Monthly Archive for August, 2011

In Defense of Outliers

Occasionally, baseball players lose ownership of their own names.  Steve Blass, Mario Mendoza and Tommy John have become adjectives, terminology rather than personality, their careers condensed into a single trait.  Such is also the fate of Brady Anderson, who played fifteen seasons in the major league and yet in a very real sense played only one.  In that infamous year of 1996, the reedy Anderson hit fifty home runs, nearly a quarter of his career total.  It’s an accomplishment that only twenty-two players in baseball history can claim, and yet it’s invariably followed by an invisible asterisk.  It’s not that the home runs didn’t happen; it’s that they shouldn’t have.

The value embedded in the phrase “Brady Anderson”, naturally, is its connection to the steroid era.  It’s one of those cumbersome tasks that every discussion like this has to start with, even though author and reader alike already understand the implications.  Amazing feats of baseball abounded in the era directly following Anderson: names like Luis Gonzalez, Ken Caminiti and Bret Boone flung themselves onto the headlines, while Sosa and McGwire smeared their fingerprints ontorecord books, distending the numbers.  The resulting chaos has left fans weary and confused, unable and unwilling to sort through the ashes.  Anderson has firmly denied any steroid use, but such denials are useless; it isn’t Brady Anderson that has become attached to juicing, but greatness itself.

Several months ago, Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated wrote an article about Jose Bautista.  Bautista’s career began even more ignominiously than Anderson’s, and has since soared even higher.  And much like Anderson, Bautista has faced a significant amount of scrutiny for his achievements.  Posnanski begins with the simple question: “Do you believe in miracles?”  He then conjures the familiar names of the great and unlikely, Lance Armstrong and Kurt Warner and Dazzy Vance.  We’ve grown skeptical, as a nation and as a sport.

It’s the ultimate condemnation of Anderson and Bautista: what they did doesn’t make sense.  But was Brady Anderson’s 1996 a miracle?  Is Jose Bautista’s ascension?  Voltaire wrote on the subject of miracles in his Dictionnaire Philosophique, defining a miracle as “the violation of those divine and eternal laws.  If there is an eclipse of the sun at full moon, or if a dead man walks two leagues carrying his head in his arms, we call that a miracle.”  This is the ultimate condemnation of Brady Anderson and Jose Bautista: what they did doesn’t make sense.  A man doesn’t go from hitting fifteen home runs to fifty.  He doesn’t go from being cut by losing teams to being an MVP candidate.  These things aren’t independently possible, and so there must be something else causing them, something unnatural.

But though Voltaire’s eclipse and his headless man were both considered miracles at one time, they’re very different.  One violates the natural laws as we know them.  The other violated the natural laws as we knew them at the time, but later came to be understandable.  As we grow more knowledgeable about baseball, and we become increasingly skilled at analysis and projection, we become increasingly resistant to aberration.  The flaw in so much of analysis (baseball and otherwise) is that while we smirk at the ignorance of the past, we neglect to factor the ignorance of the present.  We do not know what we will know, and what fails to make sense now may be perfectly clear tomorrow.

In this sense, miracles are dangerous, revolutionary things.  They challenge the solidity of accepted wisdom.  They force us to question our assumptions about the world.  They challenge the laziness of our thinking.  Steroids have become one example of this laziness: a refusal to examine greatness, to admit the possibility of being impressed. Occam’s razor has gone from being a guideline to a law.

Perhaps most importantly, miracles chip away at our fundamental preference for certainty.  Luck is something we understand, at least when it turns against us.  We want to believe that our successes, however, are the result of nothing except our own pluck and determination.  Anderson seems to agree.  He described 1996 as “just one more home run per week, just one more good swing. That is the data that simultaneously comforted me and haunted me, the small difference between greatness and mediocrity.” The role that luck plays in the success of a baseball player is only an exaggeration of what goes on in our own lives.   How many people who have condemned Anderson’s achievement as impossible have gone home to play the lottery?

Ultimately, I’m not in a position to say whether Brady Anderson used steroids or not.  The possibility exists, as do other possibilities.  What interests me is the potential for greatness, the acceptance of outliers.  Every game, every season, something happens in baseball that defies expectations, and demands that we dig deeper.  Call them miracles, call them flukes, call them statistical deviations.  Regardless of what they are, they bring vitality to the sport, and in some cases, they form the origins to amazing narratives.  It’s a possibility I find infinitely more palatable than the predictable alternative, no matter how much sense it might make.

Why Couldn’t I Buy A Dodger Hat at Dodger Stadium?

I don’t live in LA anymore. Because of that, I’ve lost touch with the city and the Dodgers in some ways. I’m beginning to suspect that this is a good thing. Until going to a game on Friday I was, if not blissfully, then at least quietly ignorant of the malaise that has set in at Chavez Ravine. The McCourt family, the Bryan Stow tragedy, the on-field injuries, the front office follies: these things have done serious damage to Dodger fans in ways that became much clearer to me.

On Friday, I intended to buy a fitted blue and white Dodger cap at Dodger Stadium. There was nothing strange or difficult about the circumstances. I would only be at one game this year. I knew I needed a new hat. I wanted to take advantage of a friend’s employee discount. But at Dodger Stadium, Dodger caps have become an endangered species.

Before the game, my friends and brother and I wandered into a merchandise store located outside one of the field level entrances. We noticed something strange about the hat selection: there were tons of batting practice caps, tons of Lakers purple and gold LA hats, tons of pink and black and other odd varieties on the Dodger cap, but there were hardly any traditional ones. And the few that store did carry were in odd sizes like 6 7/8 or 7 ¾. No big deal, we figured. They’ll have more inside.

Inside was quiet. “Safeco-esque,” I thought. We sat directly beneath a security camera. There were so many security personnel around that I kept on perking up, thinking incidents were occurring in the area near our seats. But nothing was happening. The beefed up security presence and the thinned out attendance combine to give Dodger Stadium the feel of an empty prison camp where hollow-eyed inmates find slivers of hope in balks by opposing pitchers and chant out MVP for Matt Kemp as if he’s all they have left to cling to.

I realized that on nights when Kershaw isn’t pitching, Kemp actually is all Dodger fans have to cling to. He didn’t disappoint, either, hitting his 30th home run to join Raul Mondesi in the Dodgers 30-30 club and accelerate his run at an unlikely triple crown.

Around the fourth or fifth inning, we set out again to buy a cap on the club level, where a small store is located behind home plate. (The employee discount only applies at the club level and top deck stores). In the club level store there was not a single regular Dodger cap. “This is weird,” said my employee friend, who used to work in merchandising. “We should have caps here.”

