New Yorker story tells anecdote that seems impossible on the surface

Sometimes you just know that either the reporter is lying or has been hornswoggled by the person she/he is quoting. Maybe it’s because everything seems so pat and happens in accordance with commonly held ideas including false ones.

Or in the case of Andrew Marantz’s article titled “The Virologist” in The New Yorker, you smell a lie (as Joseph Conrad put it in Heart of Darkness) because the facts are not verisimilar—they do not correspond to what happens in the real world.

Here’s the quote—and anyone who has ever played, had a child who played or coached Little League baseball will immediately recognize how unlike reality it is. The article, BTW, is about Emerson Spartz, a 27-year-old wunderkind who uses his so-called natural genius and some software algorithms to make the articles that he posts on websites—mostly plagiarized—go viral on the Internet:

When Emerson Spartz was a child in La Porte, Indiana, he had the highest batting average on his Little League team. “I quickly started seeing patterns,” he told me. His coach instructed only the fastest players to steal bases. Spartz was not fast, but he noticed that the catchers were unpracticed at throwing to second base, allowing runners to advance. “I started stealing pretty much every time,” he said. “It worked extremely well, but that wasn’t what the coach cared about, apparently.” To punish Spartz for disobedience, the coach batted him eighth. “I gave him a statistical explanation of why it made no sense to put your best hitter at the bottom of the order,” Spartz said. “You can imagine how that went over.” 

A load of hooey.

Little League, for the uninformed, is for 10-12 year olds. In the Minor and Intermediate leagues for kids under 10, no stealing is allowed. By the time the kids get to Pony and Colt leagues (for the kids older than 12), everyone but the real players have dropped out of organized baseball and so most teams have a pretty good catcher.

But in Little League, every manager knows to have every single player try to steal second base until the catcher demonstrates that she-he can make the throw and the shortstop demonstrates he-she’ll be there to take the catch and tag the runner. The catcher can often be so shaky and the pitcher’s move to home plate so slow that everyone runs—until the other side starts to gun ‘em down.  It’s not even a strategic consideration, such as whether to play your fifth best player at third or in center field; or when to bring in the fast pitcher who may walk a lot of hitters or the control kid whom the other side is definitely going to hit. I coached in two Little Leagues and my son played in three (including an all-star league) and every single manager ran his players until one or two kids got caught or until they knew the capabilities of the other team.

What that means is it’s unlikely Spartz’ coach told only the fast players on the team to run against weak-throwing catchers. Everyone was running until the other teams showed they could stop it.

The other false note in Spartz’s story is that his punishment disobeying the coach was to bat eighth. It would never happen that way. Never. When coaches on any team in any youth sports want or need to discipline a player, they bench the player. Sometimes coaches are too slow to bench, sometimes too fast, sometimes they are inconsistent in their pattern of discipline—but no coach chooses to punish a player by dropping him in the batting order. You reserve dropping in the batting order for good players who are in a batting slump; or when another player is hitting so well you have to move him-her up; or when a player is coming back from an injury or other layoff. Again, I’m not talking about strategies about which there is any dispute. Everyone does it.

Assuming that he didn’t fabricate it himself. I can see why Marantz wanted to believe Spartz’s tale of Little League rebellion. It fits the character that Marantz is so assiduously drawing in the rest of the article:

  • He uses math…
  • …to figures out stuff…
  • …that other, more experienced people miss…
  • …with a courage of convictions to keep doing what he knows is right…
  • …with disdain for the authority…
  • ..who doesn’t like that his rebellion is a success.

The incident encapsulates what Marantz spends more than 5,500 words trying to say, but it couldn’t possibly have happened the way Marantz says Spartz describes it. Even if Marantz didn’t play Little League ball as a kid (or any sport, since all youth sports punish through benching), he should have known enough to ask someone. Isn’t that what fact-checking is all about? And what about Marantz’s editor or the stable of fact-checkers The New Yorker must employ? Were they all so dazzled by the idea of a rebellious boy genius seeing what adults missed that they didn’t think to ask someone what really happens in a Little League game?

This obvious whopper of a whopper throws into doubt all the other facts about Spartz’s life and business. But the article is nonetheless worth a read as it encapsulates the end game of the capitalist approach to entertainment and the arts. The end goal is not communicating a message—lofty or false—or even entertaining. No the end goal is to get eyeballs to see the piece, so that advertisers will pay to be on the website that sponsors the article, photo array, or in the case of much of Spartz’s content, list (of celebrities with something in common, the most or least of good and bad attributes, the cutest, the sexiest, the oldest, et al.).  All artistic success reduces to eyeballs on the page, which we can then transform into the lowest of all denominators—cash value.

One thought on “New Yorker story tells anecdote that seems impossible on the surface

  1. You seem to have misinterpreted the piece in the New Yorker. No one is “dazzled” by this “boy genius”. Marantz very clearly projects an image of Spartz as a delusional, unethical brat who overestimates his own talent and importance.

    Any inconsistencies in the Little League story likely came from Spartz himself. Marantz included the anecdote without comment because it makes Spartz look obscenely petty, which serves the gist of the piece as a whole that Spartz is an amoral monster.

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