Slurve On: Michael B. Dougherty On Leaving Political Journalism For Baseball

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From the outside, and particularly from the portion of the outside that involves hustle-hard freelancery squalor and stomach lining-erosion, writing about politics from a pronounced partisan angle seems like a pretty good gig.

Not necessarily good for, like, our national discourse or a given writer's spiritual health, but easy in that there's always a clear party to blame—the other guys, those jerks—and easy in that the nation's richest blowholes are happy to sink huge amounts of money into book deals and writer contracts for those who most effectively (or, barring that, with the most convincing approximation of actual fuming rage) ventriloquize their paymasters' point of view. Michael Brendan Dougherty, a veteran political writer and a political conservative, is not one of those types.

Dougherty has written about politics and religion, and only occasionally about anything else for a variety of places; in one fascinating piece for ESPN The Magazine, he wrote about the Romney family's understatedly perverse personal Olympics. I know, from the few conversations I've had with him over the two or so years of our acquaintance, that he's both a Mets fan and probably the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut tri-state area's most ardent living admirer of the Stockton/Malone Utah Jazz. You would not necessarily know this from his writing about politics and religion, although somehow the Jazz thing seems to fit with Dougherty's perspective on both.

This all matters for our purposes here because Dougherty is not going to be making his living by writing about politics anymore. Out of deference to his own sanity, and because he really likes baseball, he's started a daily, baseball-centric email newsletter called The Slurve. He has big plans for it, and we talked some about those, and about why he left political journalism to do this.

From the outside looking in, the political discourse would appear to be one of the few that's remotely as shitty—as loudly dumb and self-satisfied and proudly trivial and polarized and point-missing—as the mainstream sports discourse. I know you're a fan, and surely that has something to do with your decision to abandon one for the other, but what makes a person give up writing about politics for writing about sports? What do you hope to get from this that you weren't getting from that?

I started my career at The American Conservative, which was founded in 2003 to oppose the Iraq War and Bush administration from a distinctly conservative point of view. My odd politics can look very hippie one minute and very Tory the next, and so I was a good fit. I can't tell you how much fun and how exhilarating it was to be a part of that. And I still plan to write pieces about politics every once in a while. People have told me I'm good at profiles (of people and events), but you can't write those every day.

And I do think young people have to write every day to make a career for themselves. Writing about politics can be done safely, but it is best to be walking the Hill and interviewing people every day or to be so unchallengably important to the conversation that you have freedom. Reporting every day is what makes people like Dave Weigel of Slate and Spencer Ackerman of Wired so absurdly valuable. There's a long list of friends and peers in Washington I love, and it would be obsequious to name them all. But in general Washington DC is made up of one-and-a-half cultures: there are the people who have power, and then there are the journalists and activists who are encouraged to act as a courtier class or a mob by turns. For most opinion journalists, you are a great success if you come up with clever-sounding rationalizations for your readership to consider itself perfectly righteous, and to consider their political opponents as vaguely traitorous or sub-human. In all honesty, national politics has most of the vices of "bread and circuses." And if that's the case, pro-sports is a better circus.

So what does baseball offer? 30 teams rather than tw, for starters. And the sport contains different classes of people! Think about it. Politicians and political journalists and most of the audience for political content may have different levels of wealth, but they are basically of the same class when it comes to manners, ideology, and interests. Think about the cultural collisions of baseball. How different is David Roth from David Price? Or George Will and George Brett and George Steinbrenner. Baseball is a wider world.

Sure there is some annoying stuff in sports. If I hear one more sports radio caller talk about the "antics" of a Dominican player as compared to the "fiery heart" of an American player, I will lose my mind. But I think it is possible to avoid the proudly trivial and point-missing in sports, or at least it is possible to not take it too seriously.

Different sports seem to have different political valences—the NBA scans leftward to me, because it's young and international and racially diverse and (all due respect to Indiana and Kentucky and the national champion Wyoming Cowboys) a city thing; college football feels like Republican party pop-conservatism made flesh in just about every way. Baseball, for all its tradition-humping and George Will-iness, seems sort of in its own space, there, and sort of broadly in a good place in general right now. What about baseball makes it the sort of thing you'd want to spend the next five months writing about every day?