We rode the elevator to the top deck, where the concourse was empty and the breeze almost made you feel like you weren’t in the stadium anymore. In past years, especially on Friday nights toward the end of the season, there have been lines to merely enter the Dodgers team store. On this night there were maybe three other fans in the entire place. It was empty. On the television we watched Vin Scully wave cookies around and announce that he was returning for another season. Great news. But once again, only a handful of Dodger caps. None in my size.

At this point, my employee friend explained that the team has been having problems with it’s merchandiser, Facilities Management Inc. You might remember that on August 10th, that merchandiser, FMI, requested protection from the Dodgers in federal bankruptcy court. It turns out, we learned after talking to a few retail salespeople around the stadium, that FMI stopped ordering new merchandise for this season three months ago. Due to low attendance (gate attendance is even worse than the Dodgers’ struggling paid attendance), FMI is not going to make back the $4.5 million it pays for the exclusive right to sell merchandise at Dodger stadium this season. So why sink money into apparel that won’t get sold?

A woman in hushed tones at a field level kiosk explained to me after looking around, as if checking for spies or clandestine microphones, that merchandise has been kind of an overlooked disaster, a symptom of “all this McCourt business.” She slumped her shoulders. She said that a kiosk a few aisles down had a couple of 7 1/2s earlier that night, and that they might still be there.

The kiosk did have two 7 1/2s left. But I couldn’t bring myself to buy one. The employee discount would not have applied and at that point I was too dejected to pay a full $38 for a baseball cap. Somebody else might have wanted it more. Then again, even after the Dodgers won and the vacuously ceremonial Friday night fireworks were launched over Los Angeles, probably not.

It’s Not Love (But it’s Not Bad) by Pete Beatty

You may remember Pete Beatty from “Jim Thome Takes His Rips,” during 90s 1b Week, from his having edited Craig Robinson’s Flip Flop Fly Ball the book, or from his key role in The Classical (pledge drive ongoing!). Pete tweets @nocoastoffense.

When serious rumors of Jim Thome’s return to Cleveland started to bubble up on Twitter yesterday, my first response was sourness. It felt like something between a mercy fuck and an indulgent non-victory lap. Thome is a great guy, a Hall of Famer, and an Indians legend. I love the dude. But he did say in 2002 that they’d have to tear the Cleveland jersey off his back. That was just before he tore the jersey off his back for 85m of the Phillies’ free agent dollars. It still rankles. But I carved out part of Thursday evening to slay those goblins of resentment, grieve them properly, and appreciate what Jim Thome’s return to Cleveland means.

To tell you that, I am starting with a confession: I like to look at pretty girls.

Living in New York City—and spending my 9-to-5 in a part of NY that it’s fair to deem as pacified by cappucino—I spend a lot of time in the presence of unattainable women. I’m not immune to noticing them. This neighborhood sure has a lot. And they’re dressed really well. Also it’s summer. I happen to be single at the moment, too. So I look. That’s part of being alive. Woraciousness is in my nature. The day I don’t notice pretty girls will be a sad day, probably because I will be dead.

I try my level best not to have a destructive male gaze. I temper my heart of a dog by making up stories about the women I see. I look at their shoes, their clothes, their auras, for hints about what their jobs are, who they are, what they’re like. I saw a girl this morning wearing floral print hospital scrubs. She had greasy ringlets and gaudy jewelry, but there was a calm warmth in her eyes that made me think she was a good sister/daughter/mom/girlfriend. There’s a girl I see often on my commute who is around my age. I assume she isn’t into guys because of her haircut. She has “So it goes” tattooed on her left bicep; she is worried about making ends meet, in my story. There’s the mid-twenties-ish lady who gets on the N train at Atlantic-Pacific with peroxided hair, an affinity for neon accessories, and a smoky voice. She’s a lot of fun to know, I imagine, a tomboy with terrible taste in music and guys, but a thorough enthusiasm for life that trumps my brainy cynicism. Or so I have imagined.

These narratives in re the hidden lives of pretty girls are not methodical, but there is a rough set of genre conventions. I try to keep things positive (mental hygiene is important), and I almost always check for a wedding band. I am not a saint.

This was a relatively short but intense summer on the east coast. That day when everyone’s sap rises—and my girl-storytelling season starts in earnest—came late this year. The annual riot of femininity in the male mind didn’t arrive until some weeks into the baseball season, after the Indians had posted a profoundly unexpected 30-15 start. In fact, the beginning of this year’s Indians felt like a month full of that one magical day when tank tops and skirts above the knee get reinvented every year. The Indians were succeeding by being both lucky and good, and it was rewarding to watch. A young, projection-thwarting team playing compelling, if sloppy, ball. They were an obvious regression-to-mean candidate, but fuck math in a summer like this.

Math has a way of fucking you back harder, though. Josh Tomlin’s alchemical command of the strike zone wavered, and a lot of his mistakes have been transmuted into home runs. Every decent bat save for the steady Carlos Santana has spent significant time on the DL. There was the Ubaldo trade, which felt a lot like buying groceries on a credit card. There were flashes of fight through July and the beginning of August, but when Detroit’s Austin Jackson gunned down Kosuke Fukudome to close out a three-game sweep for the Tigers last week, I said my goodbyes to the Indians’ hopes. But this team made me happy, on balance. The minor bummer of their sundowning is a vaccination against hopelessness next year, just like looking at girls in their summer clothes, girls light years out of my league, is an inoculation against loneliness.

And so in its way is Jim Thome’s return. For the same reason I look at pretty girls and make up stories about them, I can’t wait to see Jim Thome in an Indians uniform again. It’s rank sentimentality, it’s cheap, it’s whatever. It’s not a championship, it’s not lasting fulfillment, but it is real. Thome will look particularly ruin-porn-y in the cream alts and the block-C hat. He narrowly missed playing for World Series winners in Philadelphia and Chicago. I suppose I wish for his sake that he’d been on a winner. But seeing him walk back into Cleveland and dance across my laptop screen for this September, I can’t help but notice he’s not wearing a ring. I’m glad, because that leaves room in the story for me.

The Best Show, the Best Game and the Boundaries of Every Creative Universe

“WFMU, you’re on the air.”

With that simple phrase, delivered honestly and expectantly, host Tom Scharpling starts most of the phone calls in to his Best Show on WFMU (iTunes link here). The voice that chirps up is often idiosyncratically familiar, one of a cast of regulars checking in to offer their opinion on topics that Scharpling, in his singular style, has offered his own stance on. In a recent August 16, 2011 episode, old people stealing cookies at the buffet earned a ten-minute lambasting. Callers also take some of Scharpling’s mild ribbing in exchange for a chance to catch Scharpling and fellow listeners up on the comings and goings of a cadre of musicians, comedians, and fellow regualars that make up a lion’s share of the content on the three-hour weekly program. Often celebrity friends of the show call in for a bit of comedic ramble. Folks like Patton Oswalt, Zack Galifianakis, Paul F. Tompkins, and John Hodgman.

