What Are We Doing Here?: Fire Joe Morgan on Fire Joe Morgan

The conversation ends as the FJM staff recalls their legacy, Derek Jeter, and an aborted attempt at a book.
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Fire Joe Morgan (2005-2008) has a cult reputation that can seem intimidating to those not already in the cult. Like Mystery Science Theater 3000 in more ways than one, the short-lived, much-beloved baseball blog took aim at subpar sports journalism, heckling bad math and and lazy received wisdom with a call-and-response format that many others still imitate. The writers of FJM were never looking for their site to be influential, successful, or even read by anyone outside their close circle of friends. But they were way too good at what they did—and way, way too funny—for the site to stay undiscovered. Though the site is now dormant, the three statistically inclined baseball fans who wrote the majority of the posts are all now writers for NBC's Parks and Recreation. I took a trip to the offices of that show, where Dave King ("dak"), Alan Yang ("Junior"), and Mike Schur ("Ken Tremendous") filled me in on how FJM became an unexpected hit.

This is Part 3, the final installment. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

5. BASEBALL STATISTICS AND STATISTICS IN OTHER SPORTS

ON DISPARAGING SOME STATISTICS WHILE USING OTHERS

MS: [Writers] just wanted to use numbers that they understand.

AY: On some level, that’s understandable. If it’s something like batting average, okay, I understand what that is, it’s like, “Okay, I get that.” Or like, RBI. I know what that is, and I grew up with it, and it’s on the back of a baseball card. So I don’t even process that as a number. That’s part of the game.

DK: I think that’s right. They don’t see that as a statistic, they think of it as a basic number.

AY: One of the worst culprits of that is the statistic known as wins. Because it sounds great! It’s called a win! But it’s a very arbitrary thing! It’s like, “This guy’s got more wins! He knows how to win!” But that’s a very specific weird, arbitrary number that you made up.

MS: I would say that people do track quarterback wins. Not at that level, but you still hear arguments made in favor of quarterbacks, where they say, like, he won two championships.  Mark Sanchez defenders will say “He got to two straight AFC championship games.” Well, he didn’t. His otherworldly defense did. People have this weird thing … what’s the poetic term when one thing represents the whole?

AY: It’s either synecdoche or metonymy.

MS: It’s a synecdotal problem. When the Broncos beat the Steelers [in January 2012], that was because of Tebow, because he made that one throw. When he would win those games, he would go 7-for-24 in those three-and-a-half quarters and on the final drive he would bring the team down 56 yards and win. It’s visible. You see it with your own eyes. He’s running into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown, and you attribute that win to him. You don’t attribute the win to the defense that kept him in the game for the entire sixty minutes, or any number of other things. It’s a very obvious problem. I remember when we were writing the glossary, which we didn’t do for a long time, we were working on it, and the thing we kept writing was like, we would write the entry for, like, batting average, and we would say, like, it’s a terrible way to judge how good a player is. And then we wrote sentences like “You know this is true.” I don’t know who we were talking to. But you’ve always known this. You know that hitting .300 if you get all singles is not as valuable as hitting .250 and hitting fifty home runs. Part of this whole thing for me personally was, like, these weird, uncomfortable feelings I’d had all my life as a baseball fan, feeling very strongly that there was a better way to measure certain things, and then suddenly having my eyes opened and be like, “Oh, right! People are doing this, and have been doing it for a long time.”

AY: It’s an interesting, slow, but inexorable process, the fact that there’s even this discussion. Watching people on SportsCenter—granted, not doing it in the smartest way—but watching them discuss Wins Above Replacement, it’s crazy. When we started the blog, that was incomprehensible. WAR didn’t exist. It was VORP for a long time.

MS: And WARP.

AY: And now—yes, it’s still being made fun of, but it’s … they’re having to discuss it, that’s hilarious!

MS: And OPS is on Jumbotrons.

ON THE POPULARITY OF BASEBALL VS. OTHER SPORTS

AY: I was not a baseball fan before the site. I hated baseball until I was like sixteen or seventeen! I didn’t follow a team until I moved to Boston. Yeah, I hated baseball. Now I’m pretty into it.

DK: No one likes baseball.

AY: It’s very boring.

ON GOING FJM ON OTHER SPORTS

AY: The metrics don’t work as well. Basketball metrics are very, very slippery. Football metrics are tough, too.

MS: Getting a little better, though.

