I took a course in my first semester of undergrad that focused on rhetorical analysis. I didn’t know that was the subject matter for which I’d registered; it was one of many first-year seminar options with course descriptions written like TED Talk titles and it caught my eye. It’s turned out to be one of my most-used subjects in my daily life. Throughout that course I was taught about the importance of rhetoric—the art of speaking or writing effectively, and the compositional techniques and figures of speech used to do so—mainly regarding the way the writer’s narrative and word choices shape the tone of a piece.
We, as consumers of content in today’s content-driven world, see it everywhere. The same simple piece of news is shared by multiple outlets, all putting their own spin on the words chosen to paint their picture. It’s the function by which the Croatian national football team were undoubtedly praised for a fantastic victory in Zagreb’s local paper, but the London Evening Standard called the match a heartbreaking defeat. It’s all about perspective. Sometimes a writer’s narrative is intentional, and other times it’s subconscious. But it’s always important, because it shapes our thought. It’s something of which we, as readers, should be much more cognizant.
It’s something to which we didn’t pay much attention with Mark Saxon’s latest article for The Athletic.
I’m going to start this off with a few disclaimers. (It’s always a great feeling to be writing a piece requiring disclaimers.) I don’t speak for VEB on this issue; you’ve already seen writers here who disagree with me on this subject and I guarantee there are others. I’m also not intending to give away a recounted version of The Athletic’s content — I’m only referencing what’s necessary to make my point and critique the narrative presented and I highly advise you all subscribe. Lastly, by no means am I questioning Saxon’s integrity as a journalist. I have no basis with which to ascribe his intentions with the piece; it could’ve been conscious or subconscious. What I do know from reading the piece and assessing response across the internet is that it paints Bud Norris and Mike Matheny as bullies and the readership has eaten it up. The online response has included some very serious allegations about the character of the individuals involved just from this piece alone, and, in that respect, we as a fan base are jumping to some major conclusions. Even with the information given in the article, I see these conclusions as assessments lacking a LOT of critical information.
In this section I want to list the concrete facts about the Cardinals’ situation I was able to draw from Saxon’s piece. These are things like direct quotes from players. They’ll be stripped of all hyper-descriptive language. All information comes straight from Saxon’s article for The Athletic.
- Norris has been pushing Hicks to be on-time for meetings and events and publicly calling him out on missing details.
- Matheny doesn’t think Hicks will ever appreciate the treatment (he said while laughing) but gives Norris a public endorsement to continue.
- When asked if he thought it would one day be helpful in his career, Hicks responded, “I have no idea. No comment.”
- Hicks was originally optioned back to minor-league camp due to being repeatedly late for Spring Training.
- Norris was quoted saying Hicks is learning the “professional” aspects of the game.
- Matheny invited Norris to lead the bullpen and report when players do things that don’t line up with the team’s standards, sometimes resulting in fines.
Aside from an anecdotal story about former California Angels pitcher Chuck Finley (meant to draw a parallel to Hicks) and a story about how Norris was harassed by veterans as a member of the Houston Astros (meant to...I think show Norris’ bloodline?), those are the concrete pieces of information we receive from the piece. The fire-filled response from the fanbase comes from the language used to describe the facts and people involved.
Here’s a list of the ways Saxon describes Norris or Norris’ actions, from start to finish:
- “...stubborn adherent of the old ways...”
- A 33 year old “mercilessly riding” a 21 year old
- “...teaching younger players in the harshest possible ways”
- [Formerly the] “young victim of veterans’ pranks”
- “...one to remember every slight the game has thrown at him”
- “...unofficial keeper of the old school...”
That’s all pretty descriptive language. Put together, it’s also quite persuasive, I might add. What stands out to me is that none of it is backed by concrete examples, aside from being the victim of veterans’ pranks in Houston. We’re told Norris is pushing Hicks to be on-time, something he failed to do in Spring Training, but we’re not given any example of how he’s doing so “mercilessly.” Again, teaching a younger player in “the harshest possible ways.” How? If one argues that Saxon is restricted from airing details in the interest of maintaining confidentiality and rapport, he’s already painted Matheny and Norris to be bad teammates, even featuring direct quotes from Norris. Would you be open in your conversations with him moving forward if you were on the team? No, when someone takes the time to write a piece with language this directed, they need to share examples. Otherwise it produces the blind rage we’re seeing right now from the fanbase who already has a hatred of Matheny.
Though there’s so much we could unpack, I want to focus on one more of Saxon’s oft-used descriptions: the “old school” or “old ways.” Norris is described as a stubborn adherent, or unofficial keeper. That language alone makes him sound like a guard dog enforcing rules people don’t want. It’s even referenced in the title of the piece, when his approach is called divisive. “Old school” has come to encapsulate so many negative feelings. It’s often shouted by people averse to change, or by those in favor of times when injustices were more prevalent. I am not one of those people, and I don’t think we have enough information to say that 2018 Bud Norris is, either. There’s no doubt to me that choosing to use that word so many times in this piece is intentional; it carries a tone. It’s what helps establish Norris’ actions as “merciless” and dominating, even when there’s no basis for it.
- “...the hardest throwing right-handed pitcher in baseball...”
- “...ace setup guy...”
