FC Bayern Muenchen v Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: First LegMy knowledge of basketball consists entirely of the most rudimentary understanding of the pick and roll. I learned this in grade nine when my height and running speed deceived a high school coach into believing that I could be something more than awkward and gangling with a basketball in my hands. I was Darko Miličić before Darko Miličić.

I’m not really a basketball fan. I admire it from afar. The coordination. The leaping. The running. The endurance. My ignorance to the finer points of analytics and tactics affords me a certain wonderment as a spectator that’s absent from other sports for which I have a greater understanding.

With the start of the NBA playoffs earlier this week, I decided to alter this comfortable hands-off relationship I had developed with the sport. I wanted to end the neutral observer nonsense, and pick a team to support, hopefully, throughout the next month, and if it worked out, perhaps longer.

Typically, this is a less conscious decision for sports fans. We often cheer for teams based on regional bias, or we support a club because our parents supported that club. Or, if we’re particularly rebellious, we swear allegiance to a franchise because its the main rival of the one with which our parents have allied themselves. I’m cheering for the Chicago Blackhawks because you just don’t understand, Vancouver mom.

My forced approach to the NBA playoffs pushed me to reflect on the differences between watching a sport as a neutral observer and obsessing over a sport as a fan with a rooting interest. It’s vastly different. For many of us who support a team, the individual outcomes of tiny instances within a game that all add up to produce a result are the sole responsibility of the players on the team over which we obsess.

As an ardent fan of the San Francisco Giants, competent pitchers don’t successfully strike out Buster Posey. He strikes out, himself. Excellent batters don’t hit home runs off of Madison Bumgarner. The young left-handed pitcher gives up home runs. At the same time, opposing pitchers don’t give up home runs to Buster Posey. He hits them. Just as batters facing Madison Bumgarner don’t strike out. He does that.

Despite it being a competition between two, for many of us, there is ever only one team on the field, court or rink.

This theory was fresh in my mind while watching the first leg of the UEFA Champions League semifinal between Bayern Munich and Barcelona on Monday. During the match, play-by-play maestro Martin Tyler consistently offered his commentary from the perspective of the Spanish side, at one point using the term “robbery” to describe the German club’s 2-0 lead.

For someone who doesn’t fetishize possession based tactics, it seemed strange. Munich was quite clearly the dominant side. Yes, they may have benefited from a misstep or two by officials, but the overwhelming amount of opportunities that Bayern produced against Barcelona put their opponents on the run and flustered throughout most of the match.

Tyler wasn’t just acting as a Barcelona apologist, he was failing to offer anything approaching a neutral perspective.  He was behaving as I might act while watching a Giants game. Munich’s defensive positioning didn’t neutralize Lionel Messi. The Argentinean failed to break through. Arjen Robben didn’t confound Jordi Alba with his attack down the right side of the pitch. The left back wasn’t having a good game.

It wasn’t just Tyler. This same sentiment was expressed in the myriad of match reports following Munich’s 4-0 victory. It was as though the outcome of the game had nothing to do with Bayern Munich and everything to do with Barcelona.

Sports are such a vicarious experience that the urge to align oneself with a side is overwhelming even for those whose livelihoods depend on neutrality, or at least the appearance of it. Picking a team to cheer for enhances a fan’s experience, but for a journalist, a failure to recognize multiple perspectives to the action diminishes the experience of others instead of enhancing it.

This strange mixture of bias, perspective, entertainment and experience was inadvertently addressed in a recent column by Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, who suggests that the modern passive aggressive approach to hitting in baseball isn’t only failing, but also ruining the sport’s watchability.

It’s a ridiculous notion, dependent on firmly entrenching oneself in the perspective of the batter instead of the pitcher while imagining one’s personal preferences for entertainment to be universally valued. It’s the type of idea that’s completely acceptable for a fan and absolutely not for a journalist, on whom fans depend.

As fans, we root for teams to make sports fun, and we ask that broadcasters and writers don’t so as to maintain that level of entertainment. It’s an important distinction to make, not only for personal reasons, but also as something for the many fans who express their ideas through social media and blogging. As easy as it is to slip into imagining that all outcomes are the result of one team’s actions, it’s worth stepping out of the fan’s perspective from time to time to embrace a more balanced view of what our hearts tell us is true.

For now, I think I like the Golden State Warriors.

Comments (9)

  1. I don’t see why Verducci’s opinion as a journalist isn’t acceptable. Most fans view the game through the batter’s perspective, as you say, but so does the league. In the history of the sport, whenever a sustained period of continually declining offense occurs, the league takes measures to increase it.

    I will admit his evidence is incomplete (can’t say I’ve investigated if run production is actually in decline) or possibly specious, but if he’s correct that the approach of taking as many pitches as possible is costing teams runs, than I would agree that it is failing, regardless of whose perspective we’re taking.

    So: what is your take on his thesis that “the approach is failing” with regards to generating offense, discarding the “watchability” factor?

    • He’s not looking at things from the pitcher’s perspective, just as fans don’t look at things from the opposition’s perspective. He’s saying, “Look offense is down. And batter’s are using this approach.” He does this without considering what pitchers are doing to combat the way hitters are approaching their at bats.

      I disagree with your statement that most fans view the game through the batter, as well. The war on drugs in baseball is as anti-offense as a policy can get.

      • I’d argue they let the drug era happen for so long because it was providing more offense, then hypocritically tried to clean up when they got caught.

        I think what he’s saying is that to combat this approach, pitchers are throwing strikes down the tubes on the first pitch, and it’s working, therefore it’s time to reassess the value of “passive aggressive” hitting, as he says.

        To be clear, I have no position on this, and am only arguing on behalf of Verducci to further explore your opposing position. Superficially, Verducci’s argument makes some sense to me, and I’m interested to hear something from the other side.

        Also, I’m aware that correlation does not equal causation, and that a team’s success depends on a whole lot more than simply p/pa, but it would be interesting to explore Verducci’s anecdote about the Giants and Tigers last year (near last in the league in pitches per plate appearance) over a larger sample size to see if it does or does not bear true and why.

        • His main points in that article are anecdotal because data doesn’t back up what he’s suggesting. The 62% of pitches that Votto has taken this year compares rather regularly to the 60% he’s taken when he was hitting for power. He also totally ignores Votto’s injury.

  2. Excellent, Parkes. This is so true in tennis. Fans of a certain player throw around “oh look he’s choking again” “wow another semifinal she didn’t show up for”. Or the opposite, that an upset is by the sudden amazing powers of the underdog with a small “and the other guy didn’t play that well”.

    Perhaps it’s more to do with my general frustration in the lack of appreciation or knowledge on tennis tactics but people tend to attach a narrative by simply seeing one player. Pretty remarkable stuff. Soccer there are 22 players. Tennis there are 2.

    This is my long ass way of saying… I agree.

    • Yeah, that’s almost an entire other issue – when journalists invoke narrative friendly intangibles to explain outcomes despite there being real causes for results. My friend Chris brought up that video of Mark Cuban and Skip Bayless where Cuban criticizes the reporter for saying LeBron didn’t have heart or whatever when the truth was that the Mavericks found a way to neutralize him. I hate that. I think it’s even worse than only seeing things from one team’s perspective.

  3. Biased or not, Verducci does have a point. A casual baseball fan will see 3 groundouts in a row on 12 pitches and say “wow, that was a boring inning”, not “wow, the pitcher was really hitting their spots that inning”. How many times do you hear non-baseball fans say “I don’t like watching baseball because noooothing ever happens”? I bet they wouldn’t say that if a home run was hit every inning though.

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