Monthly Archive for April, 2011

Sam Fuld: Learning the Legend

I don’t know where I first heard about Sam Fuld. I can’t recall whether it was a Jonah Keri tweet that alerted me to the remarkable feats of the 29-year-old out of Phillips Exeter Academy and Stanford via Durham, New Hampshire, or if it was a TV highlight package, or one of the blog essays or comments that have sung his praises in the last few weeks. I don’t know who planted the story’s seed in my mind, where it has since taken root and grown, bearing fruit in the form of a question, a yearning that is somehow also a signal of communal upswell: “Who is Sam Fuld?”

Fuld runs, flies, throws, hits, thinks, speaks with the power of myth already, strengthened by his relative obscurity. I, for one, don’t watch him play regularly, so all I see or hear about him are the feats and marvels in past tense. Fuld’s is a story that so far relies only on stories, without the daily truths that can chip away at myth’s sculpture.

When it comes to a phenomenon like Fuld, which seemed to materialize within a day or two, there’s a drive to find its nascent moments, when the early adopters recognized the novelty and the charm of what they were witnessing. The adopters not only realized the potential; they also spread the word among their local friends and within the greatest circle of friends the world has ever known, the Internet, and not necessarily in that order. Sam Fuld may have stumbled fearlessly into the bullpen while making a catch, and flung himself through the air to save three runs on a deep fly ball, but it was the ones who told the Fuld story, through enthusiastic tweets and posts, that stimulated their fellow fans’ imaginations and spread it. The myth is in the telling more than it is in the doing, and Sam Fuld got told by some influential tellers.

From the springboard moments when the enthusiasm of the fresh discovery of something new pumps adrenalin through the veins, the legend flowers. Others join in the mirth. The room fills with the aroma of the remarkable (for me that smell is that of a sausage with onions outside of Fenway, I don’t know what it is for you). Fuld makes another catch, and a moment becomes a trend. More twitter drops, more stories emerge. Each game is a new opportunity for us to watch, to nail another talisman to the wall to mark the improbable continuation of a blessing.

A single is just a single until it’s Dimaggio’s single for the 56th game in a row.

In Fuld, we sense something of ourselves. He has walked both sides. Probability suggests that he’ll be walking on our side again soon enough, but providence buoys him for the moment.

Like Werner Herzog sailing down to Antarctica or filming the oldest cave paintings in history, I want to be an archaeologist of the human condition, trolling along the obscure edges of my own personal history. But I’m not willing to scour my browser’s history for the first few moments that the Fuld story formed. It’s a load of work to find the making of a myth, and it’s a futile business, to boot.

In the past, it was simple and perhaps more important-seeming to trace the origins of origin. “A traveling salesman passing through town told me about Sam Fuld at Smitty’s Bar” or “My father worked with a man who used to tell stories about Sam Fuld.” If not to identify, then to at least put narrative to the origins of a story. The way the information was delivered was sewn into the legend itself. Now, of course, the beginning isn’t as important as the sheer accumulation of data. Fuld’s catches, his biography, his steals and hits don’t matter in the string of narrative that mark beginning, middle, and end. They are important in the aggregate. The myth of today, like slot machine winnings, is a pile.

What’s lost is the pleasure of the telling. It’s hard to tell Sam Fuld’s story. There isn’t a narrative path to follow yet, but rather a disparate-seeming collection of ephemera. “Fuld went to some good schools, learned a thing or two, then he made a catch, then he made another catch. He still plays baseball.” How do you convey that to another human without just sending a link to the Twitteratti’s collective tellings, along with a sampling of video clips and transactional histories? A well-worn phrase with new applications in this field of techno-myth: the fragmented narrative.

But then again there’s this word “legend” in use concerning Fuld. I’m the one who pulled the word “myth” in on the conversation. A “legend” might be more applicable to a Fuld situation. Dictionary.com defines the term legend in several applicable ways: “1. a nonhistorical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times and popularly accepted as historical. 2. the body of stories of this kind, especially as they relate to a particular people, group, or clan.” The body of stories is a concept that resonates, as it refers to the collection of stories rather than a single dominant story.

When I think of a body of stories that comprise a legend, Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan come to mind. I know a smattering of facts about each without any particular awareness of a linear narrative that surrounds them. For example, Bunyan is really big, and his friend is a big blue ox. Come to think of it, that’s all I can remember. Davy Crockett killed a bear when he was three, and he patched up a crack in the Liberty Bell. I don’t know the story of his life, just a few juicy details.

The same is true of Sam Fuld, and his legend. The bullet points are lively, and unlikely. Where it came from has little to do with where it is. The act of telling, whether the tellings are truth or lively fictions conjured in the heat of the moment is irrelevant. What’s important is the telling, and that goes on. There’s a hint of Chuck Norris in the fantastical tweets, a stitch of Moses in the sense of delayed gratification and the virtues of patience, and a smidge of Moneyball in the stoutness of Fuld’s secondary stats, and his self-awareness and poise. Add it all together, and what do you get? Who knows, but I’m looking forward to the telling.

