"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Happy Trails, Joe

Margo Channing had her Eve Harrington. McMurphy had his Nurse Ratched. John McClane had his Hans Gruber.

Every protagonist needs a good villain… and we, the baseball geeks,  just lost an excellent foil in the form of one Joe “Fire Joe Morgan” Morgan.

I’m sure there are people out there — indeed, lots of people — who enjoyed Joe Morgan’s work as an announcer on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. But I don’t know many of them; I don’t think we read the same blogs. For years and years, even before I discovered Bill James and Baseball Prospectus and, of course, the great Fire Joe Morgan, I rolled my eyes at Morgan on Sunday nights. He was a great, great player and is by all accounts a smart man (also a Hall of Famer and the winner of every conceivable baseball award, as you may have heard him mention weekly for the last two decades), but he has the intellectual curiosity of a halibut. He had a pomposity and a petrified worldview that was impervious to questioning or new ideas. Among the writers I read often, Craig Calcaterra was the only one to offer a semi-defense, if you count “Morgan annoyed me, but never so much that I’d celebrate his departure. Mostly because, for as wrong as he could be at times, he was fairly easy to ignore” as a semi-defense. That Craig didn’t feel compelled to mute Morgan, merely tune him out, is the nicest thing I’ve read about the guy’s announcing in years.

Nietzsche wrote that “He who lives by fighting with an enemy has an interest in the preservation of that enemy’s life”. Of course, he also wrote “Out of damp and gloomy days, out of solitude, out of loveless words directed at us, conclusions grow up in us like fungus: one morning they are there, we know not how, and they gaze upon us, morose and gray.” So let’s not get too carried away with the Nietzsche, but I think that point’s well taken here. Everyone needs a good bad guy, and for baseball fans who were interested in sabermetrics and advanced stats and research (or at least respected those things), Morgan was perfectly cast. He was wealthy and famous and popular enough that you didn’t have to feel guilty about skewering him – not like some random beat writer, who you’d feel bad about ganging up on. And his counterarguments were not exactly reasoned and convincing, as can be seen in this immortal exchange he had with Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs more than five years ago now, recounted in a classic SF Weekly story:

[Craggs]:It seems that you almost take [the book] personally.

Joe:I took it personally because they had a personal thing about me saying Durham should’ve stolen second base in the game that they lost — he stayed at first base, and they hit three fly balls, and the A’s lose another fifth game.

[Craggs]: And that’s the chief reason you don’t even wanna read the book?

Joe:I don’t read books like that. I didn’t read Bill James’ book, and you said he was complimenting me. Why would I wanna read a book about a computer, that gives computer numbers?

[Craggs]:It’s not about a computer.

Joe: Well, I’m not reading the book, so I wouldn’t know.

I remember reading that story when it was published, and after that Joe Morgan wasn’t just another announcer I ignored or rolled my eyes at; he was the face of the enemy. Not in a personal sense; of course I have nothing against Joe Morgan, as a person, and wish him a long and happy life. But he had taken a stand against learning, or reading, or even having a conversation about new ideas, and he had done it in a particularly boneheaded way. He came to symbolize a way of thinking that drives me, and — judging by the comments here all season, every season – many of you right up the wall. But now that Morgan’s gotten the hook, who embodies what I want to argue against? Surely no one with as broad and loud a platform, so much money and influence, no one who will make it so much fun to play the righteous underdog. So yes, I think in a perverse way, I’m really going to miss Joe Morgan.

Sandy Alderson has assembled a super-Moneyball team over in Queens and is being showered with praise, and Morgan’s only real anti-SABR peer, former New York Times columnist Murray Chass, is off in a basement somewhere writing a blog that he furiously insists is not a blog. Who am I supposed to yell at on my TV screen now?

Of course, as was pointed out to me last night, we’ll always have Buck and McCarver. I have no doubt they will outlive us all.

