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Why Bryan Smith Writes

Yesterday, I introduced to the wide readership a line of inquiry down which the very famous Jonah Keri had gotten me started. The line of inquiry concerns those bloggers who, despite almost no promise of financial compensation or notoriety, have persisted in their craft.

The question I posed — after having considered Will Leitch’s suggestion from his Costas Now episode that blogging is a really hard work — the question I posed goes like this:

Why do it? If, as Leitch suggests, it’s hard work, why do it? If, as I can tell you personally, it provides very little in the way of fame and/or cash money, why do it?

I’ve posed this same series of questions — or at least ones very similar to them — to some of the interweb’s more thoughtful baseball writers. Over the next week-plus, I’ll be sharing their responses in these electronic pages.

What follows is the product of a lightly edited email correspondence with Bryan Smith. In addition to being a bona fide prospect maven, Smith is also a real-live thoughtful person. And if you haven’t read it, his Staring Down the Sinkerballers series is like woah.

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Smith: I started blogging when I was 15 or so, almost eight years ago now. So, I think I have sort of run the gamut as far as “base motivations” are concerned. Originally, and for probably the first 4-5 years, I think the predominant reason was a practical one — I thought that blogging would help me learn about baseball (I didn’t know sabermetrics at all, then), and in turn, would help my teenage dream to work inside the game.

In college, that began to change a little bit, particularly around when I started Baseball Analysts with Rich. I began to find that the writing process was as fun as the baseball element — we had a guest section called the Designated Hitter and got some great writers to pen some great, inspiring pieces. Being on the Internet, and writing so often, led me to the Journalism/English major that I chose. I think I continued through college for another practical reason: money. I didn’t have to wait tables or haul boxes or anything, my job was to write an article 1-2 times a week that ten thousand people read. Which leads to another reason: self-importance. I loved creative non-fiction writing more than anything, but baseball was the outlet that allowed the biggest audience and the only money.

Cistulli: Did you produce other stuff in college? Do you write other stuff now? Do you think subject matter is important? Like, do you feel the need to tackle bigger and/or more “important” subjects as a writer. (I think Howard Cosell, for example, regretted being “merely” a sporting broadcaster. Do you have similar misgivings?)

Smith: I took every non-fiction writing class they let me at Iowa, and when I was unemployed two years ago, began an application to try and get into a MFA Non-Fiction program (at the University of Pittsburgh, actually). It was rarely about baseball, and much more of that faux memoir stuff that comes from that canon (Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius type stuff). I actually find that I have a much more definitive voice in those writings than I do when I write about baseball.

Every once in awhile, I write other stuff, but not as much as I want. But that side of my writing is very personal, and I no longer have a lot of interest in showing it to others. Self therapy, I guess.

But when I stopped at Baseball Prospectus last year, I thought I was done [with blogging]. Somewhere in the Drafts section here in GMail, I have what I was going to write at Baseball Analysts, my farewell to writing on the Internet. I was all set to finish it in December, to turn my back on it, and then heard from Dave about FanGraphs.

Let me explain why I was going to stop: I feel like, at times, sabermetrics can be draining on the love I feel for baseball. Sabermetrics is rooted in cynicism, I think, so there is so often the feeling of “this guy’s overrated” and “this broadcaster sucks” or “Omar Minaya should be murdered” or whatever. And so I was going to stop, maybe for a year, maybe forever, to reinitiate myself into just loving baseball.

Cistulli: Do you think this has to do with the demographic in sabermetrics? It’s composed largely of — or, most loudly of — educated young men. It’s an unforgiving group, I think — perhaps too cocksure, too unsympathetic.

Smith: Oh, definitely. Intellectuals rule the roost, and I think the first brand of humor for intellectuals (particularly in writing) is snark. It’s also a group that is horrible at marketing. I don’t think there is legitimate enthusiasm in some circles to make sabermetrics mainstream. For one, it can’t happen, because when a layman tries, he gets his head bit off (i.e. Bill Simmons this year). And second, I think too many people like the insulation of the “this corner of the Internet” meme.

