Consider the Eckstein

David Eckstein is retired, and wasn't a star when he was playing. So why does he still stand for so much?
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There was a time, really just a handful of years ago, when sabermetricians and crusting, old-guard journalist-types unsheathed their lightsabers and dueled for the soul of baseball. It was weapons of mass narrative against weapons of mass statistics. Scrappy-gritty-heart-grit-scrap scrappily going to war on WAR. There was a new way to consume baseball, which wanted only to exist without the old way of consuming baseball, which in turn wanted nothing to do with the new. Basement-trapped dweebs, so it was said, were dedicated to turning a beautiful and unpredictable game into advanced calculus. Both narratives are not quite right; but the fact that both exist, and are still clung to as they are, suggests that this is not nearly over.

But it has been fun, mostly, getting to this inconclusive point. There was a website -- bless their hearts -- dedicated to not-so-nuanced satirizing of the proudly ill-informed. But the other side wouldn’t bow out, and still hasn’t; they believe they are defending something important, and the fact that no one is really attacking that thing doesn’t mean they won’t fight to the last grumpy man. There has been a lot of yelling, and there will be more.

Things quieted down for a while, the saturation of numbers and logic and sanity taking significant hold of things. And then Mitch Albom incited a riot by railing against Mike Trout’s MVP candidacy and pumping up Miguel Cabrera’s and generally throwing cliched feces at “made-for-Microsoft categories.”  So there we were, again, lines drawn in the sand. Rob Parker took a side. So did Nate Silver. (These are maybe not the least-biased names to choose, but this hasn’t been a conflict defined by fair play, really.)

Even if both sides have over-indulged in the divide, it’s not impossible to understand. People felt legitimately threatened and mother-beared their cubs and what should have been a mildly contentious and definitely abstracted discussion of the term “value” instead turned into a long, loud conflict of escalating character assassination. The caps lock button was jammed everywhere; people turned into their worst and least generous selves. You know about all this.

What’s so frustrating, and even saddening, about it all is that this whole dumb thing springs so clearly from an inability (on both sides, if on one more notably than the other) to realize that none of this necessarily needs to be mutually exclusive. Instead, both sides dug in as dumbly as possible. You couldn’t feel and know baseball; it was impossible to both comprehend the magnitude of late-game pressure and see value in David Ortiz’s OPS+. Overpriced hot dogs and the smell of the infield grass and the seventh-inning stretch not only didn’t jibe with Baseball-Reference, but were in opposition, a flagrant and cruel piss on poor old Walter Johnson’s grave or something. It couldn’t be a therapeutic getaway for some or a statistically fascinating gold mine for others or just a thing to watch sometimes. It had to be war. There was only one way to see David Eckstein.

***

The whole time, we were always talking about David Eckstein. The Idea of David Eckstein, in a sense, but in a more literal sense the tiny and not-Jewish Caucasian shortstop who gritted his way from Anaheim to St. Louis to Arizona to San Diego to World Series MVP to a career OPS+ of 87 and 20.8 WAR in ten seasons.

In this whole ridiculous argument, Eckstein’s primacy might be most ridiculous. He was never anything other than himself, which was: extremely good at baseball relative to the at-large population, much better than most players at his position for less than a third of his big league career, and inarguably someone who made a shade under $20 million as a Major League baseball player. Eckstein’s story, baseball-wise, isn’t much different from that of many others.

In some ways it was better: Eckstein made an All-Star team and won two World Series. In some ways it was worse. Mostly, though, it was about aesthetics. Eckstein  choked up on the bat and didn’t hit for power and didn’t throw the ball very hard and generally looked kind of out of place and so articulated the unkillable notion that athletic careers can be carved out of will. You know this, too: a spot in the Yankees’ batting order is only a few extra swings in the cage, a few more tape sessions and a handful of fungo bat groundballs away. One hearty kick will knock down Major League Baseball’s locked door. Just make sure you mean it. Or something.

Bits of truth certainly do exist here: there are players whose extra effort pushes them over the edge, and players who lazy their way out of the game. If talent opens doors, some elbow grease surely helps them open more smoothly. But twisting David Eckstein’s career into some referendum on virtue and hard work undermines a simpler and less satisfying truth: he was talented. Workaday and average and sometimes extraordinary, but grounded in ability.

***

Eckstein didn’t get to the Majors by being short; baseball teams don’t narrative their way to World Series. Managers at various levels of baseball understood him in baseball terms and utilized him on the baseball field in those terms. Eckstein the player was and always has been, first and only, a tool wielded for baseball victories. In high school, he was a two-time All-State selection. At Florida, he was All-SEC twice and All-American once. He was drafted in the 19th round of the 1997 draft and waived three years later and still played 10 MLB seasons. This is not nothing, not at all.

But what’s interesting about Eckstein in particular isn’t just that he’s an oft-manipulated metaphor or focal point for baseball turbulence. David Eckstein, as a symbol, is far more weighty and talked about than his career would suggest. Do you know his career numbers, even roughly, offhand? He is his adjectives more than any other particular thing.

