Archive for the 'Baseball Culture' Category

The Reds’ Mane Attraction

Originally from Kentucky, Joshua Lars Weill lives and writes out of Washington, D.C. Follow his take on sports and culture on Twitter at @AgonicaBoss.

For things to work out right on a given night, Bronson Arroyo needs the ball to flutter, fade and drop when it’s supposed to. Never much of a power pitcher, time and toil have made Arroyo even more calculating. When the ball cooperates, the Reds right-hander can still get even the best hitters out with regularity. When it does not cooperate, as it did not almost all of last season, Arroyo is merely a 35-year-old right-hander with a ho-hum fastball pitching half his games in a bandbox stadium.

Which is why despite raised preseason expectations, Cincinnati’s 2012 season won’t come down to how many runs the team scores, how any of its offseason acquisitions perform or whether manager Dusty Baker can avoid his penchant to over-manage. Instead it will come down to Arroyo’s ability to rediscover the form that helped the 2010 Reds win the National League Central. That the sometime-cornrowed wanna-be frown-core rocker is so vital to his team’s success should be more surprising than it is. We’ve just come to accept that it’s how Arroyo operates.

A year ago, with no extra power to reach back for, and hampered by mononucleosis and a balky back, Arroyo’s rubber arm kept flinging the ball to the plate with a fastball around 86-87 miles an hour. Way too many of those pitches came careening right back and over the outfield fences – a club- and nearly NL single-season-record 46, to be exact.

“Last year, I was humping it up there at 86 [mph] a lot of times with everything I had,” Arroyo said in Spring Training this year.

For a guy like Arroyo, who has never shied from being outspoken and who enjoys cultivating a rough-hewn persona, humility comes hard. This is a guy, after all, who in 2009 admitted openly to ingesting a cocktail of over-the-counter supplements that pushed the edge of credulity.

“I do what I want to do and say what I want to say,” Arroyo said then. ”I’ve always been honest. I’m not going to stop now.”

No, the Floridian with the flowing golden locks won’t stop. But he can’t out-tough time, and he’s well aware. Never a hard-thrower, Arroyo has instead relied on guile, an array of pitches – including a big curve and a flat slider – funky arm angles and impressive resilience to craft a better-than-he-should-have baseball career in which he’s won 112 games over 13 Major League seasons. And he’s done it all with a likeable Redneck panache.

It wasn’t clear Cincinnati was getting the better of the trade that originally brought Arroyo to the Queen City. At the time, the Dominican prospect he was traded for, Wily Mo Pena, looked like a Manny-in-the-making while Arroyo looked more or less like the guy the Reds got: a pitcher who strummed guitar in the offseason, would eat some innings and keep games relatively close. At the time he was 28 and a recent World Series champion with the Red Sox. That was seven years ago.

Cincinnati has embraced the offbeat Arroyo, more than tolerating his dude-rock forays.Pena is now long gone, another in a long string of mighty mashers who missed. But Arroyo is still throwing in red-and-white, accumulating innings – he surpassed 200 in each of his first five years in Cincinnati and missed that mark by just one inning last season – and still strumming Pearl Jam covers on that tinny, black acoustic guitar. Arroyo has endeared himself to the locals off the field. The smaller and less cosmopolitan Cincinnati has embraced the offbeat Arroyo, more than tolerating his dude-rock forays and growing to love the goofjock persona he shows off in endorsement ads for various JTM meat products. Fans sense that Arroyo is genuine and true to himself, and that has made him likeable even when his fastball is flying out of the park.

That the Reds chose to re-sign the righty for three years and $35 million in 2010 quantified his value as an affordable, reliable option and as a guy the Reds can trust on and off the field. Forever cash strapped, Cincinnati simply cannot afford to pay Arroyo (or anyone else) $12 million a season to underperform. But when healthy and dialed in, Arroyo is much better than affordable and reliable, as he was two seasons ago.

Arroyo won 17 games for those playoff-bound 2010 Reds, leading the club in wins, starts and innings pitched. That team got timely hitting, strong starting pitching from a mostly young staff and caught the kind of breaks you need to catch to win 91 games in a small market, but it also relied heavily on Arroyo’s leadership and pitching consistency. Last season, with a better on-paper offense than the year before and nearly the same rotation, Arroyo’s home run troubles were a big part of the team’s disappointing sub-.500 finish. Instead of the de facto staff anchor, Arroyo was just an expensive mediocre right-hander on a team lacking a rudder.

