My tax bracket usually dictates that I sit in the sections of the stadium where a mask will drop down if there’s a loss in cabin pressure. But seeing as how this is the week of my 30th birthday, the pity is running so thick that the family treated my wife and I to some really great seats at Safeco Field.
16 rows up from the field is not Bill Gates territory, but it is occasion enough for me to talk about what it’s like to sit in primo seats, where the sights and sounds extend beyond the screaming children and passing aircraft.
Heading into the stadium from the street, the first notable difference in the land of good seats is that I didn’t have to hike the miles of concrete incline and stairs to find my section.
My natural orientation on entering a baseball park is to climb like an F-16 taking off from an aircraft carrier, so I had to recalibrate when we steered a downward trajectory to get to our seats. My palms sweated as we hurled earthward. I reached for the ejection lever.
But the landing was soft. One row after another fell behind us. The sounds from the field faded up as the players warming up and the base coaches chit-chatting appeared first life-sized and then enormous. They are all enormous. You forget watching from a distance that the unnatural selection of major league baseball has weeded the little guys from the bunch, and all professional athletes are huge, even the mediocre players among them. Ryan Langerhans is a beast. Doug Fister in 9 feet tall.
Sitting that close is a cinematic experience. Every feed is active: the audio, the visual, even the sensory. You can feel the sound of the bat hitting the ball as well as you can hear it. Cliche as it may be, the little things rise in prominence. Langerhans patting a teammates back, Ichiro on deck.
This is what Ryan Langerhans looks like up close.
My Fellow Americans
There are more middle-aged couples down in the rich seats. They are successful, cheerful people. The men have a wind-swept look. They wear class rings and windbreakers. One guy looked like he came straight from the marina to the game. A beer vendor called him Dick Van Dyke, and he looked like he led a sun-filled, smiling life. He clinked beer bottles with the other guy in their party of four, as if to toast the silvery healthfulness of each of their beards and the lives that enable those beards.
But the demographic wasn’t limited to these over-privileged tables for two. There was a big family right behind us, and they were having a helluva a time. Dad had a constant commentary going, the whole game. “Look at Figgins, he’s gotta smile like a horse.” Then he made a horse sound and his kids laughed and laughed. “What are you doin’ out there, Moore!” he bellowed when the young catcher missed an easy Big Papi pop-up right behind home plate. “Gimme the mitt, Moore, let me do it!”
There’s something about being in the expensive seats that lent this jokester a likability that might not have been there in the $10 seats. He seemed, in that low-altitude context, like a rebel, a firestarter, sticking it to the man. He had on a jersey with a customized name on the back that said “Big D.” He was great and so was his family.
As I alluded to, the sounds are more immediate down front. A big league bat striking the ball creates a singular sound. It’s a feeling. I felt it in row 16. You don’t feel that from up high. Ichiro’s contact rings like an axe-fall.
Home runs sail away, the same way they do for the hitter and the pitcher. They disappear into the distance. It lends an air of the mythic, that something fades away rather than simply traveling like a common mathematical point from one position to another along the grid. Moving and leaving are distinct.
When the game is over, the players walk towards you to leave, and they walk under you. A few players linger and say hi to friends in the stands. Mariners pitching coach John Wetteland rattled off the names of his kids’ friends who were at the game. “Kyle, right?” he said, pointing at them. The kids were not much impressed that a pitching coach took the time to name them.
via flickr user urbanlegend
This is Safeco Field I realize. The Mariners are far, far out of contention. The Red Sox were in town, but Youk, Drew, Pedroia were all out. It’s a subdued vibe all around. The sweet seats at Yankee Stadium, at the Cell, at Chavez Ravine, those are gonna be different. They will be be manic and throbbing and monied and everything. In Seattle, this September, the good seats were a place to lounge and listen, and hope that some hitting broke out.
One thing we’re interested in here at Pitchers & Poets is the space where baseball interacts with, well, everything else in our world. Starting now, and then through the off-season, we’ll speak with folks who’s day jobs aren’t baseball-related but are in one way or another notable, about the old national pastime.
