Author Archive for Ted

Uniforms in Retrograde

The Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles have each announced that they will revert to previously employed uniform logos. The Blue Jays will go with a slightly modified version of the bird head silhouette they sported from 1977 – 1996, a design that for me is indelibly linked to Joe Carter’s 1993 home run. The Orioles, on the other hand, return to the cartoon version of their titular bird, which I and I’m guessing many other would quickly connect to Earl Weaver and his successes in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Those changes, together with the new look of the Miami Marlins, have brought the aesthetics of baseball uniforms to the front of the hot stove conversation.

The first trend that comes to mind, obviously, are the reversions to old logo and uniform designs by Toronto and Baltimore. These choices reflect a broad trend toward designs of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, spurred, on one level, by the Internet and all of its brilliant highways and bi-ways. One of the most common currencies online today is any reference to old and nostalgic media products–from TV shows and movies, to toys and fashion. Functioning much the way such references do in live conversation, allusions to a shared childhood or past experience create a quick bond between strangers, and tap into a collective sense of childhood or adolescent or at least past sense of well-being, ie. nostalgia. There is no greater compendium of nostalgia than baseball, and the Internet has allowed us–P&P, with our 1990s First Basemen Week and our tumblr are right in the thick of it, after all–to share the love with breathtaking speed and efficiency.

Simon Reynolds in his book Retromania describes a fixation on retro matters as slowing down time itself. Describing the 2000s: “The sensation of moving forward grew fainter as the decade unfurled. Time itself seemed to become sluggish….” One factor he cites is the wide availability of content from every era. iPods act as oldies stations, according to Reynolds. Pop culture struggles to move forward with its eyes cast continually backward at “our own immediate past.” Eerily, Reynolds asks, “what happens when we run out of past?” The answer seems to be: we become a culture of snakes eating their own tales, a culture so self-referential that it stagnates into a narcissistic morass. Maybe we’re already there. Have you seen Glee?

Clearly, in the case of the Blue Jays at least, team management catered to the desires of their fans. A series of terrible logos sealed their fate, and public distaste for the steel-blue logos featuring highly emotional birds was rampant. Emma Yardley commented, via Infield Fly, that “The modern uniforms look, well, cheesy. While I do actually prefer the black, navy and slate grey (the classic uniforms should lose the red in my opinion), the lettering font is dated and no style-conscious person would ever put that on their body. It makes me ask, why did they change it in the first place?” I have yet to find anyone of a disparate opinion.

Something needed to be done, and twice the Blue Jays created new designs (let’s not forget the short-lived juiced Jay of 2003) that flopped hard. What else but to throw the grounded pick-up truck into reverse? Lots of baseball conversations revolve around the idea of risk, and risk aversion. The Blue Jays have succumbed to aesthetic risk aversion. They are done crafting new ideas, new design, and it’s back to the visual identity that taps into the Blue Jays fan’s pleasure sensors. A team of 25 Joe Carter’s will trot out onto the field in 2012.

As for the Orioles, I admit to having zero awareness of Baltimore or the nation’s call for a change to what I considered the classy design of the Orioles logo and jersey. ‘Duk of Big League Stew, however, hails the return of the cartoon bird, going so far as to call it “triumphant.” He goes on, however, to keenly highlight the risk and reward dynamic of the baseball uniform: “But given the choice between the O’s bowing to a fan-requested nostalgia trip and the San Diego Padres ignoring the wishes of their fans, it’s an easy decision every time.” The Padres’ resistance of the retro wave washing over the clubs whose logos aren’t timeless enough to keep has led to a general backlash. That, in my opinion, has more to do with the specific choices–ie. the uniforms are non-descript and repulsive at the same time–than simply the shock of creating something new.

In Baltimore, as many commenters have noted, the switch to an old design, though charming, means little as long as they field such a shabby team. Such a notion denies the importance of aesthetics, putting visual design several levels behind performance in baseball’s aesthetic hierarchy. This being Pitchers & Poets, I’m not ready to accept that hierarchy. I see baseball culture more as a galaxy, filled with planets of varying sizes and gravitational pulls and orbits. One planet is performance, another a team’s logo, yet more for architecture, history, radio broadcasters, etc. etc.