Scharpling openly derides some of his non-famous callers. The nasal-voiced curmudgeon Spike, who uses every opportunity to hype John Wesley Shipp, the star of The Flash television series, and the awkward if game “James from Southwest PA,” whose cell phone connection is often as wavering as his tone, take their share of abuse. Another category of participants enjoy the “quality caller” label, and they tell jokes and cheer Scharpling up when his tone sags under the weight of the decade of unpaid three-hour weekly gigs with famous guests and the “mirth, music, and mayhem” that he promises at every outset. These callers, giggling ladies earning their Master’s degrees and hipster dudes in Brooklyn, urge Scharpling back on to the conversations that are the heart of the show, like the buffet discussion, and his stories of pinball in Asbury Park, that remind me, at least, that regional culture is still one of the strongest American forces, made stronger by those who don’t necessarily leave home. Home is a topic close to me, that being the place I’ve just recently returned to.

In sum, the Best Show is a three-hour comedy program that is at once an old school radio outpost, a community radio phenomenon, and the product of the online age of digital media and RSS technology. Tom Scharpling started a radio show on the independent station WFMU out of Jersey City, New Jersey, around 2000. Either WFMU already streamed live on the Internet, or they started to, and the show built an audience beyond the traditional broadcast region in New Jersey. Then, according to Wikipedia, Scharpling and Co. began distributing the show via podcast around 2006. The show is rooted in the region, with much conversation surrounding local shows and field trips to nearby points of interest. The only way to relate to a huge number of people is to be as specific as possible. I am very surprised, for example, that I enjoy Scharpling’s discussion of Jersey tourist outposts, but without them he wouldn’t be Scharpling. As I drive around Houston, scanning the buildings, street corners, and alleyways that I’ve haunted since my youth, Scharpling reminds me that it’s not a crime to stick around.

I can’t recall how I was turned onto The Best Show. Probably a confluence of commentary from those who have been influenced by it mentioning the show frequently enough for me to seek it out in podcast form. Like many, I started with the latest episodes, got hooked on the vocabulary of the show, on Scharpling’s palette of quips–my favorite being “Heave ho” to those callers who earn themselves a hang-up–and DJ tricks–my favorite being the way he intentionally cuts off the final syllable of every caller, be they welcomed or heave hoed. Scharpling, who I heard from him an interview somewhere took his style cues from the bombastic, bull-headed, egotistical talk radio show hosts of an earlier era1–the influence of prototypical radio prankster and manipulator Phil Hendrie is ubiquitous if subconscious–commands the air, one minute heaping praise on his favorite regular callers and another minute bellowing self-aggrandizing testaments to his own brilliance.

Comic routines staged as phone calls from the absurd panoply of characters performed by Scharpling’s comedy partner John Wurster intermingle with phone calls from the regulars and interviews with celebrity guests. The show rolls along like a social evening until the sun has set and a sense of calm comes with Scharpling’s introduction of Solid Gold Hell, the show that follows his. The endorphin glow of intermittent laughter and aural satisfaction fades into the night. The experience is a complete one, with rounded corners.

All of this in the name of comedy, and it really is brilliant. Scharpling, by being hilarious and doggedly pursuing the comedy that he enjoys, the comedians that he likes, and the callers that stir him in whatever manner that they do, has done what great artists do, what community does: he has engineered a creative universe. A universe to me is metaphysical “place” where the players and their interactions and communications follow certain rules that drive somewhat predictable outcomes that simultaneously leave room for spontaneous outbursts that are original within those rules. The successful creative universe is rich, dense, and inhabitable. Scharpling’s show, all ten years of unquantifiable nuance, conversation, character, and comedy, is the rare creative universe whose bounds are out of sight, suggesting a real universe in that the edges are obscured and anything seems possible. I could say the word “yogurt” and suspect without knowing for sure that the topic has been covered somewhere in The Best Show universe.

Enter baseball. There’s not a direct connection between The Best Show and the best game (Scharpling is, in fact, a major basketball fan and an experienced basketball writer). But baseball is a creative universe just like The Best Show. I’ve called it “the baseball multiverse” in the past as a way of trying to put to a term the multi-faceted face of baseball and the variety of ways that we consume, absorb, digest, and exude baseball by watching games, reading blogs, writing articles, playing ourselves, etc. Whatever the entry point or exit point, baseball contains the characters and the rules, the backstory and the breaking news, the boundaries and ultimately the limitlessness of a creative universe. The basic rules of the game and the playing surface establish the baseline of experience, but the human possibilities are endless, and those of us who engage with the game understand the possibilities without knowing the limits.

And therein lies the draw. As soon as one understands the limitations of a system, of a creative universe, the desire to engage that universe diminishes. One quick example would be that of the team eliminated from playoff contention. When the season is set and the results mathematically determined, you may as well move on to football season.2 Hence the joy and wonder of Spring Training and the first game of the season, as those are the times when the uncertainty–the sheer possibility–is heightened, when a Dbacks fan or a Pirates fan can dream about contention.

On the micro scale, each baseball game is a universe, too, just like an individual episode of The Best Show. Each new game adds to and draws from the collective mythology of baseball, and presents the opportunity to witness something entirely novel and entirely knowable. A baseball game is both self-contained and all-containing. As Patrick put it in his recent essay, Why I Write (About Baseball): “The game is something that connects all of us, forms a framework by which we can develop other ideas about the world as a whole.”

This sucker is the alpha and the omega.

Young Astros Third Baseman Jimmy Paredes

As I’ve mentioned, I recently returned to Houston, Texas, and rededicated myself to the Houston Astros and my Astros blog, Foamer Night. Through the pretty deliberate means of starting an entire blog on the topic, I am throwing myself into the Astros universe in much the same way I threw myself into The Best Show universe by listening to back episodes of the show, researching Tom and his friends, reading his Tweets and those of his guests and friends, watching for his credits as a writer on Monk, and generally surrounding myself with the mythology of the show. And there I find the same satisfactions as I watch the young Astros day after day. The excellence of Wandy Rodriguez when he’s clicking is the ultimate Houstonian’s inside joke; the exuberant cut of rookie third baseman Jimmy Paredes’ jib brings a smile as though it was the familiar voice of a comedian with no new album to pitch; a slider low in the zone rather than one hanging like a pair of undies on the line marks incremental improvement for a young pitcher to the attentive fan. These are the planetary bodies and celestial citizens that occupy the creative universe of the Houston Astros.

Postscript

The seeds of this idea were sewn long before Eric’s last post, though I think it goes without saying that I am thrilled to learn that Scharpling will participate in The Classical alongside Eric, Bethlehem Shoals, and many other friends of Pitchers & Poets.

