Monthly Archive for February, 2011

Descent into Doucheyness?

As the Giants ran towards a World Series victory last year, Brian Wilson was a pleasant surprise: a ballplayer with equal parts focus and humor. He appeared in odd places, and said funny things about himself and the game. His charming, modern antics enriched the enjoyable run of an overachieving team.

This season, he’s already toeing the line between charmingly eccentric and outright douchy. His commercial for MLB2K11 is really funny. I dig the lines about “the most perfect honey” and the magic powers of his beard. Good stuff, funny concept, enjoyable execution. His turn as a ship’s captain on “Lopez Tonight” could’ve floundered, but it floated.

Then I saw Wilson in a random Spring Training interview on President’s Day. Some news guy behind the camera, fishing for yet another hilarious Bri-Wi quote, asked him who was on the $50 bill. Wilson, on cue, produced a fat wad of scratch, leafed through it on camera, and produced a $50 bill. “That guy,” said Wilson. Fine, a little gag. The news guy pressed onward, though. “Who’s on the $100?” “That guy.” What should probably have been at most a few chuckle-worthy sound bites became the SNL sketch that wouldn’t end.

There’s a couple of factors in play that determine whether Wilson’s course will be solid or subpar: context and taste.

Context

The context of the Brian Wilson phenomenon is crucial. He clearly enjoys an extended ham session, and something like a commercial provides the necessary cues by which to enjoy him in action, and to judge him on the merits of comedy. In other words, with a commercial or a late night TV appearance, the viewer knows what to expect.

An interview in the locker room, on the other hand, is the realm of information, insight, some level of professionalism (which doesn’t preclude humor, by any means). It’s not the place for rehearsed skits performed with grinning sportswriters, especially when those skits involve the inflated ego that defines Wilson’s comic turns outside of the ballpark. Comedy needs misdirection and a level of the unexpected. But the locker room is within the bounds of the game of baseball. It’s already a bubble of half-fictions and escapism. To try and redirect a redirect shows lack of taste.

Taste

And that is the key to the game that Wilson is playing: taste. There’s no accounting for it, and it’s a fickle mistress. Taste doesn’t mean good manners. It means knowing when to talk, and when to ball. It means understanding context, and withholding some choice lines in the locker room for later use in street clothes. It means knowing when to leave some room for the audience–because at this point Wilson is clearly cultivating his audience–to breathe a little. Harness the power of anticipation, maybe play it straight for a couple of days.

I like to see players having fun, because baseball is fun. It reminds me of when I played baseball, and the characters I played with that made every day different and enjoyable.

But Wilson shouldn’t expect fans of levity to follow him down this entertainment rabbit hole, enjoying every canned move he pulls out, heedless of the situation, which threaten at this rate to soon read more like an episode of Saved By the Bell than the asides of a witty ballplayer.

We Are Baseball: A Manifesto

I am more smitten with baseball in the last two weeks of February than at any other time of the year. It was in the last two weeks of February in 2009 that I conceived of this blog and opened it for business. This time of year, before Spring Training becomes a tired rehashing of the same position battles, before fantasy baseball numbs our collective intellects, before Opening Day creeps from the subconscious, is fertile for baseball writing.

It is also fertile for nostalgia. You can see it in that last paragraph and the optimism that spilled from it. Pitchers and catchers and left fielders and shortstops. They’re back. We’re back. Everybody’s happy. This post was supposed to be studied and precise – a sociological work, not a drooling soliloquy about green grass and red dirt. And yet here we are.

The truth about baseball is that there is no avoiding nostalgia. History lingers over everything, and our many different approaches to fandom are just mechanisms for coping with it. Nostalgia is a fundamental desire to be part of something better – to feel something great that you once felt, or think you felt, or imagine somebody else could have felt. Nostalgia is a way to align ourselves. That is the past I want and this is the present I must now deal with.

“Fandom, like nostalgia, is a way of wrapping ourselves up in sensible context”

Fandom is not so different. We place ourselves in artificial nations. We align ourselves. While the acts of fandom – watching games, researching stats, nurturing complex feelings about players or set of players – may be deeply personal, they amount collectively to a declaration of co-dependence, a linking of hands with history and the people who are currently making it. Fans, much like voters and activists and even opinionated readers of the news, are staking their claim in the culture of something meaningful to them. Fans are necessary. Instead of hesitating to refer to their favorite teams as “we,” fans should be going one step further and referring to the entire sport in the first person collective. We are baseball, hockey, hoops etc.