In Miami, of course, nostalgic relics are more elusive. Marlin World Series victories fit into what I’d put under the “recent” umbrella, unlike the Orioles’ generations ago dominance and the Blue Jays generation-ago run, and besides, during their heyday the Marlins had the same uniforms and logos that they do now. What element of visual culture could they bring back, besides a Gary Sheffield bobblehead doll? With a mostly shifting roster lacking sufficient bulletproof stars to bind the generations–Hanley Ramirez has come close, but he was absent for the World Series wins that have thus far defined the team. Josh Beckett would have done the job had he stuck around–and with poor fan support and a dire need for new energy with a new stadium, the Miami Marlins are a fine petry dish for design innovation, and they have jumped off of the yacht into strange waters. Orange, yellow, and blue waters.

One could argue that the audacious neon of the new design recalls the 1990s and its hypercolor shirts fluorescent kidswear and Zubaz pants. The eyeless Marlin would not look out of place on an OC Surfwear t-shirt. But also there’s the culture of Miami itself, the pastel brilliance of art deco architecture and Caribbean culture. The logo, to my mind, smartly walks the line, without committing itself to one or another vision of itself. An art deco hotel’s facade, the sun setting on the water, a Daytona surf shop: the design is complex enough to compel the viewer/consumer to dream a little.

The questions is: do these designs stop time? Are they inhibiting some more crucial, life-affirming advance into the future? Yeah, probably. Or maybe not. What am I, some kind of genius?

Each design has a relationship with time, however. Aesthetically, the Orioles and the Blue Jays are telling their fans, with their designs: think about this particular time period in the past, when this player and that player played, and how we should be like them. The Marlins, on the other hand, aren’t telling. They are requesting the favor of viewership and trust, and a future that features those favors. Like any situation requiring trust, there will be resistance. And maybe not all that much resistance. This review of the new uniforms by Ted Hill at Fishstripes is a reasoned consideration, and he even calls for a more bold use of the new color scheme.

(A fascinating aside would be a consideration of the remarkable amount of influence baseball fans have had over changes in uniform. Maybe it’s the market making the choices, and drops in sales preceded the Orioles and Jays changes, but it certainly feels like public sentiment is at an all-time aesthetic high. Then again, the Padres went their own way.)

Like a work of art, a baseball uniform is something that you’ve got to live with before rendering any final judgment. Time and experience ferment or sour the mix. Speedy judgements lack the richness of experience. In that sense, the Orioles and Blue Jays reversions deny fans the opportunity to learn about something new, or to mine a new aesthetic experience. To paraphrase Donny Rumsfeld, the silhouetted blue jay and the cartoon Oriole are known knowns.

P&P Reading Club: Adam Webb on P&P Reading Club: Adam Webb on The Art of Fielding: The Final Chapters

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

There are many criteria we can use to judge a novel: our emotional investment in the characters, the ferocity of the drama, our remembrances of the book weeks, months, years later. Somehow each novel determines its own criteria. The two criteria that TAF will be judged by are its efficacy in making the reader want to learn what happens next (aka page-turnability, aka unputdownableness) and its total avoidance of literal exhumations.

You win some, you lose some.

It’s interesting (perhaps), there’s actually a literary term for a scenario in which, say, the protagonists of a novel exhume a body and the act is treated as smelly and frustrating but not especially more upsetting than a standard (first time around) funeral. That term, of course: batshit crazy.

Do we have to accept this batshit crazy ending literally? I argue the following is at least as reasonable: Henry never leaves the psych ward (ever), he never gets drafted by the Cardinals (even in his delusions Starblind bests him), he never fixes things with Schwartz (it would take a seriously damaged mind to imagine that this group would repair their friendship with an act of body snatching and reburial at sea on the last day that they are all on campus together). In short, chapters 77 and 79-82 take place entirely in Henry’s mind.

Is what I’m suggesting any more unrealistic than the idea that Owen (of all the characters!) would enlist a friend who recently finished a stint under psychiatric care to help exhume the body of his months-dead lover?