  1. They’re still around, of course, though now they take on an appealing political shade
  2. I happen to be battling this phenomenon as an Astros fan, see below, and it requires a laser-sharp focus on the day-to-day.

The Classical

Meanwhile, on other parts of the internet, there is a group of writers trying to raise money for a new sports website. I’m honored to be a part of that group, and as such here is the intro video for The Classical:

We’re not talking about a blog here, we’re talking about an in-depth publication featuring high quality, fact-checked, heavily reported essays. We’re talking about smart, funny, intellectually considered content published every day. Not just by the people mentioned in the video, but by writes you love and writers you will love.

Also: we’re giving out cool prizes, ranging from chip clips to our personal sports memorabilia to the folks who donate.

For more info, or if you care to contribute, CLICK HERE.

And obviously, tell your friends. And also obviously, if you have any questions, fire away.

Why I Write (About Baseball)

Recently I sat amidst the fog of a Seattle summer morning and read a short essay by George Orwell entitled “Why I Write”.  Like Orwell, I recognized at a young age that I was a writer whether I actually wrote anything or not.  I wrote short novels in elementary school, poetry in high school, essays in college, all of them shamelessly derivative.  When I read, I found myself considering what worked and what didn’t work, how the words evoked reactions from me.  Each time I faced my lack of originality and the surplus of talent already out there in the world, and walked away, I came back again.  I think that most writers feel this way, especially in their youth.

Six months ago I turned to the internet and baseball, primarily to find a way to toy with words while escaping the drudgery of the endless string of term papers.  The quarter ended but the writing didn’t.  Last night my wife threw a sidelong glance at me.  “Why do people write about baseball, anyway?” she asked, glancing at the open Word document on my screen.

“Funny you should ask,” I said.


In his essay, Orwell outlines four primary reasons why writers are driven to write, ignoring financial concerns.  They are:

1. Egoism, the desire to accrue fame and reputation, and to prove one’s worth in relation to one’s colleagues.
2. Aesthetic enthusiasm, simple appreciation for the subject matter at hand.
3. Historical impulse, the desire to catalogue the past exactly as it happened and to put events in their correct order.
4. Political purpose, in its most open-ended sense: writing with intent to persuade the reader and alter the world through that connection.

In the realm of sportswriting there will never be any shortage of the first of these four causes.  This is especially true online, where self-promotion and social networking have become increasingly vital to one’s success.  Fame is a sort of social capital for writers, so easily quantified through the number of page views, comments, and followers.  This is neither a good nor a bad thing, and I very much doubt that many people are drawn to the vocation solely or even primarily for the ego boost it provides.  The anonymous internet commenter is always there to provide an instant remedy for such delusions.

Aesthetic enthusiasm, on the other hand, seems perfectly suited to the sport of baseball and the internet does nothing to decrease its sentiment.  Few people would write about baseball if they didn’t already love the game.  If the writing is good it will foster this love in the reader, only furthering their desire to read more.  What makes baseball writing so vivid and varied is that each writer can find (and convey) their own unique appreciation of the sport.  It can be economics, statistics, or militaristic imagery; it can even be poetry.

The historical motive is the least obvious, but perhaps the one to which baseball owes the most.  I am continually amazed at the precision and quantity of data available to the baseball fan, minutia spanning from the alteration of the length of a stirrup to the performance of men who played the game in wheat fields a hundred and thirty-five years ago.  That we have this historical foundation is due to the labor of thousands of determined, admiring fans.  The internet, however, erodes this impulse somewhat, as it’s difficult for the writer to create a sense of permanence in a form of media which is inherently transitory.

Orwell’s own passion came from the political purpose of writing.  He concludes the essay with this line: “And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”  Those who have read Animal Farm and 1984 would be unsurprised.  Baseball doesn’t appear as though it would suit Orwell particularly well, but there are certain elements of political struggle present in sportswriting.


The world of baseball naturally lends itself to partisanship.  It divides people into cultural regions, bound to a single baseball team, and demands of them an oath of loyalty.  These regions are peppered with the occasional transplant, who must struggle in foreign lands and can only rely on USA Today and the internet to receive tidings from home.

Because of the remote nature of the game, most fans connect to it through argument.  Some of the most romantic experiences we have with baseball are arguments: the kibitzing of the angry mob on sports radio after the blown save, or the debate at the bar over the Hall of Fame.  The national media takes this argumentation and capitalizes on it, sensibly stoking the fire in order to drive traffic.  Fans from each corner of the country clamber for the mystical quality that is “respect” from the journalism personalities.

We also see this political undercurrent to the never-ending battle between the sabermetric and traditional baseball analysis communities.  These debates are pitched, and much is at stake; Felix Hernandez in part owes his Cy Young award to the charisma of baseball writers, as does Bert Blyleven his plaque.  But as often as these conversations result in good, intellectually stimulating give and take, more often they’re simple diatribes aimed at the already converted.  Edginess and a willingness to ruffle feathers win out over insightful analysis.  Fans are yet again driven to take sides, and the result is an atmosphere eerily similar to politics.

Orwell would have been fine with all of this.  But Orwell lived in a different time, one where he could afford the luxury of moral superiority.  He wrote in the era of Hitler, and in Hitler the idea of an enemy to which all other enemies since have been compared via hyperbole.  It was a time when strength fought strength, one of the reasons we still find that moment in history so appealing.  But as fine a book as Animal Farm was, there is little in baseball that is so black and white.  When it comes to baseball, I find that I can’t avoid being a relativist.


There’s one aspect of writing that Orwell couldn’t foresee, and that’s the blurring of the line between writing and publication.  The act of writing itself, regardless of whether it’s read or thrown away, has the effect of organization, forcing the author to order his or her own thoughts.  The research and reflection necessary for good writing – or even writing that just tries to be good – helps people to improve upon their knowledge.  This is the same with conversation, which helps people clarify their ideas and understand how relevant they are to the world around them.  Every piece of writing is an extension between author and reader, an attempted exchange of ideas.  This exchange can certainly be persuasive.   But in the end it’s primarily personal, an individual expression that may or may not reach the next person down the line.

Here at Pitchers & Poets, there’s little pretense about our preference for the aesthetic.  I believe that everything has to mean something, even baseball.  It’s not enough for me to say that something is good or that this causes this to happen; I’m not even particularly interested in efficiencies or the process of winning baseball games, beyond a clinical, mathematical viewpoint.  I want to write about baseball as allegory, as a symbol for something greater than the game itself and greater than me, myself.  The game is something that connects all of us, forms a framework by which we can develop other ideas about the world as a whole.