31 comments

1 NoamSane   ~  Nov 9, 2010 5:18 pm

Very well written Emma (as usual)
I have to say though Miller/Morgan > Buck/McCarver. Far Greater. I agree fully with what Calcaterra wrote in the linked article.

btw, obviously V. Scully is in a class by himself, but overall, the SF Giants have by far the best announcers in the league.

2 RIYank   ~  Nov 9, 2010 6:35 pm

Überfrau.
But it's "Nietzsche", with an "s" buried in the middle of those other consonants. You remember the old rhyme, "s before z, except after t, or before a c, thus spake Zarathustra."

I agree that Buck/McC are worse. They're much worse, actually. McCarver is just plain dumb, and Buck is insipid to an unwholesome degree. Joe and Jon have plenty of redeeming features to partly counteract the anti-intellectual offensiveness. But you couldn't make a blog out of firing Buck. The next best thing is maybe Lupica.

3 Jay Jaffe   ~  Nov 9, 2010 7:06 pm

As the one who made the "ding dong the witch is dead!" tweet Craig Calcaterra referred to in his post, I disagree with his take, because I count myself as one of the potential Sunday Night Baseball viewers who were so turned off by the prospect of listening to Morgan's blathering that I couldn't be bothered to tune in unless the Yankees or Dodgers were on. And while they were on quite a bit (10 times by my count of the pre-season schedule) that's still much less than 50% viewing from a die-hard fan. It wasn't that Morgan was simply hostile to sabermetrics and couldn't be bothered to figure out that Billy Beane didn't write Moneyball, it's that he was hostile to objective reality and empirical evidence in ways which fit in all too cozily with the George W. Bush-governed tenor of the times. Good fucking riddance to all of that.

Villains, even good ones, are a dime a dozen, and the anti-intellectual wing of baseball's old guard will certainly find a new one to wear the black hat if it's not Morgan.

4 Emma Span   ~  Nov 9, 2010 8:05 pm

[2] Thanks! Dammit, I ALWAYS forget a consonant in Nietzsche, though which one varies. (And yet I can spell Mientkiewicz without even blinking...)

As often as Nietzsche's name gets misspelled, no wonder the poor guy was so grouchy all the time.

5 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 9, 2010 9:01 pm

2) I think it works best with a TV announcer because you have to endure them in a way you don't with a columnist, who you can easily ignore.

6 williamnyy23   ~  Nov 9, 2010 11:29 pm

I have to admit that I’ve never understood all of the Morgan hate out there. Was he the most cutting edge analyst out there? Of course not, but why does that make him a villain. Joe Morgan wasn’t just a great player…he was an all-time, inner circle Hall of Famer. His perspective may not meet the intellectual standards of many, but it is still worthy of respect because of how unique it is. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want Morgan to bone up on sabermetrics because that isn’t who he is.

[2] The thing I don’t like about Buck is his smugness, not to mention the impression that he really doesn’t like baseball. One reason I could always tolerate Morgan was because he always seemed as if there was no place he’d rather be than at baseball game. Anyone like that, regardless of their tolerance for advanced statistics is a person after my own heart.

[3] Can you blame Morgan for being hostile, considering all of the hostility directed toward him. The level of criticism heaped on him was often nasty and mean spirited, so I don’t blame him for taking an entrenched position. That’s something that way to many in the field of sabermetrics have still failed to learn. Besides, whose to say that sabermetrics represents objective reality anyway (and I say that as someone who is very inclined to advanced statistical analysis). Do you really want to argue that metrics like UZR, WAR, and anything using a park factor or replacement level are really objective? What’s more, maybe Morgan’s critics were the ones ignoring objective reality and empirical evidence by denigrating the opinion of one of the game’s most accomplished performers. Although I wouldn’t consider myself fan, Morgan did have many insights into the mind of the superstar play, and to be honest, I often find that much more interesting than some of the overbearing statistical arguments made by those seeking to shout down other perspectives.