Our first interviewee is singer songwriter Jason Isbell, formerly a Drive-By Trucker, currently leader of his rocking band the 400 Unit. He’s from the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama, and a huge Atlanta Braves fan. Next month he hits the road headlining the first ever Paste Magazine tour, along with Langhorne Slim, Jesse Sykes, and more.
We’ll get right to it:
PnP: Leadbelly once said that all songs, in the end, are about baseball. With that in mind, have you written any songs about baseball?
Jason Isbell: I’ve attempted to do so, but it’s not something I’ve felt success with just yet. I actually discussed doing a concept record about baseball with Will Johnson (Centro-Matic, Monsters of Folk) at one point, but I don’t know if he realized I was serious. He’s an expert on the game, by the way.
PnP: Do you have a favorite actually about baseball song?
Jason Isbell: I love the poem about the mighty Casey, but I guess that doesn’t qualify as a song. I always liked the theme song to “Talkin’ Baseball,” the show they played after This Week In Baseball when there was an extra long rain-delay. Campanella is a really lyrical name.
PnP: How did you become a baseball fan? A Braves fan, specifically?
Jason Isbell: I played ball starting when I was 6, so I followed it then. I guess my Dad was initially responsible. My grandparents on Dad’s side were very religious -my granddad had been a Pentecostal preacher- so there wasn’t much they could look to for non-offensive family entertainment. Because I played ball, my grandparents started watching the Braves on TBS, and they wound up getting a lot of joy out of those games. As I got a little older, I realized how much they valued the afternoons and evenings we spent together watching Braves baseball, and that made the team mean something very special to me. I wish they were still around to watch Bobby’s last season.
PnP: Are you worried about the Braves in a post-Cox, post-Chipper Jones era? Or are you confident in the future of the Jason Heyward Braves?
Jason Isbell: I loved them in the Gerald Perry, Dale Murphy days, and I’ll love ’em if they lose again. However, I think they have a lot of strength in younger players like Heyward, Prado, and Infante, so they should be fine.
PnP: I grew up watching a lot of Braves baseball on TBS and found the Carey/Sutton broadcast team almost impossibly boring. What do you look for in a baseball broadcast?
Jason Isbell: I like the unexpected. I think the guys on Sports South do a good job, because they aren’t always so serious. They make some really silly comments and crack themselves up fairly often.
Jason Isbell: I’ve spoken to Dave O’Brien at the AJC quite a bit, and there are lots of Braves fans who also follow my music, so it’s nice to keep in contact with them when I can. Still trying to start a conversation with the Braves organist, because he’s absolutely hilarious.
PnP: How do being a baseball fan and a musician reconcile? Do you sense any of that high school strain between the rockers and the jocks, or conversely do you see the two as having a beneficial relationship.
Jason Isbell: I was not at all a jock in high school, but I know a lot of musicians who were. I think we can all get along, especially since baseball is a thinking man’s game. I also feel it’s not a sport that’s only accessible to the relatively wealthy, like golf, so that made it easier for me to get interested. I would’ve never been able to afford to play golf as a kid, but you can always find an open field and a stick.
Since we recently discussed American Mythology including the subject of this particular tune, here’s a video of Jason playing his song “The Day John Henry Died” acoustic. Thanks to Jason for his time.
I think he might be, Ted. The piece starts off in mid-conversation, as if clipped from exasperated correspondence. (“First of all” rarely bodes well as an opening clause). And it quickly dives into a tone so defensive and so earnest that readers would be justified in wondering what they might have done or thought to deserve such treatment. James only gets weirder and more confounding from there, by using the word “bullshit” multiple times and leaping haphazardly from the deeply personal to the sweepingly general to the just plain anecdotal.
James probably means less to Pitchers & Poets than he does to most baseball publications. We are relatively unconcerned with statistical analysis and the baseball establishment (though we do appreciate the premium he puts on convention-breaking). Instead, we focus on the experiential, the ephemeral, and the personal. Which is what makes this article so interesting. It’s totally, almost embarrassingly personal.
I’m not especially well-versed in the guy — I’ve never even picked up one of his Baseball Abstracts — but I think you might be. So my question is, what do you make of all this? Is he actually losing it?
