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Short Hops: Paul Franz on Todd Helton

Paul Franz is a friend of the blog and regular Pitchers & Poets contributor. Read his thoughts on a variety of subjects at his blog Nicht Diese Tone.

Todd Helton isn’t really a First Baseman of the 1990s. His best seasons came in 2000, just after the last decade of the millennium came to a close. His first full season – good though it was – didn’t come until 1998, well after the scars of the 90s had been inflicted, the narratives told. Helton was destined to be a first baseman of the 2000s, and yet he feels just as out of place alongside Albert Pujols, Paul Konerko, Lance Berkman, and Ryan Howard as he does beside John Olerud or Mo Vaughn. Maybe that’s because Helton has spent so much of the 2000s fighting against the onset of old age, ever trying to reclaim the prowess that marked his youth, the potential that forced no less than Andres Galarraga out of Colorado. Maybe it’s just me, a Rockies fan in his twenties, who sometimes wishes time would have stopped in 1999, when a young Todd Helton defined in vivid terms the possibilities for the future. Much as the 90s were a self-contained and self-absorbed decade, they were also a time of expectation, full of technological fantasies and social and political aspirations for the future. At the turn of the decade and millenium, no player, to me, better represented that optimistic gaze into the future than Todd Helton.

Pitchers and Poets Podcast 29: The Biodome with Paul Franz

In this episode, we are joined by Paul Franz to discuss the connection between Abbottabad and ex-big leaguer Jim Abbott, baseball and education, homophobic ranting and other fretful major league behavior, the Twitter musings of Will Rhymes, and the drama of repeated foul balls resulting in long at bats.

We’re still hammering out some details, like getting the podcast back in the iTunes store, but for now you can subscribe in iTunes yourself, or via any RSS reader. Just use this feed url:

http://feeds.feedburner.com/ThePitchersAndPoetsPodcast

In iTunes, just click Advanced > Subscribe to Podcast, then enter that url, and you’re in business.

 

To download the file directly, right click and Save As:

http://pitchersandpoets.com/podcast/PnP_029.mp

Click here to read Paul’s blog Nicht Diese Tone.

Situational Essay: The Language of Degree and Kind in Baseball and Life, by Paul Franz

This Situational Essay comes from friend of the blog and regular contributor Paul Franz, whose work you can find at his blog, Nicht Diese Tone.

When we construct our little narratives to explain the strange things we see every day, we tend to lump our world into broad categories. Actions are “good” or “bad,” “smart” or “dumb.” People are “tall” or “short,” “happy” or “sad.” Sporting events are “entertaining” or “boring.” Politicians are “liberal” or “conservative.” And so on, a veritable smörgåsbord* of quotated and contrary descriptors. I think this stuff is all hogwash. Most of the time, when you’re confronted with a duality, it’s very probable that you’re oversimplifying things. While that oversimplification may be a real time saver – indeed, our ability to do so with such verve and expertise might very well be a key part of our relative evolutionary success – it can also be extremely dangerous.

* Much to my surprise and pleasure, my spell check added the umlaut and the circle thingy over the a.

Much as I’d love to illustrate the point with something profound and socially meaningful, my April-addled mind can’t help but turn to baseball as a perfect locus for the issue. The advantage of baseball over things like, say, politics or morality are numerous. The chief reasons, however, are only two: 1) baseball is far less contentious than politics or morality* and 2) baseball is much, much, much easier to quantify, which will help to illustrate the point.

In the popular narrative of Coors Field, it is an almost mystical place, one man’s Heaven and another’s Hell, a Miltonian paradox.

* This is not, strictly speaking, true, as the recent Dodgers-fan led assault against a Giants fan – leaving the man in a coma – attests. Nevertheless, it’s much easier for most of us to put aside our sporting-related differences than our political ones.

In particular I want to look at the beloved home of my beloved (and, as of this writing, 12-3) Colorado Rockies, the notorious Coors Field. Coors Field is, in our dualistic narratives, a “hitter’s haven.” It’s a miraculous spa where batting averages go to recover and ERAs go to die, a slugger’s wet dream and a scrappy, replacement-level slap hitter’s salvation. Otherwise insignificant careers have been forged (Neifi Perez, Juan Pierre), mediocre major leaguers have been saved (Preston Wilson, Kurt Manwaring), over-the-hill sluggers reborn (Jason Giambi), stars made into superstars (Todd Helton, Larry Walker), and aspiring pitchers wrecked (Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, Pedro Astacio, Daryl Kile, Bret Saberhagen, Greg Harris, and on and on) by its thin air and its cavernous outfield. In the popular narrative of Coors Field, it is an almost mystical place, one man’s Heaven and another’s Hell, a Miltonian paradox.

