Friday, May 08, 2009

On bloggers, sabermetricians and the history of rock

All right, so this is going to be an unusual post. A while ago, Bill Simmons dubbed Houston Rockets' GM Daryl Morey "Dork Elvis" for his following among MIT grad students and basketball fans of a statistical bent. It got me thinking about comparisons between the rise of sabermetrics and sports blogs and the rise of rock and roll, and led to a great Twitter conversation with MC Bias and Craig Barker, which in turn inspired me to turn the idea into a post. I've already psychoanalyzed the blogosphere, so now it's time to turn it into rock format. Now, obviously all blogs aren't sabermetric-based and not all sabermetricians work on blogs, but the common thread between the two is that they were both ideas traditionally overlooked by the mainstream media that rapidly became popular and (somewhat) adopted by the mainstream. Thus, I've tried to combine the two a bit. My comparisons are below. Of course they're not going to be perfect matches, but I thought it would be fun to try. They're intended as compliments (except for Mariotti), so hopefully no one's too offended by what I've come up with. Add your own in the comments!

Bill James as Big Joe Turner: James is obviously the key figure at the heart of inventing sabermetrics (and inventing the term). The problem is that early rock and roll had a huge number of key players who could easily fit this role, including Louis Jordan and Muddy Waters. I went with Turner as the James analogue primarily thanks to his 1939 recording of "Roll Em Pete," a very early track with a lot of rock elements, and his 1954 hit "Shake, Rattle and Roll," which became one of the key early songs and was famously covered by Bill Haley and the Comets. You could make arguments for any number of figures in this role, though.

Michael Lewis as Elvis Presley: In my mind, Lewis is far closer to Simmons' "Dork Elvis" label than anyone else. Presley was the first real rock and roll star to gain mainstream acceptance and did a huge amount to popularize the work of musicians such as Waters and Turner; Lewis brought sabermetrics to the mainstream with Moneyball, certainly one of the most influential sports books ever written. He isn't known for ties to the blogosphere, but many key blogs got their start thanks to Moneyball, seeking to bring that kind of approach to sports. Lewis then wrote The Blind Side, which offered a different take on football and brought Michael Oher to national prominence. Of course, he's also well-known for his financial books and pieces for Vanity Fair, and Elvis was the first rock star to make the crossover into films successfully, so they both have versatility in common as well.

Bill Simmons as The Beatles: Yes, Simmons is just one man and the Beatles were a group, but this comparision fits very well apart from that. The Beatles made rock into a widespread cultural phenomenon; Simmons provided a similar service for sports blogs, especially after his move to ESPN (similar to the Beatles' 1964 conquest of America). Both have been criticized for being too mainstream and derivative at times, but they've also both brought their own innovations to the world; the Beatles with such hits as "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and the "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album and Simmons with reader engagement, massive mailbags, the "Levels of Losing" column, the "Ewing Theory" and the "Mount Rushmore of Sports" among others. He's not really on the sabermetrics side, but his influence on blogging remains considerable. NO ONE DENIES THIS!

Will Leitch, A.J. Daulerio, Rick Chandler and the rest of the Deadspin cast as The Rolling Stones: This is one of the best fits in my mind. Leitch and the Deadspin crew made their impact after Simmons, but they've brought similar influence to the world of sports blogs from a very different direction. Like the Rolling Stones, they've generally brought a edgier take than the Beatles and Simmons but have found plenty of success in doing so. In another similar vein, they've at times clashed with Simmons but generally have a good relationship and appreciate each others' contributions.

The Kissing Suzy Kolber cast as The Who: Like The Who, KSK takes the rebellion of The Rolling Stones/Deadspin to a whole new level. For The Who, that resulted in smashing instruments on stage and destroying hotel rooms off it; with KSK, that results in posts about MayonnAIDS. The Who have settled down a bit with age, though, whereas KSK remains as outrageous as ever.

The Fire Joe Morgan cast as Jimi Hendrix: Much like Hendrix, FJM took a little while to take off but soon grew into one of the most important blogs around. Also like Hendrix, FJM brought plenty of new innovation to the old theme of criticizing announcers/media types and went out suddenly at the height of its popularity. They picked up the sabermetric legacy from James and Lewis and did a huge amount to popularize the movement.