7 williamnyy23   ~  Nov 9, 2010 11:31 pm

[6] Who turned the grammar filter off?

8 NoamSane   ~  Nov 10, 2010 12:23 am

[6] I have to agree with William's sentiments. I greatly appreciate all the work going into the newer and more advanced statistics. And the insights coming out of it as well. But I could do without the overconfidence, often arrogance of some of the statisticians and their adherents. Some of the (false) perception that 'Moneyball' and Billy Beane contended that statistics were everything and in-person observation nothing has come from baseball blog mudslinging that seems to actually subscribe to that absolutist notion. Even if statistics could actually tell us *Everything*, which ones to use? The fact that there are so many competing metrics tells us we can't yet claim to have completely wrested away the market on wise-analysis from dinosaurs like Morgan.

9 Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO   ~  Nov 10, 2010 12:30 am

Joe Morgan loves jazz and baseball..he can sing acapella Barbra Streisand songs in the booth and I'd still be ok with him! Joe Buck is dreadful, apalling, creepy and just downright bad. Timmah is everyone's wacky uncle who makes incompreensible jokes..but was once great on WOR Mets games.

10 joejoejoe   ~  Nov 10, 2010 1:08 am

I like Joe Morgan the Announcer. Players seem to like him and give him decent background and he's usually in a good mood which is at least as important to me as the facts. Tim McCarver could be sharing the secret of the universe and I'd still want to jab myself in the eye with a fork because he's such a smug jackass. Playing baseball is a game and a job and Joe Morgan played the game like he was having fun and did his job better than almost everybody who ever tried. They fact that he can't explain why isn't important to me. Stone gargoyles on old churches don't know theology but for a lot of people they explain things better than a divinity professor. Joe Morgan is like that to me. I remember Juan Pierre bunting for single against the Yanks in the Series and Ozzie Guillen winning a World Series managing like he was Joe Morgan. Neither of those things square with The World Bill James Made but they are still real things. Is Joe Morgan a bad announcer because he thinks bunt singles are more bad ass than his own career 132 OPS+? That kind of cognitive dissonance made him interesting.

11 MDF   ~  Nov 10, 2010 1:26 am

Emma, I enjoy your writing, and I realize that hyperbole is to blogging what steroids are to baseball, but Joe Morgan isn't the enemy.

12 The Mick536   ~  Nov 10, 2010 7:51 am

[3] Me, too. I also want more baseball lore, not just tales tied to the teams the announcers have played for or announced for. I liked the old WS teams where the national broadcasts had a local guy from each team. Too many players talking and not enough baseball story tellers. And, can we ease up on the over analysis, please.

And, while I be at it, I have to listen to REMDog. That be torture. Don is great, though.

Good post, Emma!

13 Raf   ~  Nov 10, 2010 8:31 am

[6,8] Don't kid yourself, the "non stats" guys are just as overbearing, overconfident and arrogant.

14 RIYank   ~  Nov 10, 2010 8:57 am

[6] 'Smugness' is a good word, yes. I mean, an appropriate word for Buck.

I'm with Jay, and with Emma. I don't hate Morgan. But I think Emma put it well. The idea that you would just refuse to read something because it was a book about a computer that gives computer numbers, I find that not just wrong but offensive. Blocking off a large segment of the world (as Jay says, hostile to objective reality) because it doesn't fit comfortably into the story you tell yourself and your audience about baseball, that's just bad.

As I said in [2], he (and Miller) have redeeming qualities, no doubt about it, and sure, it's natural to get defensive when you're the centerpiece of a certain brand of criticism. But Morgan stood for a kind of know-nothingness that offends me deep, and I'm glad to see him go.

15 williamnyy23   ~  Nov 10, 2010 9:42 am

[13] Some of them definitely can be, but I don't think Morgan was one.

[14] Why is that offensive? There are lots of books I wont read because they are about topics in which I have little interest. If I was not inclined toward statistics, I wouldn't read such books either.