Is it too-simple to say that Baseball is really fun? Just some of the recent memories stand out: Johan's no-hitter! Those absurd five minutes where the Red Sox lost and the Rays won the wild card! I love that we are in this age of incredible pitching. If I am going to wake up at 4 in the morning for something, it's kind of a blast to be writing about Bryce Harper and Yu Darvish.

Baseball offers a few certainties; everyone agrees on the rules and on the score of the game. That means we can talk about baseball much more sensibly and with a lot less throat-clearing than politics. Sports doesn't have this pseudo-scientific approach that is becoming common in politics and is a force for illiteracy and bullying.  To translate it into political terms, baseball is a mixed regime that combines very well the virtues of democracy (integration, meritocracy, innovation) and aristocracy (tradition, excellence, beauty).

I agree that baseball is in a great place right now. It feels good-humored. And it doesn't seem like any one of baseball's subcultures is in a position to dominate the sport as a whole.  

About The Slurve itself: there's a good deal of rounding-up in there, but also you've basically assigned yourself a baseball column with an early morning deadline. What's your vision for The Slurve, as a thing: how will it read, what will it look like, and where does it go?

My hope is that The Slurve will be a fun and very useful daily email for fans of the game, people in sports media, and fantasy baseball players. I want it to be all signal and no noise.  A lot of indie sports sites survive on junk content: debates designed to enrage you, lists designed to offend you, and a bunch of content you wouldn't want your boss or kid to see over your shoulder. Click, click, click. Because I ask the readers to pay me a small amount, The Slurve can survive without that and without advertisers. And that’s why I’m constantly asking my readers for suggestions. This is their newsletter. My "column" is really just a chatty introduction, giving casual readers an insight into what the important stories and questions are that day.

If the Slurve becomes the modest success I hope, I will be able to do more original reporting and features for it. If my subscriber base grows, I'll go to the Winter Meetings, and spend time at Spring Training in Florida and Arizona next year. I’d like to do original reporting on the league offices too.

Right now, I use a bespoke piece of software built by my friend Matt Frost and based on the programming language Rstats to help me do all that aggregation, really just to quickly format and organize the stories I hand pick. As I get better at using Rstats, I'll be including more original graphics and animations based on Pitch F/X data. I have some ideas for data driven-lists about which players are getting hot, or cooling off that could be really useful to fantasy players. And lastly, once the subscriber base grows to a certain level, I may explore creating a private message board. If people want more signal and less noise in the way they get their news, they may appreciate a forum that is the same way. All in time.

The big round-up is the heart of The Slurve currently: Late at night and from about 4am in the morning, I go through thousands of stories about MLB across the web, and I pick somewhere between 120-160 each morning that are either worthy as a piece of prose and journalism, indicative of a point of view that we have to reckon with, or contain a piece of real news or information. I organize it and I send all that out between 7am-8am EST on weekdays, and by about 9 on weekends. If you subscribe to the Slurve you know bright and early that Joe Posnaski wrote something beautiful, that a Boston columnist is encouraging panic, and that a backup catcher in KC has been DFA'd.

On the second day after launch I received an email from a subscriber, "For me, it means that someone smart has gone through the better RSS baseball feeds, found the most interesting and important stuff, and presented it to me in an orderly way. That's a service worth paying for." I think so too. For some people, fantasy players, media people, just running your eyes over the headlines in the morning is helpful, and it allows you to click through directly to the source of the pieces of news that matter to you. And the Slurve aggregates in a way that doesn't "steal clicks" authors would otherwise get. So we give you more information than browsing through news sites for an hour. It doesn't hide one little scrap of news in a 2 minute segment that is effectively a beer commercial. It just presents it to you really efficiently. I’ve found in my career that I really benefited from newsletters like Conor Friedersdorf's "Best of Journalism", Ben Whites "Morning Money", and Ben Domenech's "The Transom" because they were efficient, and personable.  I thought it would be fun to do one for baseball.

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