Garbageland

by Bryan

Nostalgia isn’t insidious by nature, but it’s close. Close enough, for me.

Once upon a time, I thought I was important. I grew up rooting for the Boston Red Sox and some of what I’d call my fondest memories are of listening on a transistor radio to Mo Vaughn hitting a home run on a lazy August afternoon or poring over the Peter Gammons Baseball Notes column in the Sunday Boston Globe—the column that made me want to assemble words for a living.

It, of course, takes someone with a supreme sense of self-importance to think anyone wants to read their shit. Reporting was an easy choice for me. You are provided with most of the material, and you string it together. It’s not that hard to tell a story: People do it all the time, everywhere, even if they’d never think about sitting in front of a screen and putting it to paper.

The thing about reporting is that it’s just a trick. You tell the stories of other people long enough to convince readers that you are important enough to tell stories of your own. Soon enough, the stories of other people become stories of your own. The emphasis shifts. It becomes the name on the back of the jersey, and not the name on the front. The name on the front of the jersey is another person’s charge: the editor.

I had imagined, for as long as I imagined such things, that I would eventually distinguish myself by writing about the Boston Red Sox. In the mid-aughts, this career path hit a temporary dead end A lot of this was due to Bill Simmons. He was hoarding the Red Sox readership, and doing a good job of it. Much like I used to read Gammons and call it a day, Simmons was the first and last source for Red Sox columns on the Internet. He had critics, sure, but this was before the sophisticated nesting-doll structure of criticism that has developed. If you hated Simmons, you had to go out of your way to express that, to feel heard or cared for or even loved. Now you know where to go.

For years, I defended Simmons against the inevitable criticisms of laziness. In John Updike’s famous essay on Ted Williams, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” he said that for all of Williams’s hits to have come in non-clutch situations would have been “unparalleled in the annals of selfishness.” Similarly, to call Bill Simmons to be a garbage writer, and to dismiss his entire body of work on a column you didn’t like, seemed silly and reductive. The guy showed up every day and did my own dream job well enough that I respected it, even if it put me at a dead end. I have no axe to grind with Bill Simmons, which means it’s with no great joy then that I say Grantland is trash. As a writer, he is defendable, but as an editor and administrator he is an embarrassment. He’s so bad I hope he grew the mustache just to avoid looking himself in the mirror. At least then we’d know that he knew there was something wrong.

What could have been high-concept—The New Yorker for sports, or something similar but more fun—is instead a cross between kitty litter mags Vanity Fair and New York Magazine at its absolute best and a shitty buddy blog for sports and entertainment at its worst. When Grantland was first announced, I never thought it would have a lower batting average of good articles than espn.com, but it does. Simmons’s writing success never bothered me. This, a real hope for good sportswriting on the Internet gone sour, bothers me.

I don’t need to go into the ghastly copy editing and fact-checking associated with the site; Deadspin has kept on top of that. Many of my complaints are similar to those Mr. Destructo laid out in a pre-official launch pasting of the site; I thought it was a tad unfair for Mr. Destructo to go crazy on the site based on two articles, but he’s turned out to be right on nearly all accounts, the key sentence being this:

This site in general is all premise and no twist. The set-up seems to be all you need: someone has an opinion about something, and it’s humorous because thinking about it is. The minimum daily requirements for humor have been provided.

The baffling part to me is who Simmons thinks he’s fooling by throwing up a four-part series about poker, the craze that’s seven years dead, by Colson Whitehead, titled “Dispatches from the Republic of Anhedonia.” Unless you sleep next to a signed copy of Sag Harbor, would you read this? It is presented as a near-perfect mix of pretension, lack of timeliness and self-importance. Part of being an editor is saying “no,” even to famous authors like Colson Whitehead, if even just to a headline. (Update: the original version made it sound like I was critiquing the content; I was going after the presentation, albeit poorly.) As in, like, 75 percent of it. Less can be, in fact, more, but as Mr. Destructo says (and his post is much better than mine, you should read it), Bill Simmons is insecure. I nearly fell out of my chair when he told Tom Shales and Jim Miller in Those Guys Have All The Fun that he had “thick skin.” It’s not good when you have the least self-aware comment in a book full of narcissists.

As others have mentioned, the extremely talented Chris Jones is completely miscast as an “AL East columnist;” it’s like asking a star quarterback to place-hold. Jonah Keri is enthusiastic, which is good, but wrote a good book proposal that no one seems to notice made a really crappy book. The book, called The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First begins discussing these strategies at its three-quarter mark. I know, because in my Kindle I made a note when the first “Wall Street strategy” was discussed that said simply, “It begins!” and the little number in the bottom left said 75%. It also kind of boils down to this: buy low and sell high. It’s also vitally important that we meet Joe Maddon’s entire Rust Belt family to understand this, and that we understand the Rays, who didn’t win the World Series, are some sort of living miracle, like a baby born without a heart who’s bouncing around all the same. The Rays are pretty good, and they’re pretty good because they’re run by smart people, but that hardly makes them unique. Keri’s trying to ride the long coattails of Moneyball, but you’d be better off re-reading the genuine article (“Oh look, here comes Mr. Swing-At-Everything”) or maybe even Vanity Fair.