Fandom, like nostalgia, is a way of wrapping ourselves up in sensible context. But the relationship between the two is nuanced. Fandom also involves nostalgia. Especially in baseball, where the relationship is so storied, so ubiquitous, so self-perpetuating. Practically the entire history of baseball literature from Ring Lardner to Bill James deals with nostalgia in some conscious or subconscious way.

Some fans, of course, choose full immersion. For them, nostalgia is an active possibility, and living in the moment and living in the past are exactly the same thing. In 1973 Roger Angell wrote a story for The New Yorker called “Three for the Tigers” about three crazed Detroit Tigers fans. For these men, the past was as vital as the present. Time was fluid. Far more important was their full immersion in the sport, in the team. By way of their friendship and their fandom, they essentially created an alternate universe in which topics of conversation flowed unencumbered by time and were only marginally influenced by present-day goings on. In this fandom, nostalgia becomes present tense. Angell’s story is a reminder that fandom is an act of self-affirmation:

They are the veterans who deserve notice if only for the fact that their record of achievement and service to their game and their club often exceeds that of any player down on the field. The home team, in their belief, belongs more to them than to this passing manager or that arriviste owner, and they are often cranky possessors, trembling with memory and pride and frustration, as ridiculous and touching as any lovers.

The act is not always so aggressive or aggrandizing. One does not need to define his or herself by fandom to claim a stake in the collective nature of a sport or a team. And one certainly does not need to seek asylum in nostalgia like Angell’s Tigers fans in order to confront it. Even rejecting nostalgia outright as a component of one’s fandom is a manner of confronting it, acknowledging it and even embracing it. The ultimate model for this is Bill James, who’s thirst for convention-breaking was/is matched only by his fascination with the most arcane details of player’s careers. For a modern example: Jonah Keri is one of the baseball media’s most convincing purveyors of new ideas. But when he starts musing on the late Expos, you can practically see him before you picking daisies and staring longingly into the Canadian distance.

“Sabermetricians have bludgeoned the baseball dialogue into something unrecognizable (and I would say better) from that of a previous generation, but they have also bludgeoned their way into history.”

There is inherent tension in Jonah Keri’s fandom and in anybody’s who doesn’t succumb fully to their deepest nostalgic yearnings. We are reconciling our modern selves — our willingness to confront newness, our information-addled brains, our self-conscious multimedia identities — with an undeniable craving for solid ground amidst a cultural landscape that reinvents itself every minute. Sabermetricians have bludgeoned the baseball dialogue into something unrecognizable (and I would say better) from that of a previous generation, but they have also bludgeoned their way into history. In this way, they are creating solid ground for themselves.

But that doesn’t make them/us exempt from the trappings of traditional baseball nostalgia. It was those trappings that inspired me to start writing this post. I saw Bethany Heck’s Baseball Scorebook Revival Project on Kickstarter and immediately descended into what I call the thought spirals. The scorebooks themselves are beautiful, slender, and modern. The accompanying merchandise all has the same stylish retro-grace. It’s no wonder the project has captured baseball fans’ imaginations.

Ted pointed out that they are a product perfect for the moleskine era. How true. Moleskine notebooks themselves are nostalgic — and easily mocked — souvenirs. I bought my first one because it looked cool. I bought my second because of the little card inside the first one listing the great artists and writers (Matisse, Hemingway, Chatwin, etc.) who allegedly carried moleskines around. I was placing myself in history. We do the same by keeping score. It’s an inherently nostalgic act, a deliberate throwback. But by doing so with a delightfully well-designed product, we aren’t just steeping ourselves in comfortable tradition, we’re reconciling it with our present-day aesthetics and values. We’re making nostalgia modern.

