except for universal critical acclaim and the undying love of white people who saw it. Of course, eventually white people would fall in love with my old neighborhood as development and gentrification have led to its supporting a subway station, wine bars, and even a Target." He's right: he lived it, I loved it. Wow. That's powerful there.

There is absolutely no reason not to go read this book. It's coming out in paperback now, or maybe it has, and it's at your library. It's short, it's funny, it's hard hitting, and you will come out the same color you went in, so don't worry.