(If there’s some way to include the entire final game — and Henry’s inexplicable decision not to coach first base in the final inning, seemingly quitting on the team once again — into my psychosis theory, I’m all for it. I couldn’t get that to work.)

Good book, bonkers ending.

Situational Essay: Zen and the Art of Scouting by Aaron Shinsano

Aaron Shinsano is a baseball scout based out of Korea, as well as the co-founder of the influential Asian baseball blog East Windup Chronicle.

Before I started scouting I was a writer. So even as I started to scout I knew I’d be writing about it in some capacity. Eventually.

Call it one of those silly whims writers take further than the average person, since, they’re writers and all, but before I really started to learn how to scout I got the idea that it’d be cool to write a book called “Zen and the Art of Baseball Scouting.”

I did realize that before I wrote the book I’d have to live it first. My idea was exactly what you’d presume – to take the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and view baseball scouting through the lens of the its central metaphor, which, to put it crudely is something like: “life’s a journey, so don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Thing is, in addition to never having scouted baseball, I’d never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Oh, I’d tried to read it. A number of people had recommended it to me. In college, I used to housesit for a family that had it on the bookshelf. Another time, a woman in a yoga class I was taking told me I ought to read it when she heard I liked to write. Finally, I received my own used copy as a gift from a woman I was dating just before I moved to Korea.

She was training to be a pilot, and we used to fly all over Northern California in her 1950-something Cessna together. I hedged on reading the book for a few weeks. That I ought to have read it started to weigh on both of us, so I brought it on a trip we took from Livermore, California, to Grass Valley.

Riding in that plane always freaked me out, and I can remember clutching the book on the flight like one might clutch a bible in the same situation. The flight was at night, which added a layer of sheer terror. It could have been any old book, but once we finally landed safely and I uncurled my sweaty fingers from the spine, the book had accumulated even more importance than before.

It’s a pink paperback edition with old yellowed pages and it’s on the shelf to my left as I type this. It looks like the kind of book printed during the 70s or 80s, when one would have found it in one of the Top 10 best seller slots, sandwiched between two romance novels with dye cut holes outlining roses, at a grocery store. The print was tiny and almost unreadable.

I wasn’t head over heels about the woman, which is probably why we both started wondering why I hadn’t started the book. I applied to and had been accepted to a grad school in Korea and we broke up right after that. At that point I started reading the book, projecting a transformative experience upon it as I relocated across the ocean.

I won’t portend to know a lot about Zen, but I know a few things. Zen means a lot of things to a lot of people. For me, Zen is free verse living. Improvised living. Doing without thinking. To me, Zen is having a bemused look on your face. You’re judging, but you’re completely open to the idea that you’re wrong, because you know that’s just how life is. You’re ready to attack, but you won’t, because you’re going to be too busy laughing.

image by Infinite Jeff (click through)

There’s plenty of Zen to be had in baseball. A good pitch mix is Zen, especially when you throw exactly what the batter isn’t expecting. The ability to vary a slider, like Marmol’s when it was going really good during 2008-2009, is Zen. I might argue Japanese pitchers have a good idea about Zen, which makes sense since it was born in that culture. Think of someone like Yu Darvish, who seems to throw 50 different pitches 50 different ways, few that actually appear to be much like the last. That’s Zen pitching.

There’s Zen in the field as well. Like when a shortstop checks a runner back to third and guns the ball to first. A run down has a lot of Zen. I’d be willing to bet Joe Maddon has read or studied some Zen in his life. In hitting, batters need to constantly make adjustments. Certainly, this requires Zen.

So it stood to reason that there’d be plenty of Zen in baseball scouting as well. After all, it 1. involves baseball, which I’ve already defined as Zen. And 2. was confusing to me, as I knew very little about it. My approach to learning about baseball scouting would have to be Zen, because I knew I was in for a great deal of frustration, at least initially.

There wasn’t one way for me to acquire the ability to scout baseball. I felt I knew baseball, especially the statistical side of the game. I’d never played baseball professionally, which meant I’d stopped being around the game on a day-to-day basis in my early 20s.

