On Infinite Baseball: An Interview with Alva Noë




Alva Noë is a lifelong Mets fan who grew up in New York City in the 1970s. He is also a Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley who has published influential books on the nature of human action and experience. With his most recent volume, Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark, Noë joins the distinguished line of American philosophers who have embraced the national pastime.

Many of the essays in this diverse collection draw on Noë’s columns from the NPR website, 13.7 Cosmos and Culture, now sadly defunct. A longer opening essay frames recurring themes: baseball as a juridical sport, the questionable urge to reduce it to a game of numbers, and the puzzles raised by performance-enhancing drugs. But the book ranges widely, from joint attention to the magic of the knuckleball, from instant replay to Beep Baseball for the vision impaired 

The essays are short, sharp, and attractively written, colloquial but profound. You can read them in the breaks between innings of a baseball game and pretend that you are watching it with Noë. As he writes in a piece about baseball and language, “the thing baseball folks do more than anything else, even during a game, is talk about baseball.”

I talked to Noë before Opening Day.

KIERAN SETIYA: Your parents were not baseball fans. How did you fall in love with the Mets?

ALVA NOË: I grew up in Greenwich Village. My parents were “alternative,” you could say. They were artists and most of the people in our lives were artists — potters, painters, musicians, etc. This wasn’t a sports or fan culture, and professional baseball, professional sports in general, was something sort of beyond the horizon; it showed up mostly by way of transistor radio as a kind of window onto the straight world. My dad was also an immigrant, a Holocaust survivor who’d arrived from Eastern Europe at the war’s end. So I think at least part of baseball’s appeal for me, and for my brother, must have been that it was so very normal, so much a part of a larger culture that felt both strange but also comforting. Safety and comfort were a factor for me — as a child, I would listen to games at night under the covers. I associate that with security and pleasure. At the same time, I guess I’ve also felt that I needed somehow to serve a bit as an ambassador from baseball, or maybe from the wider culture, to my family. Why do I love baseball? What is it I love? How can I make sense of this to people for whom baseball is, well, unimportant? In a way, that’s what this book is about. 

As for the Mets, well, it was over-determined that I became a Mets fan back in the early 70s. The Mets were actually the better New York team back then. They’d won the World Series in ‘69. I was too young to be aware of that — but I vividly remember watching Tom Seaver and Tug McGraw lead the Mets to the Pennant in 1973. They weren’t just better than the Yankees, they had the better story, or at least the story that made sense to me. The Mets were pretty good, but they were always the outsiders and the underdogs. They were the team for city kids, for Jews and Puerto Ricans. To me, they represented aspiration rather than entitlement and establishment, as with the Yankees. The Mets were summer barbecues in the park; the Yankees were upstate, White, and Republican. I’m not saying it’s true, but that’s how it felt. I could no more support the Yankees than I could support Richard Nixon. And although my parents were not baseball fans, they were enthusiastic opponents of Nixon. So there is a sense then in which the Mets were the closest I could get to an embrace of a kind of Americana.

Of course, it’s important that I didn’t consciously choose to be a Mets fan. That’s not really the kind of thing you choose. Just as you don’t choose to be born here or there. But there’s not choosing and not choosing. I think there is a way in which you do choose what team to love.

Here’s a comparison: Why does anyone have a New York accent? Why are there even accents? You might say that people simply grow up speaking the language of those around them. This is obviously true to a degree. You don’t grow up in New York speaking Cockney English. And yet, crucially, there is variety to the ways people talk and not everyone ends up talking just like those they grew up learning to talk with. I suspect that finally the only way to explain this is to recognize that there is a sense in which we do choose how we talk. Not quite explicitly, to be sure. But we find ourselves talking, roughly, the way we think ‘people like us’ are supposed to talk. New Yorkers as a group tend to talk the way they think they are supposed to talk. And I suspect this is true for other categories of identity.