The Words Get Out: Miguel Cabrera and the Life of Language


photo by Kevin.Ward

“You don’t know anything about my problems.” – Miguel Cabrera

“I am a rock, I am an island.” – Paul Simon

Cabrera’s words read like a motto of the disenfranchised, like a stray line of dialogue from a John Hughes movie. It is both juvenile and heartbreaking to hear someone express their feeling that no other person could understand the depths of their sorrow; expressing, as it were, the failure of all art, literature, and philosophy to bridge the divide between human rocks and islands. Cabrera, with his hull scraping bottom, thought compassion a myth.

I don’t pretend to know anything about Cabrera’s experience, but I don’t think that precludes the above reading of his words. When he spoke them out loud to the cops, he entered them into the public forum, just as good as a published book that’s on a library shelf.

We each take the same risk when we start a conversation at a party: that our words will escape our lips, drop to the floor, run down the hall, and clamber out the window into the world. It is the fee for admission to society, now more than ever. The saving grace may be that there are so many public conversations going on at a given point that our particular individual embarrassments are swallowed up in the ocean of radio traffic.

The exception being if you are famous, and troubled. I heard the news about Cabrera’s DUI arrest, and I was, at first, disappointed. I recently researched his past issues with booze, and felt that he had made the necessary alterations, and that he was happy with himself. In January of 2010, Cabrera told Detroit Free-Press columnist Michael Rosenberg, “I think it’s going to be a new season, a new life for me. I’m going to be a better dad, better person, better player, better with the fans.”

Then I read the quotation, his declaration of independence from the human family. It thrummed like the final phrase of a hard novel. It probably didn’t feel poetic at the time, an allegedly drunk young man bucking against authority, broke down, frustrated, caught. The tension of the traffic stop, the space between the cop and the baseball player collapsed, thrumming with potential calamity. Cabrera allegedly wandered into the road a few times, upset, swearing. Then the comment, the lash-out, uttered once and repeated. It goes into a report, is spread by the news.

The phrase becomes its own text, subject to public dissection like a frog carcass splayed out on a tin.

“Do you know who I am? You don’t know anything about my problems.”

A question asked, and answered by the asker, as he, at that time, saw fit.

A New Look

Hey readers, as you may have noticed, we’ve redesigned the site. We hope you like it. Before moving on, Ted & I would like to thank three dear friends for donating their time and creative energy to the cause:

Lucas Stanford

Kolin Pope

Craig Robinson

All three were crucial in the process. You’d be smart to support them in all their endeavors. Also, we’re not 100% done but close to it — your feedback is welcome in the comments or at tips@pitchersandpoets.com. Thanks.

The Measured Meter of Money: The St. Louis Cardinals and the Pujols Gambit

From Bryan Burwell’s column, “DeWitt rolls the dice,” in the St. Louis Dispatch:

The strategy that is unfolding is clearer than ever now. The Cardinals chairman is risking it all in the hope that Pujols and agent Dan Lozano are miscalculating Albert’s value in the open market. When informed that this was some bold chess move he was making, DeWitt shrugged his shoulders and allowed a thin smile to crease his lips.

“I don’t play chess,” he said, ‘so I wouldn’t know.”

This feels like a high school economics problem: baseball’s best player, Albert Pujols, wants an extension, and an historic paycheck to match his historic play. The team’s owner, Bill DeWitt, Jr., through a glib smile, calls what he thinks is Pujols’ bluff, lowballing the Machine and waiting, more or less, for the free agent market to prove him right. The conflict pits the racing pulse of Pujols-level talent against the measured meter of money. The World Series of another game, poker, proves over and again that the mathematician wins the game of chance, not the gunslinger. But audiences still clamor for the gunslinger, and the public calls DeWitt a madman for resisting the temptation of a massive emotional payoff that comes with the big signing.

DeWitt plays Russian roulette with one of the game’s icons while baseball fans flinch because it could happen to their team, and Cardinals fans gasp at the thought of losing baseball’s sure thing. In a column on the subject, Fanhouse writer Ed Price distills the matter to its most basic formula, claiming that “Cardinal Nation is left to choose sides, feeling either Pujols is greedy or the Cards aren’t taking care of their icon.” I, for one, would hope for a more mature view of the art of the deal than this dichotomous summation provides.

