On my semi-retirement

DMZ · April 15, 2010 at 9:05 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

A night off seems like an appropriate time to talk a little about what’s been happening at USSM, why I’ve been increasingly scarce, and what’s next.

When we started writing USS Mariner seven years ago, a lot of my drive came from being asked (nicely) to please stop writing about Mariner-related topics at Baseball Prospectus. I thought that was a fine idea: I loved the Mariners and I felt like I had something to offer. I could crunch enough numbers to work my way through the stats, knew enough database and Excel to do track down some interesting statistics. I read like crazy and loved sitting down to puzzle out waiver rules over a beer. Once I found something interesting, I found people interested in reading it, because it was insightful, or funny, or well-written. I joined Baseball Prospectus as a fiery internet-bred stathead barbarian, and arguing with the smartest baseball people I could find for six years made me far, far smarter, and much much mellower. I wanted all the information I could get my hands on, and I’d been freed to write about what I loved.

That carried me for five years or so. I realized I wasn’t enjoying it any more in 2008, and I thought (entirely reasonably) the horrible season had demoralized me, and I’d be back. But a couple of things happened, and I’ll talk about a few and a few are too personal. So:

I became a lot more mindful of how I spent my time and energy, and I discovered I spent huge chunks of my week responding to comments and emails. Worse, that time came out of things that made me happy, and doing it made me miserable. Then that misery got returned to the comments, which didn’t help anyone. Every time a new user showed up amazed there could be people so stupid to disregard RBIs as a way to evaluate hitters, determined to show everyone the error of their ways, I got unhappier. And as our popularity increased, so did the supply of people who told us we’re idiots who live in our parents’ basement because we don’t understand baseball from behind our calculators. The asymmetry of discussion only ever widened. It felt like we weren’t making progress in our original goal to belong to and build a strong, smart Mariner fanbase.

In battling the frustration I ended up doing two things: I would be mindful and patient, and try to understand people’s anger and confusion, offer previous discussions or things they could read to help at least establish where the larger debate stood. That almost never went well, and so I felt like I could either care and have people get angry about being patronized, or be abrupt and sarcastic, since I was going to be viewed that way in the end no matter what.

Moreover, I was bored by the same arguments offered in the same way over and over. Chemistry is important to building a good team, and I don’t understand because I’ve never done anything athletic. Clutch hitting. Pitching to the score. Putting the game in motion. Pick your favorite.

Anyway — bored and frustrated isn’t constructive, or healthy.

And we could talk about me, and whether I’m really suited for internet discussion any more, given that I read random people complaining about the site elsewhere online and say “that wasn’t me that said that” and “No, Dave wasn’t the guy who cheered the Freddy Garcia trade because it included Jeremy Reed, that was me… and it was perfectly reasonable at the time even if years later you think it makes me look stupid”. Why do I care at all if people want to pick up one thing I said years ago and wave it around as proof I’m an idiot? I have no idea. But yes, I take a lot of this way too personally, and it’s meant I’m both too quick to anger at times and sometimes I spent way too much time caring about why someone on the internet hates me. Which, again, isn’t constructive or healthy.

At the same time, from when we started baseball coverage on the internet has become stellar. I could just point to a huge number of great sites providing better pure research than I could do. It’s amazing that I can now refute Joe Carter arguments with a single link to Baseball Reference, but it’s also a little less fun when I’m not building things. And what am I going to offer that’s new about sacrifice bunting when Tom Tango’s got a fricking blog, or fielding when UZR is on Fangraphs?

Since then, I’ve tried to find things to write about where I could add something to the discussion that wasn’t covered elsewhere. I’ve found some success, and I’ve failed in public too. Doing that’s been extremely difficult and reduced my output dramatically, and I know the USSM audience noticed. Struggling at writing about the Mariners after being so happy doing it for so long ate at me.

Outside of USSM, I’d been picking up fiction writing again. It’s terrifying and amazingly difficult, but I feel the nerves crackling when I sit down to work on something. I feel like I’m doing something worth the effort to make it amazing. In the last three years I attended Clarion West, Asimov’s ran three of my stories, each of which is better than anything I’ve written here since 2007.

This raises an obvious question — if all of this made me unhappy and I had an alternative, why keep doing it?

If you’ve watched the site, you know what happened and can guess why. I started talking to Dave early about the need to transfer the back-end duties like the never-ending server issues, WordPress tweaking, and general Morlock-type stuff, and it didn’t happen. We never made money to hire someone, for reasons we’e discussed before, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to accept any of the twelve weekly “join our blog networks so we can redesign your site to plaster it with ads, and we’ll keep the ad money” offers that would have taken hosting off my back. We knew we had to do it and we never had the opportunity. The best we did was recruit volunteer comment moderators to take some of the troll-watching off (and thanks to Graham, Jeff, and Mike, because it helped).