Pitchers and Poets Podcast 28: Yipisodes

We’re still hammering out some details, like getting the podcast back in the iTunes store, but for now you can subscribe in iTunes yourself, or via any RSS reader. Just use this feed url:

http://feeds.feedburner.com/ThePitchersAndPoetsPodcast

In iTunes, just click Advanced > Subscribe to Podcast, then enter that url, and you’re in business.

 

To download the file directly, right click and Save As:

http://pitchersandpoets.com/podcast/PnP_028.mp

Lightning Round: Otis Nixon’s Hair

In search of a topic for today’s post, I solicited one on Twitter. I said I’d write for 45 minutes on whatever people came up with. The first topic submitted, by Pete Beatty, was “Otis Nixon’s Hair.” I have done my best:

When I think of Otis Nixon I don’t think of his hair. I think of his face. Otis Nixon had the face of a man who had lived a dozen lives. It was expressive and weather-beaten and looked like something out of an American folk art exhibit. Hell, Otis Nixon’s entire career could have been folk art. And now that I’m researching his life, well, the rest of it could be folk art too.

I will write about his hair because that is my assignment. But mostly I will write about his life and legacy. Otis Nixon was born in January 1959 in Evergreen, North Carolina. A fitting name for his hometown because Otis Nixon exudes permanence. On Baseball-Almanac, his high school is listed as unknown. Wikipedia and Baseball Reference eschew any allusion to his high school whatsoever.

It’s not as if Otis Nixon emerged out of the tobacco fields of North Carolina to become a light-hitting, fast-running, switch-hitting center fielder. It may have seemed like that to me, because by the time I became a cognitive baseball fan, Otis Nixon was already an established veteran ballplayer. But in that interlude after his career began and before I became aware of it, Otis Nixon faced hard times. He had drug problems. He missed the 1991 World Series because of a drug suspension. He was an alcoholic.

The definitive Otis Nixon is probably the one you see in this Braves image from the late 1990s. I’ll always think of Otis Nixon as a Brave. Maybe because of pictures like this, maybe the 1999 World Series.

By the time this photo was taken he was around 40 and his face had reached fully petrified Otis Nixon status. Plus there was enough of that hair left to give a glimpse of the dashing Otis Nixon of a few years earlier. The Otis Nixon who stole 70 bases in a year and six in a single game. The Otis Nixon who shined in an era of similar (if often better) outfielders, like Brett Butler and Vince Coleman and even Kenny Lofton. You can still imagine the jheri curl pushing through the helmet and flying backward in the wind as Otis Nixon blasts off out of his long lead at first base.

Otis Nixon would tell you that he blasted off a lot then (sorry, couldn’t resist). He was a drunk and an addict. There were arrests and accusations of violence from men and women as recently as five or six years ago. But now Otis Nixon, like any American Folk Hero, has evolved. He’s a Christian. He is married to Candi Staton, a soul and gospel singer you might have heard of. He runs the Otis Nixon Foundation and On-Track Ministries. And best of all, he’s written a book with an awesomely Clyde Frazier-esque title: Keeping It Real With Otis Nixon.

Here is talking about it:

He talks like a baseball player. He makes corny jokes. The whole thing looks a little unscripted, a little unplanned, and like most everything else on Youtube, amateurish. The hair is gone, too. The hair that prompted this hastily written essay. But the face, small and sinewy and cut from wood, looks entirely the same.

The Stadium Experience: Defense

I have recently come to believe that defense is the most important thing about watching baseball games in person. It occupies the most of our time, it captures the most of our imagination,  and in person,  it’s the easiest thing for fans to see. Here are five reasons why defense is integral to the stadium experience:

1. Space, or The Anti-Television Experience

The television viewing experience is claustrophobic. You are zoomed in behind the pitcher’s mound for a close-in view of the plate. As balls are batted into play and the game unfolds, your scope is limited to what the camera man and producers decide to reveal. You don’t see the spectrum of players standing patiently between pitches. You don’t get an idea of who is backing up who on any given play. You are fed a certain version of the game – a slice that is forced to stand in for the whole. You are required to infer every subtle defensive shift, for example. Your visual understanding of the game is affected by the blathering of announcers. Your field vision is obscured by graphics.

In other words, on television, you have no concept of space. You are so busy tracking the ball and the batter and listening to the analysis that it’s difficult to grasp the sheer distance an outfielder runs to make a spectacular catch. It’s impossible to comprehend the speed of a grounder as it jumps off the bat and hops off the chest of a waiting third baseman. In person, baseball is defined by space. Most of what we see is space.

