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.