- “...electric right arm”
I’ll open up by saying that I LOVE Jordan Hicks. My long-winded article really has nothing to do with him, because Hicks has been a revelation this season and he’s one of my favorite players in the league today. Regardless, though, Hicks is the innocent lamb in this piece. It’s said that he’s the victim of “merciless riding.” His decision to withhold comment on the story is written in a way that sounds like he said he hates Norris, or that he’s afraid to speak up at risk of being “bullied” further. The fact that he was sent down to minor league camp in Spring Training due to tardiness issues is glossed over, even though it’s mentioned that being on time is one of the focal points of Norris’ exchanges with Hicks.
The only thing that need be done now on Matheny’s part is show that he encourages Norris’ actions, which the manager does. Saxon includes a quote from Matheny about how baseball is now “softer” than it used to be, which lines him up with the “old school” approach. His endorsement of Norris’ behavior makes him seem like the leader of the bullies.
What Conclusions Are We Supposed to Draw?
If you follow the article, it seems to me that the reader is supposed—or, at least, led—to process the piece like this, given the language used:
Chuck Finley came up from High-A just like Jordan Hicks did, and was scared of upsetting veterans. Now we have an old-school guy instilling fear in 21-year-old Hicks the same way, and that guy is 33-year-old Bud Norris. Look at that age difference. Norris was maliciously teased by his veteran teammates, with things like parking his car on the field, so he’s jaded. He doesn’t forget any slight that’s happened to him. Hicks hates Norris’ actions so much that he won’t comment. Matheny encourages it because he thinks baseball is too soft. In fact, he’s appointed Norris as his “snitch” in the bullpen. Mike Matheny is a bully and so is Bud Norris.
If you go back to read the facts section of this piece, comparing it to the above paragraph, you might wonder how we got here. It’s all in the descriptive language used. We aren’t given concrete examples of Norris’ indiscretions like we are his former Astros teammates, we’re just told to take Saxon’s word that Norris is being mean-spirited. We gloss over the fact that Norris’ comments to Hicks are about something with which Hicks struggled during Spring Training, to the point he was demoted. We forget that the bullpen has been a struggle point for the past two years, and maybe some leadership would be a good thing, if it isn’t bullying. We ignore that Tommy Pham has been lauded for speaking his mind and calling his teammates out several times. Again, this isn’t meant to focus on Saxon so much as it is that this piece feels more persuasive than informative, given the focus on sculpting this persona around Norris.
I want to address a few specific responses I saw from fans after the article was released, and how those claims are extremely too serious to make off of one piece or how they conflict with other preaching points from our fanbase.
Bud Norris hasn’t made it easy to write him off as a completely upstanding guy. In 2015 he was quoted saying some awful things about foreign players. Norris’ comments were hypernationalist, isolationist, xenophobic, you name it. That type of speech has no place in America, let alone such a diverse organization as Major League Baseball. Even his apology at the time seemed half-hearted. With that said, we as fans are not able to make the judgement that 2018 Bud Norris is racist or acting maliciously from the contents of Saxon’s piece alone. If Saxon had released that Hicks and Tuivailala were the only relief pitchers being ridiculed? Sure. That would be a fair claim. All that we know is that Norris is being tough on one of the youngest, most promising pitchers in the game, and we don’t know that it’s malicious or racist.
“Snitch, Narc, etc.”
I struggle with adults who use the terms snitch, narc, or tattle when discussing someone pointing out the wrongdoing of others. We aren’t on a playground anymore, and accountability is a good thing. However, we can ignore that piece entirely and just focus on the mixed messages we give about the bullpen and the organization. So many fans talk about a loss of fundamentals, the loss of the “Cardinal Way,” and/or the demise of the bullpen over the last two years. We now receive a report that the team has a disciplinary system in place and one of the players is helping enforce it, and it suddenly becomes an issue of “tattling.” If you want a team to be held to standards, they have to be held to those standards. Peers do a better job of that than anyone else. Norris upholding the standards of the club by going to Matheny doesn’t make him any less of a teammate. If your issue is with fines, that’s another subject entirely.
Okay, What’s Your Point?
I’m glad you asked, floating header. And I’m sure you all are, too. My point has two components:
- When a mediocre season rears its head, we have a tendency to get bored and start attacking other aspects of the team—often the aspects where we have absolutely no knowledge.
- Those with deeper access who choose to write pieces on the human side of the team should be careful in the way they frame those stories, or at least offer concrete examples if they’re going to make claims about the players who comprise that team, unless they’re trying to build a narrative.
Maybe—as journalists, as baseball lovers, as intelligent fans of the game—we should put a little more emphasis on what happens on the field. Humans are built to search for patterns. We’re a social species; we’re hardwired to hunt for drama. But, when presented with a single piece of information, we should try a bit harder to analyze it. Search for truths, not things that confirm our bias. Then build upon it. I’m not a fan of Mike Matheny as a manager, and I’ve been very forthcoming about that fact in my other pieces. However, I believe that criticisms of someone or something that are based in emotional appeals or fallacy-riddled arguments, lacking source material, do more to diminish the overall argument than they do to help it. Save your outrage for verified outrage-worthy events. There’s always a little bit of truth to both sides of the story; take the time to note which side your source is favoring, consciously or not. And sometimes, when we hear reports that spark outrage, they seem to be a little...overstated, right?
Here’s a Twitter exchange between Keynan Middleton, who was Norris’ teammate with the Angels last year, and Jordan Hicks. Looking like this might’ve been blown out of proportion after all, if primary sources are your thing.
I couldn’t agree more, crazy what the media will do when they think there is a story ♂️ solid Vet✔️— Jordan Hicks (@Jhicks007) July 12, 2018