In particular, I suspect it is true of being a fan. I didn’t choose to be a Mets fan, nor is it something I inherited like a nationality. But I think at some level I chose to be the kind of New Yorker who would be a Mets fan, and my parents did in some ways raise me to be that kind of person.

That comparison speaks to me! I lived in England until my early 20s and first encountered baseball – at a Mets game – during graduate school. But I love it now in a way I’ve never loved another sport. As it happens, I’ve also acquired what I like to describe as a “trans-Atlantic” accent. I sound dubiously American to British friends.

This leads me to a question about being a fan. At the beginning of your book, you cite a puzzle from one of Plato’s dialogues: are things good because we love them or do we love them because they are good? You argue that we don’t love baseball because it is special; it is special because we love it; and we love it because we grew up with it. It’s an endearingly unsentimental view, especially coming from the author of Infinite Baseball. But it made me wonder what you think of fans like me, who didn’t grow up with the sport. I don’t think baseball is objectively better than other games, but I do think it is objectively special. Am I wrong about that?

You are right. Baseball is objectively special, but not objectively better. For me this is like Tolstoy’s thought about unhappy families, that they’re all unhappy in their own way. Well, baseball is special, but so is American football, and so is soccer. But they’re all special in their own way. The point generalizes. For instance, there is something special about languages. French, German, Yiddish, but also Classical Chinese or Hausa. These are special languages. Not more special. And certainly not better. But special, yes. Objectively so.

There is a joke in Wittgenstein somewhere about a French General who marvels at the fact that in French, alone among all the languages, there is a perfect correspondence between the structure of the sentence and the structure of the underlying thought. The general is the butt of the joke. Wittgenstein’s point is that there is no external standpoint from which we can say that one language rather than another is better at expressing thought. But notice this leaves open that there is an internal standpoint from which it can feel mandatory to say just that. For someone inside a language, language fits meaning like a well-worn glove. If you are French, it seems as if the very way we join words together matches something essential in the way we think. And in a way that’s right, not wrong.

And so with baseball. It is special. But to understand why, you need to take up the standpoint from inside baseball.

I do think the whole question of an immigrant’s love of the game is a fascinating one. Sometimes being an outsider affords the opportunity for a special kind of appreciation. Think Hemingway and the bull fight. Or the British and their passion for American (especially African American) music. And then there’s the fact that it is one of the stories that baseball likes to tell about itself that it has served an important role in the American melting pot. People of different national origins as well as classes come together at the ball park. Children of immigrant fathers and their fathers become American at the ballpark. So your affection for the game taps into important themes.

This connects to another idea in Infinite Baseball. I say that to know baseball’s objective specialness, you need to take up the stance inside baseball. But baseball also reminds us, I think, that the inside stance is also always an outside stance. To play baseball is always at once to think about baseball. Maybe that’s even more pronounced in the experience of a convert such as yourself. You love the game, you take up the stance inside, but you remain, and probably always feel, like an outsider, at least to some extent. That’s true of me, too.

I like the idea that baseball is distinctively reflexive or that it thematizes reflexivity in a distinctive way. In your book, you call it a “forensic sport.” Could you say a bit about what that means?

A curious and unremarked fact about baseball is its preoccupation with questions of agency, credit, blame, liability, and the like. In baseball, it is typically not what happened that matters, but rather who is responsible for — who deserves the credit or blame for — what happened. Actually, it’s more subtle than that. What happened, in baseball, is in good measure determined by facts about liability and responsibility.

To see what I mean, consider the law. A person eats poison and dies. This description of the facts leaves open what actually happened. Was this a suicide, a murder, an accident or a misjudgment? To answer the question what happened? you need to decide, roughly, who’s responsible. That is, you need to ask what I call the forensic question. Did she eat the poison on purpose? Did someone slip it into her sherry? Did she squeeze the dropper too many times when preparing her sleeping draught? One can only know what happens when one makes decisions about what she or other persons did. And this is because what happened is actually made up out of facts about who’s responsible, about whodunnit

Forensics, as we all know from police shows, is the science of whodunnit. More generally, it is the domain of the law and legal responsibility. And more generally still, “forensic” just means, roughly, having to do with agency, and so with responsibility, that is to say with warranted liability for praise and blame. 

