Author Archive for Eric

Jeff Blauser Should be in the Hall of Fame

I saw this headline on Google News:

Voting for Hall of Fame too complicated these days

I so badly wanted the enclosed article to be about the convoluted and absurd process of electing members to the Baseball Hall of Fame that I clicked on the link right away. Alas, it was not about the dumb, difficult Hall of Fame. Rather, it was about the tough moral questions brought on by this corrupt era of steroids.

Now, thanks to the taint of the steroid era, the arrival of the ballot brings dread instead of anticipation, suspicion instead of admiration.

For the second straight year, I look at Jeff Bagwell’s name and wonder if he beat the system while he was also pounding baseballs out of ballparks all across the country. I’d love to vote for him, because he was always a class act whenever I had to interview him and his numbers scream Hall of Famer.

Dread! Suspicion! What is a baseball columnist to do in times like these? After all, this is a world in which terrorists could be hiding under the hedges at the country club and children are just as likely to play soccer as they are tee-ball. Truth is scarce, the Culture is changing. Baseball remains safe. In Baseball things remain the same. There are clear lines drawn between Evil and Good, between Good and Great. Or at least there used to be. (Also: Hall of Fame ballots still come by mail? Really?)

Whining and whispering about which names on the Hall of Fame ballot may have used steroids is a new annual tradition. It’s not likely to go away anytime soon because Hall of Fame voters are losing a grip on the only world that they control — that world of illusions comprised of discarded Gold Glove trophies and dusty Hall of Fame plaques. In their world, morality consists of things like “clutchness” and “being a class act.” It also consists of not hitting home runs between say 1997 and the present because doing so makes you suspicious and suspicions are like fog and fog makes it harder to see.

So we’re stuck with a bunch of writers losing their grip on the one relatively meaningless thing they are tasked with controlling. We’re stuck with poor Bob Brookover at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who after grousing about Jeff Bagwell, concludes that he would rather not have to vote for the Hall of Fame at all because it’s just so damn difficult.

I did not enjoy actually filling out the ballot and I am starting to believe it is an impossible task that would be better left to someone else.

Actually Mr. Brookover, it’s just the opposite. Filling out a Hall of Fame ballot is a super easy, super possible, and totally inconsequential task. All you have to do is look at a bunch of names, decide which ones you like, and then write them down or check the box next to them — I’m not sure how precisely a voter marks his or her choices on the ballot.

Previously I’ve argued that we should let more people into the Hall of Fame because the institution’s purpose should be bringing joy to fans, not operating as a vehicle for exclusion. Along those lines, it seems foolish to let suspicions rules our thinking about a place that is meant to celebrate baseball, not moralize over it. Let’s make things easier, not harder. (Pete Rose and Joe Jackson should be in too, of course.)

I’ve suggested adding fan voting and lowering the threshold for election from 75 percent to 70 percent of writers. I’d like double down on the call for a popular vote — let’s make room for beloved players who don’t have the gaudy numbers — and then go one further. The writer vote should should go by a simple majority: If more than 50 percent of writers think Jeff Bagwell is Hall of Fame worthy, then he is Hall of Fame worthy. And if Atlanta fans can make a compelling case for him, Jeff Blauser ought to be Hall of Fame worthy too.

More speeches. More plaques. More joy.

Situational Essay: A Cardinals Fan Reflects on the End of the La Russa Era

Brian Kist writes the blog Punk On Deck. He’s on twitter, too, @punkondeck.

The Cardinals did it.If I based fandom on general managing style or minor league makeup, I might have difficulty justifying this, my favorite team’s success. But since I, like most fans, root for laundry, I don’t have an obligation to defend or laud how it happened. The Cardinals are the World Series Champs. They just are.

I watch baseball because it’s fun. Attempting to degrade or justify a team’s results is not fun. Personally, I like a more sabermetric approach to the game than the Cardinals have practiced over the years. Yes, things are getting better, but the team still feels like a throwback to an earlier era. Transactions like giving Kyle Lohse a four-year deal after a career season is the type of alienating personnel move I’m talking about. Fans like me have had to put aside management techniques and blindly follow the birds on the bat. It’s quite a feat to get a respectful, yet lukewarm response when you announce your retirement immediately after managing your team to a World Series title.

