Monday, March 05, 2012

Sportsthodoxy Interview: Craig Calcaterra

By any reasonable sports blogger standard (if such a thing exists), Craig Calcaterra is living the dream. From starting his highly regarded Shysterball blog while working full time as a lawyer to taking the reins at NBC's Hardball Talk, Craig is one of the most-read - and most readable - folks writing on baseball out there. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions for us, covering everything from the narratives of baseball to the identity of the greatest Atlanta Brave of all time....

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We’re almost at the start of a new season, thank God. How difficult is it keeping up a flow of content through the offseason?
It's definitely way more difficult than during the regular season. November and December are not too bad due to all of the hot stove stuff, but January and early February is like death for a volume blogger. And I suppose one answer is to back off on the volume of posts some. Which we do a little bit. But HBT readers have come to expect frequent updates. And frankly, if I'm not writing a post at almost all times of the working day, I get a little bored.

You’ve got a particularly...expressive community of commenters that’s grown up on your posts on the NBC site. How do you cultivate a community that holds both the Old Gators and the Jonny5s of the world? 
I wish I had the answer to that, but really, it just happened. I think we're pretty lucky to have a fairly disparate cast of commenters without the proceedings getting too crazy. Part of it is that, especially as the site was getting off the ground, I made a point to show up in the comments myself and engage with readers. I think one of the reasons comments sections get out of hand so frequently is that people assume no one is watching. Readers know I see every comment that comes in. That tends to make newer readers act a bit better and empowers regulars to help police the site for knuckleheads and apply some pretty effective peer pressure.

Narrative is a strong thread through the material you post, whether it’s childhood memories of the Tigers, growing up watching Braves games on TBS, or the “Best Shape Of His Life” spring training narrative that pops up every year. What part do you think that narrative attachment plays in becoming a baseball fan? 
I think it plays a pretty huge part. There are so many games. Single events, single games mean so very little. As such, the way in which a lot of other sports are discussed -- "what does Team X need to do to win today," etc. -- is pretty meaningless in baseball. People still write and talk about that stuff, but it tells us nothing.  A narrative overlay gives us something to grab on to and to put what are seemingly random and insignificant happenings into a human context.  It can also lead to horrible baseball writing -- most of the bad sportswriting you see is really bad narrative-creation and perpetuation -- but if you treat baseball games as small parts of a larger story, they're way easier to get your mind around.

If narratives are important, is the rise of advanced analytics in conflict with that? What effect do you think it might have on baseball fandom going forward?
I don't think it's in conflict. Indeed, statistical analysis is itself about making sense of randomness, so in some ways it's also about narrative-creation in some weird way. Now, I don't think most analysts would think of it that way, but there are narratives that pop up as the result of such analysis. Stuff about player aging patterns. Reactions we have to less-than-optimal player deployment ("Free [underused Player X]!") The sheer mass of humor we get when a guy like, say, Miguel Cabrera, is being moved in the wrong direction on the defensive spectrum. That sort of thing.
As for the effect on baseball fandom: Maybe less direct impact than we think. Go to a ballpark and listen to conversations about the game and it may as well be 1950 as far as the analytical savvy on display. But I do think that there has been a pretty big effect on announcers and mainstream sportswriters, especially in recent years, and that over time, common fans will begin to internalize light sabermetric thinking, even as they continue to talk about so-and-so being "a competitor."

On a related note, the Hall of Fame debate appears to be the new ground zero between analytics-driven fans and “you had to be there” types, and the intensity seems to be ratcheting up every year. Are we approaching some sort of armageddon where Jay Jaffe and Dan Shaughnessy go Thunderdome on the streets of Cooperstown?
I would use my childrens' college funds to pay to see that.
Seriously, though, it has gotten more polarized. And I think it's going to get way worse in the next few years as the steroids guys like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens appear on the ballot and get rejected over and over.  Unfortunately, the way the Hall of Fame voting is set up -- you have to be a ten-year member of the Baseball Writers Association of America and you don't lose your vote even if you lose you daily writing gig -- all but ensures that the Hall electorate is an older, reactionary lot of curmudgeons. Many of them don't understand advanced analysis and even if they do, many of them blame its rise and the rise of the Internet in general as the reason they lost their job or their newspaper went out of business.  It's going to be years -- decades -- before the more intelligent discourse that has risen up around baseball truly impacts the Hall of Fame vote.

Switching to actual, you know, baseball and stuff, is this the year the Braves dethrone the Phillies in the NL East?
As I write this, I am a couple hours removed from listening to the first Braves exhibition game of spring training. They were on-hit by the Tigers. As such, I am in no position at the moment to let go of my innate, ridiculously overblown pessimism about my rooting interest and make any such declarations.

What storylines - besides the ones about “best shape of their life” - are you most interested in seeing play out this year?
I'm certainly excited about what, on paper anyway, looks like a major shift of power in the American League to the AL West and, to a lesser degree, the central. The Angels and all of their acquisitions and the Rangers and theirs. The Prince Fielder Tigers and the young, frisky Royals. I'm also curious to see if the new wild card setup -- the one-game play-in, essentially -- really causes teams to go crazy to win their division. I'm still a little skeptical of the idea that a sure wild card team is going to go full-throttle to make up a three or four game deficit in the division race in the final two weeks of the season simply to avoid the wild card. Maybe I'm wrong.

Last question - Biff Pocoroba. Great Atlanta Brave, or greatest Atlanta Brave ever?
He's not the Greatest Atlanta Brave Ever -- we all know that title belongs to Rick Mahler -- but Pocoroba may be the most Atlanta Brave Ever.

Many thanks to Craig for taking the time to answer these! You can find his baseball writing at Hardball Talk.
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