20 June 2018

The Next Course: Anthony Bourdain and Moving On

In September of 2014, I bid farewell to Camden Depot.

I read the post now and I find little room to improve upon my intent there.  I wrote how my interests and drive led me to founding this site and writing so strenuously for it.  I find it now a lovely goodbye that, perhaps, is true to my feelings at the time.  Feelings that still remain true to a degree today. I advise you to give it a read because it tries to elucidate things that I still believe to my core and remains relevant.  In this post, though, I have no interest in going over that terrain again.

However, I do wish to bring up the last paragraph in that preemptive goodbye:
In the end, I hope my time here is one that gave some appreciation for Apollonian and Dionysian thought.  That is that logic and reason is woven into emotion and chaos.  Yes, we can explain and account for much of our world, but not everything.  What we cannot account for is meaningful.  That said, even though there are important things for which we cannot account, it does not render meaningless the things we know.  This is what empowers my methodology, what informs my journey in exploring this sport.  I am not done.  I am not there, yet.  I cannot even imagine what there looks like.
After that column, I left to Baseball Prospectus to continue my journey of exploration.  I hooked up with the scouting side and began learning R.  The intent was to develop a method that incorporated the qualitative metrics from the scouting side along with the quantitative metrics we had at our disposal in order to accomplish an end goal: a more accurate way to project the future performance of draft prospects.

It was a tumultuous time for Baseball Prospectus.  Unbeknownst to me, the scouting school that Jason Parks put together and left to run on its own was about to be replaced by a single evaluator who did not mesh well with the existing scouting personnel.  As quickly as my tenure began, the opportunity fell apart.  My main contact left to create another scouting group and I puttered through a couple bleh articles over the course of a year before I came back to Camden Depot.  A passive testament of my displeasure is the presence of my vote for the new Padre James Shield as my pick to win the Cy Young.

Anyway, I returned to Camden Depot and for the past four seasons and have been relatively productive.  I turned my BP idea into a much smaller venture called CRAP (collegiate regression analysis projections).  It utilizes qualitative, quantitative, and context dependent metrics to project future performance.  I know of one front office who has tinkered with it and another that apparently created a very similar approach convergently.  I also created a second generation lineup optimization tool, which was picked up by a couple teams with one actually messing around with their improved version in the minors.  These events were high points for me over the past few years.  Even though this writing is a hobby, it is nice to see an impact.  It is nice to know that the ideas you come up with hold some merit.

That said, my writing is of decreasing returns.  Not only in terms of the frequency of impact, but also in the joy that it produces for me.  In all honesty, my work over the past four years retained a measure of credibility that perhaps would have been lost without the site name underneath my own.  My forays into ESPN, Baseball Prospectus, Huffington Post, and others have largely been about establishing myself as a serious writer in order to maintain a decent seat here at the table to enable me to have deeper public conversations about the processes of the game.

What I have found is that it is a conversation I am feeling less and less inclined to join, a seat at a dinner table I am feeling less inclined to eat at.  An interesting thing happened over the past dozen years.  Arguments that used to be fought on merit with others chiming in to defend or undermine that foundation now often seem to be about the sides more than the topic at hand.  I think the Branding element of the internet has altered the defense of arguments and resulted in the proliferation of tribalism.  This tribalism conflates issues and we see curious things emerge.

An example would be back when Jeff Passan published The Arm.  I think it is both a good book, but a confusing mess that poorly conveys the certainty in the underlying sciences as well as muddles the certainty in the case studies in comparison to the science.  I stated as much and had a lively, and ultimately respectful, conversation on Twitter with Passan on this topic.  However, me noting how I thought he misused the data caused a prominent editor with a previous publisher to get me fired from their site.  This was done without Passan's knowledge (and he expressed horror about it in our later email exchange), but was done by a cadre of fan boys who wished dearly to protect image as opposed to actually weigh in on the topic.  Of course, I was not fired as I no longer toiled for them, but was asked firmly to never note my previous work there.  This is but one example.

So, yes, I knew this years ago and still felt compelled to write.  We have actually been writing at quite a fevered pace at the Depot.  It is a level of production we have not seen in years and it has produced a lot of strong writing by me, Matt, and others.  However, I still had this rumbling bittersweetness just under the surface that refused every attempt I made to lay it to rest.

Two weeks ago, Anthony Bourdain succumbed in his life long battle with depression.  His passing was shocking, but not exactly a surprise.  He often noted his depression and wrote about his suicidal thoughts.  However, there always seemed to be an invincibility surrounding him with his projected cool demeanor and how he overcome life as a drug addict to achieve so much.  His voice was one I cherished and found similar to my own thoughts.  I do not share his past or his brain chemistry, but I was drawn to his desire to seek reality, the truth, no matter how ugly or nonconforming the truth may be to our own ideals.  I was drawn by his desire to restore humanity to all people, yet remain able to be critical of those people.

