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The Sportswriter's Guide to the Galaxy

One of the favorite figures of my childhood was Mr. Goldman. He was something of a Santa Claus of sports. Mr. Goldman lived way out in California, and he had been my mother's journalism professor at a Bay Area college for a couple of years before her family moved back east. The two had kept in contact over the years, and I must confess this was entirely to my benefit. I loved sports---always had. One can never been sure of these things, but I believe my oldest memory is Dusty Baker hitting a home run for the Dodgers in 1979. (Don't ask me why this memory would be significant; however, for some reason, I have always known that name.) Mr. Goldman was, by happy coincidence, a sports information director. He was connected. He went to the Final Four, and the Super Bowl, and the East/West Shrine Game, and the World Series. Wherever he went, Mr. Goldman would mail me game programs and media guides and stats packages and press junkets.

One time, in the summer of 1989, I spent the entirety of a trip from Richmond to San Francisco, with a stop in Pittsburgh, devouring all of the materials Mr. Goldman had sent me from that March's Final Four. I knew Steven Bardo's hometown, Andrew Gaze's shooting percentage, Terry Mills' weight, the name of every Final Four Most Outstanding Player in history, and anything else I could learn. I was heading to San Francisco to see family---and to see Mr. Goldman weeks later, whereupon he would deliver more sports information.

I have always been fond of Mr. Goldman, to say the least, but as I became older, I noticed other things about him. His knowledge of all sports. His reasoned, intelligent manner of communicating. His ability to turn a phrase. Perhaps I am making connections based on superficial similarities---roughly the same age, both Jewish, in the sports media business---but Leonard Koppett strikes me as not at all unlike Sam Goldman. Of course, I never got to meet Koppett (Koppett passed away in June 2003), and I missed most of Koppett's body of work, having grown up as a sports fan in Koppett's later years, when he was (coincidentally enough) located in California, editing a relatively small daily, and doing mostly freelance work. Still, Koppett strikes me as quite Mr. Goldman-ish: fascinating, reasonable, useful with statistics, and a fount of information.

Trust me---if it takes a mental association with Mr. Goldman to occupy a space in my sports fan's heart, that in itself is no slight whatsoever. But Koppett is admirable independent of such a personal association, and his posthumously-published memoir, The Rise and Fall of the Press Box, serves as a fitting capstone to a truly singular career. His manuscript complete just days before his fatal heart, the "professor of the press box" ended his career in a manner that defined it, as NBA commissioner David Stern remarks in the Foreward, "[k]nowledgeable, astute and innovative in his thinking, . . . challeng[ing] his readers---and his colleagues, for that matter---to look at sports more deeply."

Tony Kornheiser affectionately calls Bob Ryan "the quintessential American sportswriter." There is probably merit to the characterization. Ryan is an East Coast guy, fast-talking, prolific, generally hale and hearty, occasionally caustic, sometimes curious, unattractive, and noted for expressing rather provocative opinions that may---note, may---evince an overabundance of alcohol consumption. I don't dislike Ryan; in fact, I find his work invigorating and often intelligent, and his review of Bill James' New Historical Baseball Abstract (briefly excerpted here) captured precisely why baseball is amenable to thoughtful and creative reflection. But if Bob Ryan is the quintessential American sportswriter, and Leonard Koppett wasn't, then this might only be because Koppett was born in Moscow.

Re-reading The Rise and Fall of the Press Box (I read and wrote much of this review in June 2005), I am struck by how Koppett's recollections on his life and times track the American sports experience in the Twentieth Century---how Koppett's story starts in the coruscating center of the sports world, New York (Koppett noted his memoir was "too narrowly focused on New York and insufficiently informative about other equally important people and places"), and then follows its expansion west-ward (in 1975, Koppett became the New York Times' first West Coast sports correspondent) and stats-ward (Koppett's weekly Sporting News column, from 1969-84, provided "an outlet for [his] reliance on statistics"). In the process, Koppett seemed to evolve into something of a Renaissance man among the sportswriting contingent, a figure who absorbed yet transcended the provincialism of the old and the turbulence of the new.

Aside from the focus on statistics (to which we will return in a moment), Koppett might be most remembered for the rather unique position (among his peers) he adopted during baseball's labor wars of the late 1960s, 1970s, and thereafter. As explored in an interview with Bronx Banter's Alex Belth, historian Chuck Corr, author of The End of Baseball as We Knew It (another book well-worth a review), posited Koppett developed his relatively pro-union position in large part because he possessed an open mind:

I was lucky enough to be his friend for almost twenty years and to spend a lot of time in the last couple of years of his life either with him or talking to him on the phone. He probably knew more about more things (most of them having little to do with sports) than anyone I've ever known. And he relished conversations about subjects he didn't know as a way of learning something. . . . The owners looked upon Koppett as an advocate for the players because he took the heretical position that the players and their union might actually have a case. At minimum, he wanted to listen to what they had to say. The more he listened and the more he looked into the legal and economic realities of baseball, the more he came to agree with many of the positions taken by the union. He supported Curt Flood and he described the 1972 strike as "a self-inflicted wound" on the part of the owners. Koppett spent a lot of time in his columns trying to show the owners that they had to recognize the reality (however unwelcome) of labor-management relations and cautioning them about the folly of demonizing the players in the eyes of the public. It might seem strange, since so many owners saw him as an opponent, but much of his advice echoed what their negotiator John Gaherin was trying to tell them. Sadly, for the owners and for the stability of the sport, they didn't pay much attention to either Koppett or Gaherin. Koppett's evaluation of Miller's success with the players is an example of Koppett's cool judgment and unwillingness to embroider things. "[Miller] could be persuasive because he was right and had the facts right. It all came back to that." If that applies to Miller's success as the leader of the union, it is just a fitting as an analysis of why Koppett's articles and books were so persuasive at the time and hold up so well after many years.