2. Speed

In person, greatness happens much faster. One can blink and miss a spectacular, game-altering play. Or one can focus and see something that feels so much more impressive, so much more sudden, than a highlight on television. The entire sequence of pitch to contact to catch, for instance, is mere seconds long. I went to a Mariners-A’s game at Safeco Field yesterday. It was a terrible game, but Coco Crisp made a catch that frightened me. He ran straight back at full speed and caught a Miguel Olivo drive a step from the center field wall, slamming into it hard. The entire play happened in an instant. A gasp, a catch, a momentary hesitation as Crisp lay on the ground. I was hundreds of yards away. The stadium was practically empty. Yet no television camera could do the moment justice.

3. Multiple Dimensions

The challenge of simultaneously tracking ball and runner and fielder creates a holistic experience. It gives a better sense of the different systems of the ballgame. When a first baseman makes a diving stop and fires to second for the first half of the double play we are caught up in the urgency of not just the catch and the throw and the turn, but the slide into second and the runner coming up the line at first. There is an element of this urgency on television, but we can’t see all it. We can’t feel it.

4. Errors

Errors are always more stunning in person. They are discomforting. We often don’t know whether the ball went through a fielder’s legs or just rolled beside him. We can’t tell from a distance whether a grounder took a bad hop. Our vision of fly balls and line drives is askew – think of how many times per game the crowd rises to its feet to cheer a potential home run that does not even reach the warning track. Players are not the only ones who misread batted balls. We do too.

5. Down Time

In person, defensive players are who we interact with. We see them warm up between innings. We (collectively, maybe not you or I), beg ungraciously for a ball. We heckle them the most. We adore them the most. We watch them the most closely. In the field, personalities reveal themselves slowly. Jayson Werth stands around right field looking bored, pacing small circles, playing with his glove. Ichiro stretches and contorts his body and seems to not even realize it. Derek Jeter asserts grace and confidence in just the way he walks — zone rating be damned, sayeth the scout sitting above the dugout, just look at him. No matter where you’re sitting in the stands, almost without exception, the closest player on the field is a defensive player. We’re drawn to what’s already in front of us.

Pitchers and Poets Podcast 27: The Torre Conspiracy, with Alex Belth

In this episode we are joined by Alex Belth, Sports Illustrated contributor, book writer, and longtime curator of the Bronx Banter Blog. We discuss the relative heartbreak of Yankee fans, the neuroces of attractive people, prehistoric blogging, discomforting hecklers, Gorman Thomas’s sausages, and the different varieties of fandom.

We’re still hammering out some details, like getting the podcast back in the iTunes store, but for now you can subscribe in iTunes yourself, or via any RSS reader. Just use this feed url:

http://feeds.feedburner.com/ThePitchersAndPoetsPodcast

In iTunes, just click Advanced > Subscribe to Podcast, then enter that url, and you’re in business.

 

To download the file directly, right click and Save As:

http://pitchersandpoets.com/podcast/PnP_027.mp3

(loud Jerrry Sands fan video via Vin Scully is my Homeboy)

Cliff Lee and the Myth of the Moment

There was a shining half-season last year when Cliff Lee pitched for the Seattle Mariners, and every fourth day (the fifth belonging to King Felix) he’d pitch and push back against the growing realization that the team couldn’t hit its way out of a pile of day-old rally fries. The accuracy of his fastball, so familiar with the low corners, and his metered pace defied the hitters who would disappoint once he quickly allowed them the stage again. Lee was, at that time, a brilliant journeyman, a gentleman of the road. His pitching was mercenary, and context-free.

Now he’s a settled man, towing with him to the pitcher’s mound a satchel of stability, money, respect, and esteem. By actively choosing Philly over New York and eschewing the biggest or at least the most prestigious paycheck on the table, he deliberately chose to pitch in a smaller (though equally rabid, I’d argue) baseball market, alongside three other studs who undoubtedly dissipate the hot glare of the spotlight. Lee, once the Tarantino-esque mysterious free agent, has moved in with a nice suburban family. Where will he hide his gun?

Lee pitched a midweek day game against the Brewers that I had the chance to watch pretty closely. Recalling the joy of the Lee pitching performances of yore, I zeroed in on his work. I saw the same guy, the same meat of Lee’s game: the big curve working off of the hard, straight fastball, the clock-like wind-up and delivery, the intimidating demeanor of an ace. But the intangibles were fuzzy at the edges: the location, the genius of his pitch sequences, the actuality of his impermeability (“I’m beating you because I’m beating you, and I will continue to do so.”)

His fastball still hummed, touching 94 at times, but the precision was lacking. He left them up, and the Brewers were touching them with long fly outs and drives to the gaps. Lee’s cutter, which usually hints at the corner of the strike zone before ducking out of it at the last moment, hung like a mediocre slider. Brewers were hitting the ball squarely, which if you’d told me that would happen during any of his starts in Seattle last year I’d tell you to go jump in a lake.

