Sailing to Byzantium

The author of this post is Paul Franz. Ted and I invited Paul to contribute to Pitchers and Poets with the idea that he would bring a new perspective. Already, he has wowed us by writing an insightful essay built around a poem by W.B. Yeats.  Please welcome Mr. Franz to PnP with open arms. For more of his work check out Nicht Diese Töne. –Eric

There comes a moment in the career of a topflight ballplayer when he is no longer a star. The moment is often followed, in short measure, by an even more painful moment when the player is no longer even league average. Then he falls to replacement level or below. Finally, the player retires, often because no one will sign him, or because his team forces him to.

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

Sometimes the process is protracted, like it was for Ken Griffey, Jr., whose injuries kept him off the field for the better part of the decade. The Kid pushed back into the All-Star Game and even found his way to the MVP discussion with big years towards the end of his stay in Cincinnati, but upon his return to Seattle he found himself unable to field, unable to run, and, increasingly, unable to hit.

Sometimes the collapse is more rapid, like it has been this year for Todd Helton. The Toddfather hasn’t been a star for quite some time, but he was well above average last season, plugging along with his 10-20 homer bat and his consistently high, .400 plus OBP. While his body was clearly falling apart, only this year has Helton lost the rest: he’s not walking as much, he’s striking out more, and the power is all but gone.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

It’s at this unfortunate stage where a player’s “character” and “leadership” start to stand out. Media, fans, and other players will talk about the wisdom of players like Griffey and Helton, their joy while playing the game, and their tremendous skill. They’ll talk as if that skill is immortal, as if this season’s numbers are only a blip, a slump that will undoubtedly end any game now. No doubt those magnificent numbers Griffey and Helton put up in the late 90s – when today’s stars were watching after their Little League and Legion games – speak to the vain, unarticulated hopes of Franklin Gutierrez and Troy Tulowitzki: some players, great players, are different. Those players are forever.

It”s hard to blame someone who has spent his entire life being paid millions of dollars to do something because he was so much better at it than almost everyone else for refusing to believe that he can’t do it anymore. You might as well ask a writer not to write, a musician not to play, or a chef not to cook. Baseball is, in fact, much crueler than that, because it is the realm of the young, caught up in body and motion and justly irreverent towards the stuffy work of the mind. What right has some number-cruncher to tell Griffey he’s not good enough? What does Helton care for his line-drive percentage? It is difficult enough to ask for self-knowledge from any man or woman, let alone from a ballplayer.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

No wonder so many baseball players stay in the game as announcers, coaches, and scouts. That innate knowledge is something they must share, because it is in leaving the game that they truly understand it. Meanwhile their statistics are engraved into the History of the Game, a testament to their superior ability. At last they are satisfied to take a less agile form, to leave the field quietly. A lucky few, like Griffey, will have busts made in Cooperstown, commemorating their prowess, and acknowledging that, really, they are the stuff of myth. For the rest, well, not everyone makes it to Byzantium

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