Besides, Morgan really isn't blocking off a large segment of the baseball world. Sabermetrics still occupies a relatively small space. Morgan is more mainstream than his critics.

Again, what are the objective realities Morgan should accept? Who defines them? And, are they really objective? It's grossly unfair to say Morgan stood for a kind of "know nothingness" just because he didn't know the things you wanted him to.

16 NoamSane   ~  Nov 10, 2010 10:10 am

[13] You're probably right Raf, I guess I just don't read those folks, and when I'm listening to broadcasts, I usually try to filter out the old school BA/RBI talk. I just don't pay attention (as much as possible anyway). It's kind of like religion: I've got my beliefs and I respect others' beliefs as valuable to them. When they talk in their religious terms, I have a filter in my brain that attempts to morph what I hear into my terms, so it will make more sense to me. Neither of the two parties can be sure who's correct...

Which leads me to:
[15] Again I'm going to agree with William. Where is this objective reality of which we speak? Who has cornered the market on objectivity? Remember, scientists still call something that they feel is proven a *theory*. I feel that that shows proper humility in a seemingly infinitely complex universe.

17 Jay Jaffe   ~  Nov 10, 2010 11:10 am

[6] I don't purport to think that sabermetrics is equal to objective reality. What I meant pertained to the fact that Morgan couldn't even concede he was wrong about certain basic facts, starting with the one where Billy Beane DIDN'T write Moneyball.

18 RIYank   ~  Nov 10, 2010 11:11 am

If Morgan's reason for refusing to read a book were: he doesn't like statistics... that would be one thing. I think maybe you didn't look carefully at the context. The book he's talking about is Moneyball. He won't read it because it's a book about a computer, with computer numbers. On another occasion he said it was written by Billy Beane. In fact, on two occasions -- on the first occasion he was corrected, but then he said it again. This isn't a matter of not being interested in statistics. It's deliberate, willful ignorance.

I just cannot understand the attitude that's displayed by the question, "who has cornered the market on objective reality?" What is that even supposed to mean? I don't think I really have to explain to either of you (Noam, William) why it's important to look at quantified records and well-defined measures rather than just stick with "I know what my eyes tell me." Since I'm certain you don't mean that, I can't for the life of me figure out what you mean by asking about whether statistics are objective.
Also, I hope you understand that the fact that some large segment of the baseball pundit community pays no attention to, say, win shares, is not a good reason to think that by ignoring win shares they aren't ignoring a large segment of reality. That inference would just be absurd.

19 NoamSane   ~  Nov 10, 2010 11:13 am

As usual Joe Poz explains it as well as anyone.

Plus he gives me a strong example of (contraversion of) Objective Reality from (Fire) Joe Morgan:

“They (Red Sox) cannot beat them (Rays) by outscoring them.”

OK. I'll accept that reality

20 Jay Jaffe   ~  Nov 10, 2010 11:20 am

Furthermore, it's worth pointing out that as my Baseball Prospectus colleague Colin Wyers has gone to great lengths to show, UZR - to use an example cited above - is a particularly subjective model in terms of the ways that batted balls are classified. So much of sabermetrics is - we can use different formulas to obtain different estimates for different areas of the game, and the choice for the right tool may vary from person to person.

But to pick up on what I meant was that Morgan would attack more fundamentally proven facts about baseball, such as the one where high OBPs lead to higher run scoring. I don't expect him or any other announcer to cite correlation figures, but that understanding is pretty damn basic, and should be no more up for argument than the discussion of whether or not the earth is round.

21 williamnyy23   ~  Nov 10, 2010 11:32 am

[17] Again, why does that matter? And to whom would he need to make that concession anyway? Like so many others, Morgan confused the topic with the author. I just don't see why that is a crime. It's hardly compelling evidence that he rejects objective reality. In fact, I'd file that one under he who is without sin cast the first stone.