AY: Getting better, yeah. They’re all getting better. But, because baseball is a series of individual trials, over and over and over again, you get that data. And it’s largely a one-on-one sport, defense aside. And those defensive metrics are improving. But basketball’s not like that. Football’s not like that.

MS: And it’s got so many games. That’s the other thing.

AY: So many data points.

MS: The sample sizes matter. You can have really fluke-y seasons in football. You can’t really in baseball. The Orioles last year had one of the flukiest baseball seasons in history. And it’s just a fluke, it just happened. But in football, you can totally have a fluke-y season and make the playoffs.

AY: And that’s why in those other sports, when you make your wild claims, or whatever, it’s like, you can’t really … you can say “I think the Nuggets are gonna be great this year,” and how am I going to make fun of you? As opposed to saying, “Juan Pierre is the best player on the Dodgers.” That’s ridiculous—here are the reasons why that’s not true.

DK: I think also the long season and the daily games create a need for people to come up with absurd narratives about what’s going on.

MS: Yeah, that’s totally true.

DK: It’s unmatched in any other sport.

ON DEFENDING DEREK JETER, AFTER SPENDING MUCH TIME MOCKING THE CULT OF JETER

MS: It was the [Justin] Morneau year. [Jeter] should have beaten Justin Morneau. And they gave it to Morneau because he had like 130 RBIs. That was purely an RBI-based MVP year. That was the last truly terrible decision until Cabrera over Trout, in my memory. They got a lot better. But Rollins winning the MVP was bad, and Morneau beating Jeter that year was a travesty.

AY: God, we were so angry.

DK: We like to cite the Joan Allen film The Contender here, and one of the morals of that classic film is that your principles are only worth something if you adhere to them when they’re inconvenient to you as well.

MS: So we supported Jeter.

DK: We did not want to be behind Derek Jeter, but …

MS: The craziest thing is, he should have won that year, and then everyone argued that he should have won the year Mauer won. There was a lot of pro-Jeter arguing the year Mauer won, and Mauer was way better. And played a tougher position. They fucking get it wrong every year. Everyone got it wrong every year.

AY: (laughing) Every year.

MS: It’s true! I just talked to Joe Posnanski about this recently, on a podcast that then disappeared because he forgot to plug in his recording machine. But he was saying—I said to him that I really thought that Greinke and Felix Hernandez winning back-to-back years was a huge sea change, and then Cabrera over Trout … MVP is harder than Cy Young, too. Because people start parsing what “valuable” means.

ON THE FIRE JOE MORGAN BOOK, WHICH, AT ONE POINT IN TIME, WAS GOING TO HAPPEN

MS: We got contacted indirectly by a couple different publishers who expressed a general interest in it. And we, at one point, were moving towards a contract.

AY: Yeah, it got pretty far.

MS: And we had a lot of discussions about what it would be, and how we would make it work, and we just sort of realized we didn’t think there was a book in it. It just sort of felt like—we didn’t want to just repurpose the blog, that felt pointless. We wanted to like, have a—there was no point to it. There was no point to the blog, so it stands to reason there was no point to the book.

AY: The dream—the first pitches were like, let’s just write a 40,000-page book with like pages this big, and leather-bound, as a joke. But then we started thinking—oh, what would this be? Because I don’t know that you could reproduce that much copyrighted material. And then at one point, didn’t Michael Lewis contact [Mike] and said, “Just make it about all sports?”

MS: Not me, he contacted one of the editors. Which, just knowing that Michael Lewis knew who we were. He was like, “You should make a critique of sports culture,” was his phrase.

DK: Which is sort of what God Save the Fan is, something in that vein.

MS: For the record, I think Michael Lewis should do a critique of sports culture.

AY: He’s the best writer!

MS: If we had come up with an idea, we would have tried it. But it was sort of at the point where we were already—I don’t know if we had admitted it to ourselves—but we were already kind of winding down the blog. It already felt like we were kind of like, “What are we doing here?”

DK: I remember the closest—we were like, “Well, we could write kind of like a series of magazine articles” type thing, but we never had a grand unified theory that made it feel like this was worth writing a book about.

MS: Wasn’t there something like “The 10 Worst Mistakes that Writers Make,” or something like that?

DK: Yeah, we had ideas like that. But I remember one time, also, we had invented a character named Grandpa Strawman, who we were going to string throughout the book.

