A Relic of the Modern World


Pete Croatto

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It used to be that if you were a sports fan far removed from your favorite team that you were adrift. Thanks to the Internet, a Dodgers fan stuck in Lincoln, NE doesn’t have to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times or hope that SportsCenter shows an occasional highlight or two. He or she can go to the paper’s Web site, or drop by or for coverage. Don’t forget all the team-focused sites and blogs, which have given fans a forum that letters to the editor and talk radio never could.

No doubt, the Internet has improved a fan’s life, but when it comes to statistics, I’m left feeling uneasy. As an obsessive baseball fan growing up, I greedily gobbled them up on the back of baseball cards and in the Sunday sports section. Who knew when I would see them again? Now, thanks to the Internet, they’re readily available and easily compiled. And with the popularity of fantasy sports and general managers getting numbers-crazy, stats have turned into something I don’t recognize: used as part of cold analysis by real general managers or as week-to-week checkpoints by fake GMs hoping to win their fantasy pool.

What’s gotten lost amidst OPS (On-base Plus Slugging Percentage), WHIP (Walks + Hits/Innings Pitched), and all the other acronyms is that statistics build an athlete’s life. What’s even more amazing is when those stats are compiled into one glorious book, which in my case is The Baseball Encyclopedia. My uncle mailed me my copy around 1988, and it’s going with me to the grave. It’s over 2,800 pages consisting of every player’s professional statistics (plus teams’ W—L records, individual records, and so many nerdy goodies) ending in 1987. It’s a physical representation of the game’s history, something the Internet can never duplicate.

More than twenty years later, I still paw through that book; it’s such an addictive read. I’ll turn the page to a player, look at his stats, and then another name will pop in my head. “You know, Ron Santo was such an underappreciated third baseman. He really should be in the Hall of Fame. What about Ken Boyer? How does he compare?” This process will repeat until my eyes grow heavy or I remember that I have an appointment. It’s like checking my email or eating potato chips—I can’t stop.

I really believe that book helped instill a curiosity in me to learn more, to not be afraid to dig a little deeper when reading. The Internet can’t do that. Yes, the online databases are remarkable, but they don’t allow the pleasure of stumbling into revelations and amusements on your own.  (My favorite was discovering a pitcher by the name of Old Hoss Radbourn, who pitched over 675 innings one year, the equivalent of us putting in a ninety-hour work week.) The Internet is all about convenience, and reading any reference book requires an openness to explore what’s between the covers.

Statistics and sports used to breed readers. I think that connection has all but vanished. When’s the last time you saw a kid buying, playing, or talking about baseball cards? Its increasing irrelevancy is another big blow. Keith Olbermann summed up the hidden value of cards in 1997’s The Big Show: A Tribute to ESPN’s SportsCenter, which he co-authored with Dan Patrick:  “I think I learned to enjoy reading, in part at least, because of cards. I know they taught me the rudiments of baseball history, of getting some sense that stuff had happened in the world before I was born.”

An era has ended. I can’t remember the last time I committed a Sunday morning to a sports section in any newspaper. The Internet is free, the Sunday newspaper usually weighs as much as a toddler, and there’s so much stuff in it that I won’t read. But I miss the primal thrill of tearing open The Asbury Park Press to get to the latest baseball statistics to see who was up, who was down; to see names that I’d only heard about; to connect with players via numbers. I suspect that I am a little too young to get nostalgic, but The Baseball Encyclopedia provides a link to that numbers-hungry youth. I’m afraid at some point that will become its permanent designation: a sentimental relic of someone’s good old days, if it hasn’t already. 

Books mentioned in this column:
The Baseball Encyclopedia: The Complete and Official Record of Major League Baseball edited by Joseph L. Reichler (MacMillan)
The Big Show: A Tribute to ESPN’s SportsCenter by Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick. (Pocket Books)

Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and The (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.



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