But now Tony La Russa has retired and there’s one less thing to defend out of laundry loyalty. To say LaRussa was polarizing is a misnomer. He had the people who disliked everything he did on one side and the people who merely respected what he did on the other. Not too many outside of friends, colleagues, and family were raving fans of his style. LaRussa played every game as if it were his last but with the caveat of being loyal to a fault to underachieving veterans. This style made him a great (the greatest?) playoff manager, but a chore to observe during the heat of the summer. It’s quite a feat to get a respectful, yet lukewarm response when you announce your retirement immediately after managing your team to a World Series title.

and while I was not a fan of LaRussa’s managing, I will say that, in an odd way, I admire the way he went out. He spent the last few days before the end of the World Series talking to reporters, opining about what he doesn’t like about Moneyball. He didn’t like how it portrayed scouts and he had issues with the emphasis on on-base percentage (I know that isn’t the point of the book. I suspect LaRussa knows this, too.). Then he wins it, in uber-Tony-mode, making more pitching changes than any manager in the playoffs ever. After the parade, he drops the mic and points at the big baseball scoreboard. There’s nothing you can say to him after that. The final out was recorded, and somehow, he was on top.

P&P Reading Club: Bryan Harvey on The Art of Fielding Finale

he art of fielding by chad harbachBryan Harvey, who has previously written here about Brian McCann and Jason Heyward and John Henry, is a high school teacher and poet, who writes for The Faster Times and The Lawn Chair Boys. His poetry has appeared in the Cold Mountain Review and DeckFight Press released his eBook, Everything That Dunks Must Converge, in April..

The set of chapters we read for last week ended with Affenlight telling a soup-poisoned Henry, “Don’t forget your uniform,” so we’re clearly on the road to recovery this week, right?

And what signals a man’s hibernating greatness more than his willingness to mask his identity with a playoff beard, am I right?

We could discuss Henry’s recovery, the symbolism of Affenlight’s death, Owen’s eulogy, or the metaphor that is the last scene, but who wants to do that when you can discuss playoff beards? And that’s why chapter seventy-four is where it’s at.

The summer after I graduated high school I quit shaving, thought it made me look like part of some long forgotten counterculture, so I totally understand Schwartz’s observation that “If he was the Ahab of this operation, this tournament the target of his mania, then they were Fedallah’s crew” (454), because the growing of a beard isn’t just about a denial of self–it’s about an occult belief in the mission at hand, a mission that can only be accomplished by a band of brothers. And the beard signifies that one is willing to pay their dues, to the brotherhood, to the mission, to the Captain, to the ‘ship.

But beards aren’t just about buying in, they’re also a sign of mourning. I’ve grown beards out of laziness, deploring the work I have to do. I’ve grown beards over ex-girlfriends, aching over all those lost moments. I’ve grown beards when the AP test approaches in May, agonizing over whether or not I’ve properly prepared my students. Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve grown a lot of beards, and while I wanted to celebrate how well Harbach captures the many meanings behind growing a beard, chapter seventy-four made me incredibly sad, filling me with an intense sense of mourning for one Henry Skrimshander.

While his teammates closed in on their goal of winning a championship, I felt forced by Harbach’s allusions, both explicit and implicit, to ponder that chapter inMoby Dick when all the sailors gather in a church whose walls are marked by remembrances to the dead, those men lost at sea, their whaling ships swallowed up by the eerie depths, and there it was, on page 453, Henry’s plaque on the church wall: “once you healed the Henry gap you had no place for Henry.” A team can’t dwell on who is not present. A team must go with the men they have, and at this point in the narrative, I was sad for Henry no matter what happiness might be waiting for him later on in the book, or even after the book.

And then I got sadder, because Henry made me think of the 2004 Nomar Garciaparra, a very good shortstop who missed out on playoff beards, a World Series, and champagne. Is there anything like Nomar’s sadness? Have you ever accomplished something that felt incomplete? Has a group of people ever been better off without you? Have you ever had to grow a beard alone, and if so, how did you know when to cut it?

P&P Reading Club: Megan Wells on The Art of Fielding Finale

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Megan Wells at Around the Horn from Aerys Sports.

The end of this book affected me in ways I really didn’t expect. I read it in a marathon binge session, guiltily hoping for Henry’s glorious Hollywood return and salvation, but feeling like I’d be better off with a more “real” ending – the same way you hope for ice cream in the freezer when you’re done with dinner, but when there is none and you’re forced to eat fruit, you console yourself by feeling virtuous.