My connection to him came in the middle of 2011 and into 2012.  It all started with a pins and needles sensation in my arms as I went for a walk with my new wife.  I felt as if I had set a tourniquet above my left elbow.  The sensation did not stop until later that night.  I did not tell anyone.  Over the course of the next few weeks, the sensation became progressive.  I would lose feeling in my lower legs and come close to falling as I rose from bed each morning.  My wrist and back of the hands were covered in a smattering of bruises as I would pinch myself during the day to see if I could feel anything.  I then decided to undersell my symptoms to my wife to provide reason to go seek medical help.  I could watch my limbs and move them accordingly.  I could hide what I was actually experiencing.

I went to a barrage of doctors.  My grandfather died of ALS, but it was not that.  My aunt suffers from multiple sclerosis, but it was not that.  Lyme disease was a negative, repeatedly.  Nothing else was showing up in all the tests, scans, and procedures they could dream up.  My world grew smaller and smaller and much more inside my head.

While in the place, I began to immerse myself in Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations.  With over a hundred episodes, it provided an immense world with which I could gain a perspective beyond my kitchen table and see things that so strongly caught my interest.  He provided a coping mechanism for me to relieve myself of my emotional prison.  To move forward and beyond myself until the Spring of 2012 when my symptoms disappeared and, so far, have never returned.  I never met the man, but I am heavily indebted to Anthony Bourdain for giving me the solace that I so needed at that point in my life.

After Bourdain's Lebanon episode of No Reservations, his work changed.  He stopped being the guy who traveled the world, ate a lot of food, and did whatever he wanted.  Bourdain became the guy who recognized that he had a platform that could shine light on other people and cultures, to help secure their humanity in the eyes of the world.  He used his power time and time again to help humanize people.  Whether it was an octogenarian in the mid-West with genuine reviews of food that people genuinely eat, whether it was to break through the stereotypes and portray Palestinians as people, whether it was to highlight water access issues for poor Jamaicans, or whether it was to go into West Virginia and humanize them.  His advocacy these past couple years in the #MeToo movement provided a text book example of how a man can support and advocate a largely women's issue without making it about himself.  In many ways, he was a distant North Star for me.

Truth be told, I have only intermittently watched his CNN show, Parts Unknown (which has been astoundingly good in every episode I have watched).  My first kid was born almost five years ago and so Bourdain's run there has coincided with that.  The content is often of a kind that is inappropriate for kids, so I have only managed to sneak in a viewing here or there.  I have voraciously read his books and tried to seek out articles by or about him from time to time.  He was, for me, effectively a distant relation with whom I once was very close and looked forward to a time when I would be able to rekindle that engagement.  Someone who felt invincible based on everything he had survived.  I was not surprised he killed himself, but nonetheless was shocked.

I was not weepy over this.  It is not how I am.  My frequent searching his name intensified a bit.  It was a situation where a long held coping mechanism now sows sadness, yet somehow is still ingrained as a coping mechanism.  A downward spiral.  I literally perceived the light around me as more dim.  That perception was quite new to me: that light appeared to dim.  Nonetheless, it was a disruption to my life.

That disruption led me back to what has increasingly frustrated me about the current writing scene and what Bourdain once noted about having a beer in a bar.  He once told a story about how he was in need of a beer and went into what he assumed was a dive-ish bar in San Francisco (if I remember correctly).  He sat down with an extensive beer menu that was difficult to discern, which was fine.  He ordered a beer.  He looked around and saw everyone else had flights.  Everyone else was going into the merits of the beer.  Beer ceased to be beer and instead was simply an exercise.

Now, there is nothing wrong with figuring out the notes of a beer.  There is nothing wrong about going out with friends and taking a plunge into that aspect of culinary delight.  But at some point, flights lose their meaning and simply become a lifestyle accessory.  It reminds me of what a 12 course tasting menu used to be.  A tasting menu used to be about highlighting the mastery of a chef in definitive ways.  It has become more or less about increasing the courses and being flashy with it instead of showing true mastery.  The purpose becomes more questionable.

To some extent, baseball appreciation is like this.  Baseball is an incredible sport with a great deal of ways to appreciate it.  Baseball is baseball, but it can be something else, too.  You can dive deep on the mechanics of the game.  You can dive deep on value and resource allocation.  You can go deep into what it means to head the operations.  It is so impressive how the game has changed in the past twenty years.  It is impressive how empowered fans are now.  There was a great seismic shift, which was good, and now has laid its massive imprint on the surface, wiping out and making extinct so many of the old guard.

That was good.  It needed to happen.  That said, I have found myself stuck in gear and I do not think I am learning anymore.  When I left the Depot in 2014, it was to continue on with my journey.  To learn more.  What I have found is that I am largely right where I was.  It is neat to see ideas like my visual identification comparisons with a pitcher's repertoire become something so much more advanced with Baseball Prospectus (which my work predated their work but likely did not inform their work).  It was great to be a tiny part of these wonderful shifts.  But I am tired of the many course meals and the flights of alcohol.  They now bore me.  I respect them when done well, but I find much of it vapidly going over well tread terrain, offering little that is new, and simply garnished with Brand.

