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Morgan began his television career in 1985, calling Reds games for Cincinnati's WLWT, and in 1990 he teamed with Miller for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball. (If, as the academics on a busman's holiday have it, baseball is America's great civil religion, then ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball is Mass. It's certainly every bit as pompous.) The two would make a great comic pairing -- Morgan, small, black, and prickly; Miller, round, white, and gregarious -- if they didn't take themselves so seriously. Watch them the next time they call a 7-3 Mets win over the Nationals (because it seems they onlycall 7-3 Mets-Nats games); they'll talk like raconteurs in front of Ken Burns' camera. Like it or not, they are the voice of a baseball fan's Sunday, which isn't entirely inappropriate. When Morgan talks, there is the familiar keening, the steady note of harangue, the complete absence of humor, the smug conviction devolving frequently into unreason and illogic, and we're not even out of the first inning.
In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James, after praising Morgan the player, goes on to describe Morgan the broadcaster as "a self-important little prig," a "twit," and a "weenie," just about hitting for the cycle. (When asked about Morgan for this article, James demurs, writing in an e-mail: "We in sabermetrics do best when we can keep the discussion focused on questions like 'What is true?' and 'What is the logical position here?' and 'What is the evidence on that issue?' We don't do so well when we drift into debates about personality and character, since those discussions focus, in the end, [on] who is cool. I respect Joe's greatness as a player, and, as for Joe as a broadcaster, I've said as much as I'm going to say.") To be fair, Morgan can be very good when he's breaking down the minutiae of the game, but these days that seems to interest him less and less, and, anyway, must the world be subjected to another disquisition on the difference between a guy who steals bases and a base stealer?
"I think he's a good broadcaster," Neyer says. "He knows a lot about a lot of stuff. If I wanted to have somebody come in and teach how to hit, turn a double play, steal a base, he'd be the guy. But stats analysis is not what he does well. He certainly has a blind spot."
A small community has developed around that blind spot. Not long ago, a man named Mike Carminati found himself reading Joe Morgan's ESPN.com chats and routinely deconstructing them in e-mails with a friend. When he started a blog in 2002, Carminati moved the chat recaps online, and so began Joe Morgan Chat Day, in which Joe would be compared to some of the world's great thinkers. The site, while not the first to titter at Joe's many fallacies, at least epitomizes much of the Morgan-bashing: bemused, mordant, and, above all, a little disappointed. Joe, these people seem to be saying, many of them the geeks playing video games, should be one of the good guys. Joe Morgan: Judas of the nerds. The blog Athletics Nation now offers a T-shirt that reads "Joe Morgan can kiss my bunt!"
"When he started broadcasting," Carminati says, "there were things he'd say that were completely counter to the way he played the game. It was the way he'd combine certain ideas. He'll make a reasonable statement, then combine it with a totally outlandish statement that makes no sense whatsoever." How do you think we got Enron? "His logic takes this leap. It's kind of ingenious in its own way." (Surprisingly, Carminati enjoys the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts. "You have to be in the right frame of mind," he says. "It's like watching Reefer Madness.")
Many have tried to explain Morgan's attack on statistics -- that it's a reaction against his famously numbers-obsessed teammate with the Reds, Pete Rose; that it's barely suppressed anger toward the A's, a team he once tried, and failed, to buy as part of an ownership group; that it's just a corollary of what Carminati calls "things were better in my day"-ism. "That's why small-ball will always beat Moneyball for Joe," Carminati says, referencing a style that emphasizes bunts, stolen bases, hit-and-runs, all things that Moneyballsuggests are statistically self-defeating. Carminati channels Morgan: "These whippersnappers have it too easy today with the plentiful homers and theme music playing before every at-bat." There also may be an element of fear, or at least a feeling on Morgan's part that something like Moneyball is a threat -- that the nerds are at the gate. Tradition, says Will Carroll, who writes for Baseball Prospectus, has "this amazing death grip" on baseball. "One of the most interesting things about Moneyballwas that we saw it as, 'Wow, this is an interesting story that tells interesting things, that takes a look at baseball differently.' But so many baseball people said, 'Holy crap, this is gonna cost me my job.'"
ESPN's Miller rightly points out that Moneyballdepicted a polarized baseball world, with Harvard grads on one side with their laptops and spreadsheets and old scouts on the other with their Skoal and their gut feelings -- an exaggeration, some say, but clearly not far off the mark. "I think [Morgan] is irritated that he got put into a group of old baseball people who were ignorant and stuck in old ways and uneducated and whatever," Miller says.
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