I knew that the ability to scout baseball was going to be something I would have to absorb over a long period of time. Today, I’m thankful I realized this then. I even thought of something I’d read in a sushi cookbook, years before I’d even imagined moving to Asia. I kept it in the back of my mind, almost like a mantra, about how in Japan master sushi chefs usually spend their first seven years exclusively learning how to make rice correctly.

That was all fine and good and a nice attitude to start, but when I started to sit down and watch baseball with a team sheet in front of me, I quickly understood that in scouting I had entered the realm of a very different game. To take what’s happening on the field, and somehow fill 15-20 boxes is an arduous task at best. Mind-melting at worst.

Hence the need for Zen acceptance–and the possibility of a Zen book about scouting! At that time, team sheeting a game seemed like it was nothing less than conducting a symphony. Take for instance the concept of grading a player’s run tool, which, in difference to grading a player’s hit tool or range, is less subjective. Every scout has a stopwatch. You start it when a player hits the ball and stop it when he touches the base. Simple enough. There are adjustments. Some runners are faster first to third. In Asia a lot of runners cheat out of the box, especially those hitting from the left side. But for the most part, run times, like fastball velocity, is as simple as reading a digital number and writing it down.

Now, to record run times for all 18 position players plus a handful for pinch hitters and/or runners, is an achievable task and, in the early going, felt like a fairly full day of scouting. It takes some doing, and not every player hits the ball and runs to first during a game, but you can make some headway. And, as I learned later, you can watch a player doing other things involving running and estimate how fast they are, even if they don’t offer a perfect “hit-to-base” run time.

But again, I’m talking about one box out of about 40.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance always left me cold, both then and now. Or, I should say, then and recently, because I won’t try to read the book again. Three strikes and you’re out.

I like the idea of it as a period piece. A guy riding a motorcycle through the Midwest during the 1960s. They break down, go camping, he teaches his son about fixing motorcycles, they laugh, they cry.

The thing I can’t get past is the heavy-handedness in the book. Zen is a lot of things to a lot of people, but one thing I don’t think it should ever be is elitist. Zen doesn’t spend a lot of time looking out, and if it does, it isn’t judging. So far as I read, the narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance spends an awful lot of time judging the people around him, labeling them as “not awake,” while he runs around in this calm, “aware” existence. Bullshit. That’s about the worst thing you can say about a person…that they aren’t alive or that their life is on autopilot. People do this all the time of course, usually while the other person is thinking the same thing about them.

I should probably give the book the benefit of the doubt, or suspend my own disbelief, like I might if I was watching an action movie. The book was written during a time when Zen was a new frontier in the west, still only recently brought to the states when people were merely looking to extrapolate themselves from what they felt was a prevailing culture they did not see eye to eye with. And, it should be noted, taking a lot of drugs. But anyone who knows anything about Zen or “enlightenment” realizes it’s a constant journey, not an endgame scenario or a mountain you climb up so you can look down at all the people trying to get where you are.

Likewise, I think scouting is also a constant journey. A lot of scouts, and even some organizations, would seem to have you believe it’s not. For my money, the best scouts are the ones that admit they’re still learning, even at age 70. The ones that just thrive on ego, well, they probably think they’ve got it all figured out, just like the narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But life, like scouting and baseball itself, is an inexact science. And I don’t think there’s any point when you can say you’re done learning.

P&P Conversations: Worried Series

Eric: I feel like I need to do some sort of literary knuckle-cracking. How long has it been since we’ve done this? Don’t answer that. I watched Game 2 at a quiet neighborhood bar last night with music piping through the speakers instead of play by play. Buck and McCarver-less, those first seven innings went by in what felt like fifteen minutes. I have two theories as to why: 1.) the game was actually just very short because Garcia and Lewis were fantastic and 2.) when you watch a game free of broadcasters and other outside stimuli — this bar was very empty — your imagination can run wild. I found myself noticing things about the players that I never would otherwise have considered. For example, Colby Lewis has the most perfectly brown and shaped and broken in baseball glove I have ever seen: it’s flawless. And without announcers there to remind you of how great of a person he is, Albert Pujols doesn’t just look boring, he looks sad. His eyes are heavy and forlorn like it doesn’t matter whether he hits .400 in the postseason or whether Lance Berkman is protecting him in the lineup, or whether the Cards win or lose. Is he gazing into the distance at a future outside St. Louis? After all, the World Series is not just an event — it’s also an ending.