On this particular sunny spring day, the sparkle of his first half in Seattle in 2010 was absent. This is notable because somewhere along the line Cliff Lee became, for me, the pitcher that doesn’t falter, who wills himself past fallibility. The average performance means that I have to accept that Cliff Lee is capable of average performances. It’s like watching your dad trip.

This Brewers game is the exception, and a light one at that, as Lee is actually pitching very well this year (24 strikeouts to 2 walks), and even today he was able to stop the bleeding at two earned runs through six. Gosh, was it only two? There was another one unearned, but I could’ve sworn it was more. And anyway the Phillies caught up soon after he left the game. But in the symbolism that each baseball game represents for the single viewer, this faltering performance represented a shift in the Lee archetype. For Lee, a bad start is nowadays a ripple in a broad pond, a Philadelphia stinker that’ll soon be lost in the greater body of great starts, that will span years in the city and in the uniform.

Lee’s stopovers in Philly the first time around, Seattle, and Texas were ethereal, and fleeting. Once he was gone, you felt like one of the townsfolk watching the aloof hero disappear into a dust cloud on the way to the next town in need. But Cliff Lee has settled down. His career has taken on linear airs, which comes with the small forgivenesses afforded by family, knowing, as families do, that time is a healer and all we’ve got is time.

The Angel of Life


I turned on NPR yesterday to hear a couple of people who were not Frank Deford talking about the Dodgers being taken over by Major League Baseball. If you weren’t aware, the Dodgers have been taken over by Major League Baseball. Although it may not feel that way to fans who have followed the McCourt ordeal closely and to bloggers trapped in the never-ending cyclone of baseball information, this is big and news. National news. It was the front page story on the New York Times website.

I marked the occasion by starting a Twitter campaign to get MLB to appoint former assistant GM Kim Ng to run the team (I’ll take credit for this idea, because why not?). I also marked the occasion by grinning joyously. It may not seem that way, but this is good news. This is progress. For a fan like me, who is willing to sacrifice short term goodies for long term stability – or at least solvency – the MLB takeover of the Dodgers is a good thing.

Another thing I’ve been yelling about on Twitter is the Jewish holiday of Passover. Passover celebrates the ancient Hebrews and their escape – at the hands of god, acting through Moses – from the grip of the Egyptian Pharaoh and his slave-driving, child-killing ways. The comparison I’ve been working with most is recent callup Jerry Sands as Moses. Kershaw as the Angel of Death. And on and on. Now a more apt metaphor has presented itself:

The Hebrews left Egypt only to encounter 40 years of wandering the desert. It took them 40 years to find the Holy Land. This takeover by Bud Selig, this liberation from the hands of the Pharaoh McCourt, is the first step on the Dodgers’ journey to their own land of milk and honey. There may be rough and confusing times ahead. After all, nobody took Bud Selig for a savior. There may be false idols and bland, unleavened bread in our future. But there is also a better day coming. This is a freedom story.

Some other thoughts:

1. The Dodgers are not the Montreal Expos. They are not the Hornets, either. The Dodgers have a history of fantastic attendance. They have a wonderful stadium. There is no reason at all to be concerned about the team leaving LA.

2. This seems obvious but it also seems worth reiterating: so much depends on who the new ownership is. Less depends on how long it takes for MLB to line that owner up. After all, having a limited budget for off-season maneuvering might have prevented the Dodgers from signing Juan Uribe this year. Not such a bad thing to put Colletti on a shoestring.

3. For the first time in my life, I am singing praises for baseball’s anti-trust exemption.

4. On that note, I would love it if somebody could explain the bylaws that make it possible for Bud Selig to actually remove Frank McCourt from control of the team. Couldn’t this lead to a new round of ugly litigation? (This, of course, being the worst case scenario.

5. Somehow none of this seems any worse than Fox and trading Mike Piazza. Maybe it’s because this time I’m 24, not twelve.

P&P Conversations: The Mystics and Statistics

Eric:

The Cleveland Indians are in first place at 12-4. This wouldn’t matter to me normally. But the Indians are 12-4 on the back of a vigorously healthy Travis Hafner. Grady Sizemore just returned to the lineup after seven years on the disabled list. Matt LaPorta might not suck after all. And Carlos Santana far from sucks. There’s something compelling, and dare I say, inspiring about this mix of resurrected corpses and fresh-faced infants tearing up the American League, right? How long before Omar Vizquel hangs up his White Sox hat and heads out East to rejoin the party in Cleveland?

Ted:

I had no idea that Seven Years in Tibet was based on Grady Sizemore’s career. He should’ve let some people know he was lighting out for the territories. And it’s nice of Hafner to show up the year after everybody stopped drafting him in fantasy baseball leagues.