But in reality, the book gave us both, and they ultimately detracted from each other. Henry’s frenzied and desperate heroics seemed like an extension of his depression, of the idea of his own meaninglessness. He won the game, but by the end of the book, we find out he’s been back in South Dakota, working at the Piggly Wiggly – it didn’t mean what we wanted it to mean.

Still, it may have given him enough of a taste of his own self-worth to start him on the road to recovery. So while the book leaves us with the knowledge that Henry is not at all what he once was, we also have the slim hope that he can make it back. For his own reasons this time, in whatever role he chooses, and better – more whole – in some way.

Henry, you are skilled. We exhort you.

P&P Conversations: In a World With no World Series

Ted: Eric, you recently wrote a piece about Adrian Beltre calling for more appreciation for the third baseman. Has Beltre entered the general baseball zeitgeist, or is he still on the oustkirts? Are all of the Rangers on the outskirts of something? If so, what?

Eric: Beltre is in a weird place. If you only read baseball blogs and twitter, then he is the zeitgeist. But if you read newspapers, listen to sports radio, and are a generally sane person for whom baseball is only a minor interest, Beltre remains on the outskirts. I suspect that in this way he is indeed emblematic of the Rangers. Many of the Rangers’ best players are either sabermetric delights like Mike Napoli and Ian Kinsler, or highly stylized like Elvis Andrus. If the Rangers win, then everything changes. Maybe in Texas, it already has. You’re in Houston. How do y’all perceive the Rangers down there?

Ted: Astros fans perceive the Rangers as the distant cousin that we should feel some kinship too but don’t. If the Astros moved to the AL it would be like an 80s sitcom where a city cousin and a country cousin have to move in together. In that scenario, the country cousin would be successful and charming, and the city cousin has dandruff and wears mom jeans. But I digress.

The Rangers are a truly dichotomous team. On the one hand, as you mention, they are saber-darlings who perform bigger than their popular baseball playing reputations. On the other hand, they are clearly having fun out there, and I’d imagine that the casual fan can really get into their jam. Derek Holland is a total clown whose Harry Caray and Arnold Schawarzenneger impressions were so funny that Joe Buck woke up for long enough to hand his job over to the pitcher. Adrian Beltre’s head-touching issues would amuse Michelle Bachmann on a debate night. I’m guessing teenage girls swoon over CJ Wilson. The Rangers are a sabermetric team that you’d never know it, the way you can’t tell it’s Adam Sandler playing his own sister in his new blockbuster.

Speaking of the same thing over and over, I read somewhere that the Rangers would hypothetically be the 11th different team to win the World Series since some particular time. How does that make you feel?

Eric: Well, Ted you know my theory about the number 11…

No seriously, I don’t think parity is a bad thing, if that’s what you are referring to. And by parity I mean a state in which teams with competent management like the Rangers are just as likely to lose the World Series as teams with Brian Sabean as their GM. The thing about baseball, though, is that I don’t think World Series winners are a fair measure of inequality or dominance. This is not an uncommon argument: look at the 2001 Mariners or the last 20 years of the Atlanta Braves.

That said, knowledge that the playoffs aren’t fair doesn’t hurt any less when, say, your favorite team loses to the Phillies in the NLCS consecutive years. And to write off the World Series seems like giving up on everything we believe in (after all, if we can’t embrace randomness and absurdity, then what’s the point of being a baseball fan — even a self-aware one?) That’s a serious question: Could baseball exist and be delightful without a World Series?

Ted: What you pose is the Europe v. America argument. In Europe, they do things like end a football season without a championship and end games in ties. I enjoy such bizarre, Middle Age practices on one level, as a break from the American style, but I’d never choose it for these United States.

I think the real success of the playoffs and the World Series is the fact that most any fan, no matter which team you follow, can get a quick adrenaline rush from watching most any other team experience the thrill of the playoff win. It’s an inhabitable space for baseball fans to enjoy vicariously. The only way to live vicariously like that is if unexpected things happen, like lesser teams win bigger games, or crummy players–I’m coughing as I say the name Allen Craig–pull off wildly unlikely feats. You can’t get that from the IV drip end of a non-playoff season.

So, to answer your question, baseball could exist without the World Series, but it would be House Hunters.

(At this point we ask the readers for their thoughts. Imagine that Ray Bradbury and George Will collaborated on a neo-apocalyptic novel in which there was no World Series. What would this world look like?)

Adrian Beltre

I wrote a thing about Adrian Beltre for The Classical’s Deadspin Journal.

Check it out.


