Author Archive for Patrick

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Sleep Through Opening Day

Nine days ago, I wrote the following passage:

From the airport window, I can see the gray buildings block the horizon where the pavement touches the pavement-colored sky.  The sports pages are riddled with so many copies of Peyton Manning’s face that they look like advertisements.  There’s the usual static interference of the NCAA tournament, where the same four teams (in my mind) advance loudly to the Final Four each year.  Up until yesterday I’d spent the last six months student teaching, arriving at work under the cover of darkness and leaving under similar conditions.  Yesterday morning I woke up to snow on the ground.

I’m dimly aware of the fact that, somewhere, baseball is happening.  There have been people complaining about Chipper Jones, and making fun of the New York Mets, and I’ve missed out on all of it.  I missed an entire Hong Chih-Kuo era, perhaps the last.  Coming back, I’ve been going through the baseball equivalent of culture shock.  Fragments of news flit through my consciousness: Ryan Braun is a villain who is unjustly accused, or a hero who escaped his horrible crimes through a technicality.  Albert Pujols is an Angel.  Leo Nunez is Juan Oviedo.  Fausto Carmona is Roberto Hernandez.  Roberto Hernandez is still retired.  It’s all too much.

Nine days haven’t changed much.  Yesterday morning, I set the alarm clock on my cellular phone and laid it on top of the dresser, out of arm’s reach, next to my battery-powered radio.  I woke up angry, in one of those thoughtless bestial rages that have no real purpose or target, not even Bud Selig.  In the dense, periwinkle moments that followed, I had maneuvered to the dresser, studied the radio on all six faces for several minutes in search of its on switch, and crawled back into bed.  But ultimately baseball could not penetrate the multiple layers of quilt, and when I woke again I found myself mysteriously several hours older, and untroubled by the sounds of the radio which, somehow, I must have shut off in my sleep. Fortunately, Eric was there to provide the insights I was incapable of forming.

I’m not ready for baseball.   After the rigorous, life-halting activity known as student teaching ended a week and a half ago, I spent the following week in Atlanta visiting my in-laws. There I witnessed, as the whole of its sports culture, a single Atlanta Hawks billboard making a pun about the visiting New Jersey Nets.  From there I travelled inward/coastward to Savannah, its downtown so surrealistically divorced from the world of sports (among other worlds) that my encounters with it there totaled an Alex Smith 49ers jersey selling for forty dollars in a comic book store, and a stoned Braves fan staring intently into an antique telephone receiver in a museum.

Since I’ve been back, my life has been fixing coat racks and checking off task lists.  The trees haven’t even begun to bud.  The world and my mind have been in tandem rejecting the concept of spring.  My own team faces the possibility of another 100-loss season.  My fantasy team relies on a closing tandem of Javy Guerra, Jim Johnson and Grant Balfour.  I haven’t been able to let go of this winter, the stress and the worry and the cold.  I haven’t allowed myself to sit down for three hours, even to enjoy a game of baseball.  At some point, I have to.

What better time to start than two in the morning?

At least, that’s what I thought until 1:30, when the hours caught up to me and the rationalization began.  It shouldn’t have to be this hard, I thought to myself, before nodding off for the third time.  This wasn’t Thomas Boswell; this wasn’t Opening Day. Bud Selig and I are both trying too hard. So instead I awoke at seven and scanned the box score.  The Mariners got three-hit, Balfour earned a cheap one-inning save, and little green buds have appeared on the cherry tree outside.  Things are going to be fine.

Zen and the Art of Lineup Maintenance

There are essentially two types of people, we’re told by the narrator of Robert Pirsig’s bestselling classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  There are those of us who resist understanding technology because its permutations terrify us and, recoiling from the possibilities, escape into wishful thinking.  Then there are those who face those permutations, who envision the problems that face us in the future, and prepare for them.  Our narrator counts himself among the later, constantly retooling his machine, checking for problems.  His friend, John, owns a wonderful bike but does not trust himself with repairs; instead he relies on the quality of his cycle and the expertise of the nearest mechanic.  The narrator stresses that there is no malice or cowardice in John’s philosophy.  It is not stubborn or antagonistic.  It simply isn’t the way he thinks.

Pirsig pans out from the vehicular metaphor to present a simpler dichotomy: there are those who prefer to be positive and those who prefer to be realistic.  Pirsig evolves this viewpoint into the romantic viewpoint, which considers the immediate appearance of reality and its aesthetic value, and the classical viewpoint, which revolves around the systems and science by which reality is reasoned and constituted.  The chasm between these two realms is what Pirsig devotes his novel to bridging.  Baseball has its own divide, equally impassible, between its romantics and its scientists.  Though the scientific revolution is well underway, there are many whose realities cannot be touched by it; in fact, every fan has their own Platonic form for the sport that they do their best to reconcile with reality.  Fans must make these compromises, with the game and with each other, just as they do in every facet of life.

There are a couple of matters on which both sides agree, however.  One of these is Chone Figgins.

Eric Wedge recently announced that Ichiro, who has been manning the leadoff spot in Seattle since Rickey Henderson left in 2000, will be moved to the third spot in the order.  The fallout from this move is the ascension of Figgins, he of the .188 batting average and .241 on-base average, to the leadoff spot in the order.  The reaction has been mixed: from scorn on Twitter, to ennui on the local message boards, to the unabashed glee of the beat reporters.   The derision seems unilateral, felt by the romantics and the classicists alike.