The Indians right now seem to embody one of the mysteries of baseball: injuries. There are the obvious injuries that can gum up a career, but more common probably are the kind of injury that are barely detectable. Some fiber of shoulder muscle might be weak enough to keep Grok from Grokking, but not enough to keep him from starting. There are a couple of things that I’ve learned about baseball with age. One, deception is the most important part of pitching. Two, injuries (and the greatest injury of all: aging) are just about the most important factor in the makeup of a good baseball team.

Both of these tenets are difficult to detect, and they are boring. But they explain why Greg Maddux was great.

Eric:

I am not quite comfortable with calling aging the “greatest injury of all.” I have a feeling many of our readers who exist outside the scope of professional baseball will not appreciate that sentiment. Anyway, I’m intrigued by injuries as a factor in team success and a measure of player value.

Some word problems that you don’t need to answer:

1. The Green Bay Packers lost their starting running back Ryan Grant early in the 2010-11 season, and yet they went on to win the Super Bowl. Could that happen in baseball with a similarly valuable player?

2. Intelligent people who make careers out of evaluating the relative merits of baseball players are quick to point out that like a sharp batting eye and a strong throwing arm, the ability to not get hurt (durability) is a skill. This is why a guy like Sizemore, for example, is not as good as he seems. Do you buy this premise?

It’s hard to deny that certain players are more affected by lingering and recurring injury problems than others (i.e. Rafael Furcal). But isn’t there also a spiritual or karmic or at the very least luck-oriented side of all this? Isn’t this why we call them “freak injuries?”

Ted:

My response, in math quiz form:

1. Winning is relative, obviously, in that if you lost a player on a great team, it might become a very good team, which would still be better than a simply good team. I think the team question is a lot more complicated than the individual question. Individual performance is graded in such analytical terms these days that the tendency is to say, well, he’s good or he’s bad for this reason and that reason. But a guy like Hafner reminds me, at least, that there’s not a sort of numbers-based reason that he’s been crummy. It’s a human thing: a confluence of muscle fibers and tendons and psychology worthy of the chaos theory. I don’t know what I’m getting at. We all know that life is complicated.

2. I do buy the premise that some guys get hurt more than others, yeah. Those are the heartbreakers, because the fans among us think that faith can out-duel probability. Like right now Indians fans are feeling pretty convinced that Sizemore will be the story of the year. He’ll come back and lead the World Series parade down whatever the main street in Cleveland is. But the odds are that he won’t. He’ll probably get hurt again. The odds always win given enough time. My dad taught me that (not in a gambling way, in a middle school math way) and he’s much smarter than me.

Question is, does it matter? Does the mystery of injury have anything to do with being a baseball fan, besides the mere presence or absence of a player in the lineup? In other words, what does a simple fan do with the mystical veil of injury?

Eric:

Let’s be honest here, we have no idea what the simple fan does with the veil of injury. I’m not even sure what the veil of injury is. But all fans are affected by the mysterious ways of injuries. When a player is limping along, ineffective, grimacing, tragic, it’s the fans who are forced to sit and watch and pity him. When a star like Grady Sizemore goes down with a seven-year ligament tear, it’s an act of urban blight: another factory shuttering its windows and lettings its remaining employees go, another light on the Cleveland skyline turned out, another devastating blow to that city’s poor sports fans.

What I’m saying is, the mystery of injury has everything to do with being a baseball fan. Especially a baseball fan like you or me. We live for the narrative. And think about all the great baseball storylines defined by injury. Think about Mickey Mantle’s knees or Sandy Koufax’s arm or poor Herb Score’s face. Injuries are as much a part of the games as home runs and strike outs.

And this, my friends, is why the Cleveland Indians will finish in fourth place in the AL Central this season.

Situational Essay: The Language of Degree and Kind in Baseball and Life, by Paul Franz

This Situational Essay comes from friend of the blog and regular contributor Paul Franz, whose work you can find at his blog, Nicht Diese Tone.

When we construct our little narratives to explain the strange things we see every day, we tend to lump our world into broad categories. Actions are “good” or “bad,” “smart” or “dumb.” People are “tall” or “short,” “happy” or “sad.” Sporting events are “entertaining” or “boring.” Politicians are “liberal” or “conservative.” And so on, a veritable smörgåsbord* of quotated and contrary descriptors. I think this stuff is all hogwash. Most of the time, when you’re confronted with a duality, it’s very probable that you’re oversimplifying things. While that oversimplification may be a real time saver – indeed, our ability to do so with such verve and expertise might very well be a key part of our relative evolutionary success – it can also be extremely dangerous.

* Much to my surprise and pleasure, my spell check added the umlaut and the circle thingy over the a.

Much as I’d love to illustrate the point with something profound and socially meaningful, my April-addled mind can’t help but turn to baseball as a perfect locus for the issue. The advantage of baseball over things like, say, politics or morality are numerous. The chief reasons, however, are only two: 1) baseball is far less contentious than politics or morality* and 2) baseball is much, much, much easier to quantify, which will help to illustrate the point.