Meanwhile, as a Mariners fan, even a somewhat burned-out one, and longtime Dave fan, I felt like if my contribution to USSM and the community was sticking it out so we could read Dave’s posts and then all get together and commiserate over losses in game threads, that was worth doing. I’d run into someone at a game, or on Occidental walking in, they’d tell me how much they appreciated the site and our work, and I’d feel so happy about it I’d get home and start working on Apache optimization again.

It’s weird to realize that took two years, during which I fought to try and find something I could write about that would come to life, propping up the site with game threads and news.

That part’s over. We’ve made a server move, I don’t have to maintain the back end and troubleshoot when someone emails us about weird login issues. Dave’s recruited additional authors to come on and help out, and they’re perfectly capable of keeping the content humming along. I’ve handed server keys off, I’ll be moving all the business-side stuff and the USSM domain over to Dave, and then… I have no idea, except I’m not going to play the same part at USSM I used to.

Dave’s long argued that if I got the hours of my week I spent on blocking hackers or comment spammers, I’d start writing great Mariner content again. We’ll find out: I’m going to go spend my time trying to do great things, and we’ll see what that ends up being. We already know that time’s much better spent creating something great, like the Edgar or Ichiro articles I wrote for the Maple Street annual. And if I had to guess, I’d say that seems a much more likely form: much less-frequent, deeper articles that take a lot longer to develop, written alongside fiction projects and working on weird iPhone apps. Maybe I’ll finally finish that huge chronicle of Russell Branyan’s strange career.

We’ll see. Whatever I’m going to do, I want to produce things that are awesome, or at least I want to fail at things worth trying.

I hope this helps you understand a little better the course of the good ship USSM these last few years. Thanks to all of you for your patience.


Dave’s comments

And then there was one.

I still remember getting an email from Derek with some potential names for our new site, since Chuck Taylor took a job at the Seattle Weekly and Baseball 116 was shutting down. A few of them were really terrible, but Jason liked USS Mariner, and I had fond memories of the cannon going off after home runs, so I was on board for that too. Some days later, Derek had gotten us up and running, and we had a blog – whatever that was.

Seven, eight years later, however long its been (I honestly don’t remember exactly when we started, and our archives only go back to April 28, 2003, but it’s clear we’d been writing for quite a while before that), we’ve said goodbye to Jason, and now, we’re saying goodbye to Derek. It’s ridiculous, but I’m actually wiping tears away as I write this.

But I’m happy for him. You have no idea how much effort he has poured into this place. One day, our server melted, and Derek built us a new one out of hardware he had around the house. He then drove it to Tukwila and put it on the rack, and we were back online. And it didn’t even seem all that crazy, given how much he’d put into making USSM work. Yeah, Jason and I wrote, and we brought in guys like Peter White and Jeff Shaw to help keep the blog interesting, but Derek was the one who kept the site alive.

He did all the work that no one else wanted to do. He handled the technical side of the site, which routinely required him to spend weekends keeping Russians from hacking in and turning the place into a land of spam. He handled the finances, which included paying server costs out of his own pocket. He handled the customer service, which meant wading through dozens of emails telling us that we were horrible people who deserved to die a thousand painful deaths. He handled the comment moderation, which might be the worst job on the planet.

USSM is here because of Derek. The rest of us, we’ve just been leeching off his hard work. If you have ever enjoyed this site, you have him to thank for it, because it doesn’t exist, or stay in existence, without him.

Unfortunately, he never gets much appreciation. People only know Derek as DMZ, the guy who deleted their comment once. Because he wears his emotions on his sleeve, you guys have seen the frustration and venting a time or two, and without context, it has been interpreted as unwarranted. And maybe sometimes it was. I’m not here to defend everything he’s ever written, and he wouldn’t either. But I can tell you this – if he’s offended you, or you feel like you’ve been treated unfairly here, it’s not because he’s an elitist prick who doesn’t care. He cares too much, and it’s part of the reason why I’m proud of him for walking away and focusing on things that make him happy.

Derek Zumsteg is a good guy, and someone I’m proud to call my friend. I’m sad that I don’t get to call him my co-author at USSM anymore, but I’m happy that he’s no longer going to spend the trade deadline trying desperately to keep the site from crashing. I’m happy that he can now spend time being encouraged by his friends, rather than being torn down by strangers.

I’ve known Derek for about half of my life, and it’s been better for having been his friend. If you’re reading this, he’s made your life better too, even if you don’t know it. But he deserves to know it. So, to that end, I’ve set up thanksderek@gmail.com, and if you have 50 or 5,000 encouraging words (these are the critical words in this sentence) that you’d like to say to him, you can use that address. For the better part of a decade, he’s worked thanklessly to make this blog a reality. As he pursues better things in life, he deserves to know just how many people appreciate everything he’s done.

Thanks for everything, D. You will be missed.


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