I’ve been known to watch the Bravo show “Million Dollar Listing.” It’s a “reality” show about real estate agents in glitzy Los Angeles, and it has a simple lesson that shines brightly through the high gloss and sports car sheen: you can’t beat the market. In the show’s common formula, an owner wants to sell their house for well over the market price. The real estate agent, who are the de facto stars of the show, tell the camera that there’s no way that the owner will get that much. The owner hems, haws, or harangues, but when it comes down to it the agent is always right, because they are the experts on the market, the number. The owner lowers their price, and the house gets sold.

Bill DeWitt

Bill DeWitt must watch the show, too, because he’s following the formula to the letter in his dealings with Albert Pujols. Fanhouse quotes him as saying that, “it’s hard to speculate what the open market really is,” but I don’t believe him. He knows exactly what he thinks the market is. Whether DeWitt is the delusional homeowner who wants a better deal than he deserves, or whether he is the realistic agent who knows what the home will bring, that will bear out when the negotiations pick up again and the real market comes into play.

Pujols, for his part, didn’t get to be a generational great by acquiescing to the demands of others, and his negotiating style plays out thusly so far. He told MLB.com:

“[I’m] not disappointed. Like I say, this negotiation, it happens. Two sides didn’t get together and get to an agreement. And that’s the way it goes. It’s negotiation. You can’t get disappointed. You know why? Because I still have another chance after the season, and maybe we’ll get something done then.”

Those are the words of a realist, and in this case realism means understanding what a rare commodity he is as a player, and trusting the market, just as DeWitt does. Million Dollar Listing taught me that there is usually a number, and it might be somewhere in the middle and it might not, but the various factions come to learn what that number is one way or another.

The Cardinals brass claim that they want to both pay Pujols and have enough money left over to put together a good team. This sounds to me like bargaining bull, as there isn’t a player worth more than Pujols, and a team that loses him quickly has a lot of ground to make up in the lineup. He alone is worth ten or so $3 million players (though you’ll have to check with Fangraphs to learn if that’s really true, it certainly to my eye seems the case).

Of the whole thing, Pujols himself put it well: “It’s a zoo,” he said. It’s an appropriate metaphor for the argument that I’m advancing, because a zoo is a sort of ordered chaos. It can be a little stinky and a feast for the senses, but there’s an underlying balance that dictates what happens from one day to the next. The lions and the tigers have got their number–whether it’s pounds of meat per meal or square footage of a pen–just like the Cardinals and Pujols have theirs.

Passions would dictate that the Cardinals should pay Pujols whatever he asks. It would be a blameless victory for Pujols and everybody else. But baseball’s recent history suggests that the painful decisions of today can pay off down the road. A-Rod left Texas and the Rangers had their best season ever a few years later; the Giants defied logic with a series of mediocre, aging free agents and they won a World Series.

A few months ago I argued that Derek Jeter should stop worrying about money and worry more about his legacy with the Yankees. A few parallels were drawn between the two situations, based on their import to the identity of each franchise. This is a stretch. Pujols is prime time, and Jeter is the late late show. Where the Jeter situation was highly emotional, the participants in the Pujols negotiations seem intent on rational, reasoned discussion in front of the public.

I suppose that the measured emotional responses from each side–excluding Cardinals fans and bloggers, one of whom called the ordeal albertageddon— are appropriate, too, give that the players include a God-fearing man-mountain who puts up huge numbers with little chit-chat, and a Midwest franchise that wins World Series and contends every year without marking up the cultural map too much. It’s a tame zoo, this St. Louis menagerie, more aviary thus far than lion’s den on the national scene. Come November, the predators may yet come out to prey.

Links:

Dave Cameron addresses the issue of one player’s dollar value compared with multiple players making the same cumulative amount of money.

Analogies

Alex Belth of Bronx Banter, an actual authority on the subject, takes (friendly) issue with this statement from yesterday’s Milton Bradley post:

Some media folks love to posit Jeter and A-Rod as opposite poles, but really they are the same shiny clean-faced product designed for mass consumption. Jeter is just better at being Mickey Mantle.)

