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On baseball’s obsessive offseason stalking

This winter, baseball fans have become premier stalkers, and it’s more than a little disturbing — not to mention pointless.

Unites States Air Force Takes Part In Operation Point Blank From U.K. Base

Last winter, Aaron Judge played the media like a fiddle. Although always intent on returning to the Bronx and the only team he ever played for (so long as the money was right, of course), the superstar outfielder leaked a video of him arriving in San Francisco “just visiting some family and friends.” He journeyed to San Diego during the league’s winter meetings — without telling the Yankees that he would be in town, or even showing up at the meetings themselves. And, while we’ll never get confirmation that Judge’s own camp leaked the report to Jon Heyman that led to the infamous “Arson Judge” tweet, it would fit perfectly as part of a strategy to make the Yankees sweat and push Hal Steinbrenner to up the team’s offer.

Fresh off this experience and facing a winter dominated by a pair of high-profile free agents in Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, plus a superstar outfielder on the move named Juan Soto, baseball fans have unsurprisingly begun to closely analyze any bits of data to determine where the big stars are headed. They have monitored social media accounts, tracked international flights, and checked sushi reservations, eager to channel their inner Sherlock Holmes.

And in the process, the baseball fandom has looked like Officers Callahan and Powell — you know, the entire Hawkins police department in Stranger Things not named Jim Hopper, the ones who are completely oblivious that their small town was the center of the Cold War and the site where hell and the real world intersect.

Look, I get the desire to read the tea leaves. During the day, I am a graduate student, studying the Classics/ancient history: I make my living by finding and connecting dots that are remotely related and drawing conclusions from them, and I understand how exhilarating it feels to find something worthwhile.

But what has been happening these last few weeks has been nothing short of absolute lunacy that is equal parts stalkerish and unproductive. A couple weeks ago, the entire baseball world was up in arms, as one fan on Reddit noted that somebody had chartered a private plane from Southern California to Toronto, right as the Ohtani-to-Toronto rumors had been heating up. Hoping that the biggest free agent in baseball history was on that plane, Toronto fans — as well as many curious onlookers — tracked the plane as it flew across the continent ... only to discover that Ohtani was home with his dog, watching with amusement as the baseball world obsessed over a plane carrying businessman Canadian businessman Robert Herjavec and his family.

That same day, opera singer Clarence Frazer reported that Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi reserved an entire sushi restaurant for a party of 50 people ... only to find out the next day that Kikuchi did no such thing. He posted on Instagram, saying “I wanted to make it clear that I did not have a sushi party last Friday.”

Based on these two blatantly incorrect facts, baseball fans jumped to conclusions and assumed that Ohtani was the new ace/designated hitter for the Blue Jays.

Earlier this week, as news about Yamamoto turned to a trickle, the baseball Twitter community turned to the Japanese star’s Instagram page for clues. Fans noted that he follows Aaron Judge, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Mookie Betts, Bobby Miller, and Ohtani on the social media site. Clearly that means he’s signing with the Yankees — unless, of course, he’s signing with the Dodgers.

There are multiple problems with these lines of analysis. For starters, these are just highly unreliable sources. Last year’s video of Judge in San Francisco confirmed that he was in the city because, well, we had a video, Judge was in it, and there were identifying features of the San Francisco airport visible in the background. This year, all fans had was the existence of a private flight traveling from one of the largest metropolitan areas in North America ... to another massive metropolitan area, and they drew the conclusion that it had to be Ohtani just because he lived in the first metropolitan area.

Today, there’s a flight taking off from JFK headed to London. Clearly, that must mean Anthony Rizzo has abandoned his baseball career and decided to audition for the West End production of Jersey Boys. Obviously, I’m taking things a bit to an extreme here — a reductio ad absurdum — but honestly, you can make this information say anything. Restaurant reservations are even worse, because unless I need to include a credit card to hold the reservation, I can give any name I want. Unless you’re actually present in the restaurant, a name on a reservation isn’t enough.

In terms of academic integrity, the absolute worst offenders are those watching who these players are following on Instagram. Judge, Ohtani, Sabathia, and Betts are among the biggest names in the world — of course Yamamoto would be following them! Sure, Bobby Miller is a bit of an odd inclusion, but the baseball world is small; it’s entirely possible the two of them crossed paths at some point. We’ve trained ourselves into thinking that who a player follows on social media is a big deal after watching so many players wipe their pages clear to express discontent with their team, but who a player follows is his own personal business, not an announcement of intentions.

And that, in truth, is the biggest problem of all of this. Why are we tracking airplanes as they criss-cross the continent? Why are we following up on restaurant reservations? WHY HAVE WE DECIDED TO IGNORE PEOPLE’S RIGHT TO PRIVACY? Due to their status and fame, celebrities have a lesser expectation of privacy than the average person, and social media has eroded that even further. Nonetheless, we’re talking about baseball players here — why are we tracking them more intensely than the FBI tracks national security risks, or NORAD tracks Santa on Christmas Eve? Let people live their lives.

As I sit down and write this, a pair of items popped up on Twitter. First came the report that Ohtani and Yamamoto were attending the Rams game last night (before news broke of Yamamoto signing with LA).

A few minutes later, Jon Heyman threw water on that rumor.

Why is this news? What does it matter if he does or does not attend a football game with his fellow countryman, World Baseball Classic teammate, and someone who he will remain friends with whether he signed with the Dodgers or not?

It’s absolutely ridiculous.