The idea behind States of Play is pretty simple: it’s just to sit down and talk with interesting people from all parts of the United States who are eligible to vote in the next two election cycles. (Update: I’d originally written who are “planning” to vote, but then you have to respect people’s right not to vote…)
Ideally, I’ll do it against the backdrop of a baseball game, whether that’s in person, or on TV at a bar, even via email or watching together online, thanks to MLB.tv and the technology that makes our planet smaller every day. One common link which offers an instant connection with most Americans is baseball – my love for it and their memories of it.
Obviously the preferred location would be in the cheap seats of a ballpark, but that’s not always going to be physically possible – not least because I live in a whole other country for much of the year – so we’ll try our best to work around, particularly in the off-season. As journalists should, I’ll talk to anyone, anytime, if they have something interesting to say. I’ve found most people do.
I’ll explain the methodology as it develops and write about what I’ve learned on the practicalities along the way, but when I set out, the ideal format was nine questions, or conversation topics – one per inning, related to the interviewee’s interests and the context of whatever game we happen to be watching and wherever we’re watching it. Like most projects, sometimes it will work, sometimes it won’t.
As someone tweeted recently, a huge part of journalism is just reaching out to random people and hoping they’ll talk to you. For me, that was always one of the best things about it.
Like you, I really missed baseball during the pandemic; and if truth be told I’m not yet sold on some of the changes since “normal” play resumed. I’m sure we’ll talk about that before we get into the less important stuff like the future of the country.
But I think mostly what we’ve yearned for recently are the things we’d previously taken for granted – among them the simple pleasure of just sitting with a friend and thinking big thoughts about the past and the future; the sort of thing that reflects what WP Kinsella meant when he wrote about the field extending to infinity:
“The foul lines run on forever, forever diverging. There’s no place in America that’s not part of a major-league ballfield: the meanest ghetto, the highest point of land, the Great Lakes, the Colorado River. Hell, there’s no place in the world that’s not part of a baseball field.”
I’ll aim to talk with as many people as I can – from as many US states as I can – over the next three seasons, in the run-up to the midterm elections in 2022, then into the campaign cycle ahead of 2024.
I covered my first presidential election campaign in 1988 – almost a quarter-century before I got to vote in one – and I’ve written about each one since then, but still I find myself frequently rendered speechless by American politics. It’s no risky prediction to say the next three years are going to be totally and utterly fascinating.
I’m proud to have been a journalist for more than thirty years. They’ve passed in the blink of an eye.
For twenty of those years, I was fortunate to work at one of the world’s great newspapers, the Financial Times. Even from the moment I joined in 1989, I knew it was a special place: somewhere the “pursuit of excellence” wasn’t just a cliché. Central to that pursuit was the ability to imagine how such an institution should adapt in order to continue to do what it does so well.
In the mid-90s I joined the start-up team to launch the paper’s web presence, FT.com, and worked alongside some outstandingly talented people in the London and New York newsrooms to develop and grow our online identity as we transitioned to the digital-first news organization the FT is today.
I moved permanently to the US in 2006 and worked briefly at McKinsey and Forbes.com, and for slightly longer at a classic NYC tech start-up called Muck Rack, where I helped launch their daily media newsletter. I then returned to the FT’s New York newsroom for a year in 2014.
I’ve taught journalism and writing courses at the University of London and held two wonderful press fellowships: at Cambridge University’s Wolfson College and a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan. The latter was, without doubt, the best year of my professional career. You can expect colleagues and friends from most of those past lives to show up here sooner or later.
After I “retired” (if anyone really does that anymore) and moved back to Belfast to be near my elderly parents, I worked with a great group of young writers and academics on a volunteer online project called Northern Slant, which aims to encourage debate on issues affecting the future of Northern Ireland. (There’s a partial archive of my work here). I acted as an Associate Editor and mentor before stepping away from that project when I started planning this one, which had grown out of a year of a misguided PhD program.
In 2022, it will be forty years since I first set foot in the US, a country and people I’ve loved my whole life. As Jacques Barzun might say, baseball became one of the ways by which I started to understand the society around me and observe how Americans understood themselves. As Barzun probably wouldn’t say, it’s almost like when you fall in love with someone, you want to get to know them better, even when – especially when – they might start to go a little crazy.
Most of my professional life has passed observing and trying to better understand America and Americans. I can’t think of a better way to have spent it.
My first in-person MLB game was in August 1983 at the Astrodome in Houston, a couple of weeks before a life-changing visit to Chicago’s similarly jaw-dropping Wrigley Field. Hundreds of games later, all across the country, I’ve lost track of the thousands of words exchanged with countless other people as baseball marked our signposts along a briefly shared road.
These past decades of Cub fandom have been a rollercoaster to say the least. I’ve learned to have a bottomless supply of patience, loyalty and optimism, but to always – always – be ready to deal with disappointment. Occasionally, though, when the stars align and everything goes right, there’s truly no greater feeling and none of those thousands of words are adequate. Unfortunately, as too many writers and fans before me have known, that’s been very occasionally.
With classic self-deprecating understatement, the team’s slogan for the upcoming 2022 season speaks for itself…
Maybe this year we should just aim to replicate one of our more inspired recent rallying cries (as well as being a pretty reasonable life goal)…
Through the city that has recently become my wonderful new home-away-from-home, I’ve found an AL team in the Baltimore Orioles with a similar mindset of simultaneously looking back to past glories and ahead to those to come, rather than getting too carried away with the here and now.
For those of us of a certain age, though, we’re at a point where the here and now is pretty much it; so I hope the farm system reports for both teams are reasonably accurate. Mind you, so much will depend on the mindsets of the relative ownerships and management, so who knows…
I’m a member both of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Online News Association – two groups that help in understanding the ongoing transition of the game and the institution of journalism. Nothing stands still, and change comes to everything.
Like America itself, every baseball game can be compelling and frustrating in equal measure, but at least at the ball game everyone is playing from the same set of rules. That doesn’t seem to be the case in much of the rest of the country at the moment and it’s something I hope we’ll get to talk about.
At a ball game, you almost always see something you’ve never seen before.
In today’s America, honestly, God only knows what we might see next.
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Follow along and be in touch? Want to take part or suggest a baseball town I should visit or someone I should talk to? Drop me a note. Thanks!