The Baseball Prospectus cast as David Bowie: Bowie picked up the legacy of Elvis and the Beatles and ran in a very different direction with it than the majority of bands, producing material from a wide variety of genres in the process. Baseball Prospectus did the same thing in the blog world, going for the hardcore sabermetric approach but in a variety of styles. Both approaches only appeal to a certain segment of the populace, but have proven very influential and spawned tons of followers in the process.

SB Nation as Atlantic Records: Atlantic Records played a huge role in the rise of rock music, signing many of the top artists (such as Led Zeppelin, Cream, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and AC/DC) and giving them the marketing support to get to the top. They've become one of the biggest record labels in the world, but they started small, with only a few key artists such as John Coltrane and The Coasters. Similarly, SB Nation grew out of Athletics Nation, a key blog in terms of both sabermetrics and blogging innovation but with a limited focus. Now, they're one of the largest and most respected blogging collectives on the Internet and seem likely to continue that dominance for a while.

Joe Posnanski as Bob Dylan: Bob Dylan took rock to a new audience, followers of folk music, but he also brought folk influences to a rock audience in a way few others could match. Joe Posnanski is the perfect example of this cross-pollination; he brings a mix of mainstream media and blogging influences and appeals to both crowds in the process. He's also mixed sabermetrics and traditional analysis more effectively than almost anyone else and gained a huge following in the process. Moreover, Dylan had huge influence on future generations of songwriters, and Posnanski has tremendous influence on current aspiring writers. Both remain highly popular today, and deservingly so. I'm sure Posnanski would prefer to be Bruce Springsteen, but I think this one fits better.

J.E. Skeets as The Clash: There are a number of reasons for this one. First, innovation; both took elements of what had gone before but created something new in the particular way they melded them. Like Posnanski, Skeets melds some mainstream techniques with his blogging, but is far more on the edgy blogging side; similarly, The Clash took some mainstream elements from pop and rock but subverted them into a punk style. Both Skeets and The Clash have had incredible influence on those who have followed them, and both also enjoy a tremendous amount of mainstream acceptance.

Henry Abbott as The Beach Boys: Abbott reminds me of the Beach Boys because both found ways to innovate within previous forms. The Beach Boys were much closer to traditional pop in style than most of the other early rock groups, but still refined the genre and took it to unexpected places, gaining a legion of followers in the process. Similarly, Abbott's writing is closer to a traditional journalism form than most of the other blogs on this list, but he's still carrying out tons of innovation into what that can be and refining the medium in the process. The Beach Boys were hugely influential for both pop and rock acts; similarly, Abbott's work has inspired and informed the work of both mainstream journalists and bloggers.

Mike Florio as AC/DC: Both Florio and AC/DC do one thing and do it well. In Florio's case, that's consistent, detailed and opiniated coverage of the NFL. In AC/DC's case, that's churning out great riffs and a string of hard rock hits for years on end. Both have their detractors, but have found considerable success within their niche.

AOL FanHouse as Geffen Records: Both FanHouse and Geffen have collected tremendous amounts of talent over the years, Geffen with everyone from Aerosmith to Nirvana and FanHouse with everyone from Michael David Smith to Kevin Blackistone. Moreover, in both cases, some very talented artists/writers have gotten lost in the shuffle while the hype goes to the big names on their rosters. Both have additionally courted controversial talent, such as Guns N' Roses and The Game in the case of Geffen and Jay Mariotti in the case of FanHouse.

