My wife really eats up Sarah Palin news. She could watch YouTube videos of the absentee Alaskan all day long. Angertainment, she calls it: the practice of watching something because you can’t stand the subject, and bashing them gives you a rush. I watch the Glenn Beck show on occasion, just to see what he’s up to, and to rant and rave with my critiques of his approach, developing counter arguments to share with the dog on our next walk.
Healthy or not, figures like Palin highlight the basic human tendency to create nemeses. Developing an enemy, even an enemy who will never hear the cries of disdain you lob at the television, is a way to locate yourself in relation to others, and to establish your own values in a world of subcategories and splinter groups. Angertainment is a private act that feels public, and while the hot-button political commentators will always play some role, in other arenas it isn’t always possible to predict when and where an entertainemy will emerge.
Enter Jered Weaver. He bugs me. Not in a political way, or a social way. He doesn’t make me feel like the fabric of the game is degrading 1. I just don’t like the looks of him. His California snarl, the styled medium long hair that sweeps up in the back like a ski jump, the defiant angular tilt of his shoulders. He looks like kid in high school who held the parties. I didn’t get invited to the parties, and I wouldn’t have known what to do there if I had been. Jered’s older brother, Jeff, threw out a similar vibe, like he was the one buying the beer. Together, the Weaver brothers create a douchebag dynasty effect, and I can’t help but envision them standing back shoulder to back shoulder, crossed arms, blocking the door out of the locker room just long enough for a towel whip.
Jered Weaver is my angertainment.
The Angels pitcher is clearly–to paraphrase Werner Herzog’s recent line during a guest spot on The Simpsons–a mirror to the soul. I don’t know a thing about his character, or his personality, or the way that he behaved in high school. I’ve never read his side of an interview or followed his career any further than highlights on the teevee. And yet I’ve created a narrative for him in my head, and I’ve imagined a world that we both occupy in which I’ve interacted with him. I’ve predicted the results of the interaction (see above re: whip, towel). Based on a patch of disgusting chin hair, a hairstyle, an intangible comportment I have decided is arrogant, I’ve spun a web of un-reality to match whatever anxieties I harbor about turning 30, about the West Coast, about tall, skinny blonde people, about the act of watching baseball. This angertainment is on me.
Celebrity culture wields such power because of most folks’ tendency to script these narratives, with public personae as the players. It’s a largely automatic response to the stimulus placed before us, manipulating the natural human tendency to form groups and talk shit about other groups. The average gossip blog reader would have an easier time discussing which celebrities they dislike than those that they enjoy. Goats abound these days, while heroes run thin, telling us something about an American need for enemies that probably, if we’re honest, says more about a desperate desire for friends.
Baseball does a lot of the work for us by divvying up allegiances from the start, and much of the inherent entertainment derives from the symmetrical alignment of opposing forces. And, when it comes to angertainment, athletes do differ from general entertainment types and politicians, in that athletes don’t necessarily desire attention as much as they desire excellence, and what they do for a living just so happens to take place in a public sphere. Entertainers and public figures with no trade other than attention, on the other hand, derive their satisfaction and their value from the presence of an audience, and the currency they thrive on is the reaction itself, rather than the transposed currency to look to like wins or hits.
Which means that Jered Weaver isn’t pitching for me. A polarizing politician or talk radio host gains drawing power when someone like my wife tunes in to hear them say something incendiary, because their fan base enjoys it when others frown on their views, enabling them to entrench further, and that in turn strengthens the fan base in today’s new media cycle of violent love and violent hate. Weaver, though, gains little from my distaste. His main goal is to win for Angels fans, not to create a firestorm of opposition that fuels his prominence. The spotlight is his for the taking if he pitches well. Any other attention is fat to be trimmed. If he is really good, he’ll achieve his goal. He doesn’t need hostility–and the attention that comes with it–to heighten his success.
What gets stuck in my craw about Jered Weaver’s physical presentation is the sense of entitlement it exudes. I’m like anybody in that I naturally resent those to whom success seems to come easily. The conceit of Weaver as imagined high school classmate suggests that he is the kid who was a head taller than everyone else, who probably threw harder than everyone else, and who enjoyed a mastery of his pitches that most of his teammates and opponents were unable to touch with a ten foot pole.
The truth, however, is that success doesn’t come easily to very many people, especially in the major leagues, which has laid low many young talents. There is no reason for me to believe that Jered Weaver hasn’t earned his place. In fact, when I had the chance to watch the pitcher work against the Seattle Mariners the other night, I gained insight into his style that directly undermines my irrationally negative attitude toward him.