So far this season, Arroyo has been even craftier. While he hasn’t seen a major boost in velocity, he has been mixing his pitches even more liberally than usual. He’s relying on his fastball less and his cutter and looping curve much more, just the kind of adjustment a veteran struggling to keep up with rocket-armed youngsters would make. And truth be told, it’s the kind of adjustment Arroyo has to make.

In his second start, at Washington, Arroyo was highly effective in his own way, slotting his arm down and spotting his pitches well. He allowed just three hits and a walk in seven-plus innings, and exited with a 1-0 lead. While his fastball never topped 90, pitches flopped and sank and moved the way he wanted them to. They danced the way Arroyo needs them to to be successful.

Everyone knows and Arroyo knows there isn’t that much left in his tank. His current deal expires after 2013, at which point he’ll be approaching 37 years old. This spring he told reporters, “I feel as good as I’m going to feel … if I’m throwing 85-88 consistently this year, then Bronson Arroyo is going to pitch that [way] the rest of his career.”

So long as the ball cooperates and dances and swoons, maybe that will be enough for a Reds team banking the confident veteran right-hander to stabilize a team with young arms, self-doubt and very little room for error.

On Snake Oil, Gem Mint Rookie Cards, and Dmitri Young


Jesse Gloyd is approaching regular contributor status at P&P. He’s written about fishing in the LA River, and about Satchel Paige on the site. Check out his podcast Buckshot Boogaloo.

Talk of coming back is always inspiring, but it rarely produces much more than the fleeting spark of its initiation. Baseball players seem to endure more than most. Jose Canseco is perpetually coming back. Jose Canseco exists in a constant state of comebackdom—his is a purgatorial existence. He inhabits a metaphorical space where mildly desperate men barnstorm in the shadow of Waffle Houses and Satchel Paige. Dmitri Young seems to be on the precipice of this space. Anecdotal evidence points to the fact that he might, indeed, still be able to play baseball, but it will be a hard sell. The comeback is the snake oil of the modern age. Dmitri Young’s agent has stated that Dmitri Young has put in the work, that he is in shape. His age, thirty-eight, is the great common denominator, but we are told he physically acts and looks like a baseball player again. His ability to look like a baseball player is the shine of the bottle, the twisting graphic of the snake in the desert.

Many years ago my dad and I drove out to Rio Mesa High School to watch Dmitri Young play baseball. He was the best amateur I was ever told I needed to watch. He was the only amateur living in the area I made a point to check out. I remember the gravel of the parking lot and I remember watching him through a chain link backstop. I have this blurry image of Dmitri Young swinging. I don’t remember much, but his career was a career I followed, his was a career with which I connected. He was always engaging. When he initially came up and had success, I felt my investment had paid off. His success was a validation. I found some mild sense of worth in his existence as an entertainer, as an athlete, as a person who could direct a baseball with precision.

Two months ago Dmitri Young walked into the winter meetings with the air of a salesman. His product was his person. He had lost weight. He had become a thing of the past again. He claimed that he would again be beneficial to whoever took a chance on him, but like all beneficial things with expiration dates, people wondered whether his had expired. They still doubt. They doubt for good reason. Dmitri Young is trying to play baseball again. Baseball players have expiration dates. Dmitri Young is thirty-eight. He is very much past his prime. He had a trade and he applied his trade as well as could have been expected. He hit and he entertained. He was an artist. He perfected his craft. Even with everything he went through, everything that got in the way—the mess with the drinking and all the reciprocal fall out; he managed to exist as an artist, as a craftsman with a valuable skill.

You can still buy snake oil. It still exists and people use and it might still have some enlightened properties. Snake oil, like Dmitri Young and the comeback, has been marred by years of a perceived lack of usefulness. In the 1980s neurophysiology researcher Richard Kunin found that Chinese water-snake oil contained eicosapentaenoic acid. Eicosapentaenoic acid is a vital omega-3 fatty acid. The Chinese knew what they were doing. The past performance of snake oil was the thing that made it an agent of future success, even if it never was truly utilized properly. The problem with snake oil, the problem that that shaped our collective perception of its existence as something useless, is the fact that it was often impossible for grifters and frontier doctors to procure Chinese water-snakes. Because of this deficiency, grifters and frontier doctors began using rattlesnake oil as an alternative.