Wedge defended his motives in the following quotes:

“I’m confident that Figgins can get back to his old self as a leadoff hitter,” Wedge said. “That’s when he was the Figgins that produced, that got on base, that scored runs. That was really a pain for opposing teams when he did lead off for Anaheim.”

“I feel like, to give him the greatest chance to get back on track and succeed is to give him that opportunity leading off for us.”

The classicist will immediately seize upon the fallacy of causation Wedge commits in the first statement: that Figgins was successful when he was a leadoff hitter, so he must have been successful because he was a leadoff hitter.  It’s a sentence similar to “I ate a doughnut one morning and then got pulled over for speeding; I must avoid doughnuts from now on” that any child could see through.  How could a man who is, by all accounts, proficient as a manager of human beings, commit such flawed logic?  The answer requires returning to the motorcycles.

The refusal to admit defeat, even the possibility of defeat, becomes a virtue.  One of the cornerstones of romantic thought is the appreciation of reality as it is.  Rather than getting bogged down in the invisible details and probabilities that swirl and disappear with each instant, they enjoy peace of mind.  John, instead of worrying about the potential problems with his motorcycle, can devote his ride to enjoying the scenery.  It also provides him with a singleness of purpose, commonly seen in athletics.  It becomes positivity, attitude, confidence.  The refusal to admit defeat, even the possibility of defeat, becomes a virtue.  It banishes the concept of luck as a weakness, an excuse.  It purifies winning into some created wholly from effort, something beautiful and pure.

There is no room for failure in such a philosophy.  This makes the figure of Chone Figgins all the more striking; amidst his biennial freefall, he sat wounded, amnesiac, paradoxical.   His mantra never changed.  As he told the LA Times last year after his season-ending injury: “’I’m going to be great again,’ he said in an uncommon boast. ‘The best part is I’m not worried about it. I’m keeping my head up.’”

Of course, for Figgins, there is little point in saying otherwise.  There’s little point in asking him at all, because as a professional baseball player, we can assume that he will continue to try his hardest to play as well as possible.  Baseball is after all famous for being 70% failure.  The more interesting philosophy is that of his manager, Eric Wedge himself.

The manager of a baseball team finds himself in an inherently difficult position.  He is a human embodiment of the principle of deterministic fallacy: namely, that whatever happened was destined to happen.  We as fans understand that the manager has very little impact over the course of events in a game, especially once the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand and hurtles toward the plate.  And yet afterward, it is the manager in his office that we listen to, who is accorded a healthy share of praise or blame.  We know that his job is to ensure the victory of his team, but it is also his job to ensure that his players perform to their utmost capability.

Chone Figgins is a perfect example of the deterministic fallacy in advance.  He can only succeed by believing that he can only succeed.  To do this, Eric Wedge must also believe that he will succeed, and if he believes that, he will provide him with the top spot in the lineup.  This will cause Figgins to be a good player at the top of the lineup.

Baseball works like this all the time, despite the fact that it’s pure madness.  It’s romanticism taken to its limit, turtles all the way down.  The power of positive thinking works because people believe in the power of positive thinking, which works… etc.

Which would be fine, if it worked.  But as we’ve seen with Figgins and with Willie Bloomquist and with Rey Quinones, it doesn’t work.  It’s the kind of thinking that gets men called geniuses, when they’re lucky, even though they fail to see the luck.  The worst part is that we have no way of knowing whether Eric Wedge truly believes what he is saying about Ichiro or Figgins; it’s very possible that he’s read Tango’s Book, that he knows Ichiro is being given 35 less at-bats, that he’s creating a logjam of third basemen at Tacoma.  Perhaps he’s in on the lie because he feels he has to be.

And to a certain extent, he does.  Because while we can scoff at the athlete for ignoring the potential for failure, there is another aspect to the culture of confidence that proves much more troublesome: its opposition to uncertainty.  Fans may not be thrilled with Wedge’s solution to the Mariners’ lineup problems, but it is at the very least a solution.  To have the leader of one’s ballclub announce that has no solutions, that his guess is only marginally better than ours, would be unpalatable to the average fan.

Cultures can and do change, once they have enough momentum.This culture of confidence is an inertial state, but it’s not the only possible state.  Cultures can and do change, once they have enough momentum; it was once seen as cowardly to take a walk, or pointless to limit a young pitcher’s innings.  There is a possible world in which hitters publicly accept their slumps, and the media doesn’t attribute them to the first plausible correlation they can think of.  Managers could admit that lineups don’t really matter and that an optimal lineup, that eternal talking point, is worth at most a single win per season.  Some of them do feel this way, but they would never say it.  Because while there are multiple states, the courageous figure who seeks to traverse from one to other will find himself exposed to the glare of conventional wisdom.

That wisdom will erode, and has already eroded to some extent.  One might wish that Eric Wedge were a little more progressive, if only for the sake of Kyle Seager, who will lose several months of development in the name of past experience.  But regardless of what he says, or even what he initially does, what Mariners fans can only hope is that Wedge can fix the motorcycle when it inevitably breaks down.