MS: He was going to be this old fart who just kept saying “You stupid kids!” Grandpa Strawman was the only good idea we had for the book. “Good” should be in quotes. Any positive adjective should be in quotes.

ON PUTTING ADVERTISING ON THE SITE, WHICH HAPPENED, BRIEFLY

MS: We put ads on it because we were losing money on it, because there were certain server costs, or whatever. All we wanted to do was pay for the costs.

DK: It was a mistake.

MS: I remember feeling that it was important to us that people knew that this was not a money-making venture for us. It was, like, a weird thing that we were just doing to do it. And we got offers a couple different times by larger blog-collectives to host the site, and we turned them down. It was very flattering, but we turned them down because we were kind of like, “We don’t want to be forced to post a certain number of times per week.”

AY: Or submit to anyone.

MS: Or stop swearing. Because we loved swearing, and we didn’t want to have someone from some corporate place say “You can’t say this” or “Don’t say this,” or whatever. We’re not trying to make money off of this. It’s a side project.

DK: There’s this thing where … you do a thought experiment where it was like, “I’m gonna write each post for eight hundred dollars? I’m gonna do it for nothing!” It just wasn’t—

AY: It was just for fun. That’s why it was fun, is because it was just for fun.

6. FIRE JOE MORGAN DRAWS TO A CLOSE

ON WHO WAS IN ON THE JOKE

MS: I remember, we all wrote pieces, as the site went on, where they would start by saying “I honestly don’t know whether this is a joke or real. But in the event that it’s real, we’re going to make fun of it.” It became very hard to tell. People would write things about, like, Texas A&M football, where I was out of my personal ken. Like, T.J. Simers (pictured, right), I remember, wrote something about Texas football, and I was like … I think this is real, and then a bunch of people wrote me with “No, no, no.”

AY: He’s always satire.

MS: Satirical, yeah. But it became very hard to tell, sometimes, whether it was satire or real.

DK: There were times, also, where articles seemed like they were written specifically to bait us. Which I know they weren’t. But it was like, “This … wow … is this guy for real?”

MS: The joke was on them, though, because we were happy to be baited. We’re like, sure! I don’t care. I’ll happily devote three hours of my life to making fun of this. I don’t care if it’s bait.

DK: Yes, the joke was truly on them.

MS: This is one of the most severe, thorough wastes of time that I’ve ever been involved in.

AY: You could have learned how to work with wood or something.

MS: I could be speaking fluent Spanish.

DK: I think it was great, man. I think it was cool.

ON THE END

MS: I have a lot of memories of being in my house with my new bride on a beautiful Saturday in September and she’s like, “Let’s go somewhere!” and I’d be like, “Just one sec …”

AY: “I’ve got to do this!”

MS: And that’s why, eventually, it ended.

DK: Your marriage?

MS: This show, Parks & Rec, hiring Alan to work on this show and being like, “I know how much work it takes to do this. I can’t be a good boss and do this.”

AY: It was a good natural endpoint, too, though. The site had gone on for a long time.

DK: A good three or four years, right?

MS: And also, the number of things we were writing. We felt like we had started to repeat ourselves, first of all, that we were saying the same things over and over again.

AY: “This is a recording” was typed many times.

MS: But then also, just starting the show meant that it was going to be too much work.

AY: This show, the thing you’re second most proud of. But it was really love of the game type stuff. Writing long, impenetrable, unrelatable articles that you just worked—

MS: I wrote 13,000 words about that Colin Cowherd thing.

AY: Yeah, “15 Minutes of Hell.”

MS: It was like, 13,000 words long or something. It was so long.

AY: We started getting … it was like, who could write the longest thing?

MS: There was that one, and there was one, I remember there was one Joe Morgan chat mega-post where I had missed like four in a row, and it was like, “Let’s go! Let’s go. More.”

AY: It was a great comedy engine.

MS: I wrote pieces for the site from Italy on my honeymoon.

AY: That’s not true! Oh, man.

MS: I wrote a long thing about Derek Jeter.

AY: I remember that!

MS: I was on my honeymoon in Rome.

AY: Didn’t you also write something from Argentina?

MS: Yeah, Buenos Aires. That’s where I started Fremulon. I was literally on my honeymoon in the Business Center of the hotel.

AY: That’s grounds for divorce, man.

MS: Holy Moses.

ON THE SITE’S LEGACY

MS: The least important thing any of us will ever do.


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