Dmitri Young is buying and selling memories of promise.Rattlesnakes and rattlesnake wranglers, the men who tamed the serpents, became the main attraction at the medicine show. Rattlesnakes moved units. The rattlesnake and the rattlesnake wrangler’s ability to tame became the exciting products in themselves. The excitement surrounding the rattlesnake wrangler’s dance with death mesmerized. The excitement helped make rattlesnake oil a valuable commodity. Over time though, the true nature of the oil was revealed. Though abundant, extracting the oil from an actual rattlesnake was a messy bit of business. Grifters and frontier doctors began abandoning the actual oil altogether—pushing bottles of ineffective liquid, often oil and water spiked with red pepper and wintergreen. The masses grew skeptical. Articles were written and investigations were launched. Eventually, the bottles were confiscated and the manufacturers rendered obsolete. Snake oil became snake oil even if in its true state snake oil wasn’t necessarily snake oil.

When he is not making comebacks, when he is not marketing himself as a shadow of a thing he used to be, Dmitri Young can be found selling his near perfect baseball card collection on the world wide web and at card shows across the country. His baseball card collection is comprised of a myriad of Gem Mint 10 graded rookie cards. I went to the auction site where his cards will be on sale in the coming months and poked around a bit. Dmitri Young’s baseball card collection is a good collection. It’s a staggering, enviable collection. The collection looks as if it was an investment, an indulgence. The collection is a tip of the cap to a time and a place. It is a tip of the cap to the beginning of things.

Snake oil too, in all of its forms, is a tip of the cap to the beginning of things. We accept snake oil in all of its different forms because it reminds us of the promise of youth, the promise of rebirth. The problem at the heart of the Dmitri Young’s obsession with perfect rookie card is that it points, whether conscious or not, to the inherent fear that seems to live in the soul of the athlete. The athlete is an artist whose art is rooted in physique and time. Dmitri Young is buying and selling memories of promise. His card collection is a reflection of an unattainable desire. The collection is a cardboard homage to birth, to rebirth. The cards and their quantifiable perfection exude innocence. The cards reflect the nature of youth in all of its simple, beautiful glory. There is an element of memory rooted in their existence. The youthfulness is analogous to the stereotype of the young band that hears their song for the first time on the radio in the car. They are all the same: Brian Wilson with the top down, unable to grow a beard, Ron Cey sans mustache framed next to Mike Schmidt sans mustache.

Dmitri Young worked out for the Pittsburgh Pirates last week. He looked good. He was able to play and create something from nothing. Clint Hurdle said good things. Dmitri was optimistic. His road has been hard, but his journey isn’t new. It seems quite obvious he believes his peace is found on the field. He was never perfect, he was never the best, but he was real. His craft never had to be propped up with red pepper and wintergreen. It was a thing of beauty, championed by many because it was real and beneficial, perfect and good, like the corner of a Gem Mint 1969 Topps Reggie Jackson and the healing oil of a Chinese water snake.

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.

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.

Unleash the Beast by Matt Christman

Matt Christman is a freelance writer, film critic, and exiled Brewers fan living in Brooklyn.

Due to its draconian penalties against excessive celebration and general horsing off, some wags say that “NFL” stands for “No Fun League,” but that’s actually a much better label for Major League Baseball. At least in football, joyless uniformity of behavior is enforced by the Commissioner’s office. In baseball, the players do it themselves.

Over the past few seasons, the Milwaukee Brewers have gained a league-wide reputation as a gaggle of cocky jackasses. It all started during the 2008 season, with the infamous celebratory untucking of jerseys on the field that caused Tony LaRussa to drop his monocle. Since then, Prince Fielder earned a lifetime of beanings from the San Francisco Giants for a choreographed home run celebration. Now the antics of Nyjer “Tony Plush” Morgan, who has turned his season into a piece of fan-interactive performance art, have defined the Brewers and riled up opposing teams.

Over the course of the season, Morgan raised the ire of Giants fans with intemperate hand gestures in center field, and he won the hearts of Brewers fan with stunts like going to Twitter to ask Milwaukeans what he should do with an off day, getting a response of “go fly a kite,” and then going to the Milwaukee waterfront to ACTUALLY FLY A KITE (and posting the photo evidence on Twitter, of course). He’s introduced “Beast Mode” to the vocabulary of Brewer players and fans. “Beast Mode” involves Brewers players signaling the dugout with monster claws and screeching and general boisterousness. This has led to Brewers players celebrating extra base hits with a theatricality usually not found on a baseball field. The Cardinals have, of course, been the most vocal detractors of the Brew Crew, with manager Tony LaRussa tut-tutting about decorum and even complaining about the brightness of the scoreboard lights at Miller Park.