Ted: Where have you been watching the World Series, Eric, the lobby bar of the Days Inn Tukwila?

I will now quote an imaginary book-within-a-book: “It always saddens me to leave the field. Even fielding the final out to win the World Series, deep in the truest part of me, felt like death.” While I’m sure there’s some parallel to Pujols’ demeanor and the melancholy tendencies of an imaginary shortstop, Aparicio Rodriguez, the imagined Hall of Fame-type character from “The Art of Fielding,” has an endless passion for baseball, whereas Albert’s seems to be running on the dry side. For reasons I’m not quite prepared to explain, Pujols’ appeal must be at an all-time low. He’s catching almighty hell for leaving the locker room quickly after last night’s game on the heels of a modest fielding error, and it seems that, in the public eye, his dominance as a player is somehow caving in around him vis a vis public adoration.

One pet theory: Lance Berkman has reminded St. Louis and America what a chill dude is like, and the contrast between a chill dude and a stoic personality drain has thrown Pujols into a new light. As Eric Freeman notes in a Deadspin article, Pujols and manager Tony Larussa don’t seem to fit into the modern cultural landscape the way that a dynamic man of the times like Joe Maddon does. Freeman goes on: “Major League Baseball generally lacks personality. Albert Pujols, Cardinals star and the best hitter of the last decade, has none.” Harsh words for the decade’s greatest hitter, former WS champ, and current WS player. The Rangers, if anything, embody a young, contemporary attitude towards baseball and the playing thereof. Is there a pair of infielders playing now who are more enjoyable to watch than Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus? (That question is non-rhetorical.)

Eric: How about a trio? Because Adrian Beltre is as exciting a defensive third baseman as a third baseman can be. Also, he has a hard time standing still in the batter’s box. Andrus-Kinsler is obviously a more enjoyable middle infield combo than Furcal-Punto, though there’s something to be said for Furcal’s energy this postseason (even when he can’t hit, he really seems like he can hit) and Punto’s grizzly beard. Has any small, powerless, middle infielder ever looked more world-weary than Nick Punto? Lemme tell you, that guy has seen it all.

I feel as though we’re overlooking the real heroes of Game Two, and those were the starting pitchers. It’s funny to think about, but Garcia and Lewis both came out of nowhere last season. Lewis was a curiosity returned from Japan (though Carson Cistulli somehow predicted his success before 2010) and Garcia was a Spring Training miracle who just wouldn’t go away. Now they just seem like good pitchers. Lewis has a 2.22 era in 44 playoff innings these last two years. Those are some Curt Schilling numbers right there. (I’ve always wanted to invoke Schilling in a purely statistical fashion; his career playoff ERA is 2.23, though in many more innings than Lewis.)

This World Series has been billed as a battle of dominant bullpens. Does that narrative leave you as cold as it leaves me?

Ted: The dearth of marquee starting pitchers does detract from the adrenaline of the first few innings of these games, sure. But good pitching is almost as entertaining as marquee pitching. Jaime Garcia has been on my style radar for some time, as he’s as little sung as Colby Lewis with stuff on par with some of the best young pitchers in the game. After inning three or four, his work setting down some fine right-handed hitters takes the place of the marquee desire. A match-up of bullpens I suppose slows the game down, and there are few truly iconic performances attributed to relievers.

Which reminds me, it has been a while since I’ve seen the media parse a game into its parts with such a fine toothed comb as they have this World Series. Whether questioning LaRussa’s bullpen moves or Ron Washington’s bullpen moves, it seems to me that there is a kind of obsessed attention being paid to the tid bits. I never would have thought that a match-up featuring the Rangers offense against Pujols, Holliday, and Berkman would come down to piddly maneuvers and hot defense.

