Derek Jeter as an example of the kind of world MLK envisioned

A sociologist argues that Yankees star Derek Jeter is an example of the kind of world Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned:

The son of a white mother and a black father, Jeter experienced racial prejudice from both groups as a boy growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich., and playing in the minor leagues down south. Even as recently as 2006, according to O’Connor, Jeter received a “racially-tinged threat” in his mail at Yankee Stadium, a threat the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Unit considered serious enough to investigate…

But Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociologist and black activist of the 1960s who has spoken and written extensively on the subject of race and professional athletics, explained Jeter’s appeal as a combination both of his unique attributes as an athlete and individual, and as a sign that the United States, throughout its history often bitterly divided along racial, ethnic and territorial lines, is moving toward an era of diversity and inclusion.

“I think it’s absolutely appropriate in the 21st century that a Derek Jeter should be the face of the premier baseball team in this country,” Edwards said. “When you talk about leadership and production and consistency and durability over the years, what he has achieved and what he has accomplished, and more than that, the way that he has done it is just absolutely phenomenal. He is one of our real athletic heroes and role models to the point that his race or ethnicity does not matter.”…

Derek Jeter’s way, the way of hard work, discipline and exemplary behavior, would have made Dr. King proud.

Tiger Woods, pre-scandal, may be another good example.

At the same time, this analysis makes me a little nervous. As some examples from Jeter’s own life suggest, we still have a ways to go. While it is notable that we now have visible multiracial leaders who appeal to a broad swath of America, at the same time, Jeter is a role model because he is successful at what does, going to multiple All-Star games and winning multiple World Series championships. Would Jeter be revered in the same way if he was from the Dominican Republic or from the south side of Chicago or from a farming community in North Dakota? What if he spoke about racial issues or wasn’t such a classy figure and “acted out”? In the end, does his celebrity make it easier for the average multiracial American? Are Americans only willing to look past Jeter’s background because he is a classy winner?

How technology may lessen a team’s chemistry

Technology receives a lot of attention but I haven’t seen this brought up before: technology may be making it more difficult to athletic teams to bond.

Ask many coaches, general managers and older players and you’ll hear a common gripe: chemistry on teams has been altered because of modern technology, and not for the better. The rise of smartphones, with all their instant-communication and entertainment options, have created insular worlds into which distracted players too often retreat instead of bonding with teammates.

Coaches and managers are particularly frustrated at the paradox of players fraternizing less with their own teammates, and more with the “enemy.” Players from opposing teams, they say, too often get each other’s cellphone numbers and start calling or texting back and forth, often griping about playing time and occassionally giving up little secrets about their teams…

Major League Baseball is one sport where the chemistry effects of smartphones, iPads, iPods and other handheld devices might be thought to be minimal, because of the longer workdays and more enclosed environs (dugouts, bullpens, clubhouses). Not necessarily so, according to Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracy. When the game is over, he says, players quickly rejoin their private, smartphone worlds…

Some NFL teams are said to be contemplating outright bans on smartphones during any “team time” activities, and some coaches have spoken with exasperation at competing with phones for players’ attention. Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, for instance, told ESPN 101 radio in St. Louis the difficulties of dealing with phone-obsessed players such as former Washington tackle Albert Haynesworth.

I’m tempted to argue that this is simply the outcome of having multiple generations in the clubhouse or locker room: an older generation, particularly coaches and managers, had a particular experience in the past and younger players have a different way of going about things. Perhaps it would be more interesting to talk to younger coaches who are more into technology themselves and ask how they try to build team chemistry. Of course, the topic of team chemistry is open for debate. To me, it seems like it is only really an issue when a team is losing and people are looking for reasons why.

The article does suggest that at least a few veteran athletes have adopted informal/player-directed guidelines for technology use in the clubhouse. I wonder if they have encountered some resistance or whether the spirit of such actions, to “help the team,” is reason enough for other players to comply.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. This could also be interpreted as an indicator of the professionalization of athletes. While athletes in the past might have enjoyed the camaraderie of interacting before and after games, today’s athletes have more personal leeway as most work all-year round and make big money. What matters most (or at all) is their performance on the field/court/ice.