James Mirtle as Rush: There's more to this than just my considerable fandom for both. Rush took a specific area of music, progressive rock, and quickly made themselves into arguably the most successful band in that realm. Similarly, Mirtle took an underserved area of the blogosphere (hockey) and soon established himself as one of the foremost authorities on the subject, becoming SB Nation's chief hockey guru in the process. Much like Rush's style and genre doesn't appeal to everyone, Mirtle's chosen sport and often analytical style of writing also have their detractors. However, both have proven highly influential. Both also have longevity and consistency of output going for them; Rush have been together since 1974 and churning out material for most of that time, while Mirtle's been producing quality hockey coverage for years despite a demanding day job at The Globe and Mail. Both are also starting to gain mainstream recognition, but aren't quite at the top yet; Rush are huge internationally and are legendary in circles of musicians (particularly for drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, renowned amongst drummers around the world) but still haven't cracked the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whereas Mirtle's become a hockey authority internationally and has lately been given more prominent roles in the Globe's hockey coverage, but still gets lesser billing at the paper behind the likes of Eric Duhatschek and Allan Maki (both incredibly talented and respected writers in their own right, but far less well-known in the blogosphere and among American hockey fans). Also, Mirtle and Rush have lent their status to other sites, bands and shows; Mirtle as a co-founder of The CIS Blog (where I write) and the paper's CIS football guy, and Rush with Bob and Doug McKenzie, the Trailer Park Boys and The Big Dirty Band, among others. Finally, both are proudly Canadian and among the country's best in their field.

Duane Rollins as Guns N' Roses: Only parts of this one apply, as Duane hasn't hit many of the crazy points of Guns N' Roses so far. What made me think of this one was the meteoric rise to prominence; Duane's been well-known in Canadian soccer circles for a long time, but launched The 24th Minute (where I'm one of his co-writers) less than a year ago and it's quickly become one of the go-to sites for North American soccer fans. The feuds also come into it; just as there are tons of people out to get Guns N' Roses, there are plenty of those like Bill Archer who appear to bear considerable hatred for Duane. I think that's at least partly because Duane's a very opinionated type who isn't shy about saying what he thinks, much like Axl Rose (except without the crazy). Riots also happen around both, although I'd argue that those are Axl's fault and not Duane's. Finally, there's the brilliance. Even those who hate Guns N' Roses usually admit they've got plenty of talent (or at least did before Axl fired everyone); similarly, even Duane's detractors have to admire how he's turned himself into one of the most prominent soccer personalities in Canada (and in North America to an extent). Let's just hope he doesn't pull an Axl and fire me for this post!

Jay Mariotti as The Game: Yes, not rock and not really a blogger either, but both have become more notorious for their feuds than for their work, which makes this comparision fit in my mind. Plus, The Game's with Geffen and Mariotti's with FanHouse, so that matches my earlier analogue, and I'm not a fan of either.

Jason Davis as John Cougar Mellencamp: There's something quintessentially American about both of these guys. Mellencamp's songs such as "Jack and Diane", "Small Town" and "R.O.C.K. In The USA" really capture a certain side of the American experience, whereas Davis provides a great view of American soccer. Both are probably a little underrecognized for the successes they've had as well.

Neate Sager as The Tragically Hip: First and foremost, both have prominent Kingston ties. They also both have considerable national influence and have inspired and helped many younger Canadian artists and writers, including myself (in Neate's case). Their work isn't for everyone, but both bring considerable talent to the table and have received substantial acclaim for it.

The Rookies as Broken Social Scene: Both have huge rosters of talented artists and writers, many with their own side projects. Both have also been around for a relatively short time compared to many of the musicians and bloggers on this list, but have already accomplished a lot in that time frame. It will be interesting to see what the future has in store for both.

Andy Hutchins as Kevin Drew: This obviously makes sense considering their key roles in the founding of The Rookies and Broken Social Scene respectively, but the comparison's deeper than that as well. Both have a rather ecletic, independent approach to their art, and have found a lot of success with it. Again, both styles don't appeal to everyone, but they're appreciated by many and have done a lot, and both will likely remain influential in the coming future.

Obviously, this is a very incomplete listing and just my thoughts. Add your own analogies and thoughts on mine in the comments below!


  1. Anonymous6:38 PM

    The funny part is I've heard of every blogger on the list except Seger and every band except The Traigcally Hip.

  2. Anonymous8:53 AM

    When I start my blog, can I be Warrant? Awesome!

  3. I miss Fire Joe Morgan.

    Great post, Andrew.

  4. WOOO! I'm famous!

  5. Pretty dead-on comparisons, especially for The Rookies. I laughed when I read it. Nice job.

  6. Anonymous2:19 PM

    Now I have to figure out who Kevin Drew is.