His Grantland columns aren’t much better, describing at length simple statistical measures that have been used for years to an audience that’s self-selected to already know what he’s talking about. Nor is he consistent. A recent column on potential MLB playoff teams used Nate Silver’s “Secret Sauce,” created nine years ago, in the first act, disavowed it in the second, and brought it back in the third act like nothing ever happened.

Chuck Klosterman is, like many obsessive writers, better at writing against type: his sports stuff isn’t that bad. Specifically, his article on the mindset of Olympic sprinters was fantastic. But when he writes about music, and gets into “second-by-second” breakdowns of this or that… it’s stuff that belongs on a shitty, unread music blog. It’s insufferable. Molly Lambert is what she is, and was much better in the no-rules environment of This Recording than she is here. She’s the brainy slacker, and if there’s one thing anathema to ESPN culture, it’s overt laziness. (Just skip the research and yell louder, and it’ll be fine.) Sooner or later, someone at ESPN is going to realize that they can be as edgy as they want, but sports has to be the focus, even on a site that doesn’t have explicit ESPN branding. Klosterman is a big enough name to keep the experiment going for awhile, but its death is inevitable. We all know it’s part of the family. While Lambert is actually perceptive and talented, the preview column Mr. Destructo eviscerated was pure trash, and yes, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Klosterman hired her because he has a crush on her. This non-transferable ability to draw male readers is pretty much null at Grantland. (Good criticism of this paragraph in the comments.)

Bill Barnwell, Rany Jazayerli and Katie Baker are the three consistently good writers on the site, and there’s no reason they couldn’t have just been hired at espn.com. They deserve better.

The main problem, though, is Simmons, and it’s not just “his” “editing.” So much of life is context, and ripped from the company of fellow ESPN.com columnists, his columns and podcasts look just… fucking… terrible. As much as Simmons hates Rick Reilly, despite claiming not to, he needs him. I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but Rick Reilly, ESPN’s molar- and moralist in chief, is the winner of the whole affair. He’s vain and grandstanding and usually insufferable, but at least he’s consistent, and now he has a Simmons-free universe to glop up readers. The ESPN book had the wonderful little note that Simmons would return his columns with little notes to STET all changes; it’s the writer’s equivalent of tooling around in a shiny, tiny convertible Porsche.

Next to other self-styled geniuses, though, his writing falls apart. His article on “Hollywood” starmaking—whoever the fuck “Hollywood” is—was such an embarrassment that it’s hardly worth discussing. Suppose for a second, though, that he’s right. This “Hollywood” entity is trying to force Ryan Reynolds down our throats as a bona fide movie star, when in reality he’s way out of his league trying to headline a movie. Couldn’t one make the association with Simmons and ESPN? Isn’t ESPN trying to force Bill Simmons down our throats as a bona fide media star, when in fact he’s out of his league trying to do anything than write silly columns? Yes, he was the executive producer of 30 for 30, and deserves credit for that. But to get Rumsfeld on you, he knew what he didn’t know in filmmaking, and stepped out of the way. On Grantland, he thinks he actually knows what he’s doing. He did in one sense: he got smart people to write for him. He largely made them suck, through direction or presentation, and made his own work look terrible in the process. The emperor is naked, except for, yes, the mustache.

Fixing Grantland would be so, so easy. Bill Simmons needs to be fired or step aside. If Bill Simmons was actually a historian, instead of just playing one in his error-riddled The Book of Basketball (STET all changes), he’d see the historical comparison to his (and my) exhaustively beloved New England Patriots staring him right in the face: He’s the problem. When Robert Kraft meddled, Bill Parcells scrammed. When Kraft promised to keep his hands off something he had no clue over, the Patriots took off, with a little or a lot of luck, depending on how you look at it.

As I wrote at the top, nostalgia isn’t always insidious, but it’s close. Bill Simmons has built a nice career on exploiting nostalgia, and of giving people 15 minutes per week to live in the past, when sports and movies were the most important things in their lives. Either he really still believes sports and movies are the most important things in his life, and he’s a freak (having, you know, a family), or he’s selling a bill of goods. Either way, I don’t begrudge him. It’s the internet. Everyone has their hustle. It’s the name of the game. But it is a hustle.

It’s different when your name’s at the top. It’s not about what you’ve done in the past: it’s about what everyone under you is doing, right now. And nearly everyone at Grantland is creating content that wouldn’t be published at a legitimized website for one reason (spelling, grammar and factual errors) or another (totally uninteresting). We don’t need Grantland editors to be the arbiters of what is or is not a “Hall of Fame” YouTube video, and to put the results at the top of their site. It’s this type of laziness and self-importance that breeds competition. Even now, there’s another collective of sportswriters attempting to start a thinky sports journalism site called The Classical; they’re trying to raise $50,000. You want to see Moneyball in action? Watch what happens when a group of smart. focused people take on a rudderless, bloated corporate behemoth—you know, what Grantland was actually supposed to do in the first place. It’ll be interesting. Someone might even write a book about it.