Tough Intervals: An Etherview with Pitchers and Poets

Note to Reader: What follows contains little in the way of quantitative analysis. On the plus side, there’re like 87 references to Marcel Proust.

On account of they were all rounded up and sent to Slovenia in 1987 as part of First Lady Nancy Reagan’s considerably less famous “Just Say No to Poetry” initiative, it’s hard to know much about poets these days.

That said, it’s a fact that American poet Robert Frost once said, “Poets are like baseball pitchers. Both have their moments. The intervals are the tough things.” It’s also a fact that Eric Nusbaum and Ted Walker are the progenitors of a website, called Pitchers and Poets, that attempts to explore “why we watch, why they play, and what that stuff all means.”

While the site’s content is rather exclusive — accessible only by navigating a series of tubes — the payoff is pretty excellent. Messrs. Walker and Nusbaum discuss baseball the way you’d want your smart friends to: by engaging with the sport on every level that could be of interest — frequently with humor.

Recently, the pair have added the Rogue’s Baseball Index (RBI) to their steadily increasing empire. The RBI represents an attempt to catalogue baseball-related terminology for the new generation of fandom.

Walker and Nusbaum consented to be interviewed this previous Sunday by means of EtherPad, a program that allows multiple users to create and edit a document. Hence, the “etherview.”

***

Carson: So here’s the reason I’ve invited you here. I’ve known about Pitchers and Poets for a little bit now. It’s a good site, obviously. But recently, I got an email from my friend Ross, and the subject is “Move over Straight Cash Homey” — which, that’s a giant compliment already. And then I follow the link, and it’s to the Small Sample Size entry at RBI. It killed me, especially: “Small Sample Size is also what many bloggers point out just before ignoring it.” As hard as tried not to, I was forced to admit it: It’s funny because it’s true.

Then I knew I had to find out more about this project, yinz, etc.

So, if you would, maybe start off by talking a little about the Rogue’s Baseball Index (RBI).

Ted: RBI is a dictionary of baseball terms, but one that veers away from a dictionary in the traditional baseball sense. It’s a collection of terms that tries to catalogue the quirky experiences of the modern baseball fan. Maybe you see a term that describes something you’ve always known about, but hadn’t taken the time to voice as a distinct phenomenon.

We call it an alternative baseball lexicon. It’s a play on the old traditional baseball dictionary of terms like “seeing eye single” that have existed forever. We wanted to include terms that would instantly strike a chord, and seem familiar and funny.

Eric: One of the tag lines that we’ve played with is “Baseball like you’ve already thought it.” That’s kind of our guiding notion when we write the terms.

Carson: The interesting thing about it — and maybe about this very strain among all our smarter blogs — is the academic feel it has. It seems to take very seriously something that is decidedly not serious — or at least not something my mother thinks is serious (which seems like a decent gauge to use).

Eric: I think the tone is a pretty direct continuation of the Pitchers & Poets tone. We have a kind of unusual way of looking at baseball games. The voice and the way we overanalyze on PnP have translated well into the short entries of RBI. The RBI form has forced us to condense all our weird ideas and ramblings into something funnier, more manageable.

Carson: Do you guys have official academic training? I mean, because the site is smart and — like a Free Darko-type situation — definitely borrows from the lexicon (to use Ted’s word) of academia. But it’s not about, say, post-colonialism or diaspora or whatever. It’s about Milton Bradley and Mark Mulder.

Eric: That’s a huge compliment. You might one day regret calling us smart. I’ve got a bachelors from the Univ. of Washington in English and Political Science. But I’m actually in the process of applying for grad programs in writing.

Ted: Eric knows a lot more about world politics than I do. I’ve got an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and spent a good bit of that time thinking about how to think about baseball. My approach to baseball writing has been influenced more by the great essay writers than what I would call an academic approach.

In the end, I think it’s fun to take something seriously that doesn’t seem on the surface to warrant it. That’s kind of what sports is in a nutshell. So we run with it, and have the kinds of conversations about RBI entries and Milton Bradley that some other folks might have about Kierkegaard and Proust.

Eric: Yeah, it’s definitely worth noting that almost all of these entries and posts are collaborative. We think a lot about what we’ll say and how we’ll say it.

Carson: Ted, I’m interested. What was the reaction at the Art Institute when you started writing all about baseball? I mean, did they break out the “What the what is this jock crap” on you?

Ted: Funny you should mention that. Lukewarm would describe it. But what I brought to the table was a single-minded commitment, and focus. Eventually, I brought people around with the cohesiveness of my efforts. It was an environment in which I had to really sell what I was doing to a group of skeptical people.

Carson: I can see that. Like, I teach once a week at a local high school. It’s mostly black and Latino students, but there’s this one nerdy white kid who L-O-V-E-S carnivorous plants. He’s like the opposite of a pimp. But sometimes he’ll talk about this obscure mycological junk, and the other kids are just like, “Keep doing your thing. Your weird, weird thing.”

Anyway, I ask because I can see your stuff either being wildly popular because it traverses readymade genres, or vigorously mocked for the same exact reason — by the literary types because it’s about sports and by the sporty types because it’s too literary.