-Eric

P&P Reading Club: Bryan Harvey on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53– 72

he art of fielding by chad harbachBryan Harvey, who has previously written here about Brian McCann and Jason Heyward and John Henry, is a high school teacher and poet, who writes for The Faster Times and The Lawn Chair Boys. His poetry has appeared in the Cold Mountain Review and DeckFight Press released his eBook, Everything That Dunks Must Converge, in April..

The truth is sobering. The lie intoxicating. To get better, at some point, the truth is needed, and if I’m wrong in what I’m about to say, put me in my place.

Surrounded by land, Westish College and its bevy of depressed characters are still somehow connected to the water: there’s the Melville statue overlooking the lake, there’s Pella swimming her laps, there’s Schwartz rehabbing in the athletic center’s whirlpool, and then there’s Henry’s soup and bathtub routine. But Henry’s aquatic melancholy doesn’t begin in a bathroom. As far as I can tell, it begins in Chapter 54 when he swims out into the lake (most likely with Melville’s stone eyes watching him), wearing a flak jacket. It’s dangerous. It’s foolish. And it’s the most desperate act Henry makes, that is until he sleeps with Pella.

A lot is going on in Chapters 54 and 55. No doubt. Prior to these chapters Henry is a rather flat character, as many here have stated. He plays baseball. He lifts weights. He runs the stadium. He plays baseball. Everything is cyclical and, well, predictable. Then a gust of wind disrupts everything, Owen goes to the hospital, and Henry is introduced to the harshness of real life, like a baby forced to breathe air through its nose for the first time, and that’s what Henry is prior to this segment of the novel: a baby. He does what he’s told, as he’s told, not thinking, soaking up the wisdom of Aparicio and Schwartz tabula rasi. And when baseball fails to give him “The dream of every day the same” (345), where does Henry go for answers but back to the womb-like waters of Lake Michigan, reenacting the single time in everyone’s life when their being is entirely flawless, “[improving] little by little till the day it all [becomes] perfect” (345)? Everything after that is downhill, right? Mistakes, unmet potential, and sin.

Henry goes to the water because there’s something within him that must be cleansed, and when he comes out of the cool Lake Michigan waters, he gets down on all fours and drinks from a puddle “like an animal” (346), having washed away the complexities of his existence. Then he curls up in the sand–fetal style–and sleeps the night away, only to awake the next day, in Chapter 55, not with the mind of a child but contemplating “the longest speech of his academic career” (348), which happens to be about St. Peter, a man whose most famous act is one of denial (apparently, sainthood does not operate on baseball’s three strike rule), and what else is Henry trying to do in this part of the novel than deny the fallible traits that make him a human rather than a machine. Then this chapter that begins with his most complex thoughts on religion (which a young Henry appears to deny), free will, and even damnation ends with Henry’s hand being guided into the “icy blue” that guards Pella’s private parts (353). So when the baseball diamond fails to replicate the perfect potential of Henry’s in utero existence, he turns to Pella, the strongest representation of the feminine there is in the novel, but even this effort will fail to heal him, just like no amount of hours in a whirlpool can restore Schwartz’s joints, and Henry will spend the next several chapters, like a fish or a whale, in bathtubs full of water, slurping on warm soup as if it came to him out of an umbilical cord.

Here’s the thing, though, Henry knows his actions are “crazy” (346), that perfection is dull to the point of not existing, that he had to leave his mother’s womb, that playing baseball long enough will result in errors, that a person cannot tread water forever, that pretty much all moments of ejaculation are short lived, and that bathtubs have a drain for a reason, so where does Henry go from here? And how did Harbach make such a seemingly dull kid from South Dakota into whatever this character is now?

P&P Reading Club: Adam Webb on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53- 72

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Adam at Everyday Footnotes.

Well, that certainly got plotty, didn’t it? Maybe I skipped over the warnings but I hadn’t been concerned that Guert was putting his job on the line with his affair. The book successfully encouraged me to focus my concern on Owen’s eventual rejection of Guert. This development seemed to appear out of nowhere (dean ex machina?) but I loved the way this turn of events played off the unending and seemingly inconsequential talk of climate change. (Inconsequential to the novel, not — you know — the world.) In hindsight, I realize Owen’s solar-power pillow talk was actually quite strange and I would love it if Guert’s fleeting paranoid idea that Owen may be sleeping with him simply to make Westish carbon-neutral turned out to be true.

