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Pinstriped Bible Writer Search Cont'd: Sex with Camels

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Your cranky and ill host is still sorting submissions, so we pause for this ribald discussion of even-toed ungulates.

via Wikipedia Commons

Family-friendly warning: there is a cussword a few paragraphs down relating to the generational act. Proceed at your own risk.

Before getting into today's sermon, an update on the quest for new PB contributors: the response was good, so the reading has been slow. I've also been dealing with fun with doctors -- if you are a long-time reader of mine and/or end up working with me for any length of time, you will quickly learn that as a cancer survivor with a couple of other a la carte conditions that hinder me all too frequently, I am starting to challenge Bret Saberhagen for career days on the disabled list. Inexplicably, people still want to work with me. I guess they wanted to work with Saberhagen too.

Perhaps an infusion of "platelet-rich plasma" into my typing fingers might do as well for me as it did for Bartolo Colon, or seemed to do for him up until the point it was revealed that he was on children's Tylenol or whatever it was he got suspended for.

I don't keep up with all the fashionable player-drugs. I've got enough of my own, thanks.

I am going to get back to reading all of your entries, I promise, but before I do, a word or two about exposition. Exposition is background. It's the chewy factual stuff that you put in a column as the underpinning of whatever case you're making. (You are making a case, right? You are telling a story? You're not just a tourist, are you? As they used to say during the gas and tire-rationing days of World War II, is this trip really necessary?) In a book or a movie, it's the information that grounds the status quo of the story or supplies some basic facts that allow the story to go forward.

Exposition is a real challenge to get through for both the writer and the reader for several reasons, primary among them that it's often boring due to being overly dense. Humphrey Bogart famously said something like, "If I ever have to give exposition, I pray that in the back of the shot they have two camels fucking." In Bogart's "Casablanca," the exposition is all of that nonsense about General Weygand and the hidden letters of transit, and yes, it's tedious. There are no camels bonking, although Paul Henreid sort of looks like camel.

Exposition in a baseball story can be deadly. Although space on the internet is infinite, your story length isn't. Long-form stories seem to be in vogue now, but we can only test a reader's patience so much, particularly when we're not giving them story, humor, or analysis, but just recitation. By recitation I mean litany. Think Genesis:

And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth:

And the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters:

And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died.

And Seth lived an hundred and five years, and begat Enos:

And Seth lived after he begat Enos eight hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters:

And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years: and he died.

And Enos lived ninety years, and begat Cainan:

And Enos lived after he begat Cainan eight hundred and fifteen years, and begat sons and daughters:

And all the days of Enos were nine hundred and five years: and he died.

And Cainan lived seventy years, and begat Mahalaleel:

And Cainan lived after he begat Mahalaleel eight hundred and forty years, and begat sons and daughters:

And all the days of Cainan were nine hundred and ten years: and he died.

Onward it goes, up through Shem, Ham, Japheth, George Washington, Aimee Semple McPherson, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Marx Brothers, and Noel Coward. It's interesting, I suppose, but one does get the point after the first few begats. As baseball analysts, we tend to do this with statistics, for example over-explaining:

Last season, Jerollo Andujar played well (.280/.335/.429) though not as well as he had the year before (.301/.365/.445 with 12 home runs, one hit by pitch, and a Monte Christo sandwich), and certainly not as well as Bobby Stockman (.323/.380/.501, but only .221/.290/.301 against left-handers on Tuesdays).

As Mark Twain wrote, one of the writer's jobs is to "eschew surplusage." The interpolated stats serve as speed-bumps and potholes, slowing the reader, and only some of them, if any, may be necessary. Specifically, only the information germane to your argument needs to be present in your story. You see similarly bumpy roads in, say, a piece that is about Ozzie Smith, but not necessarily about the six-player trade that sent him from the Padres to the Cardinals in 1981, yet nevertheless pauses to list all six players.

There is something about the analytical baseball mindset that seems to require that one has to show all of his or her work, sometimes without discrimination, but there is a thin line between educating the public and pedantry. The line between pedantry and just being a bore is even thinner. There are some basic things that we can just stipulate as true, and if the supporting fact is not illustrative from a storytelling point of view, leave it out. The great thing about the writing on the Internet is that Mike Trout's triple-slash line is always a link away; we don't have to include it if we don't need to. More importantly, if you don't, you have let some air into the piece, allowed room for dissent, even if that dissent is easily met with a recourse to the facts.

As writers, our mission is to educate and entertain. We make a mistake if we overvalue one at the expense of the other. We are storytellers, not priests of an arcane religion that must pontificate to the cowed masses. We serve the story first, the church of being know-it-alls second -- or not at all.

As a corollary to this rule of priorities, I would suggest that there are times we need to give our audience more credit than we do. When I started, back before man discovered fire, there were still many baseball fans that had not heard of Bill James, sabermetrics, wins above peanut butter, and so on, and so it was necessary to state first principles again and again. Then came Moneyball. Suddenly the concepts we work with began to achieve mainstream penetration. Today's most boneheaded baseball reader comes equipped with a more advanced knowledge of the game than most general managers had just 20 years ago; we may need to hit them over the head less often with the story of pitcher wins and RBI. This too can save space and keep your story moving.

(In this particular instance, I may be conjuring a straw man; it is my sense that this is still happening, but I haven't taken the time to document it. This is what the old Village Voice record reviewer Robert Christgau called "distinctions not cost-effective," which I always took to mean, "There might be something here or there might not, but it's not worth my time to try to figure it out." Digression necessitated by thinking of Christgau: I never cease to admire the way he managed to transmogrify George Harrison's 1974 album "Dark Horse" into "Hoarse Dork" as a description of the singer.)

This is all a very long-winded way of saying "Don't be boring -- and lists are boring. Time is fleeting and attention ebbs quickly, so avoid unnecessary interruptions and get to the point. This is, more than anything a matter of choosing what information you need to include and retaining only that which is most essential." In short, holding the reader's attention is not a matter of brevity, but of economy. A piece can be long and still have economy. The converse is also true: a piece can be short and yet still be riddled with fat.

Thus endeth today's cranky sermon inspired by too many years of reading baseball commentary that too often lapsed into a dirge-like recapitulation of things we already knew or didn't need to know at that particular moment, pieces which left me crying out, from the deepest, most vulnerable part of my soul, please, oh, please -- send in the camels!