Until the advent – and advent is exactly the right word – of the capital-H Humidor, playing at Coors Field was like stepping into a video game. Every decent hitter would hit .350 and slug 40 or 50 homers, as if controlled by some over-obsessive teenager on his X-Box. It was so easy, scores were routinely closer to football (or even basketball) proportions than proper baseball ones.

The Humidor, of course, changed all of that, transforming Coors Field from Bichette’s Paradiso to the upper echelons of Purgatorio instead.* No longer a panacea for ailing bats, it became, instead, a kind of minor boost along the lines of many other so-called hitter’s parks. Suddenly pitchers with mediocre stuff like Jason Jennings and Jeff Francis could throw complete game shutouts, and Rockies 8-hole hitters stopped hitting above .300. The narrative transformed, enough that Coors Field and Humidor became opposing watchwords, simultaneously an excuse to disparage Rockies hitters for their advantages and mock pitchers for their crude, cigar-inspired handicap.

* I will not apologize for the Dante reference, even though it is also a terrible pun.

Undoubtedly you can tell what I’m going to say, but I’ll say it anyway. It’s all a bunch of sensationalist nonsense. Because we like to explain the world through clean, discrete, and ultimately meaningless categories Coors Field is painted as a “hitter’s park.” And it is. The problem is, it’s only a marginally better place to hit than anywhere else in baseball. It is, by degree, a better environment for hitters than, say, the Ballpark at Arlington or Fenway Park, but we have created a narrative where it is fundamentally different in kind. Coors Field is a magical place in that narrative, even if its (post-humidor) Park Factor of roughly 115 means that only 15% more runs are scored there than the average stadium (let alone other good hitter’s parks).*

* The pre-humidor PF for Coors was, again roughly, 125. Big? Yes. Infinite? Not quite.

This “difference in kind” thinking is responsible for the hullabaloo about the Rockies cheating by storing some balls in the humidor, while keeping others in the dry mountain air in case of late-inning emergency. The difference between the pre-humidor 25% increase in runs and the post-humidor 15% increase in runs is, of course, only 10%. Since, even at Coors, most teams average less than one run an inning, the difference between using the non-humidor balls and the humidor balls in the final inning of a game comes out to somewhere around one extra Rockies run every month (which, we can assume, would lead to maybe one extra win over the course of the entire season). That’s a real difference in degree, of course, but that’s not the narrative we hold dear.

Instead, as last season drew to a close, the Rockies were accused of cheating, their successes at home pinned on a vast late-inning conspiracy. With humidorized baseballs, the story went, the Rockies were a normal baseball team, capable of scoring runs, yes, but also capable of striking out, hitting into double plays, and regularly stranding runners who reached third with no one out. Bring out non-humidor balls, however, and the Rockies became unstoppable, a force not merely capable of destroying even the best of pitchers, but indeed destined to overcome any deficit, no matter how large. To this way of thinking, the difference between the humidor and non-humidor baseballs was not 10% more runs, but rather “win” instead of “loss.” The whole picture became about differences in kind (wins and losses) instead of differences in degree (15% more runs than average and 25% more).

The Rockies routinely had one of the worst offenses in Major League Baseball during the early 2000s, and yet were mistakenly believed to have one of the best.

The same, of course, is true about pre-humidor Coors. That Park Factor of 125 is big. Really big. Big enough that the Rockies routinely had one of the worst offenses in Major League Baseball during the early 2000s, and yet were mistakenly believed to have one of the best. But, even with a Park Factor that large, the difference remains one of degree and not kind. While the cumulative effect of a PF of 125 leads to the kind of mis-evaluation that makes Neifi Perez look like an actual Major League baseball player, that is only because the baseball season is 162 games long, and because the actual difference between Albert Pujols and, say, Aaron Miles is much, much, much, much smaller than we usually believe.* Another way of reading, then, that Park Factor of 125 is this: teams that would score 4 runs a game elsewhere scored 5 at Coors. Suddenly that doesn’t seem nearly so insane as the narrative of “hitter’s paradise” made it sound.

* While Pujols certainly hits more homers than scrappy middle infielders, and by a long shot, his unreal career high in Wins Above Replacement is 10.9. That’s epically, historically great. It’s also 11 wins out of 162 games, or about 6.8% of the season. I’ll let you decide: difference in kind, or difference in degree?

