May 11, 2007

Finding peace for all baseball, history buffs

Christina Kahrl (A.B. ’90) is not the kind of sportswriter who uses a lot of sports analogies. As managing editor of Baseball Prospectus, part of her job is motivating new writers for the statistical think-tank. It’s work she describes as a cross between a newspaper and a stage play, and she likens her role to producing independent films.

Fresh off another “6,000-word opus on transactions in major league baseball,” Kahrl has every right to be exhausted. But she is friendly and forthcoming about her years at the University—during which she pledged Phi Kappa Psi fraternity (as Chris Kahrl) and followed the White Sox, the Cubs, and Maroon baseball. Her college days in the late ’80s were halcyon days for the Maroons, with women’s basketball at the forefront.

But more than any team, Kahrl recalls individual student-athletes who really stood out. There was running-back Bruce Montella (A.B. ’86), who tried out for the Bears during their post-Super Bowl 1986 preseason; or “classic gridiron names” in Jim Bonebrake (A.B. ’88) and Brian Blitz (S.B. ’90); and softball player Kim Ng (A.B. ’90), now vice president and assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

After a disastrous first visit, Kahrl left hours early for the airport, convinced she’d seen the last of Hyde Park. But the northern California native and Oakland A’s fan learned to love Chicago, not just for the Maroons but also for its pro ball. Although her best friends followed the Yankees, Tigers, or Dodgers, they’d catch the Red Line to Comiskey in its old and new incarnations. They also drove up to Milwaukee a few times a year to see the Brewers.

“Chicago is a great baseball town,” Kahrl sighs. “I was spoiled rotten.”

While Kahrl currently lives in D.C., she anticipates moving back to Chicago soon. And why not? Though her body’s on the East Coast, she’s still living the Life of the Mind.

“I still think back to my readings in Western Civilization,” she admits, citing Turgot’s On Foundations as a favorite.

Kahrl talks just as passionately about history as she does about baseball—and for a few years, it was part of her job to wed the two. As acquisitions editor for Brassey’s Sports, a midlist Virginia publisher, she aimed to integrate the principles of oral history and statistical analysis in the work of writers who were willing to treat sports history as a serious subject. But BP is where Kahrl has really found fame and made her mark—along with fellow Maroons Nate Silver (A.B. ’00), the company’s executive vice-president, and the late Doug Pappas (A.B. ’82), a BP contributor.

Kahrl is proud of the writers she’s helped along the way, including John Hollinger—“now a major player at for ESPN”—and Dean Oliver, whose book Basketball on Paper Kahrl refers to as “a masterpiece.” But by her own (tongue-in-cheek) admission, she has contributed to the downfall of Western civilization by publishing a book on pro wrestling and several books on NASCAR. She also worked on a successful volume on golf history, despite her personal ambivalence to the topic.

How does she deflect criticism of such lightweight fare? Pretty easily. At the University, she “had to deal with some pretty savage critics,” but it taught her how to argue effectively.

Those arguing skills come into play when I delicately broach Kahrl’s other claim to fame—as one of the world’s only openly transgendered sportswriters, perhaps the first. The L.A. Times’ Christine Daniels, née Mike Penner, broke similar ground by professionally outing herself last month. And while she does her share of volunteer work for LGBTQ organizations, she takes the community to task for failing to engage with the mainstream.

“We are, in the end, just Americans who have a broad range of interests and hobbies,” she explains.

For the most part, Kahrl finds, the people who listen to her pontificate about sports don’t take issue with her gender identity. And Kahrl is hardly an anomaly. After a professional announcement about her transition, she received news from a former brother who had also switched genders.

Can baseball change people who do hold preconceived notions? Absolutely, Kahrl says, and her view of Jackie Robinson’s legacy reveals her concentration in history once again.

“In the same way that Reconstruction failed African-American citizens,” she says, “baseball failed its African-American players in the nineteenth century and betrayed them, driving them into the Negro Leagues.”

What about the current controversy over LGBTQ athletes? Kahrl mentions the names Billy Bean and John Amaechi and sounds hopeful for the future.

“People understand more and more that they’ve already had gay teammates who were just afraid of coming out,” she points out.

So what’s next for Kahrl? If she has her way, she’ll be helping revive what she considers the lost art of sportswriting: the old-fashioned game story. She considers it useless for newspapers to compete with sports talk radio and ESPN, bemoaning the fact that instant commentary has largely replaced in-depth post-game analysis. Newspapers should provide perspective on the game and leave simple regurgitation of the facts to the box scores. To do otherwise, Kahrl feels, is a waste of time—and ink.

But for now, she has some more work to do. Kahrl tries never to settle for two or three articles when she can churn out four, five, or even six. Of course, having the right co-workers helps, and in the end, Kahrl can’t resist making one sports analogy.

“At Baseball Prospectus,” she says, “I have a great collection of teammates.”