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The Saberist as Baseball Hipster: An Essay

What follows represents an instance of the genre known as Armchair Sociology. “Neither science, nor literature: it’s Armchair Sociology!”

For a number of reasons — perhaps because of my stylish Latin Teacher glasses or my laissez-faire attitude towards “showering” “regularly” or my constant preference for style to the exclusion, almost entirely, of substance — friend and boss Dave Cameron has made a habit of referring to yours truly as a “hipster.” Nor does it appear as though this practice is isolated to Mr. Cameron. Some cursory googling of the search terms “Cistulli” and “hipster” reveals multiple returns (generally good-natured) within the baseball nerd community.

It’s a problematic word, hipster, insofar as there’s no one who voluntarily identifies as one*. This makes any earnest use of the word suspicious. If some adjectives are flatly descriptive (tall, clear), while others represent judgments of value (generous, jerk-faced), hipster belongs firmly in the latter category, and the connotations are almost all negative.

*Indeed, if such a person exists, he or she should know that a hipster would never call himself a hipster. Catch-22 and all that, innit?

It’s problematic, secondly, when applied to yours truly. For, while the hipster regards himself — in Mark Greif’s words from a pleasantly rigorous piece in the New York Times — as “a natural aristocrat of taste,” it’s the case that I, Carson Cistulli, am just an actual, real-live aristocrat.

I recognize that many Americans have never seen an aristocrat up close, let alone talked with and/or made a study of one. As such, it’s forgivable that people would make such a mistake. It’s only when playing tennis against (and witnessing the fluid topspin groundstrokes of) the aristocrat or gazing through his library — full of Loeb Classics and P.G. Wodehouse novels — that his true nature is revealed.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Greif provides another definition of hipsters that is relevant to most of the readers who’ve found their way to this site, describing them (i.e. hipsters) as those who “play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world.”

This, I’ll submit, is a glass-mostly-empty characterization of something far less despicable — which is to say that, sometimes knowing something in advance of others comes as a result of curiosity, ingenuity, and effort. In fact, were one to re-word Greif’s definition of hipsters in a semi-positive light, it could very easily describe the Godfathers of our Fair Science.

Was Bill James not a sportswriting hipster, relegated to writing and distributing his own zine because his ideas were too sophisticated for a mainstream audience?

Was Billy Beane not a front-office hipster, rolling his eyes at the Oakland scouting staff for never having heard of OBP — a.k.a. clearly the awesomest stat, you guys?

Is our own Dave Cameron not a baseball-rankings hipster, placing a little-known group from Seattle near the top of a recent best-of list because he saw something other critics didn’t? (So, okay, it doesn’t always work out.)

Granted, there are some differences. For the saberist, exclusivity is not an end in itself. James wasn’t purposely embracing obscurity when he self-published the first Abstract in 1977. He wanted to share that information with as many people as possible — it’s just that no one would let him. For Billy Beane, the goal was winning baseball games. Novelty was a necessary means to that end.

Still, it’s the case that, for devotees of sabermetrics — much like hipsters — information is a commodity. For the hipster, that commodity is usually some kind of weird Casio keyboard or wolf-print t-shirt. For the saberist, it’s the scientific method as applied to baseball — and there’s clearly some pleasure to be taken in exploiting the information gap between those in, and not in, the know (see: Morgan, Fire Joe).

None of this is to promote name-calling. Rather, my intention is to argue against same — for much of this is considerably less about choice than we might first assume. Research by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (published as La Distinction in 1979) revealed (in Greif’s words) that “the things you prefer — tastes that you like to think of as personal, unique, justified only by sensibility — correspond tightly to defining measures of social class: your profession, your highest degree and your father’s profession.”

Greif continues:

The power of Bourdieu’s statistics was to show how rigid and arbitrary the local conformities were… College teachers and artists, unusual in believing that a beautiful photo could be made from a car crash, began to look conditioned to that taste, rather than sophisticated or deep. White-collar workers who defined themselves by their proclivity to eat only light foods — as opposed to farmworkers, who weren’t ashamed to treat themselves to “both cheese and a dessert” — seemed not more refined, but merely more conventional.

Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit. Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up. These conflicts for social dominance through culture are exactly what drive the dynamics within communities whose members are regarded as hipsters.

While there are a number of sub-groups under the Hipster umbrella, one that Greif cites — and which will no doubt be familiar to anyone who’s accidentally walked into Brooklyn of late — is “the children of the upper middle class [who] move to cities after college with hopes of working in the “creative professions.'”

Of this demographic, Greif continues: “These hipsters are instantly declassed, reservoired in abject internships and ignored in the urban hierarchy — but able to use college-taught skills of classification, collection and appreciation to generate a superior body of cultural ‘cool.'” In this case, what we perceive to be the antics of hipsterdom, then, are really just the byproducts of a young person attempting to reckon with the anxieties of adulthood.

Please do not be shocked to learn that an analysis of online fantasy sports participants (which would be somewhat similar to the readership of FanGraphs et al.), conducted by sociologist Don Levy, found that most fantasy players are “white… well-educated…, and earn a decent living” — that is, rather similar to the demographic described by Greif above.

*Omitted from that we also find “male” and “married,” the former of which doesn’t apply to hipsters (a mostly gender-neutral demographic, I’d guess) and the latter of which, I believe, doesn’t apply to FanGraphs readers, who are all gonna go dateless.

So what’s the point here? That Dave Cameron should grow a handlebar mustache? That Jackie Moore should listen to the entire Drag City catalog, effective immediately? No. (Although both of those things would be a real, real joy to witness.)

Rather, the point — if there must be one — is threefold:

1. Analogies are helpful and/or pleasant.
To see that saberists are like hipsters is either instructive in a pleasant way or pleasant in an instructive way.

2. We make fewer choices than we think we do.
According to Sociology, at least. And probably all the other disciplines, too. (Will check on that.) Whether this point is frightening or liberating is hard to tell.

3. Life is tough for everyone.
When people are annoying in all the different ways that people can be annoying, it’s generally because they’re attempting to deal with the horror that is being alive — or, alternatively, the even worse horror that is the Spectre of Death. Probably best to reserve invective for only the legitimately terrible ones.