Someday – and I’m not sure when, but some vague future date, probably after man goes to Mars but before an asteroid destroys the earth – someone will arbitrarily assign at date of birth to the Internet, and bored school children will have to memorize that date like they now memorize 1454 as the date of the Gutenberg printing press. They will have to explain on tests how the Internet changed society after that date – nineteen-ninety-something feels about right – and how it made every nugget of information widely available for the consumption of all. They will have to explain how news from all over the earth, and not just the news from one’s hometown or country, became instantaneously accessible, how the entire human library of music, movies, television, books, pornography, lolcats, that-person-you-have-a-crush-on-but-are-too-scared-to-talk-to’s Facebook page, and baseball statistics became available via the Internet, and the bored children will have to go on to explain how much more informed humans became because of it all. Or something like that.
But as witnesses and beneficiaries to the birth of the Internet, we are also around see the things it eats up into itself. There are the obvious examples: newspapers, record labels. Books maybe. Supposedly the movies studios are next, once bandwidth expands to the point where downloading pirated movies becomes effortless. Not that any of this is a new phenomena, of course. I assume the printing press left all those monks sitting around drawing the first letter of a chapter jobless. Oh, hey, Brother Paul? This first page needs a big letter “O” with green ivy growing off it, red dragons, and, say, a white horse. And Brother John, this “L” needs another mythical animal somewhere. I don’t know, just make one up. Throw some wings and a horn on something. Those monks had to find other things to do when books stopped being written by hand, like hanging out in the Sherwood Forest or breeding pea plants. The same goes for newspapers, record labels, all those things. Those are the giants that are being felled. It’s a noisy thundering crash that’s impossible not to notice.
But then besides the big, noisy things that fall, there are also the hidden dodo birds quietly being driven to extinction alongside them. People who hand out pamphlets, for example. If someone desperately wants to explain why Prince Charles is the Antichrist – it both fascinates and terrifies me how many people seem to believe this – that person used to hand out folded pieces of paper to uninterested-but-soon-to-be-amused strangers coming off the subway. Ten years ago, I remember there always being some quasi-religious organization distributing pamphlets outside of Shea Stadium. I haven’t seen them in a long time, and I don’t think I ever will again. They’ve vanishing into the recesses of the Internet – partially because the anonymity of the Internet has made it easier to say crazy things into the void, but also because it has made it easier to look information up. You can’t feed people the same superstitions and appeals to authority anymore. It’s become effortless to just look on Wikipedia. Did Ty Cobb really kill someone? Probably not. The truth has always been out there, but it’s just easier to find now.
So, just like people that hand out pamphlets, there will one day be no more baseball players like Jeff Francoeur. The players who wow hat-and-cigar scouts with their arm strength and their ability to hit home runs a country mile but just don’t get on base enough – they’re on their way out. Not yet, not as long as there are Ed Wade’s and Dayton Moore’s and Omar Minaya’s to offer them jobs. But someday, all the old-school baseball men will be gobbled up by new school baseball men who take advantage of the internet-driven sabermetric revolution, and the Jeff Francoeur’s of the world will disappear with them. Today’s traditional general managers can still point to Francoeur driving in 103 runs in 2006 and claim he was good, but any fourteen-year-old kid with a computer can point to Frenchy’s .293 on-base percentage that same year and claim he was bad. And the fourteen-year-old kid is right, and he’s going to be a GM one day. The teams that buy into this statistical nonsense have an advantage over the teams that don’t. The Red Sox have had it figured out for a while, and the Yankees appear to have just gotten it. The Royals continue to trust the process. So while we’re obviously not there yet, someday every team will buy into it, and then the advantage will swing back to clubs with better scouting. There’s always going to be a place for the hat-and-cigar scouts. They’ll survive. But maybe not the players who swing a little too freely.
So I find something both charming and sad about Jeff Francoeur. His story hasn’t gone the way it’s supposed to. He was supposed to be the hometown superstar, the Braves’ answer to Wright and Reyes. But, as you may have heard, things just sort of fell apart for him in Atlanta, to the point where he was finally and mercifully traded to the Mets, one of the last safe havens for both low-OBP guys and creaky veterans alike. Imagine if things had gone so poorly for David Wright that the Mets finally gave up and flipped him for Jorge Cantu last year. That’s the Jeff Francoeur story.
Only now in the big city, Francoeur is suddenly back to being the media darling. He is absolutely beloved by the New York press. They are completely fascinated with him, as if they’ve never seen anything like Jeff Francoeur before. There is an unassuming charm to him – his at-bat music is country music, which . . . well no one does that in New York City. No other Met from the South or the heartland uses country music. I don’t think there is even a country radio station in this area, so it can be a little jarring when he comes to the plate, but it works for him. It fits. Francoeur seems to have the same kind of draw as Dizzy Dean, a bubbling optimist who can go on and on with his anecdotes, batting tips, and just being affable. He’s willing and ready to talk to anyone and has consequently emerged as the go-to quote machine for beat reporters. It’s an odd scenario, where the workers in a dying media are enamored with a player of a dying breed. One day, they’ll both be replaced by something else.
But Francoeur is fascinating to me, too, and I write here, making me part of the Internet that’s killing all these things. My sabermetric side says he’s not a star, but – I don’t know, I still like him. I suspect reporters and fans are drawn to Francoeur because he personifies that mythical part of the country that seems to be dying out, like pamphleteers and mom-and-pop music stores. The part of America the Internet hasn’t reached yet – where people live in the same town their whole life and marry their high school sweetheart. Something out of a John Mellencamp song. Where people still read newspapers while eating their meals in the window of foggy diners and follow high school football religiously. I don’t know if there are any places still left like that – or if there ever really were any places like that – but I like to imagine that there are, and I like to imagine that they’re full of people like Jeff Francoeur. People who smile a lot and wave to everyone, even the folks they don’t know. Where all playing baseball means is seeing the ball, hitting the ball, throwing the ball, spitting sunflower seeds
, and having fun.
I find it sad because I know one day the free-swingers like Francoeur will be gone, and one day every part of America will read the same websites I read and will get their news the same way I do, and will probably think just like me, or I’ll think just like them, or we’ll all think just like each other. Newspapers, music stores, crazy people with pamphlets, players who regard accepting a free pass as nothing more than a draw – they’re all victims of the information age, and one day they’ll be gone like the monks drawing elaborate letters. It’s so easy to get the correct information from somewhere else now, usually for free. It’s too easy to see why Jeff Francoeur is not the answer to the Mets problems, and why he’s probably going to fall apart again. All you need is a computer and to know what BABIP stands for.
It’s probably for the best – no one wants to go back to handwritten books, CDs were too expensive, and teams that ignore the numbers trade for Gary Matthews Jr. Only there’s something almost heroic about Jeff Francoeur. He’s playing baseball as hard as he can, even if he can’t quite figure out why that’s not enough at the Major League level. That same stubbornness that is his undoing also makes it impossible to doubt his effort. I love to watch him try to throw out slow-footed pitchers at first on hard grounders to right field – you know, just because he can. I know it’s a bad play, and he’s probably going to overthrow the base and let the runner advance to second. I kind of want to see him try anyway. I’ll miss newspapers, books, people who don’t believe in dinosaurs, and players like Jeff Francoeur when the internet finally kills them all off. I really will.