When I was a kid I had two discernible skills. The first was the ability to imitate the batting stances of my favorite baseball players. The second was the ability to act out Chris Farley’s “Matt Foley” sketch from Saturday Night Live in its entirety.
For a long time, I thought that these two skills had nothing to do with each other. Matt Foley made me laugh, so I imitated him. I loved baseball, so I imitated my favorite baseball players. That was that- until recently.
A few nights ago I was in the throes of a particular kind of boredom that only extensive Internet surfing can cure, and I came across this picture of Farley:
Naturally, as a former understudy of the man, this picture had a lot of impact on me. I expected that, but what I didn’t expect was for this picture to make me think about baseball.
We’ll come back to the baseball, but first I want to discuss Chris Farley.
Anyone who knows anything about Farley and the tragic nature of his death will immediately understand why this photograph is so haunting. It’s hard to say whether or not the photo is staged or candid, but in my mind it doesn’t really matter. It’s very rare for a picture to so accurately capture the spirit of its subject. This is Chris Farley, the court Jester who donned a crown that’s shine only brought the shadows closer.
The darkness invoked by this photograph is the same darkness that made Farley’s comedy so brilliant. On the surface he was just the “Funny Fat Guy” of his era, but that’s not what makes him memorable. What makes me miss him still to this day was his unique ability to successfully incorporate an undeniably authentic sense of anxiety and desperation into each of his characters.
Take a moment to watch this classic Matt Foley sketch.
This sketch isn’t funny because it features a fat man yelling and falling through a coffee table. It’s funny because Farley so convincingly plays up the “broken man” aspect of the Foley character. He forces the audience to confront the pain and sadness of a life that has slipped its last rung, and then he forces us to laugh at it. A comedian can only pull off a feat like this if he allows pieces of himself to seep into the performance. It’s authenticity that turns Matt Foley in a hilarious force of nature rather than an awkward sock puppet. When he croaks out his famous line about living in a van down by the river, it’s not hard to imagine Farley himself ending up in a van down by the river, thrice divorced.
I find it less than coincidental that the names Foley and Farley so closely resemble each other.
Even as a kid I think I was subconsciously appreciative of Farley’s ability to incorporate his demons into his comedy. I loved the fact that he was willing to show his audience so much of himself, and that we were allowed to embrace the imperfections he revealed to us. We were allowed to love him not in spite of his ugliness, but because of it.
I thought about all of these things as I looked at the photograph in the pale light of my laptop, rehashing all of Farley’s best guttural one liners in my head, and I realized that it was an attraction Farley’s authenticity that drove me to imitate his most memorable character.
Which brings us back to baseball, and more specifically, batting stances.
Baseball is a game that is governed by the rigidity of a diamond and a rule book, and it leaves little room for self expression. There are only so many ways that a player can field a grounder, swing a bat, and dive for a ball in the gap. Some players do these things better than others, but in the end they are all essentially going through the same set of motions.
But not when they are standing at the plate.
When a player steps to the plate, he is given the opportunity to allow some of his true self to seep into his on field demeanor. Gary Sheffield always played the game with a focus in his eyes that hinted at an unseen intensity boiling inside of him, and yet this intensity had nowhere to manifest itself while he was forced to loiter silently in left field. Things changed when he stepped into the box, though. There he was given the opportunity to set free some of his fire, and he did so by violently cocking his bat back and forth, forcing everyone to take notice.
Ken Griffey Jr. always possessed a swagger and athleticism that seemed too big for a stadium to contain. Centerfield was never quite big enough to reveal his true potential, and the youthful cockiness of his backwards facing cap was always snuffed out once batting practice was over; the game demanding that he straighten his bill. This cockiness returned once he stepped up to the plate. He’d stand upright and nonchalant, his elbow cocked high while the rest of his body waited patiently to begin that smooth, unmistakable hitch towards first base once the ball was hit. Swagger oozed out of him while he stood in the box, enough that it was almost impossible to imagine that he was about to do anything other than hit a home run. For me, Griffey Jr. was the most captivating version of himself during those few moments that he spent standing at home plate.
For players like these, the batter’s box was a limitless space, free for them to fill with whatever form of self-expression they wished.
More importantly, players are allowed to take advantage of the expressive space of the batter’s box without fear of scorn or judgement. So many sports, baseball in particular, demand that the action on the field be sanitized. Athletes are expected to maintain a stiff modicum of what is considered professionalism when they are on the field, and anyone who attempts to blur the lines between the two is often shunned by the fans and media. Think players like Carlos Zambrano and Milton Bradley, who allowed their to bleed onto the field, only to get written off as cartoonish, insignificant caricatures. We don’t allow ourselves to embrace an athlete’s raw personality as something that can inform their performance on the field in a way that makes them more compelling to watch. Instead, we often consider such a phenomenon to somehow be an affront to the sanctity of the game.
As a fan of the game, this makes me sad. I’m sad because I’ve realized that I watch athletes and comedians for precisely the same reason; I want to be entertained, and what’s real is often what’s most entertaining.
That’s why I spent so many hours perfecting Sheffield’s violent wiggle and Foley’s broken wail. I was after something real.