2. The article also hints at how technology has changed how players prepare for games. It is now easy and common for athletes to be able to watch lots of video on their own, theoretically giving them some advantages.

The unwritten rules of social life as illustrated by a baseball interchange

Our daily social lives contain a number of interchanges that follow unwritten social rules. (Here is one that I recently wrote about: saying “thanks for your service” to military personnel.) The same thing happens in sports, as illustrated by this well-reported interchange between the Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers:

In his obviously genius book, “Everything Is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer,” sociologist Duncan J. Watts explains the notion that our lives are dictated by thousands of unwritten rules that we rarely, if ever, stop to examine…

The problem with the sport’s unwritten rules is that …

“They’re unwritten,” Tigers ace Justin Verlander said with a laugh.

Exactly. And Verlander and the Tigers were involved in a game with the Angels here at Comerica Park the other day that showcased the silliness of living by an unwritten rulebook very much open to interpretation. It was a game so steeped in indecipherable, unwritten language that it ought to have been sponsored by Rosetta Stone.

This interchange led to a lot of debate among sports pundits: was it justified or not?

I think there are two better, and more sociological, questions to ask: where exactly do players learn to follow this code and how could the whole process be stopped? The first question refers to the socialization process. At some point, players must be instructed or at least observe this code. They also learn how they might be punished by other players if they do not follow it. It would be interesting to ask individual players whether they really feel that this is acceptable behavior or if they follow along because of peer pressure.

The second question refers to how baseball could make this behavior deviant. One way would be to increase the sanctions so that the code becomes very unattractive. Such sanctions could include punishments for managers and perhaps even teams. To this point, baseball has instituted some punishments but they clearly aren’t enough to stop such incidents. Another way would be to start teaching a new code at the lower levels of baseball, minor leagues or even below. In response, players might say that they still need ways to deal with showboating (done by Carlos Guillen in this incident) but I think baseball would find it hard to determine what exactly counts and what doesn’t.

This may just be a good example of social norms to use in an Introduction to Sociology class.

Quick Review: Scorecasting

I have written about Scorecasting several times (see here and here) so I figured I had better read it. Here are my thoughts on what I read about “the hidden influences” in sports:

1. This book truly aims for the Freakonomics crowd: there is a blurb both at the top of the cover and the back from Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt. Those University of Chicago professors stick together…

2. I know that I have heard a number of these arguments before, particularly ones about why football teams should not punt, the unfairness of coin flips at the beginning of overtime in the NFL, and the phenomenon of the “hot hand.” Perhaps this indicates that I read too much sports news or that the sports world in recent years really has taken a liking to new kinds of statistics and statistical analysis.

3. A number of the explanations included psychology, just like Spousonomics. Is this because psychological terms and studies are better known (compared to disciplines like sociology) or because psychology truly does provide a lot of helpful information about sports situations? A lot of sports can be broken down into individual performances and efforts – see all of the recent psychoanalyzing of LeBron James – but they are also team games that require cooperation. Could we get more analysis of units or collectives?

4. There were particular chapters and insights that I found fascinating – here are a few:

4a. The overvaluing of round numbers, such as 20 home runs in a season or a .300 batting average, compared to hitters with 19 home runs and/or a .299 average. I don’t know if teams could really save a lot of money doing this but there is a fixation on certain figures.

4b. The trade value chart used around the NFL Draft and pioneered by the Dallas Cowboys needs to be revised.

4c. Two things about home field advantage. First, it is fairly consistent within sports across time and across countries. Second, officiating make up a decent amount of this advantage. I like the evidence of how baseball umpires suddenly started advantaging the road team on close calls when they knew that technology was being used to evaluate their calls.

4d. The chapter on the Cubs curse shows again that the idea is irrational.

