This is Rich here. I only clarify because I’m going to mention baseball. I am the British one, I just like baseball.
Growing up I played a lot of sport. Football was great but I had a nasty habit of falling apart mentally in school matches (besides myself I more or less half-blame a single teacher for this and were I to meet him today I would certainly consider pouring boiling custard on his pathetic head). So I did come to associate football with stress, which was a shame because everything we know about youth development now suggests that it should be, you know, fun. This all went away by the time I was 17 or so and I resumed playing in earnest, but by then the damage had been done and I wasn’t the player I thought I would be when I was nine (who is though, eh?). Then when I was 18 the damage was literally done – I tore a medial meniscus playing for my village side and it took four years for this to be diagnosed. So I drifted out of the game (ha!) and focused more on other sports.
One of which was baseball. As our American readers will no doubt agree, there’s something quite refreshing about following another country’s sport. Somehow the other people who do this are of a similar mindset and…. How can I put this? I don’t know. It’s fun though. I even played baseball for 2-3 years, only stopping when the games started to really drag on and whole days got lost standing in the outfield watching the day go by (then you’d be woken by the sound of a ball landing behind you and things would need fixing sharpish).
Anyway, the good things about baseball are many. Its writing for one: some really good writers have turned their hand to baseball. We say the same about cricket over here but I think that largely we’re fooling ourselves. I also like the fact that the game’s history is in many ways more important than its present. To emphasise the point I couldn’t name a single member of the current Baltimore Orioles (Timmy’s local team, I suspect), but could happily talk about their golden era in the late 60s/early 70s. This could go on and on. I know all sorts about baseball history’s ebb and flow, its greatest teams, its off the field happenings, its on the field changes. I know all this because good writers have told me about them.
Then there’s baseball’s information revolution. In the 1970s a few outsiders started counting things (manually, from newspapers) and worked out a number of truisms about the game that were a) demonstrably correct but b) not aligned to how baseball insiders (who played and ran the game) saw things. Bill James and Pete Palmer knew that batting average and RBI were overrated, that pitcher wins were largely (but obviously not entirely) a function of teammates’ abilities to score runs at the right times, and a million other things. But the game was the game and (aside from Branch Rickey, Earl Weaver (by instinct alone!) and perhaps some more unheralded others) it took until the 90s (arguably Sandy Alderson’s work with the Yankees) for the thinking to really seep into everyday operations, and it took Michael Lewis’ divisive book “Moneyball” to popularise some of this thinking and make people in positions of power take notice. Now the game is very different, with teams’ front offices manned by Harvard graduates working on minimum wages just for the chance to work in baseball and give their team a competitive advantage from somewhere (harder than it was now everyone’s doing the same thing).
Bill James did what he did mainly by questioning what he saw as lazy thinking, and seeing whether or not he might be able to prove or disprove it either way. Sometimes he could, sometimes he couldn’t. But the point is he tried and he managed to come up with some interesting ideas.
And that leads us to where we are now. To be honest I am past caring about whether Stephen Kelly is impressed by his new teammate or whether Mark Schwarzer thinks QPR will be tough but fun or whether Aaron Hughes is going to be playing for Northern Ireland again. The newspapers might pride themselves on getting exclusives (as per the Capello thing the other day, which one journalist cited as an example of what papers can do that blogs cannot, to which the obvious answer was “I think we might have found out anyway!”) but in a lot of cases they can’t bite the hand that feeds them so can’t write anything that enriches our understanding of the game or the people within it (with a few notable exceptions, of course).
I read a quote somewhere the other day (I’ve forgotten where, or who it was from) and it said something like “If you don’t write to find out what you think, you might as well not bother” and that said a lot to me. So – given that me and football are in a bit of a rut – here’s the challenge:
What about football do you want to know about? Is it possible for us ever to know these things? If so, how? And can we at CCN have a bash?
Or are we thinking about too much already?