There’s an old joke on the great Effectively Wild podcast about the meaninglessness of off-season baseball transaction updates, how beat reporters looking for tiny scoop morsels will tweet things like “BREAKING: Nationals rumored to be checking in on pitching help,” a succession of weasel words that would make even William Barr proud. In the off-season, fans in all sports are so desperate for transactional news, or at least any inkling of what might possibly resemble a news-type substance, that they will absorb information about the possibility of eventually absorbing information about rumors of potential information. In his book Big Game, about the NFL, author Mark Leibovich called these bits of pseudo-news “nuggets,” and they have become the coin of the realm.
This phenomenon goes beyond sports news, of course: What have our lives been over the last two-plus years but a series of nuggets, some nutritious, some empty, all addictive, meted out at unpredictable but regular intervals and adding up to a cloudy picture that doesn’t quite resolve? All told, how different, say, is Adam Schefter, ESPN’s relentlessly nugget-producing NFL reporter, from the Washington Post’s Robert Costa or the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, who give us so many nuggets about our dissolving democracy that it can impossible to remember what is what? All these little news items add up to less than the sum of their parts. We see the trees, but not the forest; we see so many atoms that we barely react when the bomb hits.
This Thursday, Major League Baseball will begin its 2019 season, and if you haven’t been paying attention since the end of last season, you’ve missed quite a bit of major player movement. Bryce Harper plays for the Phillies now, Manny Machado is on the Padres, Yasiel Puig is on the Reds, and Paul Goldschmidt will be manning first base for the Cardinals for the next half-decade. These are all massive tectonic shifts, and they’ve changed the geography of the league for years to come. It’s difficult to come up with a more eventful off-season in recent memory.
But it sure didn’t feel that way while it was happening, did it? Somehow, despite all the movement, it felt like we spent most of this off-season poking at the Hot Stove with a stick, waiting for it to do something. Harper and Machado went well into 2019 unsigned, and most of free agency remained stuck as a result; two potential high-dollar free agents, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, are somehow still without teams. Movement was so glacial for most of the winter that we worried that MLB and the players union were destined for a labor standoff in a few years. It felt like baseball was frozen in amber.
Of course, it wasn’t: If I would have told you in October 2018 that Harper and Machado and Goldschmidt and Puig would all change teams this winter, you would have thought we’d just had the wildest off-season ever, rather than one spent complaining about how slow everything was. By the time Harper and Machado finally signed with their respective teams, fans were so overwhelmed by all the months of nuggets that the reaction was less revelation than it was relief: It was like being released from an endless barrage of rumors and “well-informed speculation.” By the time they signed, it was impossible to be shocked, or to put it in any sort of perspective; the collective hive had already processed every possibility, eliminating that unique pleasure of genuine surprise and discovery. Fans were just glad it was over. ESPN’s Sam Miller, who co-hosts that Effectively Wild podcast, once said that the world of baseball would be better if we didn’t learn of a single off-season transaction that occurred until opening day, when suddenly all these players showed up in new uniforms. (Bryce Harper is a Phillie now? Manny Machado is where? Whoa!) It’s an amusing, whimsical thought experiment … but baseball fans really would be better off, wouldn’t they? The slow drip of news-like rumors and rumors of rumors effectively numbs us to the hard news when it hits, and paying close attention isn’t giving us a better idea of what’s going on, it’s giving us a worse one.
This is the problem with the Mueller report this week, too. Had the world never had a single dribble of information about what Mueller was investigating or who he was indicting until it all landed on our collective plates this week, the reaction would have been all-engulfing. Instead, after the years of nuggets, it couldn’t help but feel underwhelming.
The NBA has long had an “off the court is more exciting than on the court” problem, and while it’s undeniably fueling the league’s resurgence now, eventually they have to play actual games and actual people have to watch them. The past half-decade, and the next several decades, of the New York Knicks rests on what happens this off-season, and we will receive endless pseudo-updates on how their pursuit of Kevin Durant and others is going. But we won’t have any answers at all until Durant’s decision is made. Everything else is just a series of nuggets leading, essentially, to self-bargaining — talking ourselves into it, or out of it, until it actually happens, or it doesn’t. There isn’t much more shocking than Kevin Durant joining the Knicks. (The Knicks!) But by the time it actually happens, we won’t even be able to be surprised.
My dad is turning 70 this year, and like a lot of 70-year-olds, he has a hard time keeping up with everything going on in the world. He doesn’t use Twitter, he’s bad on Facebook, he watches the national news on CBS at 5:30 p.m. Central Time like he has his entire life. This week, he told me on two separate occasions, “Wow, I can’t believe Bryce Harper left the Nationals” and “Trump sure was involved in some shady business.” I long ago yawned off both of those things. Who’s right: me or him?
Will Leitch’s Games column runs weekly. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.