I spend a lot of time thinking about word choices. When I see something poorly phrased on Twitter, I try to parse if the offending tweeter was being deliberately offensive, unintentionally revealing, or simply careless. Take this tweet, by Masslive’s Christopher Smith, a good Red Sox reporter:
Should Red Sox fire John Farrell? Coaching changes could help, but failures extend beyond JF to ownership, players https://t.co/lWc2CbMbTQ— Christopher Smith (@SmittyOnMLB) October 10, 2017
As you probably gleaned from the headline, the word choice I object to here is “failures.” I think it was neither malicious nor careless, but I think it reveals a great deal about how writers and fans can perpetuate bad narratives without realizing it.
Here’s how the column starts:
John Farrell became the first manager in Boston Red Sox history to win back-to-back AL East titles and the first to win three AL East titles overall this year. But he could be looking for a new job soon after just purchasing a condo in the area. [...]
Asked directly after the Red Sox's Game 4 loss if he expects to return in 2018, Farrell simply replied, "We just walked off the field 10 minutes ago."
Farrell won a World Series in 2013. He has done a fine job as manager when you review the overall resume.
This is straightforward. It lays out Farrell’s considerable accomplishments for the clear purposes of undermining them. It’s a good writing tactic -- so good, in fact, that I’m using it right now, because Smith loses me here:
But the Red Sox -- whose yearly goal should be World Series titles and not just division titles -- were overmatched each of the past two years in the ALDS.
Hmm. The Red Sox did not win the World Series, but it clearly was their goal, and they lost to a very good team. And before we say “Well wait, isn’t every team’s goal?,” the answer is no — the Cubs and Astros both hatched long rebuilding schemes that involved a lot of losing, and they turned out fine. It might not be the greatest strategy, but it can work, so I don’t think saying every team is always trying to win it all is accurate.
The Red Sox were trying to win it all, of course, and they failed to win the World Series, but the season was not a failure, even in light of this:
Implying it was, or that Boston’s failure stemmed from a lack of imagination, is a work of fiction that is very easy to propagate among fans who desperately wish their sports to be a morality play — to be the stuff of lore, where the good guys are righteous and good and the bad ones lazy and stupid.
Smith is far from alone, and any one instance like this is hardly worth raising a fuss over, but the ALDS evoked enough of them that it’s hard for me to ignore. The Globe’s Alex Speier got in on the act before game four with a bad tweet:
Red Sox starters have the worst playoff rotation ERA ever (15.12). To avoid elimination, their mindset must change https://t.co/o8PoAyoM9x— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) October 9, 2017
The bad word choice here is “mindset.” and Speier is parroting pitching coach Brian Bannister, who noted that starters across the majors have been ambushed during the postseason:
“The ball is flying out of the park. You see Kershaw giving up four homers. It’s happening to everyone, even the best in the game. I think you have to pitch with a little bit more of a sense of urgency, some adrenaline, and really have that mentality of a reliever.”
Speier then uses David Price’s sterling game three relief appearance as proof that the starter “mindset” doesn’t work in the postseason:
If the team has any hope of becoming the 10th postseason team in history to erase a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-five series, its rotation members must follow Price’s lead – coming into the game and throwing every pitch like the season hangs in the balance. If they get more of what they’ve already seen through the first three starts of the playoffs, then Sunday’s stay of execution is likely to be little more than a temporary one.
HMM. If every pitcher in the league is getting owned in the postseason, including Clayton Freaking Kershaw, perhaps the problem isn’t the mindset, but the quality of the opponent, the tightness of the ball, fatigue, etc. That’s arguable, but saying the team “must” follow Price’s lead is perpetuating the idea that Speier, Bannister or anyone else could tell you what was in Price’s head while he pitched, despite the fact he was not quoted in the story.
Speier assumes, then, he had the right mindset because he pitched well. This is conflating correlation and causation because it’s easy and your readers will like and understand it: The smart guy did the good thing and the wrong guys did the bad thing, just like they should. There’s just no evidence that it’s true. Bannister laundered a theory through Speier, and Speier let him do it because it seems true, or he wanted it to be true, or was just cool with stenography on deadline. If it was true, it wouldn’t explain why Craig Kimbrel and his closer mindset blew game four, but such are the vagaries of pseudoscience.
It’s this type of thinking that creates and feeds bad narratives without explicitly doing so, leading to tweets like this:
Craig Kimbrel seemed like a guy yesterday who just didn't give a fuck. It's almost like he hates even playing here. He's not a gamer.— Terry Cushman (@cushmanMLB) October 10, 2017
The problem here isn’t with Kimbrel or even, perhaps, the tweet’s author; it’s the idea that we can identify a “gamer” from a bum or someone as having the right “mindset” versus having a crappy one. It’s the idea that we know better than the players and manager not just what they should do, but how they should think, and, furthermore, what they do think. In Smith’s view, the Sox didn’t aim high enough. In Speier’s view, they weren’t thinking straight. In the fan’s view, it’s a lot of both, and there’s no tangible reason to think that any of it, from any of them, is true, especially not in a division-winning year.
The simple fact is that Red Sox were good this season and were beaten by a great team in the playoffs, though certainly not beaten bad enough to deserve the crap they’ve gotten. This team was flawed, but the flaws weren’t mental. They were administrative. Add J.D. Martinez and/or Carlos Santana to this team, let Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers get some more at-bats and look at that, the offense is fixed, and suddenly things are looking up, even against bangers like the Astros.
So perhaps this is jut me, but I finished this season not with dread, but with real hope for the 2018 Red Sox. If anything, I thought the team that won approximately 45 extra-inning games was overflowing with mental fortitude, if such a thing exists in this context. I’m not necessarily asking you to join me, but I am asking the people who do this for a living to be more careful about what they say with regard to what they can prove. They might be content to fool most of the people most of the time, but I’d prefer they’d stand up for what’s real instead of what just sounds good.