Injury as Metaphor

It’s often the case that sportswriters are in the business of creating metaphors.  Certainly, there’s plenty of work to be done with regards to reporting the day’s events, at least until the robots take over.  But eventually, given the cyclical nature of sports, writers are tasked with making those events mean something.  In the old days, this was done by converting athletes into avatars, heroic young men who represented their adopted hometowns, and whose accomplishments on the field added to the local lore.  Recently, those familial bonds have weakened, and writers have been forced to become more creative in their meaning-making.

One element of baseball nearly untouched by this narrative shift is the injury.  The tale of Kerry Wood isn’t much different than that of Gary Nolan, at its roots. Injuries are a part of the game, and yet they feel somehow unnatural, defacing what should be a predictable career arc.  They can destroy the best intentions of the craftiest of general managers, or reduce a star player to a cheerleader.

What’s fascinating about injuries is that they’re a symbol for both strength and weakness, a duality, “like all really successful metaphors,” as Susan Sontag wrote in her 1977 work Illness as Metaphor.  Sontag devoted her attention to the disparate legacies of the great diseases of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: tuberculosis and cancer.  As she declares in her introduction, “illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness – and the healthiest way of being ill – is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking”.  In baseball – and I understand the dangers of using the same metaphoric instinct in connecting the two – injury is much like illness, treated as something more than itself.

Much as disease is the harbinger of old age and inevitable death, injury is a failure of the body.  And yet, there is glory in injury.  The annals of baseball history are filled with men who overcame their injuries and their pain: Schilling bleeding into his sock, Gibson limping around the basepaths.  The player who fights through his pain is treated as heroic; masculinity demands that they ignore and even hide their injuries, even to the detriment of their own team.  There is no duplicity in this; each player is convinced that no injury can stop him, just as he must convince himself that every slump is about to end.  Much like cancer patients who are shielded from the realities of their illness by well-meaning doctors, the first cure for any disease, as with any injury, is positive thinking.  “A happy man won’t get the plague”, goes the proverb, but the dangerous subtext to this philosophy is that those who do suffer must share at least some of the responsibility.

The key to the glory of injury is that it must be painful without being debilitating.  Perhaps this is why, with the exception of Schilling’s sock and a few other rare examples, the glorious injuries always belong to the hitters.  The hitter complains of his hamstrings, breaks an unidentifiable bone in his wrist, and still manages to make the violent, split-second swing that brings victory.  Pitchers have no such luck.  Like cancer, the pitcher’s ailment is unseen, insidious, terrifying.  A man can be perfectly happy and healthy, wielding pinpoint mechanics, and a single pop in the elbow or shoulder can end it immediately.  Such occurrences are the natural target for dread, and the player is quickly shuttled away, exiled from his former family, to the wasteland of rehab and extended spring training.  His life, the camaraderie and routine so carefully fashioned, is torn away in ragged fashion.

Perhaps the most striking and somber characteristic of injury, as with illness, is its ability to corrupt the identity of its victim.  We see it in Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, who watches himself die in public before going through the actual process; Kafka’s cockroach goes through his own labrum issues in the Metamorphosis.  Those players whose body parts fail them become those body parts: Tony Saunders became a broken arm, Tommy John a ligament.

Perhaps no recent player has lost control over his own identity more so than Mike Hampton, whose body disintegrated after signing an 8-year, $100 million contract. Hampton became a symbol for disappointment, his salary a yoke on multiple franchises.  He underwent Tommy John surgery, tore an oblique, tore another elbow tendon, pulled a hamstring, strained a pectoral muscle, and tore his rotator cuff.  He said of his infamous contract:

“It’s unfortunate,” Hampton said. “I’ve thought about it quite a bit. Shoot, when I sign a big contract, I want to be underpaid, not overpaid. Even though I wasn’t as successful as I would have liked to have been, it wasn’t from a lack of trying or lack of work or lack of want. I did everything in my power to be on the field and help my team win a World Series. I can look in the mirror and face the guy looking back and know he’s telling the truth.”

Hampton became a perpetual joke despite working just as hard as any other person to succeed and earn his salary.  We tend to assume that because a ballplayer makes a certain amount of money, he cannot feel the pain of his injury, the loss of being able to do what he loves.  Instead fans feel as though their money has been stolen, as though the player should lose that, too.  They deserve it for failing the team.  The weakness of the flesh has become a weakness of the spirit, malevolent and blameworthy.

Nowhere is the contagion of disease more glaring than when the ailment is psychological.  Here’s Sontag’s metaphor breaks down; she speaks of insanity as the modern equivalent of consumption, with romantic souls shipped off to sunny climes to relax and breathe the salt air.  Baseball, despite its emerald fields and warm spring evenings, is hardly a restorative place.  It’s a world of machismo and spitting and dirt, of single-minded purpose and execution.  Thinking is left for the analysts.  So when a player succumbs to psychological issues, his exile is doubly damning; it’s seen as being by choice.  Zack Greinke, speaking about his battle with social anxiety, commented that “depression is still a four-letter word.”  It’s easy to think back on the spiral of Henry Skrimshander from Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, whose identity is not only altered by his injury, it is completely erased.  His exile has made him unutterable, non-existent.

This is exactly the sentiment that Sontag was worried about: that illness and injury leads people to blame the person for their own suffering.  Injuries are frightening and unpredictable; it’s human nature to ascribe some cause to them, something we can control or at least understand.  It drives us to clutch at correlation, argue over the inverted W and the pitch count the training regimen, excessive or nonexistent.  By rationalizing the suffering of others, we explain away the possibility that it may someday arrive for us.  We blame the player for failing to live up to our expectations, the achievements we have awarded him in advance.

