A Dead End Lane

Τhere is a “dead end” sign where I don’t remember there being one before. The road just ended. In practice, that is. Officially, the dead end is where the maintained road turns into a long-since overgrown class-4 road still drawn old maps.

Returning to the rural hilltop where I grew up always makes me think. The sodden smell of decaying leaves is comforting, even when accompanied by the dull whine and sharp bite of hundreds of insects. But for all the familiarity of the dirt roads turned into tunnels by fifty shades of green, there are subtle changes. There are more signs, for one thing. The roads have names and the turnaround for the school bus is labelled with a warning to anyone who would think to park there. There are also more houses. Big houses, brought visibly close to the road, in place of the small, frequently ramshackle habitats sitting in clearings carved from the forest.

Below the hills, other parts of town are the same way. The elementary school is still there, its doors open with just under fifty students, but so is the old general store building that has simply decayed since it was shuttered close to twenty years ago. The radar traps are new, flashing a warning to drivers who ignore the speed limit through a village that seems more than a little irritated at being ignored, but unable to do much about it.

People ask me about where I come from whenever I return from these trips. Vermont is a curiosity to them, an edenic wilderness that defies the modern world or a bastion of progressive politics epitomized by a frazzled-looking white man with a thick Brooklyn accent. (When Sanders first moved to Vermont in the 1960s it was to Stannard, a nearby town where several of my high school friends lived.) It is, after all, the birthplace of Phish and home to Bread and Puppet.

Vermont has certainly earned these reputation in recent decades, with a left-leaning congressional delegation and the early recognition of homosexual partnerships. My general read on these things is that politics in Vermont that there is a strong libertarian streak and that the intimate nature of politics in such a small state helped get the delegation repeatedly re-elected more so than their voting record, with the state historically having been a bastion of Republican politics. (Between Civil War and 1988, Vermont’s electoral votes went to a Democrat once, in 1964.) Its reputation, moreover, ignores the virulent backlash against the civil union law that went into effect in 2000, the so-called “Take Back Vermont” movement—not to mention an ugly history of bigotry that includes a small but virulent anti-Catholic strain of the KKK in the 1920s. More recently, when students proposed that Vermont adopt a Latin motto there was outcry from people who believed that “Latin” meant “Latin American”. Their mistake speaks volumes both about the makeup of the population and some of the limits to the education system, despite generally positive rankings.

These are young forests. The foundations of farmhouses and lines of stone walls are common sights when walking in the woods, serving as a reminder that the state was largely deforested in the 1800s. In some ways things haven’t changed much. From the right vantage point, the granite quarries still stick out as scars against the wooded hills and agriculture remains a significant part of the economy, even as forests have reclaimed the fields.

In truth, these things work hand in hand. Vermont’s isolation and economic challenges, particularly in the corner where I grew up, lead to poverty, but also make it an attractive destination for artists and back-to-the-earth types. The result is a population that is in flux, with a percentage of the population having been born in-state below the national average.

I haven’t lived in Vermont for more than a few months in a year since starting college in 2004 and haven’t lived there at all in a decade. I can’t remember the last time I talked to an elementary school classmate, but receive periodic updates. Some are doing well, but I more frequently hear about the ones who have struggled with drugs and the law. One died earlier this year. (I do better with people who weren’t in my specific class, as well as people from high school.) Time passes, places and people change as variations on a theme. I would like to move back to Vermont, should the opportunity present itself, but that seems like a remote possibility right now. At the same time, growing up in a rural town that had its largest population in the 1840 census informs what I do as a historian and teacher.

Writing this from my couch in Columbia, Missouri, I fear that I lost my thread. I wrote the opening sentences of this post on my phone from that wooded hilltop where I had no cell reception. All I had were a few lines, a couple of observations about the dead-end dirt road I grew up on, then and now, and a sense of omen that I couldn’t quite put my finger on about a sign. I still don’t know the conclusion, except that a launch pad is a dead end of another form.

Tradition

I am in many ways a throwback. Some of the historical questions that interest me haven’t been reviewed in decades. I prefer to walk, my cellphone does not have a data package. I have neither a television nor a microwave. I read books in physical form, printouts of articles, take notes by hand and do a lot of my writing with pen and paper, including this post. Each of these is part of my personality, but none is haphazardly chosen. If there is a cheaper, more efficient, or more beneficial way to accomplish my goals, then I am amenable to change. Being an anachronism is not incompatible with being open to change and being open to change does not mean embracing change for the sake of change. At some point there does need to be a limit, but one should not be so intractable that change is opposed for its own sake. The corollary to my demotivational shirt “Tradition” [1] could read Change: if it worked, why did you try to fix it? The key here is that while changing something that works is a good way to make it cease working, refusing to change something because of your tradition is a good way to be relegated to irrelevance.