In his memoir, Koppett revealed that his experience and observations during the newspaper strikes of the 1950s and 1960s largely influenced his position on the ownership-union divide:

[His observations] were part of my equipment when I had to start dealing with the labor problems that major league sports began confronting in the mid-1960s. I understood why the NBA players established their union's power by threatening to strike the 1965 playoffs, and why the baseball players finally turned to Marvin Miller, a steelworkers union economist, to turn their "Players Association" into a true (and formal) labor union in 1966. I could grasp the motives and methods being used by both sides in the sports strikes that followed, accepting the legitimacy of each side's view of itself.

The preceding excerpt sounds somewhat conceited, but it is not. Instead, it is frank. Koppett's work is alternatively self-effacing and frank, but never conceited. Make no mistake: Koppett reserved plenty of opinions for his final hurrah, and perhaps no opinion is expressed as frankly as what he believed the sportswriting profession had become by the time of his death:

Over all, today's sports pages are better written---in the literary sense---than they were 50 years ago. But the change in content and purpose is much greater. Our idea, then, was "get the story, tell it as clearly as you can, avoid being wrong, look for the most interesting angle, don't worry about stenographic reproduction of quotes." Today's formula is "make (not just get) the story, be entertaining at whatever cost to accuracy, aim at getting the reader's attention (which will draw attention to you), and move up the ladder as fast as possible." . . .

We used to be gratified if someone told us "that was a good story you had yesterday." What today's writers want to hear is "that was a great line you had yesterday. . . .

One could dismiss these comparisons as the spittle of a curmudgeon---and one would be half-right. Koppett, by his own admission, was a curmudgeon by the end of his life, afflicted by the same "curmudgeonarianism" thirty years later that he had observed from his older colleagues thirty years earlier. But that is why The Rise and Fall of the Press Box is so engaging: Koppett recognized was expressing his opinions, and only his opinions. He frankly believed---in the same thought that he was a curmudgeon---that the press box had suffered a "fall." But he was honest enough with his reader that he admitted he was concerned mainly with a subjective account and, in fact, the way things were "in his day" were perhaps not objectively better than they are now.

I, of course, cannot evaluate such a comparison. I wasn't around then, and I have to be careful not to lump all of today's press box denizens with the ones Koppett described above. However, while I generally have a dim view of one of Koppett's contemporaries, Dick Young, who seems to be recalled almost exclusively for crankiness and angry boisterism, I think I'd take one hundred Dick Youngs over one Bill Plaschke.

The former wrote the following of Dodger manager Burt Shotten following the '47 Series:

And in the last game trailing five to zero,
Why you let Banta just isn't clear-o,
Oh, how your strategy stinks!
These foolish thinks, remind me of you.

The latter, by comparison, used to call deposed Dodger general manager Paul DePodesta "Google boy." How banal, fitting for a hack on a superficial roundtable show where writers score "points" for projecting "opinions."

If the following is not yet apparent, then a proper warning should be issued: The Rise and Fall of the Press Box is not, in itself, a baseball book. However, the National Pastime occupies a plurality, perhaps a majority, of Koppett's remembrances and thoughts. And no section is as focused on baseball as the next-to-last chapter, covering statistics, especially in context of "the most statistics-infested game." As noted, much of Koppett's legacy is tied into his prominent interest and skill with statistics---especially for a mainstream writer----a trait he credited early on with being interested in high school algebra. As a final present in a thought-provoking manner worthy of a comparison to my friend Mr. Goldman, Koppett spent a number of pages evaluating what he believed were proper and improper uses of statistics. His insights would not be universally accepted by sabermetricians and performance analysts and stat-drunk computer nerds; some of his thoughts would no doubt be reviled. But they are contemplative and reasoned, and they are based on several briefly-stated principles:

1. [Statistics must] cover a large enough number of truly comparable cases ("difference in size is difference in kind");
2. Define explicitly exactly what has been counted (a hit "doesn't distinguish between live drives, bloop singles, slow or tricky grounders, long drives caught by a great play, bunts or home runs"---perhaps Koppett would have appreciated John Dewan's Fielding Bible);
3. Have a large enough historical record for that item to determine when a particular statistic is out of the ordinary ("raw numbers are informative only when compared to other relevant numbers"---in other words, numbers must be normalized for context);
4. Unless you know what's "normal," you can't tell what's unusual," and you can't define normal unless you have a complete record of all the instances in question.

Other insights and criticisms jump off from these. Among Koppett's contentions are that the pitch count statistic should not automatically count every pitch batted foul or fair as "strikes"; statistics ("even sophisticated math like regression analysis") are not reliable real life mechanisms for predicting future performance because they cannot account for everything informing a manager's decisionmaking role---"[h]is opinion is based on the mix of what he's seen (about a swing or a pitch's behavior), what he knows about the players and their condition and tendencies, how today's conditions differ from other times, and the statistic; and studies on "the uselessness of the sacrifice bunt" cannot solely be based on run expectancy tables because, with certain hitters, and in the manager's experience, "giving up an out" is in reality "gaining ninety feet."

Certainly, some of these opinions would be debated by a sabermetrician, but that's beside the point. The point is that Koppett, a sportswriter, was thinking so deeply like such an issue. Koppett was a gift---little different to me, as a sports fan, than one of Mr. Goldman's packets arriving in the mail.