P&P Reading Club: Patrick Dubuque on The Art of Fielding Finale

he art of fielding by chad harbach(Author’s Note: this article has nothing to do with Game 6 of the World Series.  For that, I apologize.)

Right around the time our reading club got underway, I began my tenure at a local high school as a student teacher.  I adore academia, even if my university doesn’t quite compare to the Midwestern charm of Westish.  The layout is utilitarian, the grounds Spartan.  We have no lakes, president-filled or otherwise.

I was warned about the demands of student teaching, and these warnings were apt.  I haven’t watched a single pitch of playoff baseball this season.  Essentially, The Art of Fielding has been my postseason, and without it, my sense of alienation would be nearly palpable.  Stacks of textbooks on education theory and articles on critical literacy have replaced the game for me, and my head has been swimming with conceptual theories.  It was only inevitable that these ideas would bleed into the novel itself, as we headed toward the novel’s denouement.

In a conversation Eric mentioned the uselessness of the Harpooners coaching staff, especially the well-meaning, ineffective Coach Cox.  The man reminds me of an older, mellower portrayal of Jim Bouton’s Joe Schultz, a study in the virtues that are respected in baseball and are useless in everyday life.  Cox is helpless before Owen’s hospitalization, Schwartz’s fiery leadership, and Henry’s downfall.  He’s ceremonial, a reminder that most managers receive far more than they deserve in terms of pay and accolades.  The students change with every passing year, but Cox is always there, always the same, always losing.

What Harbach illustrates is that fielding and baseball really are an art, rather than a craft.  One’s ability is innate.  Owen puts down his novel, walks into the batting cage and sprays line drives.  Henry pirouettes effortlessly, thoughtlessly.  Strong coaching can maximize potential, add endurance and strength through countless hours of training.  But that potential is finite and predetermined.  For a teacher, it’s a troubling concept.

So as the book wound down, and I prepared to bid baseball adieu for another winter, I found my sentimentality waxing with the somber funeral march/row.  Soaked with alcohol, Freud’s solution for the masses, the gang finds itself on the brink of inexorable change, and I too found myself pausing between page turns, hoping to hold it back.

So as Schwartz takes up the mantle of teaching, and walks out to the familiar field to hit ground balls to his familiar friend, I finally identified with him.  This is what teaching is like, I thought.  Maybe Schwartz can make a difference, fix Henry and blend as gracefully into Westish as Affenlight had.  Maybe something can be taught, and that not everyone has to repeat every last mistake in life.  I hope that last throw found its way to the shovel.

P&P Reading Club: Patrick Dubuque on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53-72

he art of fielding by chad harbachI first read Siddhartha in my mid-twenties, the perfect time.  I had performed all the necessary rites: earned my useless liberal arts degree, failing classes and writing awful songs for the guitar.  I had lived overseas and returned; I found a low-paying professional job and wore ties.  I joined a bar-league softball team.  I joined a book club.

I read Siddhartha and discovered that I hadn’t been wasting my life; I’d just been honing myself, voyaging unknowingly on a lifelong journey, often in circles but inevitably forward.  I was hunting for my Kamala, throwing dice and laughing.  Naturally, I ate this up.  I brought my notes to the book club and drank other people’s merlot, mostly to insert pauses in my own conversations.

What I found so enthralling was the book’s sense of velocity, its unending pace toward wisdom or destitution or both.  Everything to me was progress, each day a matter of new wisdom and new experience.  For the athlete, particularly the baseball player, this is not so.  By the time they gain sufficient wisdom, a workable change-up or plate discipline and strength, they have already begun to die.  Their every effort must be design to combat this; every misplayed ball, every lazy workout bends a man further from perfection.

In The Art of Fielding, Schwartz uses a machinery metaphor to explain the baseball player, rendering him soulless.  There is no sudden beauty, no art, only reliability.  Henry, the ideal ballplayer, never deviates, never rests.  Finally Henry-the-Machine breaks down and baptizes himself in the lake, no longer able to live among the world without belonging to it.  One of Harbach’s themes is the shunning of the effects of time: Affenlight hiding from old age, Schwartz adulthood, Henry perfection.  The following chapters see Henry efface himself, tear down the temple he has built to himself and baseball, the muscles and sinew eroding.  Each day he sleeps through, each decimal of body fat raised, feels like a tragedy.

By the end of Chapter 72 we and Henry have reached a crossroads: where will Harbach take him from here?  Siddhartha is dragged from the river by his friend Govinda and finds enlightenment in his emptiness.  Will Henry find his own, and what form will it take?  Will it be in baseball, a return to the simple joy of the game Aparicio hated to leave?  Or will it require the casting off of baseball, a return to the idyllic pasture of the Midwest?

I’m in my thirties now, still wandering in circles.  I’m still reading Siddhartha, still pontificating in book groups.  It’s no coincidence.  I don’t have the sort of character, the capacity to achieve Henry’s level of greatness, nor his level of misery.  I’m not driven enough, not myopic enough to concentrate on a single task, put all my chips on one number.  Perhaps it’s cowardice.  But I can’t help but disagree when Henry claims that “the only life worth living is the unfree life”, because he doesn’t understand freedom.  He sees the cigarettes and women and knowledge as freedom, or an attempt at it, when all they are is another reach for control over one’s life.