Cistulli: You use words like “enthusiasm” and “curiosity.” Those emotions can be a little — not frightening, really — but maybe risky to have, esp for a young man. I’m reminded of the comedian Mike Birbiglia talking about his experience (on This American Life) at an all-boys school in Mass. “We called everything ‘gay’,” he says. “Our teachers… the water fountain.” Enthusiasm is almost definitely one of the things those kids would call gay.

Do you feel like you have to package your enthusiasms in any specific way to make them palatable for a basebelling audience? Do you just not worry about it and trust that, if you’re excited about it, so will someone else be?

Smith: I think this depends on the specific work. An everyday piece for FanGraphs, or even when I was writing just weekly prior to this gig, I think you need to be aware of an audience. It’s why the people that write about prospects have to do rankings every winter — it would be a lie to pretend that traffic isn’t important to a degree. But I’ve found for the bigger articles, the important research-based stuff, that I just have faith that someone will care if I do. And if they don’t — and I have had that happen, trust me — it’s not the end of the world as long as I got something out of it.

I remember probably the first “study” I did when I started writing about the minor leagues, and it was plotting how HBPs decrease as you move up the ladder. It was probably inherent knowledge to most, but I hadn’t seen it laid out numerically. I was excited when the numbers worked out, but the piece didn’t get any pub. However, in articles since then, I have referenced that, and occasionally someone will use it as a talking point. If the worst case scenario is that any given article won’t be received well but its research will inform my next analysis, I can live with that.

Cistulli: Also in re “enthusiasm.” You’re a prospect maven. It strikes me that prospects are like the manifestation of enthusiasm in baseball. They’re like puppies whose feet are too big: a little clumsy, with some obvious flaws, but with a sort of charm about them because of the talent they possess. Do you see that? And also: how/why did you get into the prospect maven game?

Smith: I have always been attracted to the crystal ball nature of covering the minor leagues, the idea of being aware of the next generation. I think it began in Peoria, IL when I saw the Chiefs play with my Dad. We saw the team’s first baseman hit this powerful double the opposite way, and I vividly remember by Dad praising his swing. When Albert Pujols won Rookie of the Year the next season, I was roped in. And later, learning about how important player development and scouting are to organizations, I saw it then as a great entryway into working in baseball. Now, though, I still see it as a great entryway into teaching myself and others into how organizations approach team building.

Cistulli: Do take any active steps, as you write, to avoid undue cynicism? Is there a message you’d like to shout to sabermetrically oriented bloggers?

Smith: It’s a difficult line to balance. I have to admit that the anonymity of a commentariat is really tiring, so I find myself being short with them too often. But I do hope to convey the curiosity I referenced, and the legitimate interest to take the best roads to answer the questions I want answered, in my writing. I don’t think I have a particular message to convey, because I think for the most part, the people with good intentions will produce the best product that will become the most widely read. It might be naive, but I’m sticking to it.

Cistulli: It seems like a sort of faith/naivete is inherent to writing in the first place. You have to somehow convince yourself that someone cares about what you’re saying. How do you convince yourself of that?”

Smith: This seems like that earlier question spun another way. But, I will say this: I have found from my experiences that the readership does a fantastic job of anointing credibility. What I mean is that to be called an expert, or to be trusted as an expert by your readers, you need to consistently put your best work forward. I feel that my own popularity as a writer has ebbed and flowed with my dedication to the work. In college, the semesters that I had easy classes and could pour time into research and calling coaches/scouts/etc., I was getting the best response from readers, the most links from others. And I have felt the opposite of that.

I don’t think I deserve to have people care about what I write just because of how long I’ve been writing, or the places I’ve written. The pressure to earn readership and credibility might just be the base motivation that most drives me to produce good work.

The reason I continued [writing]… is curiosity. I think the game can be understood better, and for reasons I can’t really explain, I think that’s important. Maybe self-importance is again a factor, but I really do believe that it’s curiosity: I have all these questions, and I don’t want to depend on someone else to answer them.