Alex says that is should read Jeter is better at being Joe DiMaggio. I considered that when I wrote the post, but decided to go with the Mick. Here’s Alex’s reasoning. I’m starting to think he’s right:

Because Jeter IS Dimaggio, cool, calculated, meticulously guarding his image. Mantle was the natural, all raw talent, and is known now as much for being a drunk womanizer–a mess like A Rod–as he was for being an icon like Marilyn Monroe and Jack Kennedy.

So is that the right analogy? Jeter is to DiMaggio as A-Rod is to Mantle? Could we do better? Is this a futile waste of time, in the same way that comparing players on the field to their predecessors is a waste of time? Or is it actually more apt than the statistical business?

Encino Man

When Milton Bradley was arrested recently at his home for making violent threats to a woman, I was surprised to learn that he lived in Encino, CA. Encino is a plain and pleasant section of Los Angeles right at the mouth of the San Fernando Valley. It’s nice –mostly white upper middle class families– but it’s not Major League nice. It swelters but not like the deep Valley cities swelter.

I have a theory about why Milton Bradley lives in Encino, where I attended a baseball camp and swam in our friends’ pool. I think he craves the quiet. I think to Bradley, Encino represents something of the idyllic pastoral existence that city people grow up idealizing. The air in Encino tastes nothing like the salty air of his native Long Beach. When he walks down the street, the people may recognize him but they probably don’t bother him.

If I ran into Milton Bradley on the street, I’d probably bother him. This isn’t true for most celebrities. But Bradley is different. If individual players can embody Pitchers & Poets and how Ted and I have come to consume and understand baseball, he is one of those players. By his attitude, his place in the ecosystem, his style of play, his perception in the media, he heightens our understanding of baseball. There are others like him — Ichiro, Zito, Berkman, and beyond.

Bradley switch-hits. That’s almost enough in itself. But it’s not just that – it’s how he hits and how he fields and the inexplicable dissonance between the cool and smooth and patient and effortless Bradley on the field and the turbulent and vulnerable Bradley off of it. When Bradley is playing his best baseball, it’s as if he’s revealing the man he wants to be – and by many accounts, usually is – off the field.

Therein lies the tension that defines him. Milton Bradley is not a volatile baseball player; even his signature season with Texas in 2008 was unassuming. He hit 22 home runs.  He got on base. He stayed relatively healthy. And in the course of that season we saw something different personally. We saw a contentedness in Bradley’s relationship with Ron Washington. “The embrace with Wash was a special one,” Bradley wrote in a guest post for the New York Times baseball blog on making his first all-star team. “It felt like a father-son moment to me. In 30 years, I’ve never really had one of those so I can only imagine that’s what it must feel like.”

Vintage Bradley is patient, collected, and dangerous. His swing is compact in the legs and the hips, and from both sides of the plate an aesthetic pleasure.  His arms lash across the zone with smooth and level grace. He gets on base like a professional, never seeming dissatisfied with a walk. Once upon a time, he was a decent enough outfielder too.  But not even the glimpses of effectiveness reveal Bradley to be a superstar. Instead they reveal him to be simply above average – a good ballplayer, a pleasure to watch, but hardly a superstar, hardly exciting, hardly excitable.

But of course he is excitable. He is practically a caricature at times. He loses his temper during games. He tore his ACL while arguing with an umpire. He broke a bat over his knee (why is this a magnificent achievement of brutal strength for Bo Jackson but a pathetic sign of anger and weakness for Milton Bradley?). I once saw him empty the entire contents of a bag of baseballs onto the field at Dodger Stadium, then fling ball after ball into center field in what appeared to be complete obliviousness to his surroundings. From where I was sitting, I could see whites in his eyes. They boiled.

What’s the right way to understand a player who swirls in so many self-imposed narratives, a player who requires so much? The trait that defines Milton Bradley, the one trait that sets him apart, even from the other smart and vulnerable and self-aware players, is that he demands to be taken seriously as a human being first and a ballplayer second. The earnest statements, the tearful pledges, the tremor in his voice during post-game interviews, the on-field incidents, the off-field arrests: they all reinforce the same subconscious drive to be appreciated or understood or at the very least accepted. Milton Bradley is a human being. And he might be a ballplayer and he might be emotional but those are less important things.

