June 10, 2019

THE PURITAN GAME:

Infinite Baseball review (Nathan Washatka - June 10, 2019, Front Porch Republic)

For Noë, the self-reflective nature of the game is brought out most clearly in the act of scorekeeping, whereby a scorekeeper must make judgements about, for example, what counts as a hit (versus an error) or a wild pitch (versus a passed ball). These are questions that can only be answered within the context of the game of baseball. In order to make those decisions, we must think carefully about what a hit is, or what an error is. Such decisions require judgement.

Consider the strike zone. Noë makes a fascinating argument about role of umpires, particularly when it comes to judging balls and strikes. The strike zone, he says, is not so much a three-dimensional space as it is a "zone of responsibility." A "strike" is a pitch that the hitter should be able to hit, so we can therefore fault him for not hitting it. A "ball" is a pitch that he should not reasonably be expected to hit, so we therefore don't fault him for not hitting it. That an umpire must render judgement for every pitch--and that players, managers, and fans often argue about those decisions--is appropriate for a sport that invites self-scrutiny.

Scorekeeping--the thing that I and my teammates did all those years ago--is fundamentally an act of assigning blame (a "forensic activity") for what happens on the field. The scorecard itself captures an interpretation of what has happened. "Baseball is about what people do, about what they accomplish in the social setting of the game," Noë writes. Determining what players have done--committed an error, failed to swing at a strike--is something that requires human judgement about questions of intent and effort, no different than how a judge or jury must decide whether a victim's death was murder or manslaughter or something accidental.

Noë is quick to point out that baseball is not alone in raising questions about itself and interpreting human intent. Other sports offer a similar opportunity for self-reflection, as do many or even most complex activities--activities that Noë has elsewhere described as "organized activities."

"It is the hallmark of all characteristically human activities--language, the law, other sports--that they are, in the sense I am trying to understand, baseball-like," Noë writes.

If baseball is unique, it's because the game makes explicit this loop of practice and interpretation through the act of scorekeeping. It formalizes the process of thinking about and commenting upon the game, which in turn affects the way the game is played. Keeping score is important work. It is a "knowledge-making activity," and one that every baseball fan, in theory, participates in.

Making judgements, interpreting actions--these are skills that require attention, knowledge, and a familiarity with the larger practice in which they take place. In other words, they require work. And they are not--I repeat, not--something that can be automated, nor should we want them to be. Looking outward to other "baseball-like" activities, Noë observes, "It would be a dark consequence of life in the digital age if we forgot that keeping score is more than keeping track, and that each of us has the power to keep score."

Posted by at June 10, 2019 12:00 AM

  

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