Eric: I think part of the strategy obsession has to do with the managerial character of this series. Imagine a Ron Roenicke vs Joe Girardi series or some such — people who don’t read the New York Post would hardly think twice about bullpen usage. The Washington – La Russa dynamic is another one that feels completely different at the bar with the game on mute. La Russa, for instance seems far less menacing in silence, and far more like a bit actor in a second-rate cop show. Washington on the other hand just looks kind of like a fan. Anyway, we can save the strategic theorizing and second guessing for next time.

P&P Reading Club: Ted Walker on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53-72

the art of fielding by chad harbach

For most of this book, Henry Skrimshander was the quiet fulcrum around which a group of vibrant characters wheeled, projecting onto his country frame their anxieties and insecurities. Henry, for his part, played the wall. Speaking little, affecting nothing, his presence was like a wall painted white: only with a blemish, a fierce and irrational smear, did it appear at all. Henry, as he walked off of the field when his throwing arm rebelled entirely, only finally realized this limited value to those around him. Unable to express his needs, especially to the friend he needed most, Henry pursued a philosophy of negation. If his value was as a blank wall, he would very literally erase himself from being. No food, no coffee, no Henry. How he managed not to allow himself to sink to the bottom of the lake in a 30-pound vest is beyond me.

Henry’s depressed turn caught me off guard, I will admit. He seemed incapable of anything but recovery, or at least some kind of good cheer. Even as he handed the ball off to the pitcher, I didn’t sense sadness from him, but acceptance. He could have recommitted himself to the studies that seemed less than irrelevant to him, or he could have pursued a decent romantic relationship. When a path becomes blocked, depression isn’t the only alternative route.

In Pella, Henry found a fascinating bed fellow. Perhaps his acute sorrow appealed to her. She plays the mother and the lover in a gracefully uncomplicated triangle. The men in her life all reflect a certain model of stability, whether as the confident jock, the confident scholar-president, the pompous West Coaster, or the solidly blank white wall.

I little expected to care about the result of an actual baseball game as this little universe hurtles into its own future. But here we are and I can’t wait to see where Henry falls in relation to the fate of his team, the understated but brilliant Harpooners, who will play on live national TV in this brilliant alternate reality in which Division III baseball games play, even if it is on cable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jose Valverde respects the stage.

P&P Reading Club: Adam Webb on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18 – 33

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

These pages are packed with charm and dread. I loved the Westish Harpooners playing High School or Prison from the bus. Pella’s over-thought panic over whether or not to clean Schwartz’s dishes was hilarious and perfect. Even Owen’s inability to widely open his mouth keeps me smiling widely a few days later.

My favorite moment in these chapters: “Opentoe College had some sort of evangelical mission that involved perpetual kindness and hopelessly outdated uniforms.”

All of these moments of relief keep us moving through growing tension in the scenes while Affenflight’s crush turns into an affair but his relentless self-doubt continues unabated. There’s no comedy for me in Pella and Genevieve’s misunderstanding of Guert’s intentions during the dinner — but I still enjoyed the heck out of it.

My guess is that no good comes from getting yourself mixed into Guert Affenlight’s life. Schwartz’s preference for drinking the president’s Scotch instead of running off with his girl seemed like a bad omen and I am especially worried for Owen’s mom, Genevieve. It’s dumb to make predictions here only to be proven wrong in a matter of days — but I think Genevieve will meet some sort of tragedy. Guert’s secret love for the child, Owen, instead of the mother reminds me of the early chapters of Lolita and Dolores’s mother’s abrupt, parenthetical death (“picnic, lightning”). I’m sure there are more apt literary comparisons (Guert is no Humbert Humbert) but the necessary research would require the following uncomfortable search query: mother son love triangle.

As for Henry and his string of errors, more than anything I’m looking forward to learning what it leads to than reading about each poor throw. Henry’s fall from perfection has already led to the introduction of college reporter, Sarah X. Pessel, who I hope will keep turning up. Which reminds me, does that X. even stand for anything?

P&P Reading Club: Megan Wells on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18 – 33

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

Well.

Quite a bit has happened since our last check-in on this literary odyssey. Destruction and creation, mostly – relationships forming between O and Affenlight, Schwartzy and Pella. Henry’s apparent total loss of self-identity. During the first week, I felt like a lot of these characters were empty or had yet to be realized in any sort of relatable way. This week, there has been an almost embarrassing abundance of real, sympathetic detail in the interactions with even minor characters.