Once our narratives have been constructed, we reinforce them with the stainless steel of confirmation bias. When the Mets come from behind by four in the bottom of the ninth at Shea Stadium (or their new digs, Citi Field), we think of it as a great comeback. When the Rockies come from behind by four in the bottom of the ninth at Coors, we think of it as Coors Field up to its old tricks. A 12-11 slugfest at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City is the result of bad outings from both teams’ pitching staffs. A 12-11 slugfest at Coors Field is the result of the absurd ballpark. The special category of “Coors Field” explains and is the cause of all offense in the Mile High City, while elsewhere it’s just normal baseball.

Now don’t get me wrong, and allow me to reiterate my point one more time. Coors Field does matter. It used to inflate scoring by 25%, and now inflates scoring by 15%. The Rockies, on the whole, will come from behind to win in the bottom of the ninth more often than other teams. But only very, very slightly more often. The difference is one of degree: the Rockies will score 23 late inning runs for every 20 that a comparable offensive team scores, thanks to playing at Coors. The problem is, our narratives, our categories, our confirmation biases all conspire to make every single run we see at Coors a product of the park, and not of the million other things that go on in a baseball game.

But wait, I’m not done yet. We can apply the same logic to steroids (gasp). While there may be a categorical difference between Barry Bonds, All Time Home Run Champion and Barry Bonds, Great Hitter, we tend to forget that we don’t even know exactly how many extra home runs Bonds hit because he used steroids. And we can’t know. What’s more, we don’t know who else benefited, and to what degree. What we do know, however, is that the easiest thing to do is to look at the picture and to discount any player who had a peak season during the “steroid era” as a “cheater,” whose whole body of offensive work is attributable exclusively to his steroid use. Rather than imagining that steroids help a player become X% better, we see steroids as being the difference between “good” and “bad,” or “great” and “good.” We can’t even begin to suppose, in our absolutist narrative, that Bonds may well have hit 700+ home runs even without steroids. No, every single home run he mashed is tainted, cheap, unfair. They categorically, absolutely, definitively do not count.

Is that right, though? My answer is no. Of course the steroids issue is a big deal precisely because we do not and cannot know exactly what the effect is, but to imagine that the effect is categorical instead of incremental is absurd. Even if players hit twice as many home runs because of steroids, they didn’t hit infinitely times as many. And I think that would be easier to accept if our categories hadn’t also been violated. Barry Bonds is not merely a guy who hit X% more homers, but rather is the Home Run King, both in terms of career and single season jacks. Those categories carry far more weight for us than numbers do.

To return to where we started, there’s a good reason we think in categories instead of increments, kind instead of degree. It helps us survive. It’s better to assume that the unusual ripple in the tall grass we see is dangerous (it might be a tiger) than to assume that said ripple is only marginally more pronounced than usual. In nature, nuance leads to destruction. That’s no excuse to turn away from more nuanced thinking, however. If anything, it’s an exhortation towards the opposite. That we like to see things as either categorically good or categorically bad makes us easy to persuade and, as a result, hoodwink. If, for example, a politician speaks eloquently to our absolutist moral sensibilities, we’re quick to cast our vote in his favor. In the process, we forget that the difference between him and his opposition might not be categorical, but rather incremental, that there are perhaps a range of (non-linear) possible solutions to any given problem instead of two diametrically opposite ones.

The narrative of absolute, dichotomous categories is an extremely dangerous one exactly because it is beautiful. Coors Field as “hitter’s haven,” human beings as fundamentally good (or bad, as the debate goes), politicians as liberal or conservative, such characterizations make it easier to think, easier to live, easier to write. Poetry may owe itself to complexity, but on some level it also owes itself to simplicity: without a sense of Good and Evil, Joy and Misery, how do we understand No Second Troy? Without the narrative of great plays or bad ones, how do we appreciate an unrepeatable Tulowitzki play in the hole?* The possibility that the narrative value of categories is ultimately empty – of a kind of brute, practical use, but devoid of substantial, metaphysical meaning – is what drives the anti-statistics crowd of baseball fans mad. The reliance upon and manipulation of categories is what makes so many religions so powerful, and – along with hefty doses of confirmation bias – it is what makes Fox News and MSNBC so persuasive to so many Americans.

* Another little pun for which I will not apologize.

Even if players hit twice as many home runs because of steroids, they didn’t hit infinitely times as many.

Ah, there I go breaking my own rules. You see, I too am talking in categories, in differences in kind instead of degree. The notion of diametric opposites, the need for clear categories like Good and Bad cannot be, if we are to challenge it, innately and fundamentally Bad. To say so would undermine the argument. The problem is, every single word we read is a category, every single idea a kind of absolute. We can deconstruct and deconstruct, and then reconstruct and reconstruct, and what we’ll end up with is words that stand for something, some category. Words that can never be truly specific, for true specificity would require a new word every second, every thought, every sentence. Communication, as much as miscommunication, is built on categories.