In the popular narrative of Coors Field, it is an almost mystical place, one man’s Heaven and another’s Hell, a Miltonian paradox.

* This is not, strictly speaking, true, as the recent Dodgers-fan led assault against a Giants fan – leaving the man in a coma – attests. Nevertheless, it’s much easier for most of us to put aside our sporting-related differences than our political ones.

In particular I want to look at the beloved home of my beloved (and, as of this writing, 12-3) Colorado Rockies, the notorious Coors Field. Coors Field is, in our dualistic narratives, a “hitter’s haven.” It’s a miraculous spa where batting averages go to recover and ERAs go to die, a slugger’s wet dream and a scrappy, replacement-level slap hitter’s salvation. Otherwise insignificant careers have been forged (Neifi Perez, Juan Pierre), mediocre major leaguers have been saved (Preston Wilson, Kurt Manwaring), over-the-hill sluggers reborn (Jason Giambi), stars made into superstars (Todd Helton, Larry Walker), and aspiring pitchers wrecked (Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, Pedro Astacio, Daryl Kile, Bret Saberhagen, Greg Harris, and on and on) by its thin air and its cavernous outfield. In the popular narrative of Coors Field, it is an almost mystical place, one man’s Heaven and another’s Hell, a Miltonian paradox.

Until the advent – and advent is exactly the right word – of the capital-H Humidor, playing at Coors Field was like stepping into a video game. Every decent hitter would hit .350 and slug 40 or 50 homers, as if controlled by some over-obsessive teenager on his X-Box. It was so easy, scores were routinely closer to football (or even basketball) proportions than proper baseball ones.

The Humidor, of course, changed all of that, transforming Coors Field from Bichette’s Paradiso to the upper echelons of Purgatorio instead.* No longer a panacea for ailing bats, it became, instead, a kind of minor boost along the lines of many other so-called hitter’s parks. Suddenly pitchers with mediocre stuff like Jason Jennings and Jeff Francis could throw complete game shutouts, and Rockies 8-hole hitters stopped hitting above .300. The narrative transformed, enough that Coors Field and Humidor became opposing watchwords, simultaneously an excuse to disparage Rockies hitters for their advantages and mock pitchers for their crude, cigar-inspired handicap.

* I will not apologize for the Dante reference, even though it is also a terrible pun.

Undoubtedly you can tell what I’m going to say, but I’ll say it anyway. It’s all a bunch of sensationalist nonsense. Because we like to explain the world through clean, discrete, and ultimately meaningless categories Coors Field is painted as a “hitter’s park.” And it is. The problem is, it’s only a marginally better place to hit than anywhere else in baseball. It is, by degree, a better environment for hitters than, say, the Ballpark at Arlington or Fenway Park, but we have created a narrative where it is fundamentally different in kind. Coors Field is a magical place in that narrative, even if its (post-humidor) Park Factor of roughly 115 means that only 15% more runs are scored there than the average stadium (let alone other good hitter’s parks).*

* The pre-humidor PF for Coors was, again roughly, 125. Big? Yes. Infinite? Not quite.

This “difference in kind” thinking is responsible for the hullabaloo about the Rockies cheating by storing some balls in the humidor, while keeping others in the dry mountain air in case of late-inning emergency. The difference between the pre-humidor 25% increase in runs and the post-humidor 15% increase in runs is, of course, only 10%. Since, even at Coors, most teams average less than one run an inning, the difference between using the non-humidor balls and the humidor balls in the final inning of a game comes out to somewhere around one extra Rockies run every month (which, we can assume, would lead to maybe one extra win over the course of the entire season). That’s a real difference in degree, of course, but that’s not the narrative we hold dear.

Instead, as last season drew to a close, the Rockies were accused of cheating, their successes at home pinned on a vast late-inning conspiracy. With humidorized baseballs, the story went, the Rockies were a normal baseball team, capable of scoring runs, yes, but also capable of striking out, hitting into double plays, and regularly stranding runners who reached third with no one out. Bring out non-humidor balls, however, and the Rockies became unstoppable, a force not merely capable of destroying even the best of pitchers, but indeed destined to overcome any deficit, no matter how large. To this way of thinking, the difference between the humidor and non-humidor baseballs was not 10% more runs, but rather “win” instead of “loss.” The whole picture became about differences in kind (wins and losses) instead of differences in degree (15% more runs than average and 25% more).

The Rockies routinely had one of the worst offenses in Major League Baseball during the early 2000s, and yet were mistakenly believed to have one of the best.

The same, of course, is true about pre-humidor Coors. That Park Factor of 125 is big. Really big. Big enough that the Rockies routinely had one of the worst offenses in Major League Baseball during the early 2000s, and yet were mistakenly believed to have one of the best. But, even with a Park Factor that large, the difference remains one of degree and not kind. While the cumulative effect of a PF of 125 leads to the kind of mis-evaluation that makes Neifi Perez look like an actual Major League baseball player, that is only because the baseball season is 162 games long, and because the actual difference between Albert Pujols and, say, Aaron Miles is much, much, much, much smaller than we usually believe.* Another way of reading, then, that Park Factor of 125 is this: teams that would score 4 runs a game elsewhere scored 5 at Coors. Suddenly that doesn’t seem nearly so insane as the narrative of “hitter’s paradise” made it sound.