Freedom is what we see in Owen, in name the Buddha, in reality opportunistic hedonism made practical.  Owen needs nothing and takes what’s available.  It’s not life free of pain, as Schwartz hopes for, nor life ignorant of it; it’s life free of the fear of pain.   It’s illicit merlot.  It’s Aparicio’s vision of the game, a samurai code that cannot be broken because it is continually being remade.  Sometimes, it’s a double-header at shortstop, hoping each ball is hit to you, another chance to do something brilliant.

P&P Reading Club: Patrick Dubuque on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18-33

he art of fielding by chad harbachI have a hard time with modern novels.  In a comment last week, Carson noted that he is “largely prejudiced against books in which characters have ’emotional problems’ and in which they make ‘poor life decisions.'”  I tend to feel the same way.  The hand-wringing of the postmodern world, and its infatuation with the struggle of mankind against the self, wears on me at times.  Sure, we’re thrust into an unforgiving and chaotic world, isolated and aimless.  I get that.  But this doesn’t mean we have to sulk about it.

And in a sense, that’s why I had high hopes for The Art of Fielding: because baseball is designed to avoid this, to provide an agreeably meaningless diversion that entertains us and passes the time.  It’s meant to be fun.  But as we move into the second quarter of the novel, the game (and the novel itself, at times) loses this merriment: Henry and Mike both find themselves praying for rain, and the game has become a chore to play and to read about.  We’re lost in the maze of each person’s head, impotent and surly.  Henry is basically mimicking Camus’ Stranger, who developed his own form of Steve Blass Disease as he gunned down his Algerian.

Harbach’s characters are rich, intricate, and alive; all except Henry, who bores me.  His predictable fall and rise forms the skeleton of the novel, which we accept out of necessity.  Yet the character himself, so myopic in his pursuit of success, has little connection with the world around him.  His tight-knit relationship with Mike is told, rather than shown, and he’s nearly useless around every other character, even as a foil.   His insecurities are buried so deep that they rarely break past the barrier of the third person singular.  Even Siddhartha was worth a laugh before getting his life in order.

Instead, I find myself drawn to Pella, who orbits farthest from the game.  Part of her charm, of course, is that her fall predates the start of the novel; she’s already in spring when the others face winter.  But there’s also a sporadic, attractive tendency in Pella toward order; she’s scarred and wise, but she’s also willing to throw herself into someone else’s pile of dirty dishes.  I hope that her wit (and Owen’s, who reminds me of Sebastian from Brideshead Revisited) can find its way into the hearts and minds of these poor tragic heroes, and liven the place up a little bit.

In Defense of Outliers

Occasionally, baseball players lose ownership of their own names.  Steve Blass, Mario Mendoza and Tommy John have become adjectives, terminology rather than personality, their careers condensed into a single trait.  Such is also the fate of Brady Anderson, who played fifteen seasons in the major league and yet in a very real sense played only one.  In that infamous year of 1996, the reedy Anderson hit fifty home runs, nearly a quarter of his career total.  It’s an accomplishment that only twenty-two players in baseball history can claim, and yet it’s invariably followed by an invisible asterisk.  It’s not that the home runs didn’t happen; it’s that they shouldn’t have.

The value embedded in the phrase “Brady Anderson”, naturally, is its connection to the steroid era.  It’s one of those cumbersome tasks that every discussion like this has to start with, even though author and reader alike already understand the implications.  Amazing feats of baseball abounded in the era directly following Anderson: names like Luis Gonzalez, Ken Caminiti and Bret Boone flung themselves onto the headlines, while Sosa and McGwire smeared their fingerprints ontorecord books, distending the numbers.  The resulting chaos has left fans weary and confused, unable and unwilling to sort through the ashes.  Anderson has firmly denied any steroid use, but such denials are useless; it isn’t Brady Anderson that has become attached to juicing, but greatness itself.

Several months ago, Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated wrote an article about Jose Bautista.  Bautista’s career began even more ignominiously than Anderson’s, and has since soared even higher.  And much like Anderson, Bautista has faced a significant amount of scrutiny for his achievements.  Posnanski begins with the simple question: “Do you believe in miracles?”  He then conjures the familiar names of the great and unlikely, Lance Armstrong and Kurt Warner and Dazzy Vance.  We’ve grown skeptical, as a nation and as a sport.

It’s the ultimate condemnation of Anderson and Bautista: what they did doesn’t make sense.  But was Brady Anderson’s 1996 a miracle?  Is Jose Bautista’s ascension?  Voltaire wrote on the subject of miracles in his Dictionnaire Philosophique, defining a miracle as “the violation of those divine and eternal laws.  If there is an eclipse of the sun at full moon, or if a dead man walks two leagues carrying his head in his arms, we call that a miracle.”  This is the ultimate condemnation of Brady Anderson and Jose Bautista: what they did doesn’t make sense.  A man doesn’t go from hitting fifteen home runs to fifty.  He doesn’t go from being cut by losing teams to being an MVP candidate.  These things aren’t independently possible, and so there must be something else causing them, something unnatural.