So what is there to do? Uncomfortable though it may be, I believe it remains useful to deconstruct, to analyze, to see where differences of kind actually are differences in degree, even though every difference is, in the end, actually both. To my mind, we do not need to destroy the narratives of politics, religion, morality, or, most importantly (of course), baseball. We need, instead, to dive into them, to see where they come from and why, and then to reconstruct them in some new form so that we can once again communicate. Analysis and synthesis stand together, it turns out. Like any set of supposed opposites, they actually are more alike than disparate. Is there an endpoint to all of this analyzing and synthesizing, a point at which narrative and myth turn into Truth? Maybe, but probably not. Instead, it seems to me that the very act of trying to understand, of insisting upon being a learner, an asker of questions, a thinker, a skeptic (though we might also insist on being ignorant, a provider of answers, allowed to zone out, and a believer) is at the heart of what it is to be human.

Pitchers & Poets: 2011, a Year in Review

Now is the time of year when we all take a moment to acknowledge how quickly time slips away, and how the events of January, 2o11, don’t seem like they happened a whole year ago. I’m glad to have done this, though, as I’ve had to the chance to re-examine our efforts on the year, and to appreciate just how much we’ve accomplished here. There are so many great voices represented, and a cabinet of baseball wonders available any time.

So some months did fly by, but we did some great things this year, and we don’t mind checking back in on the mad dashes and the meditative moments. We hope, of course, that you enjoyed the ride as much as we did, and we look forward to future flights of fancy with you, our fantastic readers and fellow passengers on Steamship Baseball.

Scorekeeping Week

Our first foray into themed weeks, Scorekeeping Week was a fine jaunt through the habits of fans and professionals as they log a baseball game’s events.

I interviewed Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims, about his scorekeeping habits, and we learned more about Bethany Heck and her brilliant scorekeeping books. Paul Franz, Alex Belth, Patrick Truby, and Patrick Dubuque offered their stories and memories.

Scorekeeping Week was a quiet, pleasurable affair, and it stoked our interest in themed content. See below for the Frankenstein’s monster that resulted.

1990s First Basemen Week

Looking back at P&P2011, we would be crazy not to give full due to the year’s biggest, insanest phenomenon on the blog. Eric and I started with a simple idea: let’s talk about first basemen from the 1990s, and let’s get as many great writers involved as we can.

We released a salvo of emails, and the only directive was to pick a first baseman and talk about him. The breadth of responses and creative output was amazing, and the response overwhelming.

It all started with a Short Hop on Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas from Jonah Keri, and an essay on J.T. Snow by Eric Freeman. Readers started to understand what we were doing, and the purity of our goal. The nostalgia started to flow, and the content barreled onward, with work from Will Leitch on Pedro Guerrero, longtime reader playwright Larry Herold on Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark, and Jesse Thorn on the grace of Mark Grace.

The 1990s first baseman embodied something beautiful and sad and nostalgic for us and for our readers. The big men stirred the poetic inside us. Tom Ley remembered an encounter with Andres Galarraga, and Joe Posnanski remembered a quixotic slugger in Jeff King. Josh Wilker thought about Carlos Quintana, I went on for some length about Jeff Bagwell and Sadaharu Oh and batting stances, Eric thought on Eric Karros, and how could we forget Dylan Little’s imagined interview with Hal Morris.

And, of course, Pete Beatty cleared the bases with his meditation on Jim Thome and ruin porn.

There are so many more contributors who made this such a great couple of weeks for us at the blog, and the best thing that you can do is click the headline above and read every last one of them. For us, 1990s First Basemen Week was just awesome.

P&P Reading Club: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

he art of fielding by chad harbachIn late September, we started the P&P Reading Club by collectively reading and opining about the above-mentioned best-seller about baseball, life, and the convergence. Hey, just like our little web site here! It was great fun, and again we featured lots of great writers (can you sense a theme in our approach to content development?). Chapters flew by with our posts tagging closely at heel, and we all had a fine time basking in the literature of it all.

Click the header above to find all of those fine posts. Contributors included Carson Cistulli, Adam Webb, Megan Wells, Patrick Dubuque, Pete Beatty, Navin Vaswani, Dayne Perry, Bryan Harvey, Eric, and myself.

The Milton Bradley Saga, Continued

Eric has become something of an expert on the culture of Milton Bradley, and his essay on the troubled outfielder, Encino Man, early in the year, affirmed the honorary. “If individual players can embody Pitchers & Poets and how Ted and I have come to consume and understand baseball, he is one of those players. By his attitude, his place in the ecosystem, his style of play, his perception in the media, he heightens our understanding of baseball.” He revisited the player in April, 2011, around the time Milton started to wear earplugs.