Beast Mode

Yet nothing the Brewers have done on the field would raise an eyebrow in any other team sport. That’s because baseball isn’t really a team sport, it just pretends to be one. When a wide receiver dances a jig in the end zone after a touchdown it’s a way for an individual player to break out of the faceless eleven man herd and assert his personal achievement. In baseball, even standing in the batter’s box for a second too long after hitting a home run is like spitting in the pitcher’s face. Giving up a touchdown is a failure of the entire defensive unit. Even if a cornerback gets completely torched, it’s unlikely he’s the only defender on the field who screwed up. In baseball, the failure is all on one man, standing all by himself on a big pile of dirt in the middle of the field. Any kind of exuberance on the part of a hitter reads as a personal insult. So baseball players maintain the illusion of teamwork in a covertly individual game by protecting their teammate’s egos, marking showboaters for future retaliation.

What folks like Tony LaRussa and other defenders of baseball’s unwritten rules don’t realize is that the high stepping of the Brew Crew has nothing to do with the chump on the mound who just got lit up. Untucked shirts and Beast Mode serve the same purpose for the Brewers that ordering Jason Motte to plunk Ryan Braun does for LaRussa. These rituals are a creative alchemy meant to turn nine individual players with nine individual stat lines and responsibilities into an actual team, just like retaliation, but more fun for the players and the fans. Do any of these team-building shenanigans actually make a difference on the field? Probably not. But it’s a blast to watch, and more importantly for fans, it takes the often remote and characterless assemblage of millionaires that make up a baseball team and gives them a collective personality that’s captivating to watch because it supplies the game with narrative and personal context. In a time when massive player salaries and social networking sites like Twitter have simultaneously make baseball players more remote and more accessible to the average fan, the Brewers approach to the game is the only viable one. If fans can’t relate to baseball players as people, if teams can’t “brand” themselves based on the personalities of said players, then there simply is no future for major league baseball.

This week’s National League Championship series is ground zero for baseball’s kulturkampf. The flamboyant Brewers are facing off against what Nyjer Morgan has called the “Plain-Jane Wonderbreads” of Saint Louis and their skipper, Captain of the S.S. NoFun, Tony LaRussa. It’s hard to imagine that any fan without a rooting interest in either team could look at the matchup and actually prefer the Cardinal’s joyless Mechan-o-Men to T. Plush’s irrepressible cohorts. What’s more likely to capture the imagination of the general viewer: Beast Mode or Albert Pujols’ dead-eyed stare? The key to winning the undying devotion of the sporting public is giving them something to root for other than a uniform color. So my advice for the next pitcher who gets red-assed over some Tony Plush hijinx is this: instead of just grimly plunking the next batter for the effrontery of his teammate, strike him out and make up your own damn celebration.

The Best Show, the Best Game and the Boundaries of Every Creative Universe

“WFMU, you’re on the air.”

With that simple phrase, delivered honestly and expectantly, host Tom Scharpling starts most of the phone calls in to his Best Show on WFMU (iTunes link here). The voice that chirps up is often idiosyncratically familiar, one of a cast of regulars checking in to offer their opinion on topics that Scharpling, in his singular style, has offered his own stance on. In a recent August 16, 2011 episode, old people stealing cookies at the buffet earned a ten-minute lambasting. Callers also take some of Scharpling’s mild ribbing in exchange for a chance to catch Scharpling and fellow listeners up on the comings and goings of a cadre of musicians, comedians, and fellow regualars that make up a lion’s share of the content on the three-hour weekly program. Often celebrity friends of the show call in for a bit of comedic ramble. Folks like Patton Oswalt, Zack Galifianakis, Paul F. Tompkins, and John Hodgman.

Scharpling openly derides some of his non-famous callers. The nasal-voiced curmudgeon Spike, who uses every opportunity to hype John Wesley Shipp, the star of The Flash television series, and the awkward if game “James from Southwest PA,” whose cell phone connection is often as wavering as his tone, take their share of abuse. Another category of participants enjoy the “quality caller” label, and they tell jokes and cheer Scharpling up when his tone sags under the weight of the decade of unpaid three-hour weekly gigs with famous guests and the “mirth, music, and mayhem” that he promises at every outset. These callers, giggling ladies earning their Master’s degrees and hipster dudes in Brooklyn, urge Scharpling back on to the conversations that are the heart of the show, like the buffet discussion, and his stories of pinball in Asbury Park, that remind me, at least, that regional culture is still one of the strongest American forces, made stronger by those who don’t necessarily leave home. Home is a topic close to me, that being the place I’ve just recently returned to.