First of all, in direct contradiction to his presence on the mound, Weaver isn’t a power pitcher. He’s tall, with long arms and legs, and a long wind-up, and when you mix in his sneer and his hair and whatnot, you have painted the picture of a fireballer who, given his frame, you’d think was wild, and that he got by on strength rather than finesse.
But eaver doesn’t throw all that hard. His fastball lives in the high 80s, dabbling in the low 90s. The fastball you might figure would resemble that of another lanky hurler, A.J. Burnett, with a foot of uncontrollable movement, actually travels as true and straight as an arrow, with the precise accuracy of an Olympian. Weaver hits the mitt on par with some of the best, and he’s only walked 26 through 109 innings this year. Before I sat down to watch him against the Mariners, I didn’t think, “Here pitches Jered Weaver the control artist with an elite level of touch on the mound.” I thought, “Jered Weaver. He looks like a dick.”
And I had no idea he had such a good change-up.
Weaver’s change-up is the foundation of his pitching style. He started off a surprising number of batters with the change piece, showing great confidence in it and confounding hitters who may have liked to start with the fastball and work their way down to the slow stuff. This strategy impressed me. It is an odd gambit to start with a change-up. The reliance on its inherent deception, rather than its relationship to other pitches, shows the kind of confidence in it more often displayed by pitchers like Maddux and Moyer. You could even call the change-first approach quirky 2. Before I watched him pitch, I didn’t think I’d ever refer to Jered Weaver as quirky. But there it is, an idiosyncratic tendency that chips away at the preconception I have about him. His inner Zooey Deschanel beats out his outer Lindsay Lohan this round of their best of 9 arm-wrestling match.
The final nail in the coffin of my disregard for Weaver is the fact that he has improved every year starting when he came on like a bullet in 2006. The prominent change-up, the tight fastball, the unfurling motion like a masted ship setting sail, to say nothing of a very good curveball that promises the strike zone before ducking away, these are the products of an artisan, not a jock. From 2007 to 2009 his FIP was in the 4 range, then in 2010 it dropped to 3, and now it’s around 2.5. His strikeout rate has inched upward, and his walk rates downward. A few paragraphs ago, I said that things seemed to come easily to Jered Weaver. Discounting a bang-em-up first season, they didn’t. He has improved, year over year, the way that the analysts draw it up, and he has slowly evolved into the ace that he is now. Such metered improvement can only suggest hard work, and a major league learning curve.
I was way off. He didn’t shut the Mariners out with a complete performance by riding arrogance, but by utilizing a collection of mature, insightful pitches and articulate control.3 The message is in the medium. Message received.
Baseball rewards attention, and that’s all you could ever ask for. I had my preconceptions about Weaver, but when I took the time to evaluate what he does out there, and to take a look at his past performance through the numbers4, I was able to fill in an incomplete baseball portrait. He still carries the swagger and the sneer, and while the details of his personal life are still–thankfully–none of my business, his portrait is now framed by a broader, brighter landscape and lit with a more sophisticated palette.
Celebrity and political media cultures intentionally deprive their viewers of such perspective. Short-sighted, reactionary spite and fear are the fuel that feeds the business. Reasoned consideration doesn’t drive traffic, and the camera’s fast-pan to the next circus freak triggers addictive little squirts of dopamine in our social brains, driving us to seek more and more. More angertainment, a longer role call of entertainemies.
Many complain that baseball is a slow game, like that was a terrible thing. For my money, it’s the rare entertainment that allows a moment to contemplate the players in the drama, to consider the products of our own creation and the effects that they have on us. On the night that Jered Weaver pitched against my current home team, I used the time the bit of fresh air that came in between the cracks of the baseball artifice to consider Mr. Weaver, and to consider myself. I took a look in the mirror, and something new looked back at me.
- mostly because there is no “fabric” just like there is no perfect America that existed between 1946 and 1959 that we must return to or else ↩
- The term “quirky” is a great way to compliment somebody and put them down at the same time. Quirky may be the most condescending word in english. Didn’t think you were getting of that easy, didja Weaver?!? ↩
- Well, I suppose it may have had at least something to do with the Mariners offense…. ↩
- For whatever drawbacks the statistical revolution in baseball has, its greatest benefit is its contribution to the art of rational, if obsessive, appreciation. ↩