Old-head Buzz Bissinger disses modern media.
In 1954 Branch Rickey--the Dodgers general manager who signed Jackie Robinson--wrote an article for Life titled "Goodby to Some Old Baseball Ideas" that began with two sentences that could be said about almost anybody: "Baseball people generally are allergic to new ideas. We are slow to change."
In 2003 Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball, the story of Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane. The A's routinely finished first despite a payroll far below that of other teams because Beane took advantage of the little things players do that other teams undervalued--like on-base percentage.
Buzz Bissinger didn't like Moneyball. So much so that he wrote 3 Nights in August about Tony La Russa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, in response. He calls on-base percentage, so valued by Rickey in 1954, the "latest fashion fad," and laughably claims no one who values advanced baseball statistics can love the game as much as La Russa. If you don't like La Russa or Bissinger, you're not a real fan.
Last Tuesday Bissinger went on a tirade against blogs on CostasNow, an HBO sports chat series. He told Will Leitch, editor of Deadspin--among the most popular sports blogs in the country--that he was "full of shit," before railing against the vulgarity of blogs.
It was a surreal 16 minutes of television. Respected sports broadcaster Bob Costas said "fuckface," and the third member of the panel, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards, said he didn't blog and didn't have any teammates who do. He didn't say it, but I have to assume he also didn't know what he was doing there.
Bissinger's rant got huge attention from bloggers, no surprise for a navel-gazing medium used to defending itself. What made Bissinger's tirade so hilarious was that the whole blogs vs. established media dustup seemed so 2004.
If political bloggers can be treated as serious commentators, why not sports bloggers? While it's true that many popular sports blogs are obsessed with the banal: gossip about sports anchors, photos of athletes drinking and even items that could be described as racist or sexist. But more popular are the websites of ESPN and major newspapers, many with comment sections as vitriolic and vulgar as what's found on Deadspin.
"It's really going to dumb us down to a degree that I don't think we can recover from," Bissinger said on CostasNow. "I think blogs are dedicated to ... journalistic dishonesty."
He later told Deadspin editor Leitch: "You don't want to be in the press box because the facts will get in the way."
Let's take his words at face value. About a year ago Bissinger wrote a piece on Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood for The New York Times.
Wood had been considered a sure bet. In just his fifth start in 1998, he had what many consider to be the best-pitched game ever: 20 strikeouts, one hit, no walks.
But since that dominant rookie year, Wood had been riddled with injuries. Bissinger saw the player's career as a cautionary tale: He suggested that pitchers should spend more time in the minor leagues and not be rushed into the big leagues.
That proposition holds about as much truth as the post on the Kissing Suzy Kolber sports blog last week that asserted Bissinger likes to have sex with horses. Baseball Prospectus--a serious baseball analysis site that doesn't feature drunk jock pictures--crunched some numbers and found the average age of rookie pitchers from 1960 to 1994 was 24.3. The average age from 1995 to 2007 was 25.
Bissinger said on a radio interview that he wrote that pitchers should spend more time in the minors because La Russa told him so. He didn't bother to crunch the numbers. If he had, the facts would've gotten in the way. Fifteen years ago the falsehood in Bissinger's article about Wood would've gone unnoticed. But thanks to the Internet, it didn't.
Bissinger quizzed the Deadspin editor if he'd ever read W.C. Heinz, a legendary sportswriter who was admired by Hemingway. But he should've asked if he'd heard of Kyle Whelliston, the best sportswriter in America now. A Drexel graduate, Whelliston began covering basketball in 2004 for a website of his own creation, the Mid-Majority, which covers midmajor college basketball--the 200-plus teams that aren't in the moneymaking power conferences. That first year he saw 100 games, and wrote an essay on each.
Whelliston is funny, smart and often brilliant. "After that ridiculous TV discussion ... I'm more proud than ever of the Internet," he wrote after watching the CostasNow segment. "The Internet made me. None of what's happened to me is possible without a blog--that horrible little word splinter that's come to represent irresponsible reporting, tit jokes, parents' basements and anarchy." And then he wrote this: "But I know what that word, 'blog,' really means. It's a synonym for endless possibility and a limitless blue sky, the freedom to plant a flag and proclaim to whomever cares to listen, 'This is where I'm from.'"
The same day as the CostasNow airing, Whelliston signed to do a book on college basketball. Without the Internet, he never would've had the opportunity. The world of sports journalism is all the better for it.