When people say they hate David Eckstein, they don’t really mean David Eckstein, the player that Baseball Reference’s similarity scores compares to Rick Burleson and Scott Fletcher. Hating Eckstein is hating a preachy narrowness that relies on words impervious to calculable measure. It’s hating the whole strident gospel that springs from that overdetermined faith. Intangibles. Heart. Grit. Will. Scrap. Toughness. Desire. Words that -- in a game that employs both A-Rod-like godsculptures and Prince Fielder-like, well, non-sculptures -- lay waste to critical thinking of any kind. A reasonable enough thing to hate, but nothing that Eckstein himself ever really asked for.

But he was, for whatever reason and for all his limitations as a player, a pretty great lightning rod. More than anything he ever did on the field, Eckstein-inspired venom accidentally chaperoned the analytics culture towards the mainstream. Bill James was pumping out his Baseball Abstract well before he became Bill James. Even in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, there are chapters devoted to the movement before the movement. Things were chugging along fairly quietly for a while; Sabermetrics was only sucking in the diehards and natural stat-poring obsessives. The internet had not yet come into its own, which seems especially crucial, here.

What David Eckstein did -- not that he, in particular, did much of anything other than exist as an undersized baseball player wrapped in various sportswriting bearhugs -- was to encourage a sort of hate-learning among those who rejected his columnist-powered applause. Though Sabermetrics, at its heart, was about understanding baseball in precise and seminal ways, it naturally fueled counter-arguments. You could read something, think it was stupid, and then prove it was stupid. Heart was no longer sufficient to bridge the collective knowledge gap; it couldn’t be quantified, as the columnists yowled, but so much else could be. Parsing out what David Eckstein actually was worth, under all the grit-bluster, was in many ways Sabermetrics’ great gateway drug.

***

And only a short time after the first virtual punches bruised egos, sabermetrics earned a majority. It was no longer jailed by the weak-kneed paranoia that the game was losing its charm; it was simply a new and equally beautiful intellectual brushstroke. It was out there on the field, too. GMs were getting smarter, or at least the good ones were, and spending more wisely, evaluating more precisely. The teams that didn’t do this would fall behind. It is working itself out.

Not that the war’s entirely over, of course, or that David Eckstein isn’t still the undersized field of battle. Home runs still matter. So do RBI. Batting average still leads off the box score. Pitchers’ wins are still tabulated, and so are losses. All of these numbers still carry a suggestive and even subversive value that’s so fundamentally couched in the game as history that it’s hard to see them ever fully disappearing.

A .300 batting average will always matter, and so will a Triple Crown and various numbers attached to the names of Hank Aaron and Roger Maris and Barry Bonds and others. These are more than just numbers. They’re markers to cull meaning from thousands of players and endless numbers. It’s easy to get lost in a 162-game season, and it’s part of what turns many people off from baseball. Numbers, or at least their pursuit, help give meaning and purpose to the giant abyss of a single-sport summer humming along.

Yet that’s exactly what has made this entire thing, by and large, a giant pissing contest. Part of what’s so disturbing about the analytics-facing trend, if you’re inclined to be disturbed by it, is that it’s tearing down these statues. Or maybe not quite tearing them down, but adding detail to them, making them look different than what we’d gotten used to. It isn’t so much the idea that OBP is the new batting average; it’s the fear that trending this way will eventually phase the meaning out of Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs. A century’s worth of knowledge, and for many a lifetime’s worth, is trashed simply by being recalculated. There are feelings at stake. The whole thing is sentiment.

The conflict, maybe, is owed to the fact that both sides of the argument can now hear each other so clearly. There is blowback on blowback now that sportswriters and fans are significantly more available to each other, whether by email or in comments sections or, more recently, on Twitter. There are so many places and ways to yell or praise, and the perverting effects of being able to do so anonymously, and so in full embrace of the most ridiculous asshattery.

In the middle of this, getting chewed up in the no-man’s land between the two trenches, is Eckstein. He’s emblematic of how sports sometimes stretch too far into metaphor, when they should probably operate on more practical terms. A World Series MVP didn’t cure his family’s kidney problems. And he’s the forum, the inspiration even, for much of analytics’ charge into something predominant.

But he’s also this: a baseball player that doesn’t look like other baseball players. He’s interesting and admirable because he didn’t play like other baseball players. One side tried to repackage him with hackneyed descriptors; the other bludgeoned his uniqueness by reducing him to his mostly unremarkable statistics. (Mostly but not entirely: he was, per B-R’s WAR, the ninth-most valuable player in the AL in 2002.) What was lost, on both sides, was David Eckstein: the fun of watching him play, the fun of trying to figure his success out. And he was fun, even if he wasn’t spectacular, because of how improbable he was and how it felt to puzzle over all that. It can be hard to remember that.


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