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Swanson: Applying ‘The Eye Test’ to SoCal sports

Before Mark Whicker exited stage left in January, he filed one last gem of a column announcing some personal news by penning a to-do list of stories he wouldn’t be doing. He was retiring, exactly 35 years after his first Orange County Register column.

He focused that farewell piece on other people’s stories and not his own, which began in 1974 and included his 2020 induction into the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame. And at least a million masterful turns of phrase.

How about, he mused, asking baseball writers how they’d handle Tom Brady if they were electing Pro Football Hall of Famers? “After all, he was suspended the way fellow San Mateo Serra High alum Barry Bonds never was.”

Maybe something on Long Beach State hooper Aboubacar Traore? UCLA softballer Megan Faraimo?

“I’m hoping,” Whicker concluded, “somebody will highlight … the book ‘The Eye Test,’ by Chris Jones, which questions the dependence on analytics in all realms, not just ball.”

OK, let’s do it.

As a new sports columnist for the Southern California News Group, I can tell you: “The Eye Test: A case for human creativity in the age of analytics” is an unsexy, wonderful book.

It connects dots in Jones’ remarkable reporting career into a picture that champions originality, creativity and humanity.

Formerly a columnist for ESPN The Magazine and a writer at large for Esquire, Jones began his career as a sportswriter in the era when “Moneyball” was becoming one of sports’ transcendent terms, alongside home run and slam dunk and referring to someone as “the Michael Jordan of ___.”

In “The Eye Test,” Jones details how our increased appetite for statistical data analysis went beyond the NBA’s “Moreyball” and the English Premier League’s “Mersey ball” and infiltrated even how people approach movie-making and policing.

But a little like Whicker valued stories more than “eyeballs and clicks,” Jones argues society would do better to value stories over stats, anecdotes above algorithms.

It’s not that there is not a place for numbers, he insists, it’s just that we ought to avoid an over-reliance on them. Value people’s accumulated expertise, the “embodied analysis” that resulted in, say, Derek Jeter’s masterpiece – “The Flip” – in the 2001 American League Division Series. Or, occasionally, in a column filed at the buzzer that sings a little.

In our conversation, Jones recalled his regular lessons in cardinal baseball wisdom with former Angels star Jim Fregosi, who was the Toronto Blue Jays’ manager when Jones covered the team in his 20s and knew him as “a cantankerous old man and a teacher at heart.”

“Every Sunday when we were on the road, he’d sit with me for half an hour in the dugout and give me a lesson,” Jones said. “I go back to one in Cleveland about the changeup and it was just why it’s such a hard pitch to throw and why it is so dangerous if you do throw it well; it was beautiful and I learned so much.

“And when ‘Moneyball’ came out a few years later, Jim was the kind of guy getting run out. And I liked ‘Moneyball’ the book, I gave it a positive review … but in the back of my head, I thought, ‘It can’t explain what Jim Fregosi explained to me about the changeup.’ And occasionally I would (write) in a column or on the Internet about this stuff, and immediately be regarded as a Luddite and a moron. But I was like, ‘But no! This other stuff has value.’”

Me? I’m not not here for the numbers, but I’m definitely here for that other stuff. For the stories that make stats matter.

For the wonder of it all. The pain, the joy … the pain! In an arena where there can be only one winner, sports is so often unquantifiably frustrating. But that gives us something to discuss. And it builds character; it builds bonds.

I’ve covered the Clippers for the past four years and come to admire the team’s fans. It’s their sustained belief (likely, eventually, to be rewarded), their sense of humor and, most of all, how they’ve built a community. They cheer or commiserate together and, moreover, help each other out in other ways, like raising funds to cover funeral costs and sharing tickets with fellow supporters who can’t afford to go to games. Because it really is bigger than basketball.

And it’s definitely bigger than BPM, VORP, PER, etc.

Looking forward to connecting the dots across Southern California’s sports landscape and trying to make it make sense – and to delivering a decent changeup now and then, too.

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