5. In reading through this, I was reminded again of the wealth of statistics available in baseball. Other sports have to try to catch up to quantify as much as baseball can. But there is clearly a revolution underway with more professional teams taking these numbers seriously, including the new NBA champions. Could we get an analysis of whether teams that pay more attention to advanced statistics and analysis actually have better records? “Moneyball” was a big idea for a while as well but doesn’t seem to get as much attention now that Billy Beane isn’t competing as well out in Oakland.

5a. I’m sure someone has to have translated an undergraduate statistics course into an all-sports data format. How appealing would students find this and does this improve student learning outcomes?

Overall, I enjoyed this book: this should be of little surprise since it involves sports and statistics, two things that interest me. While some of the arguments may be familiar to sports fans, it does provide some more fodder for future sports conversations.

Sociologist ties rooting for the Kansas City Royals to Midwestern values

The Kansas City Royals have a rich history including a 1985 World Series victory. However, the last two decades have been difficult: the team has had three winning seasons since 1990, no playoff visits during that time, and seven straight losing seasons. So why do fans keep rooting for the team? A sociologist suggests that rooting for the Royals is tied to Midwestern values:

Yet the Royals likely will sell out Kauffman Stadium on opening day, draw more than 2 million fans and continue to have a loyal following on the blogosphere.

“Loyalty in the face of hard times is a long-held Midwestern value, and dealing with hard times is a regular challenge for anyone whose livelihoods depend on agriculture and related businesses,” said Jay Coakley, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. “However, we must go deeper than this value to explain the loyalty of Royals fans over the past decade.”…

“The fans’ connection with a team becomes a part of their identity,” said Coakley, the author of the textbook “Sports in Society.”

“Fans everywhere reaffirm those identities for each other so that they feel special — and they often make a special point of doing this when teams are unsuccessful and they need extra reaffirmation to justify their support in the face of regular losses. Over time, this pattern of identity reaffirmation becomes regularized, and the fan identity serves as an important basis for their sense of self as well as their social lives and everyday conversations with fans and nonfans alike.

“Losses and losing seasons become topics of conversations much like the last hailstorm or dry season that ruined crops. Of course, some people eventually become weary of predictable bad times and leave their farms or fan identities behind.

“But many stick it out year after year because it is who they are, and giving up on yourself is a hard thing to do.”

Coakley is suggesting that an rooting interest in a sports team becomes internalized and the basis for a kind of community. Fans identify with the team and the city (see this recent post on the differences between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants). I wonder if we could look at the times that fans use the term “we” to refer both to themselves and the team to get an idea of how much these identities have merged.

But it is particularly interesting that Coakley ties fan’s devotion to the Royals to Midwestern values derived from farming and agriculture. Would a sociologist in Boston come up with a different cultural explanation for why Red Sox fans are so devoted? This seems like a fairly convenient explanation that might not hold up in other places.

The sociological pitch for the Oakland A’s: green-collar baseball

We have blue-collar, white-collar, and pink-collar. In time for Opening Day of the 2011 baseball season, how about “green-collar baseball“:

There’s a sociological genius at work in the Oakland Athletics marketing department. The current slogan for the franchise, “green collar baseball,” speaks volumes about the culture of the bay area, and why I have become such a devoted fan of the Oakland A’s…

Across the Bay Bridge, you’ll find a better stadium (AT&T Park), a team with a higher payroll, fancier concessions, and fancier fans. You’ll find doctors, lawyers, and San Francisco techie types taking in an afternoon game, reveling in the see and be seen crowd. On the San Francisco side, baseball is very much en vogue. If you search hard enough, you might even find a fan in the crowd who can tell you what a change-up is or explain the infield fly rule.

Trot back over to the Oakland side, and you’ll see where that marketing slogan is coming from. The Oakland Coliseum is clearly a Soviet spin on the baseball stadium, a concrete gulag if there ever was one. The concession options are minimal, the team operates on a shoestring payroll, and the fans are decidedly less cosmopolitan.