[18] You are referencing a 2005 article though. At the time, a lot of people thought what Morgan did. If he still insisted the same things today, he'd be delusional. Instead, it seems more like he was misinformed, which again, isn't a crime, especially on a subject that really wasn't pertinent to his job.

I am all for looking at "objective statistics", but that assumes the statistics are objective. Take WAR for example. There are two versions based on a different set of subjective criteria. Also included in both metrics are a series of components (fielding metrics, park factors, replacement value) that have subjective elements. In an ultimate case of irony, many defensive metrics are actually based on observed data. So, it comes down to a case of trusting your eyes or someone else's.

Finally, you said Morgan was ignoring a large segment of the baseball world, not reality. Win Shares may (or may not) constitute a large component of reality, but it is a very small part of the current baseball landscape.

Again, why does Joe Morgan have to know anything about Win Shares, WAR or any other subjective form of objective analysis? He shouldn't have to...at least not anymore than you or I should have to know what it's like to play the game at the major league level. Both perspectives are valid, but neither so infallible that they require that the other take notice. I prefer to be more well rounded, but don’t think everyone else must. Being narrow minded might make a person less interesting, but it hardly makes them a villain.

22 williamnyy23   ~  Nov 10, 2010 11:37 am

[20] I can't ever recall Morgan saying higher OBPs dont lead to more runs. What he may have said is that certain situations require a more aggressive approach. For example, with men in scoring position, it still might make more sense to take a walk, but Morgan would probably advocate going out of the zone to get those ribbies? Remember, however, Morgan was an immortal. From his perspective, no one else was more capable of knocking in those runs than he was. And you know what, most of the time, he would have been right. Like it or not, players do not enter the batter's box with a subjective approach. They have very real biases that impact their decision making. As an immortal, I think Morgan was solid in bringing that out. Would I have preferred he also have some understanding of more scientific concepts? Sure. But then again, I can handle myself. What I can provide, however, is insight into what goes into the thought process of a player, especially a great one, when the game is on the line. That's another side of the story worth telling.

23 chardsincharge   ~  Nov 10, 2010 11:37 am

I understand that many people will look fondly on Morgan's broadcasting career as a triumph of baseball legend and lore over the more bland quantitative analysis that is always taking over the world of baseball. But that would be completely ignoring the fact that Joe Morgan, judging from several pieces of evidence, is either a complete idiot or an unapologetic liar. Furthermore, listening to him stumble through, and occasionally vomit on, the English language is something I was never ok with. So no matter how many fond memories he may bring up during his idiotic diatribes, I know that the likelihood of it all being false is much higher than the ramblings of any other broadcaster I can think of. I am eternally grateful that he is no longer working.

24 NoamSane   ~  Nov 10, 2010 11:38 am

[17] I hear you Jay.
I still think Joe Morgan received more than his fair share of flak, but I know what you're saying.

[18] I don't fully agree that statistics are objective. I see your point, but disagree enough that I feel there is a substantive difference. I'm not a logician/philosopher enough to explain it succinctly. Sorry.

25 RIYank   ~  Nov 10, 2010 12:41 pm

I literally do not understand what is meant by calling some statistics "subjective". Is it like the way Errors are subjective -- that it's just one person's judgment of whether the play should have been made, and other equally competent observers would make a different judgment? I would more or less agree about stats like that. But what does that have to do with win shares?

[21] What Moneyball said wasn't pertinent to Joe Morgan's job?? It sure was. I don't follow you.

Finally, you said Morgan was ignoring a large segment of the baseball world, not reality.

No, I didn't. Are you confusing me with someone else?

Again, why does Joe Morgan have to know anything about Win Shares, WAR or any other subjective form of objective analysis? He shouldn’t have to…at least not anymore than you or I should have to know what it’s like to play the game at the major league level.