Month-to-Month

In February, we redesigned the site. We still love it.

In those doldrum days, we also got news of Miguel Cabrera’s feisty run-ins with the law, and Eric’s Manifesto called for making nostalgia modern. And hey, do you remember when Albert Pujols still seemed like he’d re-sign with the Cardinals? The measured meter of money spelled bad news for Cardinal fans.

Opening Day meant a live chat, as Eric and I watched 37 games in a row and all at once, while my wife made ballpark franks. It was a marathon.

April brought Eric’s realization that ownership issues were afoot in Dodgerland, and I contemplated the newly settled Cliff Lee. Other topics included Otis Nixon’s hair, the language of Coors Field, and the burgeoning Legend of Sam Fuld. I also discussed the odd couple Rangers, who did well to carry through with the promise I noted.

May, see 1990s First Basemen Week.

June saw us bring Patrick Dubuque into the fold of regular contributors. He immediately started bringing the thunder, as we knew he would. Jesse Gloyd took us fishing in the shadow of Chavez Ravine, I opened the Joba File and learned to appreciate Jered Weaver, and Eric Freeman explored the style of Bryce Harper. Eric remembered Northwest icon Clay Huntington, too, and caught us up on the power and the glory of Matt Kemp.

July was a quieter time, though Aaron Shinsano checked in to provide a scout’s view of the President’s Cup in Korea.

In August, Eric couldn’t get a Dodgers cap at Dodger Stadium, I explored the Best Show on WFMU, Simon Broder viewed the cursed celeb and Amy Winehouse through the baseball lens, Pete Beatty did some girl-storytelling, and Jesse Gloyd brought us thoughts on Satchel Paige.

September and October passed like a hard fall wind as we dipped our heads in literature (see Art of Fielding above), and November brought some pensive missives from Aaron Shinsano with more tales from scouting in Asia, Patrick on injury as metaphor, Brian K on new life without LaRussa, and some chat from me on the retro trend in new uniforms.

Which brings us to December. Eric and I have been hitting the podcast hard, polishing it up and filling it with quirky, enjoyable content so that we can hit the new year in fine stride. Podcasting is the perfect complement to the site, we think, because, really, we’re into conversations first and foremost.

2011 at Pitchers & Poets was a year of backs and forths, of multitudinous viewpoints, of unending conversations, multi-leveled stories and sing-alongs.

Here’s to a happy new year, and a fruitful and thoughtful 2012.

What I Learned from Scorekeeping Week

by Thomas Hawk

What did I learn from Scorekeeping Week, after baseball fans of different stripes and styles weighed in on their scorekeeping tics and habits?

I learned, mostly, that a scorecard is a living text, and that the act of scorekeeping far exceeds in value what the resulting document offers. Our contributors, commenters, and friends around the web enjoy keeping score, not the kept score. Watching a baseball game, the scorekeeper watches the game, sees something differently, participates in a new way, or in an old way. They grip the scorecard and pencil like the handles hanging down on a subway car, crowded among all the other passengers on this baseball train.

I’ve learned, during Scorekeeping Week, that keeping score is an action, and a scorecard lives brilliantly for a particular time, rolling out in tune to the game like Kerouac’s single scroll of On the Road manuscript. Downhill writing, recording each moment and that moment’s connection between the fingers and the pencil or the typewriter. Recording oneself watching.

Writing a scorecard, you never get to stop. Mistakes happen, the game goes on, the game goes crazy, columns bleed into one another, time marches on. There are no second drafts, no revisions. Downhill writing, time-saving codes that lay another layer of meaning over top, another translation. What’s lost in translation is what is gained.

The personality of the scorer defines his or her scorekeeping. The expressive marks of the emotional fan, like Alex Belth, who only scores the games whose results he cares about, are bound to stray and straggle. The pragmatic baseball broadcaster’s book will be color-coded and clean, a fast and functional reference point to help verbalize the game in real-time. The designer’s book will reflect, from curated cover to the least last leaf, the fashionable modes you’d expect to see in an urban coffee shop or ad firm. The scorecard of the doodler will fill up with lines that wander as the mind that guides them wanders.

The truth is relative, in baseball like in any arena. Witness the Hall of Fame debates, the steroid hunt, the sabermetricians and their resistors. Even professional scorekeepers disagree over the judgment calls. Baseball is said to be a highly quantifiable game, and it is. But for all of the concreteness of scoring a baseball game, of making sure that the indisputable facts go down in the record, the divergences are the most intriguing, when facts give way to debate, and when the complicated spiderweb of action goes madly down in the book like it was written on a Doc Ellis bender.