I found Pella’s interaction with Chef Spirodocus surprisingly engaging. The Chef doesn’t seem to fit in a neat box, but to have a great deal of unexpressed complexity. The sadness of his potato-spooning, the unheralded sacrifice that went into the grocery bag of food, the apparent depth with which he imbued tiny actions – they paralleled Pella’s compulsive drive to wash dishes; paralleled Affenlight’s obsession over the minutiae of his appearance in advance of Owen’s visit; paralleled Henry’s panicked overthinking of each in-game throw to first.

Most of these are day-to-day thoughts and mental states to which I can relate all too well. The new perspective, for me, comes from seeing this mundane side of a baseball field. As a fan – only ever an occasional right-fielder for a women’s baseball league in Chicago – I’ve never really approached the performance of baseball with enough familiarity to have the tiny, obsessive, weighty thoughts that the Westish players do. The moment that stood out, for me, was Schwartzy taking the game – and Henry, really – into his own hands while facing Opentoe. He approached the first-base umpire with all the irritation of someone having a bad day at work, and his temper boiled over in exactly the same way. Familiar sensation, unexpected context.

My question to you, then, is this: has the book’s detail reframed anything familiar for you, or given you a new perspective on something mundane?

P&P Reading Club: Ted Walker on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18-33

he art of fielding by chad harbachAs the carefully built structure that Henry Skrimshander has committed his life to fortifying against disorder systematically caves in on itself, our anxiety-ridden shortstop seeks solace in the ritualistic circular walk around the deck of the ferry, in the prescription drug-addled, disappointment-laden voyage that takes the boys back to their home at Westish College. These circular turns, which Rick O’Shea manages to transpose into a winding-down “like a toy,” exemplify what had been gnawing on me as I read these chapters: performance.

Mike Schwarz employs “The Stare” to stir his teammates, employing motivational techniques that come less from experience than from some tape recorder buried within his reptile brain, to the point that he “felt a little off, a little odd, like he was playing himself on TV.” He buoyed even himself with the performance, the familiar ritual of the man standing before his comrades on the eve of battle.

President Affenlight, caught up in a torrent of strange passions in his burgeoning affair with Owen, falls back on the deeply familiar ritual of reading out loud, of transposing the burden of his own emotion into the performance of distant, separate turmoil. Not to mention the college president’s continual presence as the prime performer on behalf of the school’s interests.

Baseball is a ritualistic game, and it attracts people who are interested in repetition, in a kind of tortured turning of the metaphorical wheel. The extension of this brilliant observation, of course, is that many people choose rituals of many kinds to manage their daily lives, far out of the realm of sport. College, in its way, is a four-year course in repetition management, in discipline, in regularity. Graduation is the great launch into life’s disarray.

After Something Real: Chris Farley and Batting Stances by Tom Ley

Tom Ley writes for The Good Men Project, and he contributed to 1990s First Basemen Week with The Big Cat and the Water. You can email him at leyt345(at)gmail(dot)com.

When I was a kid I had two discernible skills. The first was the ability to imitate the batting stances of my favorite baseball players. The second was the ability to act out Chris Farley’s “Matt Foley” sketch from Saturday Night Live in its entirety.

For a long time, I thought that these two skills had nothing to do with each other. Matt Foley made me laugh, so I imitated him. I loved baseball, so I imitated my favorite baseball players. That was that- until recently.

A few nights ago I was in the throes of a particular kind of boredom that only extensive Internet surfing can cure, and I came across this picture of Farley:

Naturally, as a former understudy of the man, this picture had a lot of impact on me. I expected that, but what I didn’t expect was for this picture to make me think about baseball.

We’ll come back to the baseball, but first I want to discuss Chris Farley.

Anyone who knows anything about Farley and the tragic nature of his death will immediately understand why this photograph is so haunting. It’s hard to say whether or not the photo is staged or candid, but in my mind it doesn’t really matter. It’s very rare for a picture to so accurately capture the spirit of its subject. This is Chris Farley, the court Jester who donned a crown that’s shine only brought the shadows closer.