What Bourdain's unfortunate passing has informed me is that not only do I need to bid farewell to the Depot, but also to analytical baseball writing.  What moved me twelve seasons ago, what moved me five years ago, is not what moves me now.  What I need now is to move forward.

This journey is not yet finished here.  We still have some work to do.  Baltimore will likely go through some transactions this summer and I likely will have some thoughts on those.  However, come October, I will thank you all for accompanying me on this part of my life.  It has been a truly wonderful experience.  I have been taken into so many different places: press boxes, clubhouses, luxury boxes, out on the fields and back fields, and talking with those in and around the game.  I have been blessed.

And, now, onto my next course. I am still in search of that Apollonian and Dionysian interwoven world.  That world where logic and reason is entangled with emotion and chaos.  That world where my next place at a table is once again something I look forward to and provides me with nourishment.  Maybe I will see you all there.


Pip said...

Jon, you are one of those incredibly rare combinations of left brain and right brain. Your writing is deep and beautiful. Most people, myself included, are either artistic or scientific, but almost never both.
The first name that comes to my mind is Alexander Borodin, a very great composer and a very great chemist. I can think of a few other names, but not many.
I am sad to hear of your complaint, the Internet is increasingly full of examples of that problem, and it is increasingly common in real life as well.
I’m also very sorry that you are losing interest in baseball, but with at least one child, God knows you have plenty of other interests now and in the future to keep you busy.
I do not deny that my regret is mainly selfish. I have always been enjoyed your writing and respected your thought process, even when I disagreed with it. The essence of communication is, after all, understanding, and not agreement.
This baseball season is very unpleasant on the Baltimore side, and it is doubly frustrating because it was so easily avoidable with a bit of foresight over the last three offseasons.
I still love baseball, but sadly the Orioles remain my team. And you are my favorite writer about the Orioles, and I will be very very sorry to see you go. I do hope that you will continue writing. That gift you have is so obvious and so rare that you should certainly wright about something, even if not baseball. I believe quite fervently in the Lord, and I do hope that He will continue to bless you.

t said...

At times you go back to Bull Durham...
Baseball is a simple game. You throe the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball.
As an engineer, I should be enthralled by all the analytics. Yet, somethings in life I WANT simple. Chris Davis can't hit the side of a barn door if it were fifty feet away. Why? I don't care.
I've loved your Depot. But the analytics have always been a gloss over. I left Baltimore 35 years ago, yet still follow the Birds. Through thick or thin. This season is gutwrenchingly awful. Yet, it, like everything else will pass. And knowing or not knowing what the swing and miss rate of a certain left handed batter has against all right handed pitchers delivering downward breaking sliders is rather immaterial.
Baseball is about appreciating a Bundy curve, well executed, the beauty of a Palmero swing, the dive of #13 into the hole and pulling off the out at first (he needs to go back to third), or the humor of Jonesy losing the ball behind a huge bubble gum bubble (or throwing the ball into the stands after two outs in Oakland).
I hope you get back to the appreciation of home ccoking, a bottle of well know red wine, and the simplicity of the game of baseball.
best of luck, t

Unknown said...

Masterful display of writing J.S. Best of luck to you.

Boss61 said...

Re there plans for Camden Depot to exist after the season? Will there be a new chief writer and editor?

Jon Shepherd said...

Nothing has completely been decided, but the expectation is that once I depart, the other writers will either seek out opportunities at other sites or stop writing. None of us see the point in continuing the site if a completely new team takes over. I do not expect an editor to come forward. It has been difficult over the years to find any writers. Therefore, I expect us to write a final farewell in October and then the site will no longer be updated.

Boss61 said...

Wow. Well I for one have thoroughly enjoyed your insights and posts for years. I think a void will be left. Just saying.

Good luck and thank you.

Unknown said...

Oh man, I’m sorry to hear that. I appreciate all the work you guys have done, and will miss checking the depot for updates. Any suggestions for alternative places to get analytically minded Orioles writing?

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Camden Chat, Eutaw St. Report, and anything Jon Meoli writes for The Sun

Unknown said...

Very sorry to hear this website will be closing, but I wish all of you much success in your future endeavors. I have very much enjoyed reading articles from all of you over the last several years. Camden Depot had somewhat of a unique perspective on Orioles baseball that I will certainly miss. Thank you all for all of the hard work and dedication you put into this website (and all of the rest of your work). I feel like I really learned a lot about the sport from this site, and considered things I hadn't thought about before. It helped me enjoy my favorite sport even more than I had previously. Best wishes to all of you, and good luck.

Last but not least

GO O's!!!!!! They will rise again.

Unknown said...

Jon- you are a gift to the baseball and medical community. I look forward to following your career...