If playing baseball is about actual baseball things — you know these: hitting, throwing, catching, glowering, bickering, obfuscating and denying — being a fan of the game is essentially about language. And also I guess drinking and hot dogs, but I’m going to focus on language. This is not to say that the joys of being at a baseball game are somehow secondary to talking about that game, but… well, I think they might actually be secondary, at least to me. As excellent as all the smell-of-the-grass/coldish-beer stuff is, the fan experience of baseball facilitates conversation pretty much to the point of demanding it, be it about the game or whatever else. And while the data-centric, graph-and-chart aspect of baseball talk is ascendant online, I’d argue that it’s still for the most part subsidiary to a word-driven conversation about the game — the internet’s way of writing about baseball includes this sort of thing, in other words, but it’s all in the interest of this sort of thing. The bigger purpose of The Baseball Internet’s mountains of conversational prose and all those weird bloggy blooms of fervor and humor is, I think, the conversation itself — the discourse is, in a sense, its own point.
Which sounds solipsistic and goofy, I guess, but I don’t mean it as criticism — the reason I’m writing this, and that you’re (possibly still) reading it is that we share an interest in having a conversation about this particular topic that’s different from the joyless, rip-intensive editorializing hat generally defines mainstream sports media. Which is reasonable enough considering that that other conversation is led by, you know, Gerry Callahan or Gregg Doyel or Mike Francesa or whoever you like least. We’re not hurting anyone, and it’s perfectly natural not to want to hang out with those guys. Callahan smells like bile and Drakkar Noir, Doyel is always screaming himself into nosebleeds and Francesa always has mustard stains on his shirt. You wouldn’t want to hang out with them, either.
And with this new conversation we get this weird new lexicon — both the military-grade density of sabermetrics’ acronyms and odd physiology formulations like “scapular loading.” Speaking for myself — and speaking as someone more interested in making himself look smarter than he is than dumber/more-authentical than he is — I don’t totally get all these things. Scapular loading, for instance, is something I can definitely pantomime for you, and maybe kind of explain — it describes a particularly faulty bit of pitching mechanics in which the shoulder blades pinch back towards one another. Factor in an “Inverted W” — what happens when a pitcher’s elbows are higher than his shoulders during the loading part of the pitching motion — and, the conventional wisdom goes, you’ve got a motion essentially guaranteed to cause injury. Here’s a photo of Bill Pulsipher modeling the inverted W in a stylish Somerset Patriots uniform. Yes, I chose that picture on purpose.
The conversation that is going on about this particular topic on the internet wasn’t one I’ve joined myself — for reasons that are probably easy enough to understand: would you want to argue with this dude? — and so I was surprised to find out how passionate it is. The Tommy John-ing of Stephen Strasburg — an inverted-W man, himself — has fired things up, understandably. With this renewed look at mechanics has come another turn in the spotlight for Dr. Mike Marshall (above), the renegade pitching technician and operator of this Angelfire website from 1994. He is also the same person as 1974 NL Cy Young Award-winner Mike Marshall. I knew little of Marshall’s long second act except the basics — that he got his kinesiology degree and has retreated into a Colonel Kurtz-ian existence in Florida, teaching a peculiar take on pitching mechanics (which includes little hip rotation and essentially no leg kick) to players with nowhere else to go. Periodically, someone writes about him and his odd ideas — Kevin Baxter did so in the Los Angeles Times back in 2007; Bruce Markusen did in Hardball Times just a few days ago. The takeaway is usually the same: this very accomplished guy thinks he has a better way of doing things, and no one will listen. Cases like Strasburg’s, a graphic reminder of the limits of pitching mechanics to prevent injury, tend to bring both this subject and Marshall himself to the fore. It happens every few years.
And here’s where the surprise is, for me. Taken on its face, The Dr. Mike Marshall Story looks like an easy enough cause for the Internet-as-it-is-caricatured — the contrarian bloggers in basements, the vengeful nerds, whatever — to rally around. In Marshall, you’ve got a smart dude with unique ideas who is not being heard; you’ve got a convincing and ready-made villain in the ossified baseball brain trust types; you’ve got object lessons like Strasburg and Mark Prior and Bill Pulsipher and a few dozen others that any fan can list off the top of the head. And yet that’s not the direction in which the conversation has moved, primarily because — as Baseball Prospectus’s Will Carroll noted back in 2008 — Marshall’s alternative to the scapular loading thing doesn’t seem to work. Instead, we’ve gotten something that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from a discourse that generally centers on — and I mean this in the nicest possible way — outsized emotion and acronymical stat-parsing. We’ve gotten, instead of mechanical analyses and jeremiads against The Old Ways, this mournful, philosophical acceptance that asking the human body to throw a baseball is just kind of a very cruel thing to ask a body to do.
You expect this from Joe Posnanski, who’s probably as close to a patron saint as the new online sports discourse has, and he delivers it in a (typically) long and eloquent blog post that conjures the achy-armed ghosts of Jim Pittsley and Roger Salkeld to make the smaller point that most brilliant pitchers, whatever their mechanics, do not stay healthy enough to become brilliant older pitchers and the larger point that basically everything about baseball defies things easily understood.
The blogger who goes by The Common Man makes a more specific, Dr. Mike Marshall-oriented point at his blog, Platoon Advantage:
It’s tempting to try and find reasons why players get injured. To do so helps us to feel powerful, in control of our destinies and those of youngsters like Stephen Strasburg. And acquiring knowledge that others supposedly don’t have is also alluring, in that it allows us to claim a special status. We are on the forefront of a new movement. We saw what others did not. We were his Apostles spreading the word. We saw The Beatles when they were still a garage band in Liverpool.
… What Marshall says sounds plausible and tantalizing, even if he’s not correct. And so he continues to churn out a vocal and devoted following who will beat his drum and toot his horn in the face of evidence to the contrary. In the face of science. Their science is that young men get injured. And dammit, they want answers and solutions, and the simpler the better.
Admittedly, this is the sort of thing I like, but I think this particular direction is a good one. Because sports are fundamentally kind of an inconsequential and silly thing, the mainstream discourse about it will probably always be at least moderately buttheaded — lots of stuff about heart and swagger and chemistry and getting-tough and all the other familiar leftovers. But even bearing that in mind — and bearing in mind the fundamental triviality of talking about baseball, which I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned yet — there’s something exciting to me about watching this radically different, more aware and more nuanced way of talking about baseball develop. This way of thinking, writing and talking about baseball didn’t exist in a way that I had any access to even a decade ago, and the rate at which it’s improving both upon the old model and itself is impressive in the extreme. If we’re going to be talking about baseball, anyway — and we are, since that’s what it’s for — I’m happy that this is the way in which we’re going to be talking about it.