Friday, January 7, 2011

Deciding what’s good

For some reason, I’m unusually inclined to see parallels to editorial decision making in baseball, particularly in the early off season (so-called “hot stove” season) when general managers are bidding on free agents and making trades and then later in the winter, when the Baseball Hall of Fame balloting happens.

Baseball is a hugely emotional game and it is also a hugely statistical one, and that clash is perfectly embodied in the Hall of Fame voting. (Quick primer: journalists are the primary voters. 5 years after retirement, a player becomes eligible to appear on a ballot. Players who receive 75 percent get in. Players who receive 5 percent or more stay on the ballot for as many as 15 years. Players who don’t get to 5 percent are removed from future ballots.) This year, former Dodger and Yankee pitcher Kevin Brown made his first appearance on the ballot. It will also be his last because he fell short of 5 percent. Emotionally, Kevin Brown is everything a Hall of Famer should not be (questionable character and questionable hustle, probable steroid user). Statistically, he’s apparently a no-brainer and everything a Hall of Famer should be (statistically best pitcher of his era for a decent stretch). I think both approaches are entirely defensible and that’s what makes it utterly fascinating.

This is a largely recreational debate in baseball (at this point in baseball history, we’re generally talking about whether very rich people will get a plaque in a building in a small town in upstate New York). But this debate bears a striking resemblance to the more consequential decision-making that goes on all the time in publishing. Right now, we await the ALA awards announcements (boy howdy, do we await). At the same time, a lot of sales reps are out meeting with buyers to begin to sell publishers’ fall 2011 lists. And of course we editors are wading into piles of submissions that accumulated over the holidays. Small groups of people are making decisions about what’s good and coming to radically different conclusions. That’s publishing.

Photo by lakelandlocal: Lou Whitaker, second baseman for the Tigers of my youth. He’s the only baseball autograph I ever collected. Along with shortstop Allen Trammell, he formed one of the best infields in baseball history. He should be in the Hall, no doubt.