My hope is that this framework can attach to the framework of others to build something meaningful.  It’s not a war, nor is it an attempt at a Pyrrhic victory.  I write because I like sharing ideas, and sharing them makes them better.  Why people read baseball writing is a separate discussion entirely.

Home

I was back in America for about three days before baseball welcomed me home. It was early in Friday’s Red Sox -Mariners game. I was seated midway up the first base line, top of the lower level, enjoying the rare ambiance of a crowded Safeco Field, wondering the first name of the Seattle pitcher (last name: Beaven), when a hard-hit groundball en route to first baseman Justin Smoak decided it would rather be a line drive, and struck him in the face. Smoak took a few steps back, shocked I think, and fell.

It was that moment – the ball leaping up suddenly, Smoak stumbling and falling as if he’d been shot, the sloppy aftermath of the play that nearly saw Carl Crawford thrown out rounding third – that brought baseball back to life for me. It also brought to mind another scene:

I was at a Dodger game in late 2002 and Kaz Ishii was on the mound. Ishii was a rookie that year and one of my favorites. He paused midway through his windup, threw a video game curve, and generally behaved like a renegade pop star. At some point, with the Astros hitting, I got up to use the restroom. Inside, I heard the crowd gasp loudly, and then through speakers I heard Vin Scully describe Brian Hunter hitting a line drive off Ishii’s head and the ball caroming all the way to the backstop. I ran back to my seat. The crowd was silent. Ishii was out cold in the middle of the infield. Scully’s matter-of-fact-description was still ringing in my ears.

I sat in my seat at Safeco and I thought about Kaz Ishii, and then I thought about the way that in baseball like in anything else, one thing reminds you of another. And that without the first thing, the exposure to baseball itself, it’s hard to be reminded of those other things. It’s hard to be fully engaged. And before I could lapse fully into Proustian reflection, I got distracted by some statistic up on the scoreboard.

The Smoak play was awful random and fast and electrifying. It stunned my senses. And I thank it for making me realize how far from baseball I had drifted. The truth is I’ve grown accustomed to a certain idisyncratic level of baseball fandom. For the last two-plus years I’ve thought about baseball every day. I’ve written about it almost as much. To leave mid-season, even just for a couple of months, was to change my life in a more significant way than I had anticipated. It was to be removed from the source of so much of what I did.

I still feel slightly removed. Not in the sense that I didn’t know who the hell Blake Beavan was or that David Ortiz was having such a good year, but in the sense that I haven’t fully caught up mentally to the season, or even to sports in general. The sports brain isn’t clicking as fast as it should be yet. My interest in the standings and the story-lines isn’t where it should be. But that will come.

Too Many Xs by Jesse Gloyd

Jesse Gloyd lives in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, California, my new favorite American neighborhood. Buckshot Boogaloo is his web site, where you’ll find thoughtful and valuable essays, and the Buckshot Boogaloo podcast.

I’m trying to catch the perfect mood, the perfect literary metaphor for Satchel Paige. I can’t. I can’t seem to put his life in the proper context. I can’t seem to figure out the perfect angle. It’s almost as if he purposefully made his life confusing a roadmap or a treasure map with X’s marking random spots. I can’t blame Satchel alone for my lack of context. My wife is eating cherries next to me. She’s eating cherries and flipping through a People Magazine. I can only turn up my music so loud. I can’t stand the sound of people chewing: the suck, the crunch, and the spit of the pit into the plastic drinking cup. The sounds are mixed up, faulty. They are metaphorically inaccurate.

It might also be metaphorically inaccurate to say Satchel Paige was Methuselah with a golden arm, but I’m not going for accuracy at this point. He threw three innings when he was fifty-nine. Charlie Finley put a rocking chair in the bullpen. Satchel needed his pension, so Charlie let him pitch. There’s a photo of him in the rocker with a nurse by his side. He is statuesque, a lizard basking in the sun. He looks ageless, metaphorically prehistoric. Metaphorically prehistoric sounds nice, it sounds correct, but it isn’t a thing. It’s confusing. It’s faulty.

Age rests at the heart of the confusing map that was Satchel’s existence. Age should be the perfect frame. It should be the mold that we use to cast the essence of Satchel. He was old. He was the archetype of old. He was Methuselah. He was bigger than Methuselah. He was a Patriarch, Biblical in stature. The problem is that age doesn’t tell the whole story. Age is the shadow. Age is the lamppost we use to lean. It helps us steady. It keeps us from falling.

I dedicated a great deal of thought to my grandmother when I was first putting this piece together. I wrote a detailed introduction (and then threw it out with a grandiose sweeping delete). The detailed introduction was introspective and sad. It was a window to a time when I mourned. The bridge was a bit shaky though. Satchel moved too fast to mourn. His type was rambling. He wasn’t easy to pin down. Age turned out to be the only common link between Satchel and my grandmother, age and the ravages of time.

She lived in Texas and moved around. I think her family might have been involved with the circus.

My grandmother was easy to pin down. Her life was rough, but she loved people and she made it through. The Great Depression bit her hard. She lived in Texas and moved around. I think her family might have been involved with the circus. She moved, Satchel moved. Satchel was always running away from situations; my grandmother confronted and dealt. The parallels between the two were forced, they were false. My perception was something of a lie.

Satchel Paige was a beautiful lie. Lying was his trademark, but his idea of the lie was masked. The lie became the story, the tallest of the tall tales. People paid to see him lie. They paid to watch him pitch, so they, too, could have a faulty leg to stand on when telling their own lies about Satchel. Bojangles taught him how to jangle. James P. Johnson taught him how to roll. He got the better of Dizzy Dean on more than one occasion. His lies have been documented. They were beautiful. They were integral. The best lies have a life. His could dance. His could sing. His could juke. His could jive. Understanding the lie, I thought, was the key to understanding Satchel Paige. The lies weren’t truly lies, though, because they weren’t malicious.

His lies were half-baked myths propped up with hyperbole and suspect detail. For example, his pitches, even though they were all of the same ilk, had different names: Bat Dodger, Midnight Rider, Midnight Creeper, Jump Ball, Trouble Ball, Bee Ball, Hesitation. The names made them strong, the names added to his legacy, they added to the hyperbolic metaphor that was his everyday existence. His pitches were his arsenal, his iconic weapons. But unlike Hobbs’ Wonderboy, Crockett’s Betsy, and Arthur’s Excalibur, Satchel’s pitches were disposable. They were more akin to symphonic movements. They were short, brilliantly violent bursts of poetry. They had voice. They sang. They were balladeers, their melodies existing as a means of bolstering the legend, and confusing the map.

his pitches, even though they were all of the same ilk, had different names: Bat Dodger, Midnight Rider, Midnight Creeper, Jump Ball, Trouble Ball, Bee Ball, Hesitation. The names made them strong.

He also had rules for living, rules for staying young.

1. Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.
2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful.
5. Avoid running at all times.
6. Don’t look back, something may be gaining on you.

These rules added to the myth. They became canonical. They helped create the perception. But perception is easily corrupted, especially self-perception. After all, Satchel was always running. He was always looking back. He was running away from women and professional obligations. He rambled. He lied. He sang. He danced.

In 1959 he rambled onto the set of Robert Mitchum’s The Wonderful Country. He played Tobe Sutton, the fictional representation of a Buffalo Soldier. In a sense, his rambling existence owed as much to the Buffalo Soldier as anything. He was a warrior, but he was taken for granted. He had to fight for respect, and the respect that he earned needed the lamppost of hyperbole and metaphor to help prop it up for the masses to accept. It was drunken respect, sloppy respect.

The social ramble ain’t restful.

His involvement with the film was chronicled in the December 1959 issue of Ebony. Director Robert Parrish stated that Satchel had “every possibility to become a definite screen personality.” Screen personality. His legend lived, and still lives, in the deep mine shaft of a nation’s collective subconscious as a personality. He was great, he was magnificent, but his magnificence was hidden by his personality.

Then there was the time that he led a band of Negro League legends to the Dominican Republic. A government official commissioned him to round up the best of the best. His team would represent Rafael Trujillo1. Trujillo was ruthless, but Trujillo loved baseball. While Satchel and his team (a team that featured Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell, among others) were playing in the Dominican Republican and being praised for their skill, Trujillo was executing as many as 30,000 dark skinned Haitians. It was Trujillo’s intent to lighten the country. The paradox is chilling. There were rumors of midnight executions. Cool Papa Bell was convinced their time would come if they didn’t play well. Armed Dominican soldiers would line the field. They were veterans of the firing squad. They were veterans of destruction, agents of death.

In the end, everyone made it home fine. The trip lined their pockets and added to the fractured legend that was their existence. The legend and the lies that accompanied Satchel were a needed thing. They increased his status and made him a desirable figure in a rough world.

In 1971 Satchel Paige appeared on What’s My Line? The audience knew to be excited, even though Satchel looked old, weathered. His suit was brown. The atmosphere was camp.

Soupy Sales was curious, “… is that because, you are well known, because of your appearances on television?”

“Nope,” said Satchel.

“Are you known for your work in the theater?” asked Sandy Duncan.

“Nope,” he lied.

“Are you well known?” asked Henry Morgan.

“Yap,” said Satchel, grinning because he was. He was in on the joke. He was always in on the joke. There were times it seemed he was so deeply in on the joke that reality was blurred. Sometimes the line didn’t even exist. His cheek was Kaufman-esque. His cheek helped him make a living and travel the world long after the golden arm had lost its efficiency. When he was on What’s My Line? the arm was hidden beneath the brown sleeve of his brown suit. He seemed pained, distant, forlorn. The laughs may have been some sort of anesthetic to the pain of age, but he had to have had an understanding of his importance.

Maybe perception and understanding are the keys to grasping the metaphorical map. I have a hard time perceiving the existence of my grandmother now that she has been dead for a few years. I can grasp it sonically when I listen to Patsy Cline sing “Faded Love”, which is why I generally skip “Faded Love” when it comes up on random. Too many things seem to be coming up on random. My disdain for the sound of chewing is probably rooted in some self-preserving desire to disconnect. I don’t want to listen to people exist. I don’t want to think about people ceasing to exist. I want everything to float along. I want my life to fill with hyperbolic metaphors. I want these metaphors to take over and numb the pain and sadness that comes with time.

I want to personify hyperbole, because Satchel was the personification of hyperbole. I want to give a life performance drenched in melancholic melancholia, to be the embodiment of embodiment, the era of an era, the man with the golden arm, and the metaphorical metaphor. Satchel was those things.

But the reality is that my stable existence, my duties as a father and husband are far too important, far too meaningful. Satchel Paige wasn’t fond of the social ramble; he wasn’t fond of looking back. This is fine, except that life is too short. We need to enjoy the social ramble, and our very existence depends on us looking back. If we don’t enjoy every annoying sound, and if we don’t let ourselves embrace pain, we run the risk of losing connection with the outside world. We run the risk of fossilizing our essence, of creating a metaphorical hyperbolic legend that stifles reality. We run the risk of creating maps with no real direction and too many Xs marking too many spots.

  1. “Trujillo’s 30 years in power, to Dominicans known as the Trujillo Era (Spanish: La Era de Trujillo), is considered one of the bloodiest ever in the Americas, as well as a time of a classic personality cult, when monuments to Trujillo were in abundance.”, via wikipedia

P&P Conversations: Foul Ball Excitement Reform

Ted: Not long ago, we thought that the American baseball fan could stoop no lower when an adult woman plucked a foul ball from the hands of an excited child. To put it simply, we were wrong. Two days ago, two men, also adults, wrestled for control of a foul ball that had flown into a trash can. We watched while two men nearly came to blows over a piece of garbage. What has become of us, Patrick? Is this a new phenomenon made grotesque by contemporary culture, or do we just see it more now?

Patrick: I’m tempted to believe that this is an age-old human foible that’s been exposed under the baleful light of the television camera.  I’m sure the same phenomenon occurred in the old days, under the bleachers at the Polo Grounds, when dirt-encrusted newsies attacked each other with lead pipes and rusty nails for the sake of a foul ball.  That said, back then they could have probably swapped that foul ball for a couple of moon pies or a hoagie in a rare opportunity to obtain adequate nourishment.  My question: what, today, is this piece of garbage really worth?  How does a foul ball drive well-fed men to madness?

Ted: Is the price of a foul ball as simple as the thrill of experience? Do I give these grandstand grapplers too much credit by suggesting that they are seeking not for the ball itself, the object, but for the need simply to suck the marrow from the bone of life? It’s hard to underestimate the impact of the shot of adrenaline that courses through the veins when a foul ball shows itself on a course right towards. However, as civilized beings, it’s our job to recognize in the heat of the moment the appropriate course of action and choose that over the quote natural course of action. For example, once you realize the ball is in a trash can, it is time to beg off and follow another passion before you hurt somebody.

Patrick: There may be some marrow at the bottom of that trash can, but I doubt it’s palatable.

The trouble with the adrenaline theory is that once the fan has met with triumph, he or she is left with a two-dollar baseball with an extra logo.  You’d think at this point the fan could locate the nearest eight year-old boy, become a hero for the next ten or fifteen seconds by giving it to him, and be on his way.  People don’t act like that, though; they throw Charles Barklean elbows and treat each ball as if it had a treasure map drawn on it.  I can also get the visceral feeling of the ball nearing you, and I think there’s more than a little of a vicariousness to it, the desire to replicate the heroes on the field.  But whatever it is, something in it must stay trapped in that ball even afterward.

