My warning meant nothing | You’re dancing in quicksand…
— Tool, “Swamp Song”, 1993
Swamp Baseball is like regular baseball, but with a few changes:
- You play in a muddy bog. Outfielders can fall into quicksand. The “run” to each base can take 30 seconds. Swimming is allowed, but bare-eyed (no goggles!) only.
- The ball is covered in mud and will spin and fly unpredictably. Every pitch has its own character. Instead of bats, you remove and use tree branches.
- Each inning, you have to remove leeches. Whichever team has fewer leeches gets an additional run. Lampreys count as four leeches each. (This does make the game notably higher-scoring than regular baseball.)
- Dangerous mosquitos are shipped in, if not already present; therefore, you will probably die of malaria (and, thus, be kicked out of the game with nothing to show for it) before you are 40.
Who wants to play Swamp Baseball? I’m guessing that the answer is “No one”. Nor would most people want to watch it as anything more than a novelty. We like to see humans play the sport in a more appropriate habitat. There’s nothing wrong with swamps. They’re good for the world. They just aren’t where we do our best running– or pitching or fielding or spectating. If you want to see baseball played in top form, you’ll go to a ballpark rather than a malarial bog. It may be, in the abstract, more of an accomplishment to score a home run in Swamp Baseball, but who cares?
In the career sense, I’ve played a lot of Swamp Baseball. I’ve become an expert on the topic. I used to have the leading blog on the ins and outs of Swamp Baseball: how it’s played, why it exists, and how not to lose too much. I’ve fought actual fascists in corporate environments and had my share of runs and outs, wins and losses.
Here’s the problem: no one cares about Swamp Baseball. Why should they? It’s a depressing, muddy sport where even the winners get their blood sucked out by leeches and lampreys. It doesn’t inspire. No one sees the guy who slides into home plate for a run, only to get his face ripped off by an alligator, and says, “I want to be like him when I grow up!”
Technology can be a creative force, and programming can be an intellectually thrilling activity. Getting a complicated machine learning system to compile, run, and produce right answers might be more exciting than the crack of a bat (says a guy who has no hope of being any kind of professional athlete). Like writing and mathematics, it’s one of the Great Games. Victories are hard-won but often useful and sometimes even profitable.
Yet, most programmers are going to be playing their sport in the swamps. There won’t be literal mud pits, but legacy code that management refuses to budget the time to fix. There won’t be literal lampreys and leeches but there will be middle managers and project managers trying to get the team to do more with less– bloodsuckers of a different kind. Just as all swamps are different, all corporate obstructions are unique.
Here’s the problem. Swamp Baseball can be fun in a perverse way, but it would fail as a watchable sport because one’s success has more to do with the terrain than the players or teams. Runner falls into a mud pit? Whoops, too bad! Fielder faints due to blood loss, thanks to leeches? Looks like the other team’s getting a run. Real baseball has boring terrain and lets the players write the story. Swamp Baseball has interesting terrain but no sport or art. If the sport existed, it would just be artificially hobbled people failing at everything because they’re in the wrong habitat.
Corporate life is, likewise, all about the swamps. The success or failure of a person’s career has nothing to do with batting or running or fielding, but whether that person trips over an alligator or not on the way to first base… or whether the shortstop collapses because the lampreys and leeches have exsanguinated him in time. Sometimes the terrain wrecks you, and sometimes it wrecks everyone else and leaves you the winner, but… in the end, who cares?
Swamp Baseball wouldn’t get zero viewers, of course. Some people enjoy comic relief, which in this case is a euphemism for schadenfreude. It wouldn’t be respectable to watch it, nor to play, but some people would watch and for enough money, some would play. Corporate life is the same. Its myriad dysfunctions and self-contradictions make for lots of entertainment, often at another’s literal and severe expense, but it’s fundamentally lowbrow.
That’s why I don’t like to write about corporate software engineering (or “the tech industry”) anymore. And if I stay in technology (which I intend to do) then I want to play the real game.