Sunday, May 20, 2007

Poetry and Sport: David Bottoms' "Sign for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt"

You can hear Bottoms reading his poem here, and can read the poem here.

David Bottoms' poem "Sign for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt" is very good, and very simple: the father tries to teach his kid to sacrifice bunt, but the child just wants to hit dingers, and it is only later in life he learns the meaning of the bunt (and you can take the symbolic meaning from there).

Interesting, though, is that many stat people now say that bunts are bad for business. From Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin, "conventional sabermetric wisdom says that the sacrifice bunt is generally an ineffective and archaic strategy. (...) The sacrifice bunt appears to be a strategy eschewed by sabermetric teams." From Levitt, "Baseball analysts have been near universal in their condemnation of the overuse of the sacrifice bunt. While acknowledging it as the correct strategy in a small number of cases, most feel that any gain in moving players around the bases is more than offset by giving up an out, the 'clock' in baseball. Much of this disparagement of the sacrifice bunt derives from analysis based on expected runs tables (ERT)."

I don't follow baseball or sabermetrics enough to argue about whether bunting is good or bad; the point is that many statisticians now believe that bunting is not beneficial to a team.

With this knowledge, do we have to re-read Bottoms' poem? Was the kid right to want to try and get hits rather than work on his bunting technique? Did the father have flawed values, a distorted worldview, a faulty ethos? Was the child right to resist, and is it somehow tragic that the child eventually caved to and inherited his father's self-sacrificing, hard-working worldview?

Clearly Bottoms means it to be a good thing that the child grew to be a man and recognized the role of self-sacrifice in life; it is a good sign that he gives to his father, letting him know that he is no longer so selfish. However, armed with our new information--or our new ideas--about bunting, might we challenge the point? Or should we bother (the point, after all, isn't really about baseball, but about life)?

It's a question I've asked about literature before: do new scientific ideas or mathematical discoveries require a re-reading of classic works of literature? But the point is, new knowledge and new ideas always demand re-interpretations of old ideas and old works. So too in sports, and so too in poetry about sports.


  1. Moneyball is an exellent book that looks at the A's who employ sabermetrics in evaluating players and game stratagies.

    My understanding is that sabermetrics is successful over a long period of time (the entire season, multiple season) as evidenced by the A's constant playoff appereances despite a small market payroll. But sabermetrics is far less instructive in the short play-off series, evidenced by the A's always getting bounced early.

    I've always prefered the football-is-life analogy myself.

  2. Phil is sort of right, but playoff success is largely a crap-shoot, especially in the first round where the series are only best-of-five. To blame the As lack of post-season success on an organizational philosophy doesn't really hold up.

    The As beat the Twins in the first round of last season's playoffs, and the Twins have a vastly different view of baseball as an oganization. Is this evidence of a superior organization approach, or just too small a sample to make any conclusions, other than that the As played better that particular week?

  3. Poetry and Sport is not really a common thing to see every day, but in this case those subjects joins pretty good in my opinion!

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