A while ago, we had a discussion on the Twitter after some other fan made an ass of themselves on national television, which led to your call for #foulballexcitementreform.  If I recall correctly, and I do (because I can go back and look at the history), your opinion was that “the authorities should step in and regulate it [foul ball behavior].  Save people from themselves.”  I find myself drawn (on this rare occasion) to the libertarian viewpoint: that those who are willing to risk ridicule for the sake of their prize should be allowed to pay the price.  Does this make me insensitive to the dangers of uncoordinated, usually inebriated fans? Or does it make you a communist?  (Note: this is a leading question.)

Ted: I will get my #blackballed hashtag ready, Patrick, to prepare for the inevitable reaction, but I think that a baseball game is a controlled environment where many people are packed into a small space, and they gotta get along. We’re not out on Ron Paul’s family farm here, we’re in a manmade bubble, where an overzealous ball seeker can hurt kids or himself, as we’ve very tragically and regrettably seen lately. Nobody wants foul balls to get all serious, but real life took care of that for us, and that occurred well after myself and quite a few other people were becoming aware of a strange overexcitement about grabbing foul balls. I haven’t really thought through what it would mean to regulate the practice. I’d begin, theoretically anyway, by preventing anyone over the age of 18 from going home with a foul ball, and I’d prevent anyone from invading another’s space to get one. Home runs and memorable events would be an exception, etc. Who knows if you could ever enforce such rules, and maybe what we need is a collective unspoken agreement among Us Adults, that we’ll all just cool out. Are we cool, Patrick? Are we cool?

Patrick: We’re cool, Ted.  Here in Seattle, the fans haven’t been packed in all that tightly as of late, so I tend to forget what it’s like.  But even if we were to appropriate the actual baseballs to give to orphanages, we still haven’t deal with the attention-seeking aspect of the catch itself. Maybe we can alter the culture of fandom to prevent dangerous behavior, hopefully using copious amounts of shame.

Ted: Not knowing how to comport yourself is hardly a new phenomenon, I agree. Now, though, it seems that the actual stage is not the only stage. The stage has expanded past its traditional boundaries. Are we actually paying too much attention to the spectators, who aren’t supposed to be in our purview at all, except in a warm and fuzzy, “collective experience” kind of way?

Patrick: The boundaries of culture have shifted throughout our country, especially in the past fifteen years or so.  Reality television has shifted focus away from a “celebrity class”, and the internet, in Twitter and sports journalism, has broken down many of the barriers between fan and player.  This borders dangerously close to what the kids today call the “meta”, but are we in some way contributing to the shift with this very discussion?  Are we changing the story, albeit very slightly, through our telling of it?

Ted: Always.

Situational Essay: Of Broken Bats and Broken Bottles: Athletes, Musicians, and The Number 27 by Simon Broder

Simon Broder is a starving writer and Blue Jays fan living, working and ostensibly writing his first novel in Victoria, BC. He blogs about the Jays at .363.

My first favourite number wasn’t twenty-seven.

It was 3. Three, because three is the quintessential baseball number. Three outs, three strikes: three is baseball’s time-clock. From three I branched to the number nine. Three repeated three times, nine is just as fundamental to the baseball experience. Nine innings. Nine players. Besides, John Olerud wore the number nine, and I already had a numerical bond to the Jays’ first baseman given our birthdates (8/5/68 and 8/5/86). We looked like distant cousins (tall, thin, pasty). He was coming off of one of the best offensive seasons in Blue Jays history, but it was because of the numbers that I idolized Johnny O.

Twenty-seven is three outs times nine innings, and any baseball fan knows what the number means: perfection. In a way, the number 27 (three times three times three) contains within its mathematical parts the entirety of a baseball game. But the importance of the number twenty-seven extends beyond this abstract baseball sense: ever since Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix expired two weeks apart from each other in 1970, conspiracy theorists have expounded the merits of the number twenty-seven for an entirely different reason – because it’s the age at which musicians die.

Amy Winehouse was born in September of 1983, which made her, as of July 23, 2011, twenty-seven years old. And like Joplin, Hendrix, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison before her, she left in her wake a critically acclaimed catalogue and a well-documented history of substance abuse. Is 27 truly the expiry date for the excessive lifestyle or is it a self-fulfilling prophesy? The number itself has become almost as superstitious as Turk Wendell’s toothbrush or Nomar’s batting gloves. If Wade Boggs didn’t eat chicken one day and went 0-4, there’s no doubt that we would point to the dietary choice as the reason for his failure, when, if anything, it was probably his fixation on the dietary choice that distracted him at the plate (and he might well have gone 0-4 anyway if the pitcher had good stuff on the night). If Kurt Cobain found meaning in the 27 Club, well then maybe one night he shot up with a gun in his hand, testing his willpower to join the famous foursome. We won’t have any indication whether Winehouse chose to join the club or whether her body simply gave out until we know the official cause of death, and we’ll likely never know for sure.

Death is messy in all the ways that numbers aren’t, and maybe that’s reflected in the music of the six stars who died at the age of 27. I know that as an adolescent coming out of my shell, I discovered in music something essential that wasn’t represented in my linear, mathematical understanding of things like baseball; something dynamic, free, and chaotic. For all of its carefully calibrated chord structures and notations, music is spiritual expression. As I realized the world was actually a pretty fucked up place and not the suburban daydream waxed by paternalistic play-by-play announcers, music became the outlet for my angst. Negotiating from one-hit wonders to classics like Soundgarden and Nirvana, I embraced the nineties as my era. I became a fake-nostalgic GenXer, patterning myself an outdated grunge kid, some free-ranging dissociative individual out of a Linklater flick or an idealistic hip hop video. The bottom-line chutes of office work, or public school education – or, yes, baseball – gave way to the experience of life itself. Fair and foul boundaries were blurred. Life – real life, not Kantian philosophy or pep talks – was relative, a world as far from the baseball diamond as one could get.

Baseball rewards – in a way, expects – perfection. Nothing represents what baseball strives for better than the perfect cube of the number 27. Three to its own exponent – an impenetrable mathematical fortress. Take out all the threes, and 27 is a prime number. Baseball players are lauded for their reliability, their machinelike focus on each game at hand. Adam Dunn hit exactly 40 homers for four years in a row. The ideal baseball team would be composed of five Roy Halladays and nine Albert Pujols’; a complete game every night and a 1.000 OPS from every slot in the lineup. There would be no struggle, no personal demons to overcome, because demons affect performance and baseball is all about performance.

