Friday, April 11, 2014

Two Sociologists Talkin' Baseball

It's finally baseball season! Matt Loveland, a sociologist at Le Moyne College, is passionate about baseball. If you follow him on Twitter, you'll see him occasionally tweeting about baseball. I wanted to get his take on a few baseball matters. He generously agreed to an interview.

Todd Schoepflin: So, Matt, I gather from some of your tweets that you’re not in love with instant replay in MLB. Why not?
Matt Loveland: I'm actually a little bit conflicted. Mostly I think it's unnecessary and going to do little more than lengthen games by bringing managers out to question calls they'd previously just have been upset about and fumed in the dugout. I know umpires get calls wrong, but do they get enough wrong to justify these stoppages? Mostly what I've seen so far is managers coming out just to give his assistant enough time to see the replay, and then when it's clear the call was right, going back to the dugout. I know there have been successful challenges, but will replay guarantee they get all the calls right? I'd guess it'll mean less than perfect improvement of a percentage of correct calls that was already high to begin with (I also imagine these data are available or have been written about). I really liked the NY Times piece by Brayden King and Jerry Kim. I don't think fans really appreciate the warts like they ask, but I don't think getting rid of the warts will make the game appreciably better, at least in terms of casual enjoyment as a fan.
How am I conflicted, you ask? As a fan of the Brewers, if replay helps Milwaukee by correcting bad calls that's great (it already has), but as a fan who also just likes to watch random games, I really don't care for the added delays and confusion. Maybe that'll get worked out. More as a sociologist, I guess, I just get annoyed that we sometimes sacrifice what can be a fun pastime for the sake of legalistic certainty. It's the downside of rationalization - it kills the opportunities for spontaneous emotion. At the same time, maybe it'll cut down on managers yelling and screaming and getting ejected which seems like a good thing. But, we all know that's fun to watch...
TS: Speaking of conflicted, I’d like to get your thoughts about watching baseball in the performance enhancing substance era. When you watch games, does it enter your mind that some of the players are cheating, that the playing field isn’t level? Is this something you care a lot about? If so, what do you do with those concerns—do you just put them away when you consume the game?
ML: This is something that I feel like I should care about. I really don’t. In particular, I’m a Brewers fan and the team’s star player Ryan Braun got caught with elevated testosterone levels. It was a lot of drama because he said he was innocent, he won an appeal of suspension with MLB, and then his name showed up on paperwork indicating he’d used the services of Biogenesis – a PED clinic. I don’t care that he used the PEDs, at least not that much, but I do care that I got duped because I believed him. And then I care because why should I care about that, and it just makes it harder to justify being a sports fan, and that makes me sad because I want to have fun enjoying sports. And, why can’t I just enjoy it!?
TS: Do you agree that baseball has been eclipsed by football as America's national pastime?  Is it too obvious to say that baseball is just too slow moving for our culture whereas football is fast, hypermasculine, and hyperviolent, therefore more reflective of American culture and more entertaining for consumers? As an aside, we know most of an NFL or college football telecast is commercials and pauses in between plays. In a three hour telecast you mostly get commercials and announcer blabber, but the plays happen fast and in violent bursts.
ML: I really don’t know about that question. I think the answer depends a lot on the data, and I don’t know which data are right. I know national TV ratings and average attendance overwhelmingly go to football all the time, and it does appear to have the more wildly committed fans. That being said, I also think that baseball is able to put on a lot more games every year. There are only 8 home games a year in the NFL and for several of the teams by the end of the season it’s hard to find fans in the stands. MLB teams have 81 home games a year, and sure there are places like Miami that seem to have real trouble filling the stands all year, but I think that’s the exception. And then you’ve got to consider all the other levels of professional and semi-professional baseball that go on every year. Put on a baseball game and people will come, Todd. People will most definitely come. Other football leagues have never really been as successful as the other baseball leagues. Mostly this question just makes me think of Carlin.
TS: I know you're a fan of minor league baseball and enjoy going to AAA games. What do you like and appreciate about the minor league baseball experience?
ML: I prefer the experience of minor league games over the big league games. Don’t get me wrong, big league play is better, and I love the feeling of a big crowd at an MLB game. It’s nice to be a part of that many people all focused on the same thing and reacting to the exciting plays. Then again, there is something special about being committed to a minor league team. I was at a Syracuse Chiefs game once, it was early in the year and it was cold and rainy. I got talking to an usher who’d worked at the stadium for many years, and still does, and he commented about liking the small crowds because it felt like they were playing the game ‘just for us.’ There is something to that. I think it’s an identity issue as much as about liking baseball. I do like the game, but I like being a fan too, and when you are a fan of something most folks aren’t, I think that’s a nice feeling. You also get the opportunity to say ‘I saw him when…’ once a player makes it up to ‘the show,’ and that’s fun. As a result of following teams like the South Bend Silverhawks and Syracuse Chiefs as closely as I have for the last 15 years or so, there’s a good number of big league players I saw ‘back in the day.’
There is also the fact that I just like having access to a game. That’s three hours that I don’t really think or worry about much else. You don’t even really have to pay total attention. Just sit there, enjoy a beverage or two, and hang out with friends. It’s a great venue for that, and in a way I don’t think football can match. Downtime in a football game really feels like downtime, and when you are in the stands for a televised game you really notice it. Football games have terrible flow, and the TV timeout has to be the worst fan experience there is. This sort of returns to the issue of replay, because what it’s doing is creating new downtime, an artificial disruption, that doesn’t fit the flow of the game.

The End (or perhaps to be continued, after Matt and I get together this summer to watch a minor league baseball game in Buffalo!)

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