Jonah Keri talks to us about the changing face of sports, advanced stats, and being a Montreal Expos fan.
After a prolonged hiatus thanks to the NBA Playoffs and some other things, Sports Matter is back! Since we’ve only had one edition, and it’s been like two months, a quick refresher. We talk about why sports matter—hey oh!—to men. We talk with our favorite sports writers and personalities about why we care so much about these games. And we talk about how talking about sports is changing.
One person at the head of an arm of this movement is Jonah Keri. He’s written for every publication you can think of—yes, even Penthouse—but perhaps he’s best known for his work with sabermetrics and advanced stats in baseball. Now, I won’t go into detail about the sabermetrics-versus-tradition-and-heart-and-guts! debate, because it’s not a debate. Sabermetrics are a good thing. Check out Tommy Craggs’ piece on Joe Morgan in SF Weekly for a great primer on the misguided problems of baseball’s traditionalists. Simplified, sabermetrics are meant to help us all better understand sports. That’s something we all should embrace.
Jonah wrote about this in his recently-released national bestseller The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First. It’s about how the Tampa Bay Rays exploited all the little advantages and made it to a World Series. They’ve won the AL East in two of the past seasons, despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the MLB and having to compete with the Red Sox and the Yankees every year.
Is there a moment from your childhood that stands out as a “Holy crap! Sports are awesome” moment, a moment that hooked you?
NCAA basketball National Championship game, 1983. Certainly wasn’t the first sporting event I ever watched (I was 8), but it was a “Holy crap!” moment. When Lorenzo Charles stuffed in Derrick Whittenburg’s airball at the buzzer to win it, I freaked out. Jumped up and down, threw a pillow to the ceiling, started yelling. I was watching with my dad, who looked at me like I was a little crazy.
At the end of the day, sports are just sports. We say they’re supposed to be a diversion, but for a lot of us, they’re more than that—even if you’re not covering sports for a living. Do you agree?
Our everyday lives just don’t lend themselves to the kinds of emotional moments you get when you watch a big-time sporting event (or even your favorite team playing some random early-season game). We yell, we curse, we throw ourselves into every moment. Most people don’t find themselves in competitive situations like the ones you see play out in sports either. So we live vicariously through our favorite athletes. I know we’re supposed to be more grounded and realistic about all this as we get older. But I still get a charge out of a dramatic home run, and I still swear when a lousy relief pitcher blows the big game.
With the Internet cutting down barriers, sportswriting has become so much more than just game recaps, trade roundups, rumors, and quotes. There’s just so much more creative, insightful, entertaining, and important stuff being produced each day. Would you say so?
Oh sure, of course. As a writer myself, I can appreciate all the great sportswriting out there on two levels—as a fan, and as someone who wants to get better at his own craft.
As your book showed—and as does your writing and your podcast—the way we talk about and think about sports is changing for the better. More innovate and analytical techniques, like the Rays have used, are bringing about success that even the staunchest traditionalist can’t argue. For you, much of your writing as centered around advanced statistics and talking about baseball in a more intelligent way. How do you think the changing perception of what you’ve done at Fangraphs—and what any other statistics-based sites do—mirrors the change in perception of the more general online sportswriting world?
It’s just growing acceptance of new things. A few years ago, bloggers couldn’t get credentialed for a ballgame. Now they have prominent places at the table, and some online writers are now even voting for major awards. Likewise with analytical sportswriting, people are becoming more open to it. They’re realizing that those who go into great detail when breaking down sports aren’t ruining the game or the experience of following it … they’re enhancing it. I’m not less of a sports fan because I want to know more about the numbers. Just the opposite, it shows how much of a fanatic I am, and how much my colleagues who do what I do are.
As a man, what have sports meant to you?
My wife likes to joke that I’m the easiest person in the world to connect with at a party. I write about sports, and also about the stock market. Men don’t necessarily engage in deep philosophical discussions all that often. Certainly not if you’re talking to someone you don’t know all that well. But sports are the great equalizer.
Why do you think sports are such an important part of life for so many men?
There’s a shared connection there, when you bring sports into the equation. Not just talking about it either. I could meet someone, and five minutes later I might invite him to my weekly pickup basketball game.
And last, is there one specific moment in your life that really signifies what sports are really all about for you?
I tell this story often. September 1994. Major League Baseball has wiped out the rest of the regular season and the playoffs, during a year in which my beloved Montreal Expos held the best record in the game and looked poised to make their first World Series run in franchise history. I quit following the sport. My girlfriend at the time saw how broken up I was. So for my birthday that month, she bought me a Felipe Alou rookie card … one of those cool, old ones from the 50s, with the little cartoons on the back. She told me I can’t give up on the sport I loved, not for a strike or any other reason. I relented and got back into baseball the next year—even though the Expos never got that close again. If not for that moment, there’s no way I’d be writing about sports for a living today.
Oh, and that girl? We’ve been married for nearly 14 years now.
—Photo Flickr/permanently scatterbrained