In this way, Bradley is the anti-ARod. (Some media folks love to posit Jeter and A-Rod as opposite poles, but really they are the same shiny clean-faced product designed for mass consumption. Jeter is just better at being Mickey Mantle.) Bradley is incapable of canned lines. He has no interest in public relations, in polishing his image. When Charles Barkley said he didn’t want to be a role model, he was rebelling against the expectations we have for superstar athletes. Bradley is probably aware of those expectations — but instead of dismissing them, he is realigning them: acknowledge me, respect me, then leave me alone.

The story of Bradley’s shortened 2010 season was the simple desire to be accepted as a regular person with regular feelings and regular problems. This desire was manifest in his preseason giddiness about sharing a locker room with Ken Griffey Jr. In the way he tipped his cap to Rajai Davis after Davis stole away an Opening Day home run. In the way he asked for mental help, and then came back, and then fucked it all up again. It was manifest in the way he emotionally confessed to an unsuspecting radio reporter after homering in an already meaningless May ballgame, “I was full of joy, everything felt right,” as if baseball had not felt joyful or right in a very long time.

Obviously, things didn’t stay right for Bradley in 2010. They haven’t begun right in 2011. The Mariners hired a former nemesis, Eric Wedge, to be their manager. Fans and local media wondered openly about his future in Seattle. And then there’s Encino. The arrest.

Maybe Milton Bradley wasn’t ready for the desperate quiet anxiety that suburban life can elicit, and his arrest and the incidents leading up to it were the product of that ever-simmering angst and the pressurized valley air and an offseason spent reading about all the different ways he was no longer a part of his team’s plans. This after the worst year of his professional career. Or maybe nothing happened at all in Encino. The charges were dropped. The Mariners had no comment. We’ll never know.

All we can know is that it’s a struggle to reconcile Milton Bradley. He is baseball’s Jacob, always wrestling with himself, his managers, his teammates. His demand — humanity — is basic. But his behavior is so erratic, his game is so unassuming, his very presence is so emotionally wrought, that  unless we step way back, it’s easy to not notice that humanity in the eyes of the public is already Bradley’s greatest achievement. Before he is a baseball player, even before he is a fuck up or a criminal or a walking injury or a whiner, Milton Bradley is a man.

Slate’s Phillips on Ronaldo

I don’t know a lot about soccer. I’m your typical late-comer who enjoys the aesthetic side of the game without having the greatest sense of its history. I learn what I can, and I enjoy the rest.

The great player Ronaldo, who just retired, is typical of the cultural marker that I know of without really understanding. He peaked when I was still in my “I hate soccer it’s so boring” phase, which is I think a trial that every matured sports fan must complete and then leave behind, making room for the more justified distastes for NASCAR and golf. By the time I started paying attention, Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were the stars of the day, attracting all the love and ire of 5 billion soccer fans across the world.

That said, I found Brian Phillips’ summation of Ronaldo’s career and public persona in Slate an article worth reading with the balanced levels of insight, thought, and perspective that I try to bring to P&P content.

I don’t understand Ronaldo by reading the article, but I understand how a fan watched Ronaldo play, and what sort of a once-removed relationship there was between fan and player and media. Of note:

As a media figure, Ronaldo was never cool in the ruthless-visionary way of Zidane or in the lost-album-cover manner of Beckham. He seemed affable, funny, a little ingenuous, a little strange. Those qualities made him human, but they also made him a terrible fit for modern sports journalism, which knows how to handle only one kind of superstar—the kind who is entirely focused on being one.

And:

Over the years, Ronaldo somehow contrived to become the leading scorer in World Cup history, to become, with Zidane, the defining player of his generation, and yet, simultaneously, to become a joke.

I would also urge you to watch the highlight films, which show a player full of talent, in which “talent” is the barely visible ability to create space and opportunity where none appeared to have been.

If You’re in Ft. Worth this Weekend…

Friend of P&P — and situational essayist — Larry Herold’s play THE SPORTS PAGE will be read (EDIT: NEXT) Sunday at 3:00 PM at Stage West Theater. I’ve read THE SPORTS PAGE and it’s damn good. It also won the 2010 Texas Playwriting Competition. That’s Feb. 20. Not the same day as the Super Bowl, which would be silly.

There will be food and drink. Tickets are $5.

Click here for more info.