Theater in the Round: Jose Valverde, Ritual, and Performance

Yesterday morning I drove across the Mississippi River, the Velvet Underground playing on the stereo, and thought about Jose Valverde.

Like Lou Reed, Jose Valverde understands performance. He understands, on some stratum beneath consciousness, that his job is to channel and deliver, on stage, the passions that we common folks are advised against during group outings at work and with family. The gestures of Papa Grande–stiffened hands slicing the air and pointing, legs splaying outward–are cryptic if expressive signs in the language of his performance.

When you say that Jose Valverde performed well, you mean that he performed well.

After years in quiet Phoenix and Houston, where he mostly pitched well and gained the odd headline for ticking off a better known hitter, Valverde is now a baseball celebrity. with the exposure that comes with playing on a good Detroit Tigers team, in the playoffs. Closers, too, enjoy a special spotlight, showing up as they do for the most interesting outs in baseball. Excepting the St. Louis Cardinals, there’s a fair chance that a good team’s closer is a key figure for fans. Papa Grande is no exception, and he adds to his own intrigue with his kinetic style, a gyrating throwing motion, and a catalogue of hand gestures and leg kicks after his most successful pitches that suggest a celebratory taxonomy emerging in small bits from behind a curtain.

I first got to know Valverde when he closed games for the Astros in 2008 and 2009, after the team traded away some relievers and a utility infielder. They paid nothing for a fine closer. I recall some grousing about Valverde’s style back then, in reference to an Astro player/s getting upset with Valverde’s stylistic flourishes. I consider the light moaning to be more an indictment of the conservative Houston fan base–“Bagwell and Biggio would neverlet him get away with that if they were still around.”–than of Valverde. (Few fan bases demand that their players slide back to a quiet, white bread cultural middle like the Houston set. I’m convinced that the 2006 Astros set some kind of record for homogeneity. The potential move to the AL, for one example, excites the hell out of me with the chance to watch a DH play and enjoy some Texas-based gnarliness with the Rangers. Many Astros fans, however, are gritting their teeth and hunkering down like Bud Selig was a revenuer come to take what’s rightfully theirs. They (we?) invent half-fictional rivalries and call upon only moderately interesting history. Houston has its pockets of weird, but Minute Maid Park is not one of them.) Valverde was looked upon cautiously, but accepted quickly after saving games.

What I learned about him that I didn’t already know is that Valverde considers all of pitching to be a series of rituals and performances, not just the successes. The fire-brand of his celebrations is only the culmination of a long process, to this video of him. Ritual is the umbrella concept, under which comes celebration, along with .

Matt Crossman of The Sporting News recently wrote about him in the context of a ballsy–and ultimately inaccurate–prediction by Valverde, the details of which are irrelevant but available for analysis. After noting Valverde’s up-and-down performance, Crossman writes, “I have seen Valverde on the mound, acting like a 4-year-old who drank 16 Red Bulls.” I’ve never met a 4-year-old who’s had even one Red Bull, so I can’t speak to the metaphor, but embedded in the jab is a misunderstanding of performance. A child doesn’t know what he is doing. Valverde knows full well the mechanics and demeanor of a typical major league pitcher, and simply refuses. “Is he a man to take too seriously?” Crossman asks nobody, because he has already provided his answer. “Is he a man to whose quotes we should assign great value?”

It is the baseball way to simultaneously demand more excitement while belittling the players who promise it. Idiosyncrasy feeds the culture that slaps it around.

There is nothing juvenile about the way that he pitches, and nothing that suggests a 4-year-old. The deliberateness of his gestures cements their purpose; each is a kind of physical trigger mechanism corresponding to a real need. One of his rituals is to take a swig of bottled water, then spit in three directions when he steps onto the field. “Sometimes, it’s too much pressure,” Valverde said by way of unnecessary explanation. “Taking my water and throwing it left, right, in the middle, the pressure goes away a little bit, you know what I mean.” There is work to be done in the rare air of an MLB game, and it requires, for Papa Grande, a unique language.

Some of that language is showmanship, of course. An audience and the performer are symbiotic. The performer makes signs that the audience can read. The audience chooses in what light they’ll take them in.

In a recent episode (“Masks”) of his podcast, The Smartest Man in the World, comedian Greg Proops told a story he read in Donald Hall’s really quite amazing book Fathers Playing Catch with Sons about Dock Ellis hanging out with Wrigley Field bleacher creatures behind the outfield wall. Proops lamented the unlikelihood of today’s athletes emulating those turns, his example being the infinitesimal odds of Tom Brady sacrificing a chunk of Giselle time to hang out with “the fat people.” Proops goes on to praise Ellis for wearing hair curlers during pregame warm-ups, driving a car with leather on the outside, and, of course, pitching a no-hitter while afloat on acid. “Maybe the word ‘styling’ doesn’t have any meaning anymore, but it did then [the 70s], when Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue roamed the fucking earth wearing white shoes–white shoes!–while they played professional sports.”

Proops is brilliantly mad himself, and a relentless performer, so it isn’t a surprise that he favors the radiant controlled chaos of high performance. Valverde, in that light, understands the nature of performance in a way that few players seem to today. Valverde’s refusal to look towards home plate before he throws, and his refusal to acquiesce to the standards for pitching mechanics, are akin to the testy refusal of a comedian to leave the politics out of his act, or to speak down to his audiences. (If it’s not obvious by now, I fully endorse The Smartest Man in the World.) The Papa Grande split-finger pitch is a jarring plot twist; his fastball a polished expletive.

The man can pitch, and like a seasoned character actor, each gesture, pitch, and reaction serves the immediate goal, winning, and the greater goal: the theater of baseball.

Baseball requires a performance to perform. Valverde performs on the stage itself, as he performs. The field is a world distinct from our own. It’s a stage, built for strange feats. Baseball is a rock show, where plain clothes don’t look right. The Mississippi River is an old man that makes big boats look small, and the Velvet Underground had a singer who couldn’t sing.

I was watching a concert on TV the other day, on that music channel that actually plays music that I couldn’t tell you the name of. A band I really like, The New Pornographers, were performing some of their upbeat songs. But something was off with their jam. They sounded good, and they were trying hard out there, but it was crap in the end. The problem, I realized, was that they were dressed normally. Every band member was put together like they were headed to Starbucks for a Saturday morning brew while they planned out the day. Ill-fitting pants and drab skirts and shorts with grubby sneakers. When I close my eyes and listen to The New Pornographers, I’m coasting a hundred feet off the ground looking down on a sparkling future city. When I opened them and cast my gaze on these schlubs, I saw a suburban Panera Bread.

My point is that the band lacked a respect for the stage. Talk about unwritten rules in baseball, an unwritten rule in rock and roll is that the audience deserves a complete performance. A band has got to risk going too far before it risks coming up short. The performance and the risk are eternal bed buddies.

Jose Valverde respects the stage.

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