If someone's job is to understand and explain which players are better and which players are worse, which plays are better to call and which are worse, and so on, then the reason he should know about objective analysis (again, I have no idea what a "subjective form of objective analysis" is), is that these provide evidence the ignoring of which is practically guaranteed to result in bad answers to the question you're supposed to be answering.

Why should an investment banker pay any attention to quantitative analysis? Well, he will be very bad at his job if he doesn't. Is this because quantitative analysis is "infallible"? Of course not. So infallibility is a red herring.

26 Sports « 40ag dotcom   ~  Nov 10, 2010 12:52 pm

[...] “it so much fun to play the righteous underdog.” (How do you think we got Die Hard?) [Bronx Banter] [...]

27 Raf   ~  Nov 10, 2010 2:11 pm

I don't mind if people don't follow advanced metrics, what I mind are those who belittle my opinions because of those advanced metrics. Usually it's because they don't understand or can't be bothered to understand. Some are willing to learn, other's aren't.

28 williamnyy23   ~  Nov 10, 2010 2:28 pm

[25] Check out how Win Shares are calculated. There seem to be lots of subjective construction of the statistic. Many sabermetric measures rely on assumptions that are not "objective". I am not sure how else to explain it. One of my biggest concerns about sabermetrics is so many who cite the metrics really have little understanding of even the most basic underlying assumptions (and I am not implying you are in the category, but I believe many people are).

The subject of Moneyball was basically that the A's exploited market inefficiencies to level the playing field. That is a valuable lesson for anyone in a front office, but not really relevant for a color commentator describing what is happening on the field. I am pretty sure Joe Morgan understands the value of getting on base.

In [14] you wrote "Blocking off a large segment of the world ...", which I though was meant to describe Morgan. Sorry if I misunderstood.

We are going in circles here, so I am not sure how else to explain it, but knowing Win Shares doesn't make you objective. If Morgan believes sacrifice flies determine the best hitter, he's free to have that opinion, and you are free to disregard it. Just because he doesn't agree with your or my opinions doesn't make him willfully ignorant.

Finally, who said a color commentator's job is tell us who is a better player? I know I don't want them to do that. Strategy is definitely a part of the job, but so too is relaying what it is like to be on the field. Morgan was strong on the latter, and for that reason I could always tolerate his weaknesses. As for the comp to an investment bank, I really don't think that's the model a color man should be following. I read that quantitative analysis every day and would blow my brains out if baseball telecasts adopted the same tact.

I know I am probably coming off as a fan, but I am not. I am glad he was replaced. I do not, however, see a reason for all of the hatred expressed toward him.

29 williamnyy23   ~  Nov 10, 2010 2:30 pm

[27] Exactly...which makes the belittling of Morgan so unappealing.

30 Simone   ~  Nov 10, 2010 6:28 pm

I won't miss Morgan and his ego at all. I will miss Johnny Miller a little. However, as long as Buck is around (I can live with McCarver), the baseball and football announcing world will remain a hot mess.

31 gonzosox   ~  Nov 10, 2010 9:15 pm

At least for me, it wasn't that Joe didn't embrace anything beyond pitcher wins and RBI. That, for lack of a better word, is negligence. That's not reprehesible. Lamentable, maybe, but not worthy of scorn. Every once in a while, he even had interesting insights, borne of experience or the insight and access that his player credentials provided, so ignorance of UZR or just OPS could have been excused. Hell, there's something pathetically endearing about an announcer saying '“They (Red Sox) cannot beat them (Rays) by outscoring them.”

No, Joe was willfully ignorant, a living caricature of the sabr counter-revolution. He was an ostrich with his head in the sand from whose ass hung a neon 'kick me' sign. His open hostility, shown in the SF Weekly quote, is why FJM had to be.

McCarver may say 20 things 100 times more mind-bogglingly idiotic, but he doesn't flaunt it like Joe did.

All said, though, it's sad to see him go. He made one helluva Snidely Whiplash.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver