Though now known to few Americans, and virtually unknown among devotees of America's National Pastime, Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978) was a very influential critic in his day, helping to shape his own times and, as a result, our own attitude to our present situation and its antecedents. Because of his longstanding tenure (1962 until his death) as the art critic of the New Yorker, many people today have the mistaken impression that Rosenberg was, indeed, an art critic. I will here reveal the extent of that misapprehension and show that his primary concern was baseball; in the antediluvian era in which he existed—he was in his sixties when SABR was formed, and died around the same time Bill James was stapling together his first hand-typed and mimeographed Abstracts to mail out to a small coterie of aficionados—he had to conceal his baseball ruminations within an Aesopian language of art criticism. To make my point I will translate, for his intended audience, the central contentions of his 1975 essay, "Criticism and its Premises."
The essay consists of 7 Propositions, followed by some desultory responses to several "charges to the art critic" that resulted from a 1965 seminar at Penn State, and which should concern us, unless we are district attorneys, no more than any occurrence at that institution. From his responses to those charges, he derived Proposition 8, which we will consider. Note that all instances of the word "art" shall be corrected to the word "baseball," and other amendments shall be made to make the work accessible to the contemporary baseball critic. I will consider each proposition and follow with an exegesis utilizing Rosenberg's own analysis.
Proposition 1: Baseball in the 21st century is an activity within the politico-cultural drama of a world in the process of remaking itself.
What Rosenberg was discerning, through the fog of the 1970s, was the beginnings of a shift in Front Office thinking: "the application of craft skills" was giving way to "acts of the mind occurring at the very beginning" of roster construction. The age of the scout was being replaced by the age of the analyst. The "short-lived impulses" of the scout, and of the materials directed toward the scouting mentality (see the Yoenis Cespedes YouTube video for a very late example of this type), are being weeded out. Rosenberg here has not abandoned his customary dialectics, but we should note in passing the small but distinct influence of Braudel, Duby and the second generation of the longue dureé school on his analysis, which presaged an increasing attention to sequencing and a sharp turn away from small sample sizes, a new direction Rosenberg did not live long enough to fully exploit but which pointed the way for his analytical heirs.
Proposition 2: This politico-cultural drama has assumed global dimensions, and the GM works in an environment unbounded by time and place.
Ostensibly a response to the increased attention to international signings—at that time, due to resistance from the Japanese and Mexican League officials, primarily limited to the Caribbean, not inappropriately dubbed "The American Lake"—this proposition's anticipation of the effects of the computer on the scope and reach of contemporary front offices is breathtaking in its prescience.
Proposition 3: The weakening of traditional attitudes means that Front Office styles now originate in abstract ideas and movements.
The authority of "regional masterpieces," such as Cy Slapnicka, a legendary scout for the Indians for more than two decades, is replaced by analytical programs. The new regimes do not simply observe nature but subject nature to statistical analyses, though we should note, as Paul Valery warned, that the myths that derive from simple observation—the home run that travelled 600 miles for having been hit into a passing coal train, for example—can be replaced by ideologies equally subject to the petrification of repetition (assuming a constancy to BABIP across all contingencies, for instance, or attributing a hegemonic primacy to the mean at the expense of the outlier in projection systems).
Proposition 4: As change becomes the norm, innovation becomes the primary virtue in baseball management.
In other words, the search for the newest of untapped inefficiencies is paramount, and FO longevity depends on a successful conclusion to this search—though no sooner does the celebrated GM arrive at this point, than he must push off again as his competitors catch up.
Proposition 5: The break between the present and the past makes the future opaque and plunges baseball into a permanent state of uncertainty.
The difficulty of achieving and maintaining success gives rise to multiple, and indeed oppositional, schools of thought, with initial successes prompting a stampede of acolytes pursuing similar methodologies. But with many practioners come an array of differing talent and skill, and the inevitable difficulties that randomness presents the Front Office can result in a decline as precipitous as had been the ascent. An entire paradigm can be discredited and abandoned with alarming swiftness. Further examination of this point led Rosenberg to his final breakthough, the seminal Eisenreich Uncertainty Principle, which states, when applied to the player, that the more one understands the tendencies of the individual, the less certain we can be of their actual physical location, and the longer a hot or cold streak persists, the less understanding we have of the true characteristics of the individual in question. This Principle, applications of which were further developed by later theorists and extended to management practices, anticipates such divergent ideologies as the Beane Dilemma, the Zduriencik Flaw and the Yost Imperative.
Proposition 6: The vast seismic shifts have destroyed the stable social character of individuals and brought the problem of identity into prominence.
As always when attempting to perform under duress, humans have a tendency to 'snap,' and recent actions by Brian McCann and Jonathan Papelbon in resisting new attempts at the definition of proper play can best be viewed in the light of the systemic upheaval their world is undergoing. The recent rise of the Molitor Orthodoxy reveals a "top-down" approach to a resolution of these identity crises, but, like the earlier Gibson Corollary, the contradictions inherent in these corporatist strategies, which seek to interpose the language of heirarchy into individual expression, almost certainly doom them to failure.
Proposition 7: Ours is an epoch of excavations which keep emptying into contemporary baseball the tombs of all the ages of the game.
Here Rosenberg anticipates what has not yet come to pass: the poring over game logs and pitch data of long-dead civilizations, such as the Gas House Peoples of the Post-Depression Era of St. Louis, to influence new strategies. The resurrection in Cleveland over the past two years of the ancient Bunt Culture may be an early, and possibly premature, example of this phenomenon. And finally:
Proposition 8: The ubiquitous presence of the mass media introduces into baseball a reality the baseball critic must reckon with; to do so, the critic must clarify his position toward contemporary society.
By which Rosenberg is obviously saying: Do not read the comments on Cle.com.