Ted: Your lack of experience reading Bill James’ stuff shows itself. I’m no Jamesian scholar, but I’ve read much of his Historical Baseball Abstract. He is, in fact, as taken with the historical and extremely non-analytical side of the game as he is with the numbers. The abstract’s player descriptions are more engaging, on many levels, than the numbers (for me, anyway), as James clearly takes great pleasure in finding the little-known anecdotes about little-known players and sharing them with a dash of his own sensibility. So stats, yes, but he’s also a sort of self-made historian and has set a long precedent for discussing things like Babe Ruth’s eating habits and cheating in baseball, etc.
Okay, with that said, he might be losing it. James has always reminded me of the really smart, fairly anti-social kid that you sit next to in science class in middle school. If you are of a certain temperament, and you’re a little susceptible to strong personalities, even anti-social ones, you might make friends with him and go over to his house a couple of times and watch him hack computer games and steal liquor from his parents and ramble engagingly about perverse topics and children’s cartoons. This kid’s intellect is apparent, and between perversities he says some truly insightful stuff, way ahead of its time. But deep down, you know that if you hitch your horse to this wagon train, it’ll take you somewhere you don’t really want to go.
Now, James only reminds me of that kid. He’s not perverse, and a life of corporate crime isn’t the only outcome for his acolytes. But, he is now revealing the weirder side of anti-social, anti-establishment intelligence. This article is the equivalent of poruing mixed drinks from his parents’ dusty bottles of forgotten booze.
I write fragments if I goddamned well feel like it. I refuse to follow many of the principles of proper research that are agreed upon by the rest of the academic world. An editor said to me last year, “Well, you’ve earned the right to do things your own way.” Bullshit; I was that way when I was 25.
Exhibit A: he compares himself and his writer’s life to the career of Babe Ruth, with seemingly little irony. The article could be called “What Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds and I Did to Achieve Greatness, and Why We Don’t Care What You Think About It.” And I quote: “It doesn’t make me a bad person; it makes me who I am.” Uh, Bill, who has called you a bad person? You didn’t cheat at writing fun books and building insightful commentary. Steroids and corked bats do not equal unsound grammar and self-publishing.
Granted, his argument is slightly more subtle than that, but the fact is he placed himself in the same paragraph as the Babe and Barry Bonds and Ted Williams. I don’t know much about much, but I know a slightly unsettling feeling when I feel one, and that made me a little nervous about his creative sensibility, and his taste.
Okay, now that I’ve started the claim that he’s off his rocker, I’ll offer that his actual argument has some merit. America was built by hustlers, as claimed in the book I’m reading called Freedom Just Around the Corner by Walter A. McDougall. Even the Puritans basically said to the king, yeah sure cool we’re your servants, etc., while they set up their own economy and government and went after it American-style.
So what do you think of his argument, that we should leave Babe Ruth alone. You know, work to end those anti-Babe rallies on the mall in Washington, D.C., and discontinue our Impeach George Herman campaign….
Eric: I accept my lack of experience reading Bill James. And I accept the fact that his influence goes beyond statistics.
That said, I think your description of James as I know his reputation — and has he is portrayed by other writers, like Rob Neyer and Joe Posnanski — seems accurate. He does seem to be teetering on the edge. As Neyer wrote of the article, it says more about Bill James than it does anything else, including Babe Ruth.
On the subject of Babe Ruth, I think we are crossing into an altogether different dimension. James is a cult hero and it is unlikely that he will ever be anything more than a cult hero. Babe Ruth on the other hand is a tall tale. If they aren’t already, the historical facts of his life will soon mean a great deal less than the myth of his existence. I don’t think it’s silly at all to put Ruth in the same category as Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan and even John Henry. The pie-eating, beer-guzzling, home run bashing Babe. He fits right in. He’s is folk. Hell, 2014 will be 100 seasons since he made his Red Sox debut.
With that status in America’s history and its collective cultural conscious come certain realities. One of those realities is that like those 19th century folk heroes, Babe Ruth will ibe studied exhaustively. His legacy will be proven and disproven. His behavior will be roundly criticized and roundly applauded. We already see this happening with stories about calling shots and hitting home runs for sick children.