A scholar named Bruner once said that literature “renders the obvious less so.” Poetry, in other words, makes the ordinary seem strange. The scorecard and the act of scorekeeping translate a simple act–playing a baseball game–into another, equally simple-seeming, but wholly mysterious and reflective one, the art that we here at this blog and countless other bloggers and zine-makers and novelists and journalists pursue at their own risk: the perilous act of writing things down.

Peter, of A Building Roam, put it nicely in a comment on Patrick Dubuque’s Poetics of Scorekeeping (as did Patrick, in the piece itself):

When I was growing up, I always had to escort my grandmother to church (which I hated). She was so devoted that every single time she’d be holding the book, keeping up with everything that was read and singing with every song and I know this was because she was there to have an EXPERIENCE. I haven’t been to church in years and would never go back, but I consider the ballpark to be a cathedral, a site of gathering for ritual, and to keep score is like the grandmothers keeping up with the readings and songs. Having an experience.

Amen.

Runs, Runes, Ruins

Paul Franz is a Rockies fan, an educator, and recurring P&P contributor. Welcome to Scorekeeping Week..end. His blog is Nicht DIese Tone .

“The end of pitching as we know it.”  That’s how SportsCenter would describe the game , in their typically overwrought tones.  Still, to a grade-school-aged Rockies fan like me, it was monumental enough that a game I attended in person was leading the venerable ESPN program, much less in biblical – or at least Hollywoodical – tones.

The game in question was a 16-15 affair between the Rockies and Dodgers.  It took place on June 30, 1996, just days after my 11th birthday.  We attended – my family and I – as my present for the year.  Because I was a huge nerd as a kid,* I insisted on keeping score.  Where I learned to keep score is a question I can’t answer, as my dad is nearly blind and can’t follow the game, my mom knows next to nothing about baseball, and my brother is younger than me and not particularly a baseball fan.  At the time I knew the principles of scorekeeping, but had never done it for a whole game.  And, hey, at 11 I reasoned it was about time I graduated from theory to practice.

* As in, when I was a kid my brother and I would play fake baseball games with stuffed animals and matchbox cars.  That’s not the nerdy part.  The nerdy part is that, while my brother moved the “players” around and generally executed the actions of the game, I actually kept track of the statistics – batting averages, home runs, ERAs, and so on – of the toys involved.  I had literally notebooks full of this stuff, all from when I was around six or seven.  So yeah, nerdy.

Needless to say, the decision to keep score for this particular game would prove disastrous.  Besides the final score of 16-15 (guaranteed to produce a messy scorebook), the Rockies used six pitchers and stole ten bases.  The Dodgers’ Hideo Nomo gave up nine runs (only five earned) in five innings. This was my birthday, dammit, and I was keeping score no matter the consequences. Indeed, the experience was so traumatic for Nomo – as he and Piazza combined to allow the bulk of the stolen bases, including all 6 of Eric Young’s – that he threw a no-hitter in his next Coors Field start.  Perhaps a less determined young man – or a smarter one, anyway – would have given up after the Dodgers batted around in the third inning, necessitating jumping into the next inning on the scoresheet.  But I was exceedingly, bull-headedly, determined.  This was my birthday, dammit, and I was keeping score no matter the consequences.  Even as I began bisecting already bisected columns and rows in order to fit all the substitutions, I persevered.

For whatever reason, of the many pieces of childhood paraphernalia my parents kept, this scorecard was not one of them. It could not possibly have seemed significant to them.  It likely would have seemed an incomprehensible mess even to someone familiar with such things, thanks to the many divided cells and arrows mapping events to their proper innings.  Still, despite the necessary mess – and my less-than-stellar 5th grade handwriting – it would be fascinating to see now.

Sometimes the simple, elegantly designed structures we use to understand, categorize, and generally record our experience of the world cannot cope with the complexity of reality in actionIn retrospect, there’s a lesson in my scorekeeping experience – if I may pontificate for a moment.  Sometimes the simple, elegantly designed structures we use to understand, categorize, and generally record our experience of the world cannot cope with the complexity of reality in action.  Not all baseball games are tidy 3-2 affairs.  Faced with reality, then, we have the option of building more complex, but less aesthetic structures to house our understand in, or we can continue to hope the simple and elegant will serve often enough that it remains desirable.