But though Voltaire’s eclipse and his headless man were both considered miracles at one time, they’re very different.  One violates the natural laws as we know them.  The other violated the natural laws as we knew them at the time, but later came to be understandable.  As we grow more knowledgeable about baseball, and we become increasingly skilled at analysis and projection, we become increasingly resistant to aberration.  The flaw in so much of analysis (baseball and otherwise) is that while we smirk at the ignorance of the past, we neglect to factor the ignorance of the present.  We do not know what we will know, and what fails to make sense now may be perfectly clear tomorrow.

In this sense, miracles are dangerous, revolutionary things.  They challenge the solidity of accepted wisdom.  They force us to question our assumptions about the world.  They challenge the laziness of our thinking.  Steroids have become one example of this laziness: a refusal to examine greatness, to admit the possibility of being impressed. Occam’s razor has gone from being a guideline to a law.

Perhaps most importantly, miracles chip away at our fundamental preference for certainty.  Luck is something we understand, at least when it turns against us.  We want to believe that our successes, however, are the result of nothing except our own pluck and determination.  Anderson seems to agree.  He described 1996 as “just one more home run per week, just one more good swing. That is the data that simultaneously comforted me and haunted me, the small difference between greatness and mediocrity.” The role that luck plays in the success of a baseball player is only an exaggeration of what goes on in our own lives.   How many people who have condemned Anderson’s achievement as impossible have gone home to play the lottery?

Ultimately, I’m not in a position to say whether Brady Anderson used steroids or not.  The possibility exists, as do other possibilities.  What interests me is the potential for greatness, the acceptance of outliers.  Every game, every season, something happens in baseball that defies expectations, and demands that we dig deeper.  Call them miracles, call them flukes, call them statistical deviations.  Regardless of what they are, they bring vitality to the sport, and in some cases, they form the origins to amazing narratives.  It’s a possibility I find infinitely more palatable than the predictable alternative, no matter how much sense it might make.

Why I Write (About Baseball)

Recently I sat amidst the fog of a Seattle summer morning and read a short essay by George Orwell entitled “Why I Write”.  Like Orwell, I recognized at a young age that I was a writer whether I actually wrote anything or not.  I wrote short novels in elementary school, poetry in high school, essays in college, all of them shamelessly derivative.  When I read, I found myself considering what worked and what didn’t work, how the words evoked reactions from me.  Each time I faced my lack of originality and the surplus of talent already out there in the world, and walked away, I came back again.  I think that most writers feel this way, especially in their youth.

Six months ago I turned to the internet and baseball, primarily to find a way to toy with words while escaping the drudgery of the endless string of term papers.  The quarter ended but the writing didn’t.  Last night my wife threw a sidelong glance at me.  “Why do people write about baseball, anyway?” she asked, glancing at the open Word document on my screen.

“Funny you should ask,” I said.

In his essay, Orwell outlines four primary reasons why writers are driven to write, ignoring financial concerns.  They are:

1. Egoism, the desire to accrue fame and reputation, and to prove one’s worth in relation to one’s colleagues.
2. Aesthetic enthusiasm, simple appreciation for the subject matter at hand.
3. Historical impulse, the desire to catalogue the past exactly as it happened and to put events in their correct order.
4. Political purpose, in its most open-ended sense: writing with intent to persuade the reader and alter the world through that connection.

In the realm of sportswriting there will never be any shortage of the first of these four causes.  This is especially true online, where self-promotion and social networking have become increasingly vital to one’s success.  Fame is a sort of social capital for writers, so easily quantified through the number of page views, comments, and followers.  This is neither a good nor a bad thing, and I very much doubt that many people are drawn to the vocation solely or even primarily for the ego boost it provides.  The anonymous internet commenter is always there to provide an instant remedy for such delusions.

Aesthetic enthusiasm, on the other hand, seems perfectly suited to the sport of baseball and the internet does nothing to decrease its sentiment.  Few people would write about baseball if they didn’t already love the game.  If the writing is good it will foster this love in the reader, only furthering their desire to read more.  What makes baseball writing so vivid and varied is that each writer can find (and convey) their own unique appreciation of the sport.  It can be economics, statistics, or militaristic imagery; it can even be poetry.

The historical motive is the least obvious, but perhaps the one to which baseball owes the most.  I am continually amazed at the precision and quantity of data available to the baseball fan, minutia spanning from the alteration of the length of a stirrup to the performance of men who played the game in wheat fields a hundred and thirty-five years ago.  That we have this historical foundation is due to the labor of thousands of determined, admiring fans.  The internet, however, erodes this impulse somewhat, as it’s difficult for the writer to create a sense of permanence in a form of media which is inherently transitory.

Orwell’s own passion came from the political purpose of writing.  He concludes the essay with this line: “And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”  Those who have read Animal Farm and 1984 would be unsurprised.  Baseball doesn’t appear as though it would suit Orwell particularly well, but there are certain elements of political struggle present in sportswriting.

The world of baseball naturally lends itself to partisanship.  It divides people into cultural regions, bound to a single baseball team, and demands of them an oath of loyalty.  These regions are peppered with the occasional transplant, who must struggle in foreign lands and can only rely on USA Today and the internet to receive tidings from home.

Because of the remote nature of the game, most fans connect to it through argument.  Some of the most romantic experiences we have with baseball are arguments: the kibitzing of the angry mob on sports radio after the blown save, or the debate at the bar over the Hall of Fame.  The national media takes this argumentation and capitalizes on it, sensibly stoking the fire in order to drive traffic.  Fans from each corner of the country clamber for the mystical quality that is “respect” from the journalism personalities.