If baseball players are the pillars of one model of orderly society, art is littered with the corpses of social outcasts. Nietzsche and Van Gogh went crazy. Dostoyevsky was politically oppressed. Brian Wilson couldn’t get out of bed for a decade. But there’s a reason why A&E can get away with running low-budget shows like “Hoarders” and “Intervention” back-to-back for 24 hours at a time. Even in the baseball universe, we can’t escape the pull of human-interest stories. Roy Halladay didn’t become the best pitcher in baseball until he was forced to reinvent himself in low-A ball. Josh Hamilton recovered from hard drug addiction. Zack Greinke overcame anxiety. Of course, the oft-repeated stories are always about the successful recoveries – the Lenny Dykstras and Ken Caminitis who fall victim to their own excesses are relegated to occasional fine-print bulletins and lamentful obituaries. They become “True Hollywood Stories” or the subjects of sanguine television movies.

Jacoby Ellsbury was born three days before Amy Winehouse. Think about that for a second. Jacoby Ellsbury is older than Amy Winehouse. In a game in which an early middle-aged man is referred to as a “shell” or a “corpse” by cynical commentators and some men shift to the coaching ranks in their mid-thirties, Ellsbury is a paragon of youth. He’s 27 and he’s having the best year of his career – hitting .300, stealing a ton of bases and just now adding power to the mix. He’s emerging as one of the best young – emphasis on young – players in the game today. To say that he’s still very much alive would be understating the point.

For musicians, 27 is special. It’s the burnouts’ burnout, a descending blaze of shooting-star glory at a round and perfect age. But for Jacoby Ellsbury, and countless other baseball players, 27 is an age defined by success. It’s been one of the revelations of the Bill James statistical renaissance that 27 is actually the age at which most players peak. Most good players come up at 23 or 24 and begin their decline around 30, but the best year of a career will usually happen at the moment when experience intersects physical skills. Just run down the list of players in their age-27 years in 2011: Dustin Pedroia. Jose Reyes. Joey Votto. Ryan Braun. Adam Lind. Casey Kotchman. Most of them have been good for two or three years and should stay in their primes for a couple more, but at age twenty-seven any given player can really bust out of his previous mould. Take Kotchman: after half a decade in the failed-prospect wilderness shuttled between four different organizations, at 27 he’s finally found a regular job and is delivering with an OPS in the mid-.800s and plus defense.

We don’t yet know how Amy Winehouse died. It’s possible that it wasn’t directly drug-related, that it was the result of health problems brought about by a self-destructive lifestyle. Rumours now abound that it was due to delirium tremens, the toxic shock brought about by withdrawal from alcohol. That strikes a personal chord with me, as someone who underwent a much milder form of alcohol withdrawal six months ago – not nearly so serious, obviously, but frightening nonetheless. (There’s nothing like cold sweats and muscle aches at four in the morning to make you feel like a real man.) Either way, her death was not a function of a healthy human being in the prime of her life, but more like the expected conclusion to a train barrelling towards a broken bridge. This was someone who wrote 5 years ago: “I tread a troubled track/my odds are stacked/I’ll go back to black.” Predicting that Amy Winehouse’s lifestyle was unsustainable was a bit like saying the Dodgers’ financial situation was precarious.

After Kurt Cobain killed himself, William Burroughs reflected that “As far as I was concerned, he was dead already.” Burroughs hallucinated his way through inaccessible metaphors to the ripe old age of 83, while Cobain childishly languished in a self-imposed drug haze for a couple of years and overdosed seemingly at will, because he wanted to “join the club.” It’s as if only in death could his life take on some kind of meaning – or maybe, more likely, he saw it as the ultimate prank to play on the world. Still, 28 and 26 don’t carry the same weight as 27. And thirty is old, not in a life-expectancy sense, but old in the sense of what it is to be young and what it is to be a rock star. Twenty’s cool and anything over fifty has its place for a whole different set of reasons (I’d pay to see Keith Richards in concert) but 30-50 is an awkward place to exist as a rockstar. Have you ever been to an Offspring show? It’s a bunch of middle-aged surfers lip-syncing songs about revolution. They’re not punks, they’re rich men from Malibu. In her public appearance at the Grammys a few years back, when Winehouse slurred her way through awkward thank yous before staggering off the stage, there was something pathetic in the actions but there was something honest in them, too. This wasn’t an auto-tuned diva created by a publicity machine; this was a pure heroin addict singing about her problems. And even as the shrill condemnations and side-of-the-mouth Courtney Love references rained down, it was in that moment that Amy Winehouse came into focus for me. A famous person who was real – even real fucked up – was compelling.

Amy Winehouse’s public image redefined, or brought back, heroin chic(k). With that messy hairdo and those bleary eyes, she looked like a white Ella Fitzgerald coming off a binge after putting on too much makeup. In a way, it was a female reconception of the Cobain slacker look, a kind of stylized, “I don’t give a fuck, it’s all about my personal demons,” that ultimately becomes a stylized self-parody in the clutches of the handlers of such famous people. I’m not saying Cobain and Winehouse weren’t drug-ruined messes, just that their publicists did their best to weave that messiness into a public image and make it seem less…upsetting. Less what it really was.

And that’s where the worlds intersect. Celebrity culture is about keeping issues under wraps. The way that baseball dealt with the steroid era isn’t all that dissimilar to the way that the United States is dealing with the debt crisis – let’s fix the tilted painting on the wall instead of dealing with the fire in the basement. Even in the 21st century, we are a culture of suppression, a culture in which it seems better to hide the elephant in the room than putting him on the front lawn. Drug addiction is a serious problem in the world, and glorifying the 27 Club does gloss over the fact that many addicts die before 30, famous or not. In a way, saying that great musicians die at 27 is like saying Dominican Republican shortstops go to America to escape the poverty. Many people go to America to escape the poverty, it’s just that the major leaguers are the ones who succeed. Most find life only slightly more bearable on the other side. America, after all, is a country that publicized a domestic war on drugs in the 1980s while still doing business with cartel-supported regimes.

Stylistically, Ellsbury to Winehouse is night and day. Ellsbury is clean-cut ballplayer personified. His personality, his struggle, is entirely manifested in the game itself. He’s simply a left-handed swinging stolen-base machine, who shows up in the same crew-cut and dirty pants from March through October. In a way, what made Manny Ramirez such an enigma during his career was his refusal to do the same. He never seemed to buy into the organized baseball system. He dressed – and lived – like a rock star. But the world of baseball is no different than the world of rock, ultimately; within everything lies the struggle to survive. And while I don’t know if I’ll ever reconcile the perfect world that baseball once laid out for me in her numerical organization with the life I later discovered – that network of shortcuts, failures and, ultimately, the fallible thing that life is – I can do my best to live with a dual respect for the thrill of fair competition and rock’s ethos of struggle. After all, there’s no ambiguity in numbers, but as we’ve so recently discovered, even Ichiro! is human.