Unfortunately, in this age of technocracy and commodity, we too often pick the robust over the beautiful, forgetting that there is a very different story one might tell about those times when the simple, elegant, minimalist scorecard confronts 16 to 15.  The experience wasn’t disastrous, the scorecard not a hideous mess after all in this different account.  It was, instead, elegant in its own way, and heroic besides.  A baseball game ought to fit onto a simple scorecard, perhaps, but if it does not, it is up to the scorer not to invent a new, more convoluted, more sophisticated model, but rather to see, behind all the runs and runes, substitutions and symbols, the stolen bases, the errors, and the five-run innings that it is still baseball that is being played.  Even that little, inadequate scorecard, all chaos and chicken-scratch, is perfect for the job.

Sailing to Byzantium

The author of this post is Paul Franz. Ted and I invited Paul to contribute to Pitchers and Poets with the idea that he would bring a new perspective. Already, he has wowed us by writing an insightful essay built around a poem by W.B. Yeats.  Please welcome Mr. Franz to PnP with open arms. For more of his work check out Nicht Diese Töne. –Eric

There comes a moment in the career of a topflight ballplayer when he is no longer a star. The moment is often followed, in short measure, by an even more painful moment when the player is no longer even league average. Then he falls to replacement level or below. Finally, the player retires, often because no one will sign him, or because his team forces him to.

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

Sometimes the process is protracted, like it was for Ken Griffey, Jr., whose injuries kept him off the field for the better part of the decade. The Kid pushed back into the All-Star Game and even found his way to the MVP discussion with big years towards the end of his stay in Cincinnati, but upon his return to Seattle he found himself unable to field, unable to run, and, increasingly, unable to hit.

Sometimes the collapse is more rapid, like it has been this year for Todd Helton. The Toddfather hasn’t been a star for quite some time, but he was well above average last season, plugging along with his 10-20 homer bat and his consistently high, .400 plus OBP. While his body was clearly falling apart, only this year has Helton lost the rest: he’s not walking as much, he’s striking out more, and the power is all but gone.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

It’s at this unfortunate stage where a player’s “character” and “leadership” start to stand out. Media, fans, and other players will talk about the wisdom of players like Griffey and Helton, their joy while playing the game, and their tremendous skill. They’ll talk as if that skill is immortal, as if this season’s numbers are only a blip, a slump that will undoubtedly end any game now. No doubt those magnificent numbers Griffey and Helton put up in the late 90s – when today’s stars were watching after their Little League and Legion games – speak to the vain, unarticulated hopes of Franklin Gutierrez and Troy Tulowitzki: some players, great players, are different. Those players are forever.

It”s hard to blame someone who has spent his entire life being paid millions of dollars to do something because he was so much better at it than almost everyone else for refusing to believe that he can’t do it anymore. You might as well ask a writer not to write, a musician not to play, or a chef not to cook. Baseball is, in fact, much crueler than that, because it is the realm of the young, caught up in body and motion and justly irreverent towards the stuffy work of the mind. What right has some number-cruncher to tell Griffey he’s not good enough? What does Helton care for his line-drive percentage? It is difficult enough to ask for self-knowledge from any man or woman, let alone from a ballplayer.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

No wonder so many baseball players stay in the game as announcers, coaches, and scouts. That innate knowledge is something they must share, because it is in leaving the game that they truly understand it. Meanwhile their statistics are engraved into the History of the Game, a testament to their superior ability. At last they are satisfied to take a less agile form, to leave the field quietly. A lucky few, like Griffey, will have busts made in Cooperstown, commemorating their prowess, and acknowledging that, really, they are the stuff of myth. For the rest, well, not everyone makes it to Byzantium

P&P Reading Club: Great Expectations?

he art of fielding by chad harbachAway we go with preliminary expectations from some of our contributors before hitting the pages. Please feel free to share your own hopes, dreams, fears about the Art of Fielding in the comment section below.

Also: this goes without saying, but if you read ahead, please don’t spoil it for the group as a whole. Reading ahead is only natural, but we’ll be keeping the discussion to the prescribed pages. And remember: read through chapter 17 by Wednesday.

Ted Walker

I went to a college about the size and shape of the one featured in The Art of Fielding. I played baseball at this college. I was a catcher. The goal of the reader should not be to find those novels that emulate one’s own experience as closely as possible, but the small college catcher is not exactly literature’s most recurrent motif, so I think I’m off the hook for getting excited about this book. It’s been years, honestly, since a baseball book has stirred me to action the way that this one has. It could be the positive reviews that form a warm nest for the book in my mind like a pile of freshly laundered game jerseys.

I suppose it’s also the expectation that a baseball book will hum with contemporary life: a baseball book that matters. As much as it’s touted as the literary sport, it’s been awhile since the modern literary experience has intersected with the modern baseball experience. I am excited about this baseball book because I hope that it, and this reading club, will be a reward for those of us who hang loosely around the lettered edges of this game, hoping to witness the elusive linked stitch that binds together art and sport.

