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Frank Exchanges

Baseball Coach Dave Barnard’s statement to the Record does not deserve a Fisking, at least from me, since most of it seems spot on. However, there seems to be a fair amount going on behind the scenes, so perhaps some deconstruction is in order. As background, note this tidbit from the Record article:

Bill Lenhart, dean of the faculty, said he had a “frank exchange” with Barnard about his comments. “Balancing the fundamental values of respect and freedom of expression is a challenge for all communities, including ours,” Lenhart said.

Harry Sheehy, director of athletics, indicated that no disciplinary action was being taken at the present time.

“I know Dave is not a racist,” Sheehy said. “My guess is if Dave felt like students were upset, he would take that to heart.”

Since much of what Barnard writes is reasonable, I’ll just quote and comment on some highlights. Barnard begins with:

On a recent local radio call-in program entitled “The Opinion Show,” I made some remarks about the relationship between Latin culture and recent pitcher/batter confrontations in Major League Baseball. The incidents discussed involved Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez, New York Yankees outfielder Karim Garcia, New York Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens, Red Sox outfielder Manny Ramirez, Marlins pitcher Josh Beckett and Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa. The following rationale constituted the basis for my comments.

This is certainly a much better opening than VISTA’s confused beginning. The central issue at hand is precisely the (alleged) connection “between Latin culture and recent pitcher/batter confrontations.” Barnard then notes:

Latin-born players make up roughly one-third of major league roster spots yet comprised two-thirds of the people involved in the recent events in question.

This may be true but it doesn’t take a statistician to point out that a sample size of 6 doesn’t allow for very sound inferences. It is reasonable for Barnard to point this out, but he really ought to directly acknowledge the number problem.

[T]he possible linkage of culture in these altercations seemed a perfectly legitimate topic of discussion for talk radio given the proportion of Latin-born participants involved in both these recent occurrences and historically well-known baseball events.

Who could possible disagree with this? Of course, my guess is that VISTA might object to any comment that suggested that any aspect of Latino culture was associated with something undesirable. If so, they need to learn that a, perhaps the, central value of a place like Williams should be open-ended intellectual enquiry. Barnard might be wrong in his original claim that Latino culture played a causative role in some of this behavior, but there is nothing wrong with him bringing up the topic.

Indeed, I am heartened to see how smart and eloquent Barnard is. It is marvelous to see a Williams coach who combines talent in sports with skill in debate. Even if there were another baseball coach that Williams could hire that would be 20% better at the art and science of coaching baseball than Barnard is, I wouldn’t want Harry Sheehy to hire him instead. Better to have a less-good coach who is intellectually engaged in the life of the college, than a much-better coach who is not.

On this point, it is interesting to note that this is not Barnard’s first foray into the pages of the Record. Although Williams seems to have no more than a handfull of conservative professors, at least the athletic coaches provide some measure of ideological diversity!

If I was definitive in my response — stating my opinion as if it were fact — I misspoke, as that was certainly not my intention. What I should have said was, “Maybe there is a relationship” versus, “some of this is,” “it is,” or “there is clearly.” My purpose was to invite discussion, not to make a statement of fact that I did not know to be true.

My bet is that the “opinion versus fact” issue is a direct result of Barnard’s “frank exchange” with Bill Lenhart, Dean of the Faculty. That is, Lenhart probably berated Barnard and told him that he had no business offering his opinions as if they were fact.

But whether or not I am correct in this deduction, the entire topic is somewhat asinine. You don’t have to be a post-modernist to see that the distinction between “fact” and “opinion” in a discussion of the causal relationship, if any, between an individual’s culture and his actions is specious at best. Although there are certain “facts” involved here (many of them conveniently captured on videotape), we have nothing better than opinions (whether Barnard’s, VISTA’s, Lenhart’s or mine) about the relationships among these facts.

Opinions are all that you have in any discussion of this type. Some of those opinions are better — more informed, more persuasive, better supported by the evidence — than others, but it is stupid to play the naive positivist game.

Again, I don’t think that Barnard is doing so. I think that he was coerced into making a distinction which he actually recognizes to be meaningless in this context.

Although I have twice visited Mexico on baseball trips and have been a casual observer of Latin culture within the sport of baseball for many years, I am not a cultural anthropologist or sociologist.

Although I don’t know any of the individuals involved here, I can’t help but to see Lenhart’s “frank exchange” in this admission. I bet that Lenhart told Barnard that it was suspect of him to offer facts/opinions outside his area of expertise. Either way, the whole notion that you need to have the union card of a Ph.D. in anthropology or sociology in order to offer an opinion on behavior in a baseball game is ludicrous. Now, though it might be wise to put more credence in Barnard’s ideas if he did have a Ph.D. in these fields, the ideas themselves stand or fall independent of the speaker.

I was simply offering an opinion based on more than two decades of coaching experience and observations watching a few thousand major league baseball games over 35 years.

Read: “Screw you, Ph.D. geeks.” I love the use of the word “simply” in this sentence. Barnard is subversively pointing out that, in all likelihood, no one at Williams is more qualified than he to offer an opinion on the cultural component, if any, in the actions of Martinez, Ramirez and Sosa. If you want to be an “expert” on this topic, then you probably need to be an expert on both baseball and Latin culture. Does anyone at Williams know more about the former than Barnard? Certainly there are some faculty members (5? 10?) who know more about Latin culture than Barnard knows, but I would wager than none of them know nearly as much about baseball as Barnard does.

Baseball, “machismo” (masculine pride) and Latin culture have long been a part of public discourse. During the Major League Baseball playoffs, the topic has been much discussed on talk radio and other journalistic mediums around the country. There is also a significant body of sociological and cultural research, in addition to other print articles, about the topic. In fact, if you plug in “baseball” and “Latin culture” into your search engine you’ll discover over 33,000 web sites and articles; if you search “machismo” and “baseball,” you’ll find in excess of 2,100 hits.

Barnard makes two points here, one good and one weak. The good point is to point out the (obvious) fact that anywhere else but in the sheltered harbor that is the world according to VISTA, a discussion like the one he had on radio would be unremarkable. The weak point is that he can use Google. Glad to hear it! I would expect Barnard to, at a minimum, highlight a reference or two that was directly relevant. If I plug in “Barnard” and “idiot” into Google, I get 3,350 hits.

The number of hits produced has little bearing on this discussion. If Barnard believes that other well-informed people of goodwill make the sorts of points that he was trying to make, he should point us toward those people.

To suggest that cultural or sociological explanations of pitcher/batter confrontations shouldn’t be discussed because an individual or group may take offense, runs contrary to the ideals of the college learning experience.

What possible response can VISTA make to this argument?

The well-respected Harvard political science professor, Harvey Mansfield, had it right when he stated in a 1991 article entitled, “Political Correctness and the Suicide of the Intellect,” “The purpose of academic freedom is to further inquiry, inquiry means being more aware, not being more sensitive. . . . Giving and taking offense is especially inappropriate to a campus. It is perhaps part of politics but certainly not part of inquiry.”

Again, it is a pleasure to see a Williams coach demonstrate this sort of intellectual engagement, regardless of whether he is right or wrong about the issue at hand. Barnard finishes with:

For those seriously interested in studying the relationship between baseball and Latin culture, I welcome the opportunity to discuss, inquire and learn.

It is tough to judge from a distance whether or not this offer is made in good faith; note the snarky use of “seriously.” Fortunately, I believe that I have a way of testing this, which I’ll save for tomorrow.