All these shortcomings are what bring me to love the authentic experience of Oakland Athletics baseball, and loathe the corporate, plasticized feel of the Giants. There’s an old Taoist saying that it’s “better to be alive in the mud than dead in the palace.” Count me as one who’s happiest to feel alive in the mud of the Oakland A’s.

Having spent time watching both the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park and the Oakland Athletics at Oakland-Alameda County Stadium, I have a few thoughts on this subject:

1. There is no comparison in stadiums: AT&T Park is nice and has great views while the A’s play in a concrete circle. One website goes so far as to say that the A’s stadium “represents everything that’s wrong with baseball stadiums.

2. The two teams do seem to have differences in the number of fans: AT&T Park is regularly full while the A’s struggle to even fill the bottom portion of the stadium, even when the team was good in the early 2000s.

3. Both teams have potential: the Giants, of course, won the World Series last year while the A’s seem to have put together a dark horse candidate to win the AL West based around young pitching (just like the Giants). The baseball in each place should be relatively similar.

4. San Francisco and Oakland are very different kinds of cities. Both have a grittiness to them but Oakland is known for crime and gangs while San Francisco has more glittering pieces. Ultimately, I think this is really what is behind this idea of “green-collar baseball”: Giants’ fans are painted as plastic because this is how Oakland residents view their neighbor across the bay. Oakland, both the city and its baseball team, are the underdogs, the team with a limited number of fans, limited funds, and a limited stadium. What is sociological about the use of this marketing slogan is that it invokes issues of social class and status.

I wonder if these sorts of descriptions only pop only in cities that have multiple franchises in the same sport. Almost the same argument occurs in Chicago: the Cubs fans are only at Wrigley Field because it is the cool thing to do while the White Sox fans are the working class people who really care about baseball.

Update on “baseball McMansions” in Arizona: White Sox also facing issues

Yesterday, I wrote about a new spring training facility in Arizona that one writer dubbed a “baseball McMansion.” While this particular park may have issues, it is not the only one. The Chicago White Sox also recently moved to the same area. Because of the economic recession, the White Sox are having attendance issues and the mixed-use development that was supposed to surround their facility has not been built:

Small crowds on the west side of the Valley are an alarming trend as the White Sox and other neighboring teams try to rebound in the wake of a depressed area.

“The opening of the Rockies-Diamondbacks stadium (Talking Stick at Salt River Fields) is definitely pulling people away,” Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said before 10,074 fans attended Wednesday’s game between the Sox and world champion Giants. “Now you have six teams in the east valley…”

But the Glendale area hasn’t developed into what the Sox thought when they decided to move from Tucson after the 2008 season.”One of the attractions to putting this ballpark here was the plan for what was going to be built around it,” Reinsdorf said. “By now, in our third year, we were supposed to be looking at restaurants and retail and a hotel and condominiums. And the guys who were going to do that went broke. So we’re sort of sitting out here by ourselves.

“All of the projections for the Phoenix area growth had Glendale in 10 years being the population center of the valley, a ton of people west of here. And that stopped. But at some point the economy will come back. This is too vibrant an area. And when it does come back, those projections will come true. So it’s just a delay.”

It may be some time before the White Sox and other teams see an uptick in attendance and building as Arizona has been hit hard by the economic recession, evidenced by foreclosures and a slowdown in development. Reinsdorf sounds quite optimistic about the future – perhaps he has to be if he has put a decent amount of money into this project.

it seems like now would be the time to look into why exactly the White Sox and other teams moved to this area. In their projections about Glendale, was their any allowance for a growth slowdown? Was the main draw the growing population in this area or were there certain financial incentives that made this move attractive? And what will happen to these spring training complexes if population growth in this area is limited for a significant amount of time?

Describing a “baseball McMansion”

The term McMansion is generally a pejorative word, typically referring to the size or the poor architecture of a home or the cookie-cutter nature of a suburban neighborhood. Occasionally, it gets applied to others structures, even baseball stadiums.  In a review of Scottsdale Stadium, the spring training home of the San Francisco Giants, a writer suggests that another spring training facility, Salt Water Fields, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, is more like a McMansion than a home:

Salt River Fields, someone said later, “isn’t spring training.” It’s a baseball McMansion. Scottsdale Stadium just feels like home.