Baseball events, like legal ones, are, in this sense, forensic in nature. It isn’t the material facts — hitter swings bat, ball flies to right field and lands uncaught — that fix baseball reality. What we want to know is did the batter get a hit, do we credit him with driving a run home and advancing the runners? If so, then we can blame the pitcher for giving up the run. But if the batter reached on an error — if the fielder bungled the ball — then we don’t credit him with reaching base and driving in a run and we don’t blame the pitcher for letting it happen. In that case, something else happened. Yes, a run scored. But it was unearned.

In baseball, you need constantly to adjudicate questions of this forensic sort. That’s how you understand what’s going on. That’s how you tell the game’s story. Even something as basic as balls and strikes comes down, finally, to a judgment about who’s to be held praiseworthy or blameworthy. If you can’t hit what the pitcher is throwing, but you should be able to, then that’s a mark against you, it’s a strike. But if you couldn’t reasonably be expected to hit a pitch, well then, that’s not your fault, it’s the pitcher’s fault. That’s what a ball is. One of the big mistakes we make about baseball is that we think the strike zone is a physical space. Actually, it’s something more like a zone of responsibility.

Baseball reality, then, depends on our attention to these questions of agency and responsibility. To be a fan, or a player, that is, to care about and know what’s going on, you need to be an adjudicator, which is to say, a thinker. This is what makes baseball such an intellectual game.

There is something deeply right about this. If you compare the MLB rules with those of the NBA and the NFL, “judgment” comes up a whole lot more: 5 times in the NBA rules, 6 times in the NFL’s, 62 times in the official rules of Major League Baseball. It is a matter of judgment whether something is a wild pitch or a passed ball, a stolen base or defensive indifference. The definition of a strike makes this explicit: A STRIKE is a legal pitch when so called by the umpire, which — (a) Is struck at by the batter and is missed; (b) Is not struck at, if any part of the ball passes through any part of the strike zone; (c) Is fouled by the batter when he has less than two strikes; … etc.”

As a philosopher, I love that peculiar self-reference: “when so called.” At the same time, advocates of baseball analytics are prone to complain about some of the phenomena that implicate human judgment: about the arbitrariness of fielding errors and umpires’ shifting strike zones. What do you make of those complaints?

Great question! I love the job played by judgment in baseball. Its what makes the game so vital. Baseball highlights the fact that you can’t eliminate judgment from sport, or, I think, from life. Sure, you can count up home runs and strikeouts and work out the rates and percentages. You can use analysis to model and compare players’ performances. But you can’t ever eliminate the fact that what you are quantifying, what you are counting, that whose frequency you are measuring, is always the stuff of judgment — outs, hits, strikes, these are always judgment calls. 

We as a culture are infatuated with the idea that you can eliminate judgment and let the facts themselves be our guide, whether in sports or in social policy. Baseball reminds us that there are limits. You can’t take the judge out of baseball any more than you can take him or her out of the court room. And that’s not because there aren’t facts of the matter, or because there aren’t precise rules. It’s because no rule is so precise that there are no hard cases. And hard cases demand good judges.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for trying to get it right. If slow-motion replay lets you see what really happened during a close play at home plate, then I’m in favor of it. But the use of instant replay doesn’t eliminate judgment, it only highlights the role it plays. It is umpires at a remote location who make their call on the basis of the videotape. The tape doesn’t read itself and issue a decision.

And if it did — if down the road we replaced the umpire by some kind of AI — that would either spell the end of baseball, or, more likely, it would shift the locus of dispute, adjudication, and judgment. To my mind umpires aren’t measuring devices. They are participants in the game. The idea that you might replace them with machines makes about as much sense as the idea that you might, in the interest of improving the game, get rid of the players themselves. 

