Wyers: How do narratives impede our understanding of baseball?

From SABR member Colin Wyers at Baseball Prospectus on October 17, 2012:

I don’t think the idea of narratives in baseball writing is one advanced primarily by sabermetricians. And I don’t think it’s really disputable that they exist, or that there is a class of people (primarily beat writers) who regularly use narratives. Narrative, after all, is another way of saying “story,” and there’s a reason that what reporters write are called stories. It is probably true, though, that sabermetrics has turned “narrative” into an epithet.

I don’t think that all narratives are bad. I think that on the whole, narratives are necessary for discussion about baseball. Narratives can be used to help communicate complex things, to entertain, to enlighten and to amuse. Narratives are a lot like cars—they are extremely useful, they can occasionally be dangerous, and they have some subtle, diffuse effects that we may not even be aware of.


So, to review:

  • All of these are constructed narratives—they are the stories these writers are telling about this one ball game. While all of them have the game in common, they all are able to find different narrative threads for the same game. One game can have many storylines to it.
  • Baseball seems to readily lend itself to at least two storylines per game—one for the winning team, one for the losing team. It’s possible to have more than that, but at the very least you tend to see those two narratives to a game.
  • If you distill a game down to two stories like that, you’re getting an incomplete picture. There is an ancient proverb among my people: “Understanding is a three-edged sword.” There’s your side, my side, and in the middle there is the truth. Did the Yankees hit poorly? Did Sanchez pitch well? From a particular narrative viewpoint, one or the other seems more prominent—but from a distance, they both seem to blend together. We don’t need to decide between one or the other, but we can have a gray space that encompasses both.
  • But even if each narrative is incomplete on its own, that doesn’t mean it cannot be useful, entertaining or instructive.

In particular, the team-centric narratives have as their purpose to impart the sense of the game in a limited space to a fan of the team, usually. No doubt Yankees fans and Tigers fans had very different feelings about the game as it progressed—each of them has a different view of which team is the protagonist and which is the antagonist. So to that end, those narratives do what they’re supposed to.

That’s one use of narratives in sports, and (I want to say this again to make sure that it’s not missed) a useful and important one. There are others. Remember, again, narratives can be used to entertain, inform, persuade—the key point is that narratives are a useful tool in communication. And I should note that sabermetricians who wish to be able to communicate thoughts and ideas to others would do well to learn how to use narratives. (This column about narratives contains several narratives, in fact.)

There is a level at which we can appreciate narratives for their own sake, but at a deeper level narratives are like anything else we use to communicate (infographics, mathematics, raw data even): they are only as useful as what they are attempting to communicate. A well-crafted narrative in service of espousing a bad idea is a narrative that can range anywhere from unuseful to actually damaging.

Building a sports narrative is usually not an act of creation but of selection and arrangement—using parts of the whole in such a way that they conveys a sense of a whole thing. So if we want to examine sports narratives, we have to ask: Why emphasize these things? Why exclude these other things?

To my mind, the worst sports narratives—the ones that do a disservice to fans and writers and the participants themselves—are the ones that, so to speak, try to make sporting contests primarily about character. To be blunt, there are plenty of good, decent people in the world who would make terrible professional athletes. And by the same token, there are plenty of people in the various Halls of Fame of American professional sports whom few of us would ask to babysit our children. Making sports about character can frequently lead to poor discussion about sports. More importantly, as becomes very apparent when we try to have discussions about actual character issues in the context of sports, it does a lot of damage to our ability to discuss character and morality and the like when we confuse it with the sort of things that allows people to win sporting contests.

Read the full article here: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=18683

Originally published: October 17, 2012. Last Updated: October 17, 2012.