* While Pujols certainly hits more homers than scrappy middle infielders, and by a long shot, his unreal career high in Wins Above Replacement is 10.9. That’s epically, historically great. It’s also 11 wins out of 162 games, or about 6.8% of the season. I’ll let you decide: difference in kind, or difference in degree?

Once our narratives have been constructed, we reinforce them with the stainless steel of confirmation bias. When the Mets come from behind by four in the bottom of the ninth at Shea Stadium (or their new digs, Citi Field), we think of it as a great comeback. When the Rockies come from behind by four in the bottom of the ninth at Coors, we think of it as Coors Field up to its old tricks. A 12-11 slugfest at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City is the result of bad outings from both teams’ pitching staffs. A 12-11 slugfest at Coors Field is the result of the absurd ballpark. The special category of “Coors Field” explains and is the cause of all offense in the Mile High City, while elsewhere it’s just normal baseball.

Now don’t get me wrong, and allow me to reiterate my point one more time. Coors Field does matter. It used to inflate scoring by 25%, and now inflates scoring by 15%. The Rockies, on the whole, will come from behind to win in the bottom of the ninth more often than other teams. But only very, very slightly more often. The difference is one of degree: the Rockies will score 23 late inning runs for every 20 that a comparable offensive team scores, thanks to playing at Coors. The problem is, our narratives, our categories, our confirmation biases all conspire to make every single run we see at Coors a product of the park, and not of the million other things that go on in a baseball game.

But wait, I’m not done yet. We can apply the same logic to steroids (gasp). While there may be a categorical difference between Barry Bonds, All Time Home Run Champion and Barry Bonds, Great Hitter, we tend to forget that we don’t even know exactly how many extra home runs Bonds hit because he used steroids. And we can’t know. What’s more, we don’t know who else benefited, and to what degree. What we do know, however, is that the easiest thing to do is to look at the picture and to discount any player who had a peak season during the “steroid era” as a “cheater,” whose whole body of offensive work is attributable exclusively to his steroid use. Rather than imagining that steroids help a player become X% better, we see steroids as being the difference between “good” and “bad,” or “great” and “good.” We can’t even begin to suppose, in our absolutist narrative, that Bonds may well have hit 700+ home runs even without steroids. No, every single home run he mashed is tainted, cheap, unfair. They categorically, absolutely, definitively do not count.

Is that right, though? My answer is no. Of course the steroids issue is a big deal precisely because we do not and cannot know exactly what the effect is, but to imagine that the effect is categorical instead of incremental is absurd. Even if players hit twice as many home runs because of steroids, they didn’t hit infinitely times as many. And I think that would be easier to accept if our categories hadn’t also been violated. Barry Bonds is not merely a guy who hit X% more homers, but rather is the Home Run King, both in terms of career and single season jacks. Those categories carry far more weight for us than numbers do.

To return to where we started, there’s a good reason we think in categories instead of increments, kind instead of degree. It helps us survive. It’s better to assume that the unusual ripple in the tall grass we see is dangerous (it might be a tiger) than to assume that said ripple is only marginally more pronounced than usual. In nature, nuance leads to destruction. That’s no excuse to turn away from more nuanced thinking, however. If anything, it’s an exhortation towards the opposite. That we like to see things as either categorically good or categorically bad makes us easy to persuade and, as a result, hoodwink. If, for example, a politician speaks eloquently to our absolutist moral sensibilities, we’re quick to cast our vote in his favor. In the process, we forget that the difference between him and his opposition might not be categorical, but rather incremental, that there are perhaps a range of (non-linear) possible solutions to any given problem instead of two diametrically opposite ones.

The narrative of absolute, dichotomous categories is an extremely dangerous one exactly because it is beautiful. Coors Field as “hitter’s haven,” human beings as fundamentally good (or bad, as the debate goes), politicians as liberal or conservative, such characterizations make it easier to think, easier to live, easier to write. Poetry may owe itself to complexity, but on some level it also owes itself to simplicity: without a sense of Good and Evil, Joy and Misery, how do we understand No Second Troy? Without the narrative of great plays or bad ones, how do we appreciate an unrepeatable Tulowitzki play in the hole?* The possibility that the narrative value of categories is ultimately empty – of a kind of brute, practical use, but devoid of substantial, metaphysical meaning – is what drives the anti-statistics crowd of baseball fans mad. The reliance upon and manipulation of categories is what makes so many religions so powerful, and – along with hefty doses of confirmation bias – it is what makes Fox News and MSNBC so persuasive to so many Americans.