The darkness invoked by this photograph is the same darkness that made Farley’s comedy so brilliant. On the surface he was just the “Funny Fat Guy” of his era, but that’s not what makes him memorable. What makes me miss him still to this day was his unique ability to successfully incorporate an undeniably authentic sense of anxiety and desperation into each of his characters.

Take a moment to watch this classic Matt Foley sketch.

This sketch isn’t funny because it features a fat man yelling and falling through a coffee table. It’s funny because Farley so convincingly plays up the “broken man” aspect of the Foley character. He forces the audience to confront the pain and sadness of a life that has slipped its last rung, and then he forces us to laugh at it. A comedian can only pull off a feat like this if he allows pieces of himself to seep into the performance. It’s authenticity that turns Matt Foley in a hilarious force of nature rather than an awkward sock puppet. When he croaks out his famous line about living in a van down by the river, it’s not hard to imagine Farley himself ending up in a van down by the river, thrice divorced.

I find it less than coincidental that the names Foley and Farley so closely resemble each other.

Even as a kid I think I was subconsciously appreciative of Farley’s ability to incorporate his demons into his comedy. I loved the fact that he was willing to show his audience so much of himself, and that we were allowed to embrace the imperfections he revealed to us. We were allowed to love him not in spite of his ugliness, but because of it.

I thought about all of these things as I looked at the photograph in the pale light of my laptop, rehashing all of Farley’s best guttural one liners in my head, and I realized that it was an attraction Farley’s authenticity that drove me to imitate his most memorable character.

Which brings us back to baseball, and more specifically, batting stances.

Baseball is a game that is governed by the rigidity of a diamond and a rule book, and it leaves little room for self expression. There are only so many ways that a player can field a grounder, swing a bat, and dive for a ball in the gap. Some players do these things better than others, but in the end they are all essentially going through the same set of motions.

But not when they are standing at the plate.

When a player steps to the plate, he is given the opportunity to allow some of his true self to seep into his on field demeanor. Gary Sheffield always played the game with a focus in his eyes that hinted at an unseen intensity boiling inside of him, and yet this intensity had nowhere to manifest itself while he was forced to loiter silently in left field. Things changed when he stepped into the box, though. There he was given the opportunity to set free some of his fire, and he did so by violently cocking his bat back and forth, forcing everyone to take notice.

Ken Griffey Jr. always possessed a swagger and athleticism that seemed too big for a stadium to contain. Centerfield was never quite big enough to reveal his true potential, and the youthful cockiness of his backwards facing cap was always snuffed out once batting practice was over; the game demanding that he straighten his bill. This cockiness returned once he stepped up to the plate. He’d stand upright and nonchalant, his elbow cocked high while the rest of his body waited patiently to begin that smooth, unmistakable hitch towards first base once the ball was hit. Swagger oozed out of him while he stood in the box, enough that it was almost impossible to imagine that he was about to do anything other than hit a home run. For me, Griffey Jr. was the most captivating version of himself during those few moments that he spent standing at home plate.

For players like these, the batter’s box was a limitless space, free for them to fill with whatever form of self-expression they wished.

More importantly, players are allowed to take advantage of the expressive space of the batter’s box without fear of scorn or judgement. So many sports, baseball in particular, demand that the action on the field be sanitized. Athletes are expected to maintain a stiff modicum of what is considered professionalism when they are on the field, and anyone who attempts to blur the lines between the two is often shunned by the fans and media. Think players like Carlos Zambrano and Milton Bradley, who allowed their to bleed onto the field, only to get written off as cartoonish, insignificant caricatures. We don’t allow ourselves to embrace an athlete’s raw personality as something that can inform their performance on the field in a way that makes them more compelling to watch. Instead, we often consider such a phenomenon to somehow be an affront to the sanctity of the game.

As a fan of the game, this makes me sad. I’m sad because I’ve realized that I watch athletes and comedians for precisely the same reason; I want to be entertained, and what’s real is often what’s most entertaining.

That’s why I spent so many hours perfecting Sheffield’s violent wiggle and Foley’s broken wail. I was after something real.