What’s been the general reaction to PnP and RBI? Who are your readers? (Besides your mothers.)

Eric: The joke is that we are popular only amongst bloggers. The name Pitchers & Poets pretty much scares away any of the types of people who would threaten violence in the FanGraphs comment section — you kind of know what you are going to get with a blog like ours. That said, we are, you know, a pretty baseball-oriented baseball blog. Our readers are the types of fans who like to think about baseball in broad terms, whether that’s stylistically or politically or culturally or whatever else.

Carson: Well, that brings up a question for me. The current tagline for PnP is “FanGraphs this ain’t.” That might seem hostile to some of the readers here. I mean, I get the sense that it’s not meant that way; it’s just, it could seem aggressive.

Eric: PnP hearts FanGraphs. That tagline came from a throwaway line Ted used in a conversation post recently. I thought it was a funny way to be glib and explain PnP so I put it up. In all seriousness, this is a post-Moneyball world. We’re not on some mission to reignite wars about the value of sabrmetrics or Joe Morgan. We appreciate the numbers. It’s just not our niche, not our skillset. T and I are not Dave Cameron. We really dig FanGraphs, we just do something different.

Ted: It is very much not my skillset. I prefer not to limit myself to subject matter that can be proven or disproven with facts.

Carson: It seems one of the most successful ventures on PnP is the conversations you guys do. It’s funny, I’m actually teaching Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to a class of mine right now, and a student who’s gonna write a paper on it says, “Can I write my paper in the form of a dialogue?” My gut reaction was “No, no way, that’s crazy.” And yet, the dialogue has got to be one the most accessible, pleasant forms around. I had to wonder at my initial reaction.

Ted: I recently read a quote from Kurt Vonnegut suggesting that one should only write for one person, or one will likely die (I’m paraphrasing). It’s a hard thing to do. The dialogue form actually forces that little bit of wisdom. I think most of us are at our most creative when we’re hanging out with our friends, loose and relaxed. That’s what I enjoy about the conversations. It dissipates some of the inherent weirdness of the essay proclaiming universal baseball truths to the world.

Eric: Even before he came on board, I was basically writing PnP for Ted, or at least that kind of baseball fan.

Carson: Interesting. So, if you were to hazard a guess, why, do you think, is the dialogue form not more popular? I mean, I agree that it allows for better thinking. But it seems marginalized as far as a genre goes.

Eric: I think we have a lot of preconceived notions about the author as singular genius, as this tortured lonesome figure. I go for that image, too. I like to look up to my favorite authors as slaving away over a typewriter.

But in the new media landscape there are plenty of places for dialogue. My favorite baseball blog is probably Walkoff Walk, which operates as something of a dialogue between Iracane and Liakos (and the other members of that cadre). The podcast is another place where dialogue is valued highly.

Ted: We all love the dialogue format as long as it isn’t in print, like podcasts and sports talk radio and all of that. I just think writing is a medium that demands a lot, and the dialogue format asks for just that much more attention. That said, interview transcripts seem pretty popular online.

Eric: Interview transcripts make great reading. Especially with people more compelling than the two of us. I could spend weeks just reading those Paris Review Art of Fiction dialogues.

Carson: Yeah, I remember one with both George Saunders and Dave Eggers in it. I mean, I’m not sure if it was one of the Paris Review things, but essentially the same format. Eggers was okay, but Saunders was just hilarious.

Ted: I’m basically the Saunders of Pitchers and Poets. Eric is the Eggers. I appreciate the compliment.

Eric: I appreciate the book sales and movie royalties.

Carson: Eric used a phrase — “singular genius” — which reminds me of the most important question I need to ask. Actually, it’s more of a statement: Tell me about The Rogue.

Ted: The Rogue is like the George W. Bush of the Rogue’s Baseball Index. He’s the decider. He’s not the voice of the RBI, but he’s the soul of it.

Eric: It was actually supposed to be Rogie’s Baseball Index, after the hockey player Rogie Vachon. Ted and I have a fascination with French Canadian goaltenders from the 70s. Unfortunately, RogiesBaseballIndex.com was taken, so we settled on Rogue’s. The U and I are right next to each other on the keyboard.

Carson: I thought this might be of some use to you guys when I came across it. It’s from the Allegory of the Cave:

… the virtue of wisdom more than anything else contains a divine element which always remains, and by this conversion is rendered useful and profitable; or, on the other hand, hurtful and useless. Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of A CLEVER ROGUE — how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eyesight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness?

Ted: The great thing about a rogue is that he can take a step back from the toils of mankind and laugh at it, maybe wag a finger. That’s an important trait when you’re attempting to catalogue the human experience, or the baseball experience. A sense of humor, the knowledge that you are poking fun not only at others but at yourself.

Eric: The Rogue is what we strive for.

We hoped you liked reading Tough Intervals: An Etherview with Pitchers and Poets by Carson Cistulli!

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Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Snapper

I enjoyed that. I will definitely check out their blogs (bookmarked already). You seem to be finding your niche Carson, good job.