Patrick Dubuque

The Art of Fielding is a departure for me in terms of genres, being written by someone who is still alive, and I’m heading into the novel with a healthy respect if also some slight trepidation.  Even the plot description on the dust jacket reads so conspicuously modern: a series of character studies, centering around mankind’s search for meaning in an uncaring, nihilistic society.  I’m guessing that we’ll see something of Steve Sax, or at least his dreaded disease, as Henry comes of age through the novel.   But perhaps it is not this gloomy!  I should disclose that throwing off my measurements will be Brideshead Revisited, which I finished recently and which appears to have at least something in common with this novel, although hopefully not the endings.

My question, since I’m obviously in this bleak mood: whither the baseball novel?  There’s not much agreement on the best baseball novels of all-time, but the majority of the big classics date back fifty or sixty years, and even the most modern of the greats (Kinsella) are nearing thirty.  If it’s the All-American sport, why can’t it seem to serve as the foundation of the Great American Novel?  (Except in the case of The Great American Novel, of course).

Megan Wells

I try to start a new book with as few expectations as possible. That said, I can tell already that this book is going to make me uncomfortable. People doing stupid things at colleges hits close to home for a lot of us, I’d imagine, even if we turned out alright – or at least avoided a criminal record – regardless. But more importantly, these people engaging in college-age chicanery are ballplayers. Baseball fans are a perverse lot – we love our players to be human and fawn over the details parceled out by beat writers and Twitter feeds. But we get disturbed when they don’t match the black-and-white heroism between the lines. We’re forced to find a balance between personal flaws and the on-field narratives we build in our heads. I expect to both love and hate a lot of these characters, and to find myself facing a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. What about the book do you think will challenge you?

Adam Webb

Thank you for inviting me to take part in your conversation about The Art of Fielding and providing me with the opportunity this week to judge a book by its cover. (I saw Paul Bacon‘s designs in TAF’s enigmatic white brush script on blue.)

Without having cracked the spine and with every effort to not learn any more about the book than I already do (Wisconsin college baseball, Franzen blurb), my thoughts about TAF are dominated by one triviality: How much of the book will occupy itself with metaphorical “fielding”? Will this theoretical metaphor (which I fear infects every chapter of the book) ruin the whole thing for me?

Despite this concern, I have high hopes because TAF is a campus novel, a label that gets applied to some of my favorite wildly different books (Brideshead Revisisted, As She Climbed Across the Table, The Name of the World). But the book isn’t being hyped as a campus novel; it’s a baseball novel. What was the last ‘important’ baseball novel? Chabon’s Summerland?

Peter Beatty

I have no idea what to expect with this book. Well, that’s not true. I read the jacket copy and the blurbs. I can expect prose that will (insert fulsome adjectives from many many prominent writers, and some writers who I think are hacks and some I have never heard of). My natural instincts as a Northeast Ohioan are to resent anything successful or even anything that’s supposed to be nice. But I took a pill to shut down my bile generators for the duration of this book club. I honestly can’t think of a first novel that’s gotten reviews like A of F is getting–actually I’m hard pressed to think of many novels period that are ever praised to such a universal extent. In a age when people seem to relish being the first to issue forth a takedown of anything successful (I recall reading blog posts hating on Freedom’s cover art months before the book pubbed)–there’s been a surprising lack of critical pushback for The Art of Fielding. That makes me suspect it might be a book does something rare: straight-up entertains people and makes them stop complaining for a few hours/days.

That said, I’m not crazy about the cover. I think the A and F have a subliminal association with terrible Abercrombie and Fitch clothing. I like the colors and the warmth of the hand-drawn (painted?) text but in my heart I accuse this jacket design of aspiring to neoliberal Vampire-Weekend-listening corporate hipsterdom. Dammit the pill isn’t working yet.

Eric Nusbaum

I expect this book to be much less about baseball than everybody is saying it will be. There just seems to be no way a novel that gets deep into the nitty-gritty of the game could garner so much New York hype. But that isn’t to say I’m not excited. Writing about sports well in a novel is a hard thing to do. There’s too much cliche, too much nostalgia, too much explaining for a serious fan to get past. The last sporty novel I read was Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. I couldn’t finish it, but not because of the sports: I thought O’Neill’s cricket scenes and cricket subplot were more beautifully rendered than anything else the protagonist was involved with. I worry that the Art of Fielding will have the opposite problem: baseball will loom as a device, a background, a template for some easy symbolism. Also: I’m skeptical about the title and not totally in love with the cover.

This has been a far more negative paragraph than I was expecting it to be. I guess my question is what makes a book a baseball novel, as opposed to a regular novel? I suppose we’ll be answering together for