Maybe underlying all this is the worry that judgment, of its very nature, is subjective and so arbitrary. But a good judge — which means not only someone with good eyes and knowledge of the rules, but an experienced and fair judge who understands what’s going on and who knows where to position him or herself to make the call — is anything but subjective or arbitrary. 

I don’t disagree with any of that: as you say in the book, it is a mistake to suppose that “baseball somehow bottoms out in quantitative analysis.” On the other hand, I’m not sure how prevalent this mistake is in baseball analytics, a lot of which aim to improve our judgment or assessments of credit and blame. The problem with errors, for instance, is that fielding percentage is unfair to fielders with greater range. (The strike zone is a more difficult case.) It is easy to abuse numbers in baseball, but some of the prime examples – obsessing about the radar gun or how a batter performs against curveballs on a 2-2 count in the seventh inning – are ones I associate with scouts and TV commentators, not with Fangraphs or Baseball Prospectus. I guess I am hoping for a union of wise judgment with forensic science.

I agree that numbers have been and continue to be a crucially important way to understand what’s going on in baseball, to tell the story, and also yes, in my sense, to assign praise and blame. There is no “in principle” opposition between the judge and the forensic scientist. Indeed, in some ways the history of the game can be tracked as evolving conceptions of how to use numbers to understand the game.

But baseball analytics threaten to change the game in ways that may not be for the good. To give an example I don’t discuss in the book, consider the way pitching has changed in recent decades. When I was a kid, you had starters and relievers. Starters were better pitchers than relievers and the idea was that a reliever was brought on basically only when the starting pitcher got into trouble. (Although there were great relievers, like my beloved Met, Tug McGraw, or Rollie Fingers of the A’s.). Every starter aimed at a complete game. Things have changed so much now. Starters, middle relievers, set-up men, and closers. But the direction we are really headed in — and you are beginning to see this already — is an erosion of the very distinction between starter and reliever. Increasingly what we are moving toward is “pitching by committee.” 

Now from a tactical point of view, this makes good sense. Pitchers are always fresh, you can manipulate righty-lefty match-ups to your heart’s content, and you can use each pitcher in a surgical way to perform just the task he’s good at. Some people complain you slow the game down with all the pitching changes, but that doesn’t bother me. I don’t like this development for another reason. The new approach conceptualizes pitchers as if they were, well, a special kind of instrument for delivering the ball. You’ve got different ball-machines — “arms” — for different occasions. But pitchers didn’t used to be just arms; they were team-leaders, generals, and much of the game’s saga had to do with the challenges faced by the pitcher to find ways to enable dominance, not just over an inning or two, but for a whole game. 

Remember the case of Matt Harvey and the fifth game of the 2015 World Series. He’d pitched eight scoreless innings against the Royals. Terry Collins, the Mets manager, wanted to pull him for a closer in the 9th inning. But Harvey said he was strong and he wanted it, he needed it — he’d only thrown 101 pitches — so Collins left him in. The rest is history. The Mets went on to lose. The question is: did Collins make a mistake? 

If you are an analytics guy, that’s an easy call. Collins listened to his gut not his head. It was time for the 9th-inning specialist. 

But if you think of baseball as about the arc of the pitcher’s struggle — or rather, of the arc of the team’s battle as embodied, in part at least, in the overcoming and achieving of its leader, its pitcher — then it’s much harder to say that Collins made a mistake. He took his pitcher’s feelings, his needs, his wants, into account. 

And that, finally, is what worries me about the new “moneyball.” It eliminates players as agents, players as human beings who are on a team and working together for an outcome, and views them, instead, as mere assemblages of baseball properties that are summed-up by the numbers.

Is a person an assemblage of statistically describable habits and propensities? Or is there something more to a person than that? In a way, what makes baseball special is that it is a setting in which this very question, a fascinating and important question, can be asked. 


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