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.

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

  1. Dana King says:

    Ellsbury is no longer young by baseball standards. A player’s Age 27 season is generally accepted to be his peak year. Not for all, of course, but a bell-shaped curve will show 27 as the year where innate ability and experience best. Younger and you still have things to learn. Older and the eyes aren’t as clear and the bat isn’t as quick. By the age of 30, most all players are in their decline phases.

    That lesson was largely forgotten during the steroid era, but more people are being reminded of it every day.

  2. Superstartion says:

    People turn their backs on black cats and hop over foul lines. Numbers are easy to get superstitious about. ( Did you notice 8/5/68 and 8/5 86 both add up to 9?) What are the odds? 10% At what age did Lennon, Bach, Mozart, Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Beethoven die? It was weird that Hendrix and Joplin died at 27 back in the day. Statistically I suspect 27 not to be that spooky. Like the Bermuda Triangle.

  3. Bryan Harvey says:

    Great read. Love the thread that runs through it about how it’s not necessarily the number or the superstitious act but the obsession with a number or act that can lead a Wade Boggs to a bad night at the plate, a Cobain to a bad night with the needle, or a Winehouse to a bad night with (?). And then how treating the obsession leads to treating symptoms and not diseases. Well done.

  4. Maggie says:

    I was unconsolable when Kurt Cobain died, nevermind I was 28 with 4 kids and my family couldn’t understand why I would waste tears on another 27 yr. old, who killed himself and was obviously a serious junk user. I still consider Nirvana one of my favorite bands. Three yrs. later my brother put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was so drunk, that he shot through his cheek and throat! Even though his head was the size of a watermelon, he made a full recovery! I THANK GOD EVERYDAY! He was a cop, not the first one I knew who shot himself, but, the first one who made a full recovery. The next year a young NYS Court Officer I worked with, shot and killed himself on Christmas eve. I remember when this happened to my brother, an ex-boyfriend I refused to go back to, wanted them to take my Gun. My brother like many others shot himself while he was DRUNK! I have 6 kids now, I’m retired. My oldest child is will be 25 in a couple of months and although I know for a fact, none of my children are abusing their bodies I wish the older ones were at least 28. I’m going to be a 46yr. old grandma. I don’t consider it to bad. I made my mom a grandma at 40. Amy Winehouse was the last truly talented singer who has died. I know I shouldn’t have felt bad for her either…..I really don’t care, what anyone thinks by now. I do mourn her and her talent. Now, the poor Hockey Player Rypien is dead at 27WTF?!?! It freaks me out!!! Way too many young people are dying’ I’m not accusing Rypien of drug abuse. I know oxycodone is a very dangerous drug. Even though they make it almost Gel like so it’s almost impossible to snort. I think people think it’s not working since it does take a while to take affect. They take more and more not realising it slows your breathing so drastically!! Sorry for all the type O’s. I hope young people, artists, athletes and just plain troubled young people in general start aspiring to LIVE beyond the age 27!