"It won't be long before we get the first wave of nonsense from stat-crazed dunces claiming there's nothing to be learned from a batting average, won-loss record or RBI total. Listen, just go back to bed, OK? Strip down to those fourth-day undies, head downstairs (to "your mother's basement and your mother's computer," as Chipper Jones so aptly describes it) and churn out some more crap. For more than a century, .220 meant something. So did .278, .301, .350, an 18-4 record, or 118 RBIs. Now it all means nothing because a bunch of nonathletes are trying to reinvent the game?"
-- San Francisco columnist Bruce Jenkins
When I was a kid in Cleveland, we had this unfinished basement where I spent a lot of my time. That probably explains my nuttiness as well as anything. It was down there that I used to put together absurdly involved sports recreations. In one of my favorite scenarios, I would put laundry baskets on each side of the basement -- it was a thin rectangle of a room with yellow brick walls and a concrete floor and two three tiny windows on the left wall near the ceiling -- and I would act out one-man plays of entire Cleveland Cavaliers games. I can remember being fascinated then that the Cavaliers had three guys on the team named Jim -- Jim Chones, Jim Cleamons and Jim Brewer -- and in my basement scenarios the three Jims were amazing. They could do anything. No matter how far behind the Cavaliers were -- and I usually had them fall behind by 20 or 25 -- the Jims ALWAYS brought them back. The Jims did the hard work. Then, my finisher of the day -- usually Austin Carr or Bingo Smith, but sometimes Campy Russell or Footsie Walker -- would come in to put the other team away. Needless to say that the Cavaliers were unbeatable in my mother's basement.
More often, I would throw hardballs against the walls and field grounders. In these exercises, I was almost always Buddy Bell. I may have mentioned a time or two that Duane Kuiper was my hero, and he was -- I spent pretty much every baseball game of my childhood pretending to be the Kuip -- but the basement was for Buddy Bell because I loved watching him make that long throw across the infield. He had an amazing arm, I thought. I would spend hours and hours and hours in my mother's basement throwing a hardball against the brick wall while pretending to have the arm of Buddy Bell.
I often would practice swinging the bat down in the basement. I tried many different times to invent a pitching-hitting game that would allow me to recreate the pitcher-hitter tension -- and every now and again I would come up with a reasonably interesting thing, like one where I would throw a tennis ball against the wall, wait on the bounce, and then swing the bat -- but it wasn't quite realistic enough, and I wanted realism. So more often I simply would imagine pitches coming in. If you saw me down there, you would see a little boy with thick glasses swinging the bat over and over and over again for no apparent reason. In my mind, though, I would swing the bat at imaginary pitches thrown by Nolan Ryan or Tom Seaver or Catfish Hunter. I was at my best in those moment. In actual Little League baseball games, against real young men throwing as hard as they could from 40 feet away, my nerve was shaky, and my form was a blend of tentative aggression and blatant fear, but in the basement my stance was balanced, and my swing was pure, and I hit everything on a line -- exploding fastballs and filthy sliders and back-breaking curves, everything. No pitcher alive or dead could ever throw anything by me in my mother's basement.
I shot jump shots against the stairs in my mother's basement. If I could land the ball so it dropped on the top step, that counted as a basket. If I shot it too soft, the ball hit a lower step and ricochet unpredictably. If I shot the ball too hard, it would bang the door and make a loud sound and inspire my mother to scream and threaten. But if I shot it just right, the ball would settle up there nicely and then hop down happily, like a child skipping into Disney World.
I had another game with those stairs -- I would throw a tennis ball up there and then try to prevent it from slipping past me for a goal. In this scenario, I was former NHL goalie Bernie Parent. I had just read Bernie Parent's biography -- creatively named "Bernie!" -- and it was (improbably, now that I think of it) the first full sports biography I ever read. I loved every word of it, and while the thrill of reading it played its small part in making me want to write I couldn't put that together then. So for a while I misunderstood that thrill and had the rather ill-considered goal of becoming an NHL goalie. My entire childhood I never once went skating, not even once, and so the closest I ever came to that temporary dream was kicking away and blocking tennis balls rolling down stairs in my mother's basement.*
*Years later, as a columnist for the Cincinnati Post, I was given the chance to be a goalie for a practice with the Cincinnati Cyclones. Two memories remain. One was a player "warming me up" by flipping 70- or 80-mph wrist shots off my pads. I remember this well because there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I was not nearly quick enough to move out of the way or catch the puck or any of that. So he just kept hitting my pads with the puck, again and again and again, until he asked: "You warmed up?" I had not moved.
The second memory was of the photo in the paper the next day ... I was in goal and the puck was clearly pictured right beside my head, an excellent timing shot by the photographer. But the most arresting part of the photograph is that I am looking straight ahead, and am obviously completely unaware that there is a puck up by my head. I mean COMPLETELY unaware. I probably lifted my glove hand about 6 seconds later. No, I was never going to be a goalie.
I flipped baseball cards in my mother's basement. I read books in my mother's basement. I dreamed of becoming someone in my mother's basement. I invented games, learned how to throw a spiral (with a Nerf ball, but still), perfected my between-the-legs dribble (sort of), played marathon games of Monopoly and generally became the person I became in my mother's basement.
I've always liked and admired the work of Bruce Jenkins. But the top quote is so annoying and bizarre and convoluted and maddening ... how could anyone fighting for the integrity of resplendently crappy stats like batting average, wins and RBIs call ANYONE ELSE a "stat-crazed dunce?" Why are people who hate advanced stats so interested in the underwear bloggers wear?
And the whole statistical line -- .220 used to mean something, 18-4 used to mean something -- is just whacked. Sure, it means something. I don't think anyone would say there is NOTHING in batting average, wins or RBIs. Other stats just mean more. In 1973, Jimmy Wynn hit .220. He had a better year than Willy Taveras, who hit .278 in 2006, and a better year than Randall Simon when he hit .301 in 2002. Only four pitchers in baseball history have gone 18-4, and they all had good years, though I suspect most would agree that Mark Portugal's 1993 wasn't as good as Roger Clemens' 2004. Anyway Roger Clemens' 2005 was better than all of them and he went 13-8. As for RBIs ... I would hope that George Brett's 118 RBIs in 1980 might carry a little more weight in the mind than Dante Bichette's 118 RBIs in 1997. Neither was as dominant a year as Barry Bonds in 2002 or 2004 -- two of the more remarkable years of the last 50 -- and he didn't get to 118 RBIs either time.
Also ... the nonathletes line at the end is nonsensical. Does Bruce think that athletes invented batting average and RBIs? Does he think Walter Johnson sat at home and devised the archaic rules to define a pitcher's win? Lou Gehrig said "we ought to give an RBI to the guy who drives in a run?" I never stop being amazed by how much people who hate stats because they're "flawed" quote so much more obviously flawed stats.
More than anything, though, I have to ask: How could Bruce really think that one of the biggest cliches of our time -- the blogger in the mother's basement cliche -- was invented by Chipper Jones? This is like suggesting that the knock-knock joke was originated by Dermonti Dawson.
No, Bruce, that bit is ancient, and it's dumb, and consigning the person you disagree with into their mother's basement is just admitting you've run out of arguments. Anyway, it's wrong. My mother's basement was a wonderful place. It is, in so many ways, where I became a man. I visit there often in my mind. I'm usually wearing pants.