To argue, as James appears to, for a kind of willful ignorance on subjects like Ruth, seems, well, willfully ignorant. One can’t expect us to look back and appreciate that “America was built by hustlers,” as you put it, without actually investigating and learning about those hustlers. Furthermore, I find that narrative unconvincing. I think America was built by hustlers. But it was also built by slaves and preachers and educators and poor farmers. It was also built by immigrants and poets and soldiers.
via flickr user photohound
There is that indefatigable spirit of America. The one that Whitman wrote about and the Founding Fathers embodied and James appears to be trying to tap into. It exists and that’s a great thing. But James is warping the spirit considerably. His adventures illegally crossing a railroad track to get to a convenience store are hardly the stuff of Vanderbilts and Carnegies and pioneers moving westward on the Oregon trail. Crossing that railroad track isn’t even a risky enough act to work as a metaphor. Not to be petty, but a billion people in places like Beijing and Rome and Mexico City jaywalk every day. Does that mean they too are imbibed with the spirit of America?
To answer your question, I don’t think we should leave Babe Ruth alone. We should continue to celebrate him and explore his history. But the notion that anybody is trying to discredit him feels foolish.
I want to go back to the idea that America was built by hustlers. As I mentioned, I find that narrative unconvincing — especially as we often see it in film and tv and book portrayals as an excuse for and explanation of organized crime. The Godfather has a million examples of it, from the opening scene in which the poor abused baker Enzo says “I believe in America” to Michael Corleone’s military heroism to the famed panoramic image of the parked car in the golden field with the Statue of Liberty looming in the background over the murderous scene.
It obviously works in the movie. And there is an element of truth in the notion. But I’m not all the way there. Tell me why America is a nation of hustlers, not a nation of something else.
Ted: Well, vis a vis the hustler concept, I don’t want to press on someone else’s point too hard, and I agree in large part with your assessment of who has built the America that exists today. One side note is that the author of the hustler idea stressed the double meaning of the term hustle, meaning to scheme but also to work hard. And hard work applies to both the stereotypical Godfather-style ascendance, and to your average everyday American success story.
I think there’s something to be said for doing something in the spirit of something. Like capturing or tapping into the spirit of the time, or using your force of personality to influence the way people see something that is askew. I think Bill James used his power of personality to drive the baseball conversation in a more intelligent, more interesting direction, and I think Babe Ruth used his power of personality to save baseball and take it to a new place. Suffice it to say, I don’t think that Barry Bonds did that, and I’m fairly sure that Roger Clemens didn’t do that. Sosa and Mcgwire do present a more complicated argument, because of the way that they saved baseball and really did elevate the game when it was in the crapper.
Hey, I’m with Bill. This stuff is complicated.
But he takes it too far. His essay goes from Babe Ruth to steroids to crop spraying to crossing the railroad tracks to Branch Rickey. From insider trading to violent crime to Prohibition. It isn’t that he’s wrong, it’s that he’s off in the Milky Way. Every argument is covered, giving the impression that James wanted to write something that included the contents of his active brain, rather forming a cohesive argument. And ultimately that’s fine. It’s a great way to learn about yourself and about a topic, by exploring all of its facets. But is this a consistent, compelling, drum-tight, “print”-worthy piece? Probably not.
The primary offense James is committing is Failure to Self-Edit. His prominence may have gained him an editor’s hesitance to question what the hell he’s talking about. Hell, I probably wouldn’t say that to his face either.
It may be that rather than showing us the real Bill James or something intense like that, he’s showing us the limitations of his artfulness. He is more effective when summarizing a baseball player’s career, or sharing a story from the annals of baseball anecdote. I might in the end leave the column-format policy argumentation to Thomas Friedman.
With all of that said, are we holding Bill to a standard too high? He never claimed to be Thomas Friedman. In fact, one of his genius moves is to avoid claiming any particular identity. In a way, allying himself with Bonds or Ruth is one way of attaining the freedom of the pariah, a role he hasn’t enjoyed in decades.