Here is a little more of the description of the two ballparks. Scottsdale Stadium is described as, “intimate and evocative of its sport,” “the Cactus League’s quaintest stadium,” “The place blends into the landscape as if Frank Lloyd Wright had come back from the grave to assist the architects who replaced the old wooden park 20 years ago,” and “There is no such thing as a mediocre seat.” In contrast, here is how Salt River Fields is described: “The world up there seemed so different, the trip should have required a passport,” “Salt River Fields sits next to a Target and movie multiplex. Concrete rules the landscape, offset by some sprouting trees and cactus gardens,” “The parking lot and the walkways at the new stadium consume more space than the entire Giants facility,” and “Shade, like everything else, is more abundant than at the Giants’ park.” Overall, Salt River Fields is more suburban, bigger, less intimate, and features more space (particularly in the parking lots) while Scottsdale Stadium is more like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

It would be interesting to find out how fans respond to these two settings. Both offer certain amenities. Not everyone likes cozier, more intimate facilities like Wrigley Field. While Cubs fans tend to like the place, many others (including other teams) complain about the lack of space and outdated facilities (like the bathrooms). Additionally, we could ask whether Scottsdale Stadium really is authentic or simply borrows architectural and design features from other successful ballparks and tries to put them all together.
Ultimately, will baseball fans go in greater numbers to Scottsdale Stadium because of its design and atmosphere and avoid Salt Water Fields with its McMansion nature?

Another interesting sociology course: Baseball in American Society

A student writing in the newspaper of Florida Southern College discusses a unique class on campus:

It is not secret that Sociology professor Dr. Edwin Plowman is one of the most eccentric professors on this campus. His “Baseball in American Society” class has by far been one of the favorite classes. Dr. Plowman has some experiences that none of us will ever be able to call our own and he shares them in every class session. Oh, and my personal library grew with the books he assigned that I just did not ever want to sell back to the bookstore.

A few thoughts about this class:

1. Is the class mainly about baseball and how it fits in American society or about American society through the lens of baseball? Both could be very interesting – baseball has its own logic but the game has both influenced and has been influenced by larger social forces. As a baseball fan myself, this sounds like an interesting course to teach.

2. This is reminder of how students view courses. It sounds like the professor tells some good stories and also assigns  books that a student would want to hold onto after the class. This is what makes this class interesting for this student. (And what does it mean when a student says a professor is eccentric?)

How (baseball) statistics can help you earn $2.025 million

Traditional baseball statistics would say that Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Ross Ohlendorf didn’t have a great 2010 season: the 27-year old had 1 win against 11 losses with 108 innings pitched in 21 games. Yet, in an arbitration hearing, Ohlendorf just earned a pay raise from $439,000 to $2.025 million. What happened?

Even though this might seem like a minor matter (the average MLB salary in 2010 was $3.3 million), there is plenty of talk already that Ohlendorf benefited from statistics (and a field known as sabermetrics) that have become fairly normal in the last 20 years in baseball. Ohlendorf’s WHIP ((walks + hits)/innings pitched) was decent at 1.384. His ERA+ (comparing his ERA to the league average and adjusting for the ballpark) was 100, right at the league average.

Ultimately, these statistics suggest that Ohlendorf’s performance was decent, at least average. His main problem was that he was pitching for a terrible team that finished with 57 wins and 105 losses. With a little more data beyond what typically goes on a baseball card or is flashed on a television graphic, Ohlendorf got a sizable raise.

There could be some alternative takes on this outcome:

1. Wow, even an average MLB pitcher can make big money.

2. It would be interesting to know whether Ohlendorf’s representative in the arbitration hearing used all of these advanced statistics to make his case.

3. How quickly can workers in other careers develop advanced statistics to further their pitches for raises?