We also see this political undercurrent to the never-ending battle between the sabermetric and traditional baseball analysis communities.  These debates are pitched, and much is at stake; Felix Hernandez in part owes his Cy Young award to the charisma of baseball writers, as does Bert Blyleven his plaque.  But as often as these conversations result in good, intellectually stimulating give and take, more often they’re simple diatribes aimed at the already converted.  Edginess and a willingness to ruffle feathers win out over insightful analysis.  Fans are yet again driven to take sides, and the result is an atmosphere eerily similar to politics.

Orwell would have been fine with all of this.  But Orwell lived in a different time, one where he could afford the luxury of moral superiority.  He wrote in the era of Hitler, and in Hitler the idea of an enemy to which all other enemies since have been compared via hyperbole.  It was a time when strength fought strength, one of the reasons we still find that moment in history so appealing.  But as fine a book as Animal Farm was, there is little in baseball that is so black and white.  When it comes to baseball, I find that I can’t avoid being a relativist.

There’s one aspect of writing that Orwell couldn’t foresee, and that’s the blurring of the line between writing and publication.  The act of writing itself, regardless of whether it’s read or thrown away, has the effect of organization, forcing the author to order his or her own thoughts.  The research and reflection necessary for good writing – or even writing that just tries to be good – helps people to improve upon their knowledge.  This is the same with conversation, which helps people clarify their ideas and understand how relevant they are to the world around them.  Every piece of writing is an extension between author and reader, an attempted exchange of ideas.  This exchange can certainly be persuasive.   But in the end it’s primarily personal, an individual expression that may or may not reach the next person down the line.

Here at Pitchers & Poets, there’s little pretense about our preference for the aesthetic.  I believe that everything has to mean something, even baseball.  It’s not enough for me to say that something is good or that this causes this to happen; I’m not even particularly interested in efficiencies or the process of winning baseball games, beyond a clinical, mathematical viewpoint.  I want to write about baseball as allegory, as a symbol for something greater than the game itself and greater than me, myself.  The game is something that connects all of us, forms a framework by which we can develop other ideas about the world as a whole.

My hope is that this framework can attach to the framework of others to build something meaningful.  It’s not a war, nor is it an attempt at a Pyrrhic victory.  I write because I like sharing ideas, and sharing them makes them better.  Why people read baseball writing is a separate discussion entirely.

P&P Conversations: Foul Ball Excitement Reform

Ted: Not long ago, we thought that the American baseball fan could stoop no lower when an adult woman plucked a foul ball from the hands of an excited child. To put it simply, we were wrong. Two days ago, two men, also adults, wrestled for control of a foul ball that had flown into a trash can. We watched while two men nearly came to blows over a piece of garbage. What has become of us, Patrick? Is this a new phenomenon made grotesque by contemporary culture, or do we just see it more now?

Patrick: I’m tempted to believe that this is an age-old human foible that’s been exposed under the baleful light of the television camera.  I’m sure the same phenomenon occurred in the old days, under the bleachers at the Polo Grounds, when dirt-encrusted newsies attacked each other with lead pipes and rusty nails for the sake of a foul ball.  That said, back then they could have probably swapped that foul ball for a couple of moon pies or a hoagie in a rare opportunity to obtain adequate nourishment.  My question: what, today, is this piece of garbage really worth?  How does a foul ball drive well-fed men to madness?

Ted: Is the price of a foul ball as simple as the thrill of experience? Do I give these grandstand grapplers too much credit by suggesting that they are seeking not for the ball itself, the object, but for the need simply to suck the marrow from the bone of life? It’s hard to underestimate the impact of the shot of adrenaline that courses through the veins when a foul ball shows itself on a course right towards. However, as civilized beings, it’s our job to recognize in the heat of the moment the appropriate course of action and choose that over the quote natural course of action. For example, once you realize the ball is in a trash can, it is time to beg off and follow another passion before you hurt somebody.

Patrick: There may be some marrow at the bottom of that trash can, but I doubt it’s palatable.

The trouble with the adrenaline theory is that once the fan has met with triumph, he or she is left with a two-dollar baseball with an extra logo.  You’d think at this point the fan could locate the nearest eight year-old boy, become a hero for the next ten or fifteen seconds by giving it to him, and be on his way.  People don’t act like that, though; they throw Charles Barklean elbows and treat each ball as if it had a treasure map drawn on it.  I can also get the visceral feeling of the ball nearing you, and I think there’s more than a little of a vicariousness to it, the desire to replicate the heroes on the field.  But whatever it is, something in it must stay trapped in that ball even afterward.

A while ago, we had a discussion on the Twitter after some other fan made an ass of themselves on national television, which led to your call for #foulballexcitementreform.  If I recall correctly, and I do (because I can go back and look at the history), your opinion was that “the authorities should step in and regulate it [foul ball behavior].  Save people from themselves.”  I find myself drawn (on this rare occasion) to the libertarian viewpoint: that those who are willing to risk ridicule for the sake of their prize should be allowed to pay the price.  Does this make me insensitive to the dangers of uncoordinated, usually inebriated fans? Or does it make you a communist?  (Note: this is a leading question.)

