I was raised on the baseball highlight reel. As a kid, SportsCenter was my breakfast. Eat a little Cinnamon Toast Crunch, watch a few dazzling catches, laugh at Craig Kilborn and Keith Olbermann, see Ken Griffey, Jr. hit another homerun—what a swing! On really special mornings, there might be something crazy. When I was in college people just did not believe me when I said that pitcher Randy Johnson had actually murdered a dove with a fastball he was delivering to Calvin Murray during a late spring tune-up. “Just an explosion of feathers!” I’d say. “It was crazy!”
“No way. Stop.”
Really. There was a time you might actually call a friend after SportsCenter aired. That kind of sharing would never happen today, not when “sharing” is a bazillion dollar speculative bubble in Silicon Valley. Your phone would not let something that watchable escape your notice for more than an hour.
The highlight show was already losing a bit of currency by the time of the dove’s demise. A few years earlier ESPN had added “the crawl” to the bottom of the screen, that constantly re-running series of box scores and notable achievements. Sports fans have probably forgotten what highlight shows were like before the crawl, but the SportsCenter faithful hated this innovation at the time. Highlight shows were anticipated. A little hook from Craig Kilborn could make viewers guess how many strikeouts this young rubber-band kid Pedro Martinez accumulated last night in Montreal. My first instinct when the crawl came was to avert my eyes.
But those little numbers in the crawl have become much bigger deal. For one, quick updates are part and parcel of fantasy baseball and simulation baseball. That, too, is a big business, and one only a real grouch could begrudge others the pleasures it offers.
But the numbers are also becoming an ideology. Another type of fan, raised on Moneyball and simulation baseball, seems to enjoy the game only as a statistical abstraction far from the actual athletic endeavor. Sport as random number generator. This fan identifies with the general manager, or the spreadsheet evaluator, more than the player. Who cares about the final score in the Pirates game? What is the Pirates’ season-long run differential? Some hurler retired 16 batters in a row last night? Pish-posh, just noise in the data. Only a peon would care about the, you know, actual games.
Last year, all the idiots who watch highlights on MLB Network and keep up with pennant races the traditional way were inclined to talk up Reds pitcher Homer Bailey for throwing a no-hitter. So broadcaster Brian Kenny began goading fans, saying that no-hitters aren’t special. He insisted we only praised the pitcher who pulls one off because of a hangover from a time of unenlightened baseball values. In the narrowest sense, Kenny is right: When evaluating a talent’s future potential, a no-hitter isn’t a relevant statistic. But taken too seriously, Kenny’s suggestion is that the only reason we play baseball is to generate data about players, so we can crunch it in Microsoft Excel.
Baseball isn’t just for scouts and spreadsheets. It isn’t just for analyzing the future worth of players. That’s like believing the purpose of a date with your girlfriend is to calculate the calories consumed at the meal and burned afterward in strolling around Little Italy. Or deciding whom to marry by estimating the average happiness generated across the lifetime of the relationship, weighed against a future regression to the mean. Our romances, our parenting lives, our careers, and our memories of childhood all have highlights, those flash moments that we talk about or replay in our heads. Those no-hitter dates, our strikeouts at work, or even our child hilariously killing a bird in a feather-spreading fluke.
As a young adult I’ve embraced the highlight reel again, even when the scores are no surprise. Baseball is experiencing a Golden Age, with more talented athletes on the field, better training, and—yes—better data and statistical analysis than at any other time. From April to November, the best minutes of cable television every single day are the final few of MLB Tonight. Watch Juan Lagares cover an outfield distance roughly from LaGuardia to JFK. Watch Washington’s Bryce Harper, who soon might be better than Mickey Mantle. Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen is Willie Mays reborn. When the reel runs, all the stats fall away, and so do all the divisive debates about money and culture. There are just these amazing young men, playing America’s favorite game. And—oh, did you see that? What a catch!