With such an introduction, I could easy be talking about academia, but I am actually talking about baseball. I love baseball and have for two decades or more, whether playing or watching or just keeping tabs on what goes on. For most of that time I have been a fan of the Minnesota Twins and I certainly enjoyed the run of success the team had for a good part of the last decade. But the Twins have been awful–I mean, one of the worst handful of teams awful–for the past three years. There are some good players in the minor league system, but not enough (or at the right positions) to make up for the glaring weaknesses on the major league roster. The worst part of this situation is that the Twins refuse to adjust or make changes. Not change for the sake of change or even radical changes like firing a coach before his contract is up, but little things like platooning players [2] or not renewing the contract of a manager who has not been able to maximize what is an admittedly bad roster for three years running. Drafting well and a good defensive team with an elite pitcher covered up some of the weaknesses in team philosophy for some time, but the current roster cannot do that, so to hear the manager and the front office bluntly declare that platooning players is not something they would even consider doing is infuriating. I suspect that they believe in being loyal to “their guys” and that sitting someone too often could destroy their confidence, or something like that, but it comes across as a lack of concern for winning–or even putting players in a position to succeed.

Beyond winning and losing, the thing that frustrates me most about baseball is just how anecdotal and conservative it is, particularly in large swathes of the media and on the field. I do not claim to be on the cutting edge of baseball knowledge or even to know what statistics go into the calculation of WAR [3] or what all of the other statistics mean, but I was easily reconciled to the idea that OBP [4] is the most important offensive statistic, while RBIs [5] are a statistic almost exclusively dependent on the ability of teammates to get on base ahead of the batter and the Triple Crown, while rare and a nice story, is a comparative achievement rather than a statement about how well a player performed that year. [6]

Run scoring and run prevention are the keys to baseball, after all, the team with the most runs at the end of the game wins, but while all teams agree on this premise, some deny the component parts of run scoring and run prevention. What is frustrating is watching your team fall so far behind the curve that it makes you question in what scenario they would consider change. What they are doing is stupid. It is incredibly stupid and the change they are refusing to make is not for the sake of change. It is for the sake of winning. A maximized lineup would not have made the Twins a team with a winning record this year, but it might have eked out seven wins, which would have meant that the Twins avoided the third straight 90 loss season. It is one thing if, like the Astros, you tear down the team to start over with the draft. The Astros do not have the talent to compete, though they are considered one of the more progressive teams with their current management. That is one thing, it is another if you stink and refuse to change, the situation the Twins seem to be in.

As an afterthought, baseball, just like all professional sports, is a business. We like to talk about sports as though it is a pastime, rooting for our teams, purchasing their gear, and getting lost in the excitement of the spectacle, but it is still a legal monopoly. It is slow to change as the owners seek to maximize their control and their profits and the players seek every edge both to win and to be rewarded with ever larger contracts. This is the cynical angle, but it is there. What keeps the passion alive and the illusion that the fans and the team are in it together intact is the unified desire to win. There is a constructed connection where if the team seems to be trying–even if the team is bad–then the fans can be there for the team. As a result, the owners can profit. The cycle the Twins are in right now comes across as a greater betrayal because it reads like they are refusing to even try.


[1] Given to me by my father, it reads “Just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.”

[2] Playing batters who hit left-handed pitching well in against left-handed pitchers while sitting batters who struggle to hit left-handed pitching, and vice-versa.

[3] Wins above replacement–a measure of roughly how well a player performs in all aspects of the game (batting/fielding/baserunning for position players, pitching/fielding for pitchers) against a baseline “replacement player. No statistic is perfect, particularly when it comes to defense, and some facets of the game are not or are not yet quantifiable, but allows for a relative gauge to easy see how players are doing relative to each other.

[4] On base percentage — how often a player gets on base or, negatively, how infrequently he makes an out. In baseball there is, fundamentally, one finite quantity from which all others derive. Each team gets twenty seven outs in a regulation game, in three out segments. Sure, there are other measurements and finite quantities (e.g. three strikes and you’re out), but it all comes back to the outs. A high OBP minimizes the number of outs created by that player and therefore a high OBP team is able to maximize opportunity to score.

[5] Runs batted in– “run producers” are those batters who are supposedly better at causing runs to score. They are only able to drive themselves in with a home run, though, and the rest of the runs scored are by the men on base ahead of them. The issue here is that most of the RBIs are a feature of opportunity, rather than a preternatural ability of batters to create runs. Runs are important, but the RBI statistic glosses over how the runs are actually created.

[6] Note that Miguel Cabrera had better hitting seasons to either side of his actual triple crown (AVG – HR – RBI) victory.