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Baseball, PK, Narratives, and the Lazy, Lazy Media

  • Growing up as a kid I had two loves: Hockey and Baseball. I played both, I watched both, and ultimately I developed a passion for both. I’m also the type of person who never really does interests half way. If I’m interested in a topic, typically I want to know everything (or at least as much as I can know) about it. My wife hates this. She can never get a short answer to a simple question about anything. If she halfheartedly asks about a new signing (probably only because she knows I’m interested), she’s going to hear about that player’s stats over the last 5 seasons, the cap implications of the new contract, and what it means for the depth chart. I can’t help it.

    This is probably one of the reasons why baseball in particular has always appealed to me. The sheer amount of statistical analysis that goes into describing the game makes it a nerd’s paradise. In particular, the emergence of advanced statistics over the past 10 years has led to a ‘faction’ of baseball fans who use progressive, rational thought on the game of baseball. It has been a huge change in the game, because the emergence of in depth statistics has exposed the tradition of “intangibles” that have mythologized certain players in the game, when the quantifiable evidence suggests they weren’t ever as good as the narrative.

    This is important. If you want to argue that Player X was better than Player Y – there is no reason in baseball to talk about things like “heart” or “clutch”. We measure everything. If he is better (even in tough situations), the statistics will show that.

    This approach that I love so much about the new way of thinking about baseball gets me into a little trouble when talking about hockey. Its a different game, and I’ll be the first to admit that things like dedication, execution, and hustle actually do effect how the play unfolds, and that advanced metrics are still in the infancy of describing hockey well. Even so, I do think its high-time we starting changing the way we think in general about the game. There are easy ways to judge a player that every person should know about. I’ll let fans off, but if you are a person EMPLOYED to write about hockey, and don’t understand these concepts….

    There is no case better to make this point than that of PK Subban. His past troubles in the media have been well documented. As a young player in the league he ruffled the feathers of those who hold onto the old guard narrative of ‘how to be a hockey player’. Every story about him in his first two years was of some veteran player who didn’t like the way he did things, or his personality. It was never anything concrete, never a quote to be found from a teammate, or actual event which could be recounted by a witness. Just a hint of character assassination here, with a touch of bias there. The story would be reported by one news outlet, then alluded to by another, and before you know it – we have one person’s opinion, backed by nothing taken as fact. As a person who’s bullshit detector goes off like a four alarm blaze in a toilet paper factory when the media gets on its high horse about ‘intangibles’, I cringed my way through two years of his career. Then we get to 2013.

    Due to difficulties in negotiating a contract this season, PK has missed the first 5 games of this season.  Now that his contract has been signed, you would think that the media, who cover the sport of hockey would move on to talk about things that actually could effect the game. Is PK in game shape? How long would it take a player to get up to speed in a system that is itself only 5 games old? But in the Soap Opera that is the NHL in Montreal, the media instead chose to once again create controversy.

    Like a snowball rolling down a mountain, reporters in the room inferred by the discomfort of certain teammates to discuss the contract situation of a team mate, that there was a ‘chilliness’ in the Habs dressing room. Rather than confirming the story, subsequent news organizations pulled quotes from the original story, and added inference that the players were not excited about PK’s return. From there, other news organizations began to postulate that this could mean that all of the players, coaches and staff were not looking forward to Subban’s return. No author attached to a story. Just pieces of misinformation and bad analysis piled on top of itself until finally, you had the crowd that originally created the negative narrative surrounding PK in the first place exclaiming “AH HA! There you go – more proof that PK is a problem in the dressing room”.

    If we are the type of people who believe in narratives, all of this would paint a pretty lousy picture of a guy who has done almost nothing (other than be a pest on the ice) to earn the type of reputation that now seems to follow him around like a bad smell. I cannot tell you how many times, as a Torontonian, I’ve had to defend PK to those who point to Mike Richards, Don Cherry, and a sarcastic Hal Gill as evidence that PK Subban is a bad person. Truth doesn’t matter to these people. His fantastic numbers as a 22 year old don’t matter. None of PK Subban’s exhaustive community work, play on ice, and interaction with fans count for a thing to the type of person who reads and believes TSN on a daily basis.

    I know people aren’t going to stop turning to the media for information about players. But for the love of all that is true in he world, let’s start to employ critical thinking skills and for once – hold the media to account! Instead, we reward wing-nut analysts who’s first motivation is to seek out controversy. We reward air-bag, geriatric morons who spout xenophobia and nonsense as if they are simply “telling it like it is”.

    The entire point of this blog is this: There is a way to know things as fact in life. It simply requires one to not be lazy when looking at the world around them. And although I don’t expect conversations like “Player X just wants it more than Player Y” to go away, I would love it if at the very least, we expect that those whose job it is to write stories about the game we love – will actually check to make sure those stories are true.

    So before the next analyst tells you that the players don’t like PK Subban, or that Lars Eller isn’t suited to the top line, or that David Desharnais has lost his “drive”, can we please just look at the body of evidence to check whether this person is telling you something valid, backed by real life experience, and statistical information – or just trying to blow smoke up your ass?

    ~Mats

  1. #1 Avatar37 says:
    February 3, 2013 at 6:53 am

    I’m going to take a wild stab in the dark and say that you really love the movie Moneyball!

  2. #2 Avatar37 says:
    February 3, 2013 at 6:59 am

    And for the record, I’m a PK fan. I support his signing, I think he did the team a huge favour, I expect his loyalty to be repaid in 2 years, and I think he’ll wind up being a big piece of our puzzle. I’m not sure where all this negative press has come from about PK, it’s almost like TSN has made it its mission to be anti-PK.

    I don’t like the coach telling PK and Price they can’t high-five after home victories, his personality, flair, and love of the game is what makes him a great player. I remember back when Chris Simon was a newish player in the NHL, he had long hair. He fought, played hard, and made an impact. Then the coach told him to cut his hair, and molded him into a “team” player, and that was pretty much the end of Chris Simon. This sort of thing happens far too often, and I really hope it does not happen to PK. I’d hate to see him ruined by bad coaching.

  3. #3 Mats Naslund says:
    February 3, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    I agree. Let PK be PK. Its not like he’s running around like a moron out there. The guy plays against everybody else’s top line. He is very good defensively. The rest just doesn’t matter!

    And moneyball – good movie, missed the point on sabrmetrics though.

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