While Guert has the Skrimshanders to thank for the unraveling of his life’s work, Henry has both Affenflights to thank for avoiding fates such as ramen soup and shallow water drowning. I’m curious to see what’s driving Guert, at this dark moment, to send Henry to Nationals.

A question for everyone else: did I miss some legitimate reason for Schwartz to turn down the assistant athletic director job? I understand that we’re supposed to believe that he’s too stubborn or single-minded to accept this perfect gap-year opportunity … but is anyone buying that?

P&P Reading Club: Megan Wells on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53-72

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Megan Wells at Around the Horn from Aerys Sports.

Everything seems finally to be coming to a head in the novel. Relationships are breaking down and forcing the characters to figure out their own lives, instead of using each other to fill the gaps. Probably the most striking loss, to me, was Henry’s loss of baseball. Every other character has something else to chase, for good or ill, but most importantly, for themselves: Schwartz wants the championship. Pella wants a normal, adult life. Affenlight wants a normal, adult life (an unexpected parallel between father and daughter that, to be honest, I only just caught on to as I was writing this).

But Henry has nothing else to want, and frankly, I’m not even sure he’s capable of wanting anything else. Even his relationship – insofar as you can call that weird one-sided dependency a relationship – with Pella is a sort of an aimless, reflexive action. And here’s where things got difficult for me.

Harbach has illustrated depression extremely convincingly in these pages. As someone who has been where Henry is, it was an exceedingly uncomfortable read for me. And it makes me wonder whether the loss of baseball is really what’s tormenting Henry, or whether there’s been something pathological about him all along. I object to the tendency society as a whole seems to have for diagnosing from a distance and with limited information. But Henry is fictional, so with that caveat in place, I’ll say that his reaction to walking away from baseball throws the observations I’ve made so far – about the essential emptiness of his character – into a wholly different light. What do you think: is Henry grieving normally? Or was he, by pursuing baseball so single-mindedly, staving off this feeling all along?

P&P Reading Club: Pete Beatty on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53-72

he art of fielding by chad harbach Pete Beatty is a future boss at The Classical and P&P’s resident Jim Thome scholar.

“Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.”–Poetics

“Is Ahab, Ahab?”–Moby-Dick, Ch 132

As Henry and Schwartz and the fifth business folks eddy toward Act V, things have taken a not-unwelcome turn toward the predictable. The story hangs on the national championship, even if the Skrimmer’s defective wing and Americanitis aren’t responding to treatment, not even the alienated love of the strangely static Pella. Guert’s desperate, curious love for Owen has brough his  administration down, but home ownership and anchor pets may bring a happy tomorrow. The lines of the plot are largely drawn, but what we’re left with is little more than a skeletal sketch, flawlessly styled but a bit transparent.

The burden of making this book flesh has fallen on character, as a stock-in-trade, in the form of Henry and Mike. Both boys/men are increasingly damaged; Schwartz especially:

All he could have today was … the knowledge that there’d be at least two more games–because nationals were double-elimination–before he had to face his fucked up life … He’d never found anything inside himself that was really good and pure, that wasn’t double edged, that couldn’t just as easily become its opposite.

Henry, chapters earlier, expresses the same essential frailty in a goofier way:

Sometime in elementary school his class had read Anne Frank’s diary, and Henry, terribly alarmed, asked why Anne hadn’t simply pretended not to be Jewish. The way Peter escaped from the Romans by pretending not to be a Christian. Peter got in trouble for that in the Biblbe, but if you put it in the context of poor Anne, who was not only real but a kid, didn’t it make sense? What difference did it make what religion you were, if you were dead?

The Art of Fielding is largely powered by character. Our rooting interests in Henry and Schwartz and Pella, and even lesser lights like Starblind and Chef Spirodocus and Contango the dog, are what bind us to the work. The universe of Westish, much like the Seven Kingdoms of George R.R. Martin (and notably unlike the deck of the Pequod) is only engaging insofar as we thrill to the doings of our heroes. While Henry and Schwartz are brilliantly realized and complex, they’re not given much in the way of a plot to interact with. Aristote might disagree with this sentiment, but I don’t particularly mind. I can see where this novel is headed, and in fact I might have guessed it–but knowing a game is scheduled for nine innings doesn’t detract from the tragicomedy. Or is this comedy? Or dramedy?

My last question before the final installment: Henry’s paralysis versus Schwartz’s self-hatred: I think I’m with Henry. Which is weird, because I am totally a Schwartzian to this point. Anybody else feeling their sympathies drift Skrimward?