Ted: I will get my #blackballed hashtag ready, Patrick, to prepare for the inevitable reaction, but I think that a baseball game is a controlled environment where many people are packed into a small space, and they gotta get along. We’re not out on Ron Paul’s family farm here, we’re in a manmade bubble, where an overzealous ball seeker can hurt kids or himself, as we’ve very tragically and regrettably seen lately. Nobody wants foul balls to get all serious, but real life took care of that for us, and that occurred well after myself and quite a few other people were becoming aware of a strange overexcitement about grabbing foul balls. I haven’t really thought through what it would mean to regulate the practice. I’d begin, theoretically anyway, by preventing anyone over the age of 18 from going home with a foul ball, and I’d prevent anyone from invading another’s space to get one. Home runs and memorable events would be an exception, etc. Who knows if you could ever enforce such rules, and maybe what we need is a collective unspoken agreement among Us Adults, that we’ll all just cool out. Are we cool, Patrick? Are we cool?

Patrick: We’re cool, Ted.  Here in Seattle, the fans haven’t been packed in all that tightly as of late, so I tend to forget what it’s like.  But even if we were to appropriate the actual baseballs to give to orphanages, we still haven’t deal with the attention-seeking aspect of the catch itself. Maybe we can alter the culture of fandom to prevent dangerous behavior, hopefully using copious amounts of shame.

Ted: Not knowing how to comport yourself is hardly a new phenomenon, I agree. Now, though, it seems that the actual stage is not the only stage. The stage has expanded past its traditional boundaries. Are we actually paying too much attention to the spectators, who aren’t supposed to be in our purview at all, except in a warm and fuzzy, “collective experience” kind of way?

Patrick: The boundaries of culture have shifted throughout our country, especially in the past fifteen years or so.  Reality television has shifted focus away from a “celebrity class”, and the internet, in Twitter and sports journalism, has broken down many of the barriers between fan and player.  This borders dangerously close to what the kids today call the “meta”, but are we in some way contributing to the shift with this very discussion?  Are we changing the story, albeit very slightly, through our telling of it?

Ted: Always.

Good News for Eric Wedge

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Mariners’ recent fall from grace is the lack of acrimony inspired by it.  There are plenty of stories in the national media breaking down the quantitative futility; everyone, after all, loves an outlier.  The local fan base is mourning the loss of Eric Wedge’s mustache almost as much as the team’s season.  Wedge, although capable of throwing out his share of baffling lineups, is generally respected as a manager.  Jack Zduriencik, unlike his predecessor, has made the kind of mistakes that at least follow some line of logic.  Expectations were reasonably tempered.  Even on the fifth of July, when the team was .500 and two and a half games out of first, everyone secretly knew that this was a roster capable of dropping a dozen games in a row.

Of course, as of July 26, 2011, the Mariners have outdone themselves, accomplishing a feat only twenty teams have done since the American and National Leagues merged in 1903.  And with a truly historical run of failure, Wedge and Zduriencik have been put on the hot seat almost by default.  But as it turns out, losing fifteen or twenty games in a row isn’t the death knell for a career one might think.  The list:

Eric Wedge, as it turns out, has joined some pretty respectable company in the past two and a half weeks.  This isn’t as surprising as it seems; if you stick around the game for thirty or forty years, you’re bound to see some streaks, good and bad.  Still, several of these managers (Herzog, Kuhel, and Mauch) were first-year managers, and were given at least another year to prove themselves.

Many of the teams who fired coaches after losing streaks did so under extenuating circumstances.  Tenney and Collins plied their trade during the player-manager era of baseball; Tenney was traded after his 1907 season, and released at the age of forty after 1911.  Collins, the Hall of Fame third baseman, was stripped of his managerial duties mid-season, a full eighty games after the end of the twenty-game losing streak.

Ted Turner gave Dave Bristol a ten-day leave of absence in 1977 so that he could manage the team himself, until N.L. President Chub Feeney stepped in and slapped the rulebook in his face.  Turner somehow persuaded Bristol to come back as a lame duck.  The world remembers the 1988 Baltimore Orioles for its staggering 0-21 start to the season, but Ripken, Sr. was actually fired after only six games.  Replacement-level manager Frank Robinson lost the other fifteen.

Of the nineteen managers, three of them were fired after and because of their losing streak (Collins, Fohl and Bristol).  Four were enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Where does this leave Eric Wedge?  Probably in neither category.  Miller Huggins once said that “a manager has his cards dealt to him, and he must play them.”  Nobody envies Wedge’s hand.  He can’t be accused of losing the players, and he’s shown a willingness to be flexible with his roster without making constant, desperate changes.  But for lack of a better alternative, we continue to measure managers by wins and championships.  Gene Mauch might prove a solid comparison: a pretty good manager who led some pretty awful teams.

The Seattle Mariners are a fascinating ballclub right now; rarely has a team lost so much and had so little meaning attached to it.  Usually, this kind of unabated failure beats down even the sensible fan, wears them raw until they need something, anything to be done.  They attach responsibility to whatever they can reach, and usually the field leader is the first in line.

In the case of the Mariners, however, there are no mutterings about intangibles, no hidden knowledge of winning.   They’ve lost sixteen times to teams that are better than they are.  Ordinarily, inferior baseball teams win their share of games against superior opponents; right now it isn’t happening.  It feels like an inevitability, but one of probability rather than fate.  Sooner or later a team is going to lose fifteen or twenty games; why not now?