I saw the guy who used to be Bob Dylan on Saturday. He wore a white hat with a wide flat brim and a mariachi’s outfit and he smiled like the riddling Cheshire troubadour of the myths. We smiled too, eventually.
The guy who used to be Bob Dylan is still Bob Dylan. Only he can no longer sing. He growls and coughs and grumbles. Perhaps he can speak, but I can’t be sure of that. The only speaking he did on stage was to introduce his band, and even that was an affectation, a mumbled southern drawl.
This is not breaking news. In anticipation of his set, headlining the first night of Seattle’s annual Bumbershoot Festival, a dozen people warned me that Dylan’s voice is shot. But what I’d heard of his newer material made me think that even crippled, Dylan’s voice would still be recognizable; even smothered in gravel, it would still carry the insouciance and the wheezy essence of the 1960s or 70s or even 80s version. Needless to say it did not.
It took me until the second verse of my favorite Bob Dylan song, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,’ to realize that he was playing it. This was partly due to the fact that like everything else on the set list, the song was rearranged as fuzzy country rock. (I actually enjoyed the arrangements; his band really brought it). But mostly it was due to the incomprehensible nature of the vocals. The cascading choruses of ‘Just Like A Woman’ were sung properly in what could have been protest by the audience, only to be repeated under the singer’s breath two beats later.
Like this, but more electric and less dulcet.
“It kind of reminded me of watching Ken Griffey Jr. play this year,” said my girlfriend after the show. And she was right. My emotions were similar to the ones I felt watching Griffey slink away from baseball this spring.
Edit: I misinterpreted Janelle’s comments. What she said was that she could understand why people still cheered wildly for Dylan because she did the same thing for Ken Griffey Jr. this past year. Sorry for that, Janelle. The similarities — to me, at least — still stand. ~eric
Early in the set, I was uncomfortably surprised by what I heard. Then I became angry. Who was Bob Dylan to be this absurdly, comically terrible? Who was Bob Dylan to unwind his own myth in such an unglamorous setting? We weren’t at Newport or the Isle of Wight or in the West Village. We were in Seattle in 2010 in a rundown stadium underneath the Space Needle. This was no place for massive betrayal.
Eventually I came to terms. This was indeed Seattle 2010. This was 40 years later. I had no right to expect any more of Bob Dylan than he was able to give. He clearly still enjoyed performing. His guitar and keyboard and harmonica abilities were undiminished. If people are still willing to go see Bob Dylan, why should Bob Dylan stop? I should appreciate the glimpse I was lucky enough to get.
Athletic greatness and artistic greatness don’t diminish in the same way. Athletes are slowly surpassed in ability by younger and fitter teammates and opponents until one day they become a liability. Like Ken Griffey Jr. in 2010, the former star must eventually face the indignity of his ineptitude. Either he is no longer able to contribute to a team or he is beaten in individual competition. The end may come at different times for different men, but it always comes.
Not so for musicians. A star musician can play on until performance is physically or mentally impossible. Sometimes this means death. A star musician whose teammates are disappointed in him can simply hire new ones. His fate is dictated by the market and the market for nostalgia is always steady.
Bob Dylan can play the same familiar songs every night – even incomprehensibly. Ken Griffey Jr. cannot hit the same home runs.
The question of badness amongst professional athletes has always fascinated me. The same goes for any celebrity — writer, actor, musician. How to react when a person whose work you admire leads a life that is not up to your own personal standards. Is a murderer who writes beautiful violoncello concertos any different from a regular old murderer?
Obviously not. But that doesn’t make his concertos any less valuable. Just as Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism doesn’t make ‘Braveheart’ any less awesome, and Michael Richards’ racism doesn’t make ‘Seinfeld’ any less funny. Which brings us to Mariners’ prospect Josh Lueke’s rape and sodomy charge. It doesn’t make his 96 mph fastball any less impressive.
I guess this is a question. To what extent can a person mess up before you quit admiring them? Or as a baseball executive, to what extent can a ballplayer run afoul with the law before you decide to stop paying them? Obviously off-field issues will have a greater effect on signability for maginal ballplayers, so let’s stick to the stars, the geniuses. Let’s discuss.