* Another little pun for which I will not apologize.

Even if players hit twice as many home runs because of steroids, they didn’t hit infinitely times as many.

Ah, there I go breaking my own rules. You see, I too am talking in categories, in differences in kind instead of degree. The notion of diametric opposites, the need for clear categories like Good and Bad cannot be, if we are to challenge it, innately and fundamentally Bad. To say so would undermine the argument. The problem is, every single word we read is a category, every single idea a kind of absolute. We can deconstruct and deconstruct, and then reconstruct and reconstruct, and what we’ll end up with is words that stand for something, some category. Words that can never be truly specific, for true specificity would require a new word every second, every thought, every sentence. Communication, as much as miscommunication, is built on categories.

So what is there to do? Uncomfortable though it may be, I believe it remains useful to deconstruct, to analyze, to see where differences of kind actually are differences in degree, even though every difference is, in the end, actually both. To my mind, we do not need to destroy the narratives of politics, religion, morality, or, most importantly (of course), baseball. We need, instead, to dive into them, to see where they come from and why, and then to reconstruct them in some new form so that we can once again communicate. Analysis and synthesis stand together, it turns out. Like any set of supposed opposites, they actually are more alike than disparate. Is there an endpoint to all of this analyzing and synthesizing, a point at which narrative and myth turn into Truth? Maybe, but probably not. Instead, it seems to me that the very act of trying to understand, of insisting upon being a learner, an asker of questions, a thinker, a skeptic (though we might also insist on being ignorant, a provider of answers, allowed to zone out, and a believer) is at the heart of what it is to be human.

Everyday Ichiro #003: The Middle

via Yahoo!A wet, stormy day in Kansas City, the broadcasters were practically calling this one before it started, hoping to make it official before the big blow moved in to stay. Even an early surge from the Royals this year wasn’t enough to ward off the dreariness of a gray spring day. 8,811 damp souls hid under umbrellas while they watched Bruce Chen sling his journeyman’s selection of pitches. The Mariners came into the game with 4 wins and 8 losses.

The day in Ichiro:

1. In his first at bat against Chen’s sling-armed arsenal of low 80s to high 80s cheese, Ichiro reached low and lofted a pop-up to shallow center. The hit was just about to drop expertly between the center fielder and the shortstop–another in Ichiro’s legacy of perfectly placed hits–when Alcides Escobar, raced under it, reached out at the last possible moment, and caught it over his left shoulder, at waist level. A professional hitter met with a professional defensive play.

2. The close-up camera filming Ichiro’s pre-pitch warm-up shook violently in the wind, and it was raining steadily for Ichiro’s second at bat. He took a fastball strike outside, then fouled off a sweeping Chen breaking ball. Color man Mike Blowers said of the pitcher-hitter match-up, “Ichiro saw plenty of pitchers like Chen in Japan, so I’d think it wouldn’t bother him.” There may be something to the observation, that Japanese pitchers don’t throw as hard as major leaguers, and that they throw a lot of breaking stuff, the way that Chen does. My initial reaction was skepticism, as Ichiro’s been in the bigs for a decade, a far cry from his roots by now. On reflection, though, there must be a deeply ingrained familiarity with the style that wouldn’t simply disappear. Only just now did it occur to me that Chen’s name might have subliminally triggered the broadcaster’s association with the Asian game. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Ichiro soon smacked a single as neat as a bounce pass dead up the middle, past a reaching Chen to the shortstop Escobar again, who fielded it, spun, and nearly pegged Ichiro at first. Alcides and Ichiro seem to be developing a strange sort of relationship, the inklings of a rangy duel.

escobar fields an Ichiro grounder in the 3rd inning

3. Chen served up a lazy swerver right down Broadway in Ichiro’s third at bat, and Ichiro hit it squarely and sent it up the middle for a clean base hit. Said the line drive: “You robbed me once, Escobar, and almost again. Not this time.” Am I crazy to think that Ichiro decided before the game to hit everything straight back up the middle? Is that even possible?

As a sidenote, the game itself was over from around the third inning. The Mariners barely hinted at scoring.

Point being, Ichiro is often the game itself. I don’t much care what goes on around him on nights like this, even if he does. To me, his exploits are comprehensive. It’s Ichiro v. Escobar tonight amid the rain and mud.

4. In the eighth inning, with the team down five to zero and the bluster thickening, Ichiro chopped one more ground ball up the middle for Alcides to gather and deliver to Kila Ka’aihue at first. The game was called and put down in the books after eight innings. A young guy on tarp duty fell in front of the big roll and it steamrolled him. He appeared dazed but conscious afterwards.

The record will indicate that this game pitted the Kansas City Royals against the Seattle Mariners. The truth, as we now know it, is that Ichiro Suzuki and Alcides Escobar rallied like Federer and Nadal, lobbing gambits and exchanging volleys while the world around them plodded past.