In sum, the Best Show is a three-hour comedy program that is at once an old school radio outpost, a community radio phenomenon, and the product of the online age of digital media and RSS technology. Tom Scharpling started a radio show on the independent station WFMU out of Jersey City, New Jersey, around 2000. Either WFMU already streamed live on the Internet, or they started to, and the show built an audience beyond the traditional broadcast region in New Jersey. Then, according to Wikipedia, Scharpling and Co. began distributing the show via podcast around 2006. The show is rooted in the region, with much conversation surrounding local shows and field trips to nearby points of interest. The only way to relate to a huge number of people is to be as specific as possible. I am very surprised, for example, that I enjoy Scharpling’s discussion of Jersey tourist outposts, but without them he wouldn’t be Scharpling. As I drive around Houston, scanning the buildings, street corners, and alleyways that I’ve haunted since my youth, Scharpling reminds me that it’s not a crime to stick around.

I can’t recall how I was turned onto The Best Show. Probably a confluence of commentary from those who have been influenced by it mentioning the show frequently enough for me to seek it out in podcast form. Like many, I started with the latest episodes, got hooked on the vocabulary of the show, on Scharpling’s palette of quips–my favorite being “Heave ho” to those callers who earn themselves a hang-up–and DJ tricks–my favorite being the way he intentionally cuts off the final syllable of every caller, be they welcomed or heave hoed. Scharpling, who I heard from him an interview somewhere took his style cues from the bombastic, bull-headed, egotistical talk radio show hosts of an earlier era1–the influence of prototypical radio prankster and manipulator Phil Hendrie is ubiquitous if subconscious–commands the air, one minute heaping praise on his favorite regular callers and another minute bellowing self-aggrandizing testaments to his own brilliance.

Comic routines staged as phone calls from the absurd panoply of characters performed by Scharpling’s comedy partner John Wurster intermingle with phone calls from the regulars and interviews with celebrity guests. The show rolls along like a social evening until the sun has set and a sense of calm comes with Scharpling’s introduction of Solid Gold Hell, the show that follows his. The endorphin glow of intermittent laughter and aural satisfaction fades into the night. The experience is a complete one, with rounded corners.

All of this in the name of comedy, and it really is brilliant. Scharpling, by being hilarious and doggedly pursuing the comedy that he enjoys, the comedians that he likes, and the callers that stir him in whatever manner that they do, has done what great artists do, what community does: he has engineered a creative universe. A universe to me is metaphysical “place” where the players and their interactions and communications follow certain rules that drive somewhat predictable outcomes that simultaneously leave room for spontaneous outbursts that are original within those rules. The successful creative universe is rich, dense, and inhabitable. Scharpling’s show, all ten years of unquantifiable nuance, conversation, character, and comedy, is the rare creative universe whose bounds are out of sight, suggesting a real universe in that the edges are obscured and anything seems possible. I could say the word “yogurt” and suspect without knowing for sure that the topic has been covered somewhere in The Best Show universe.

Enter baseball. There’s not a direct connection between The Best Show and the best game (Scharpling is, in fact, a major basketball fan and an experienced basketball writer). But baseball is a creative universe just like The Best Show. I’ve called it “the baseball multiverse” in the past as a way of trying to put to a term the multi-faceted face of baseball and the variety of ways that we consume, absorb, digest, and exude baseball by watching games, reading blogs, writing articles, playing ourselves, etc. Whatever the entry point or exit point, baseball contains the characters and the rules, the backstory and the breaking news, the boundaries and ultimately the limitlessness of a creative universe. The basic rules of the game and the playing surface establish the baseline of experience, but the human possibilities are endless, and those of us who engage with the game understand the possibilities without knowing the limits.

And therein lies the draw. As soon as one understands the limitations of a system, of a creative universe, the desire to engage that universe diminishes. One quick example would be that of the team eliminated from playoff contention. When the season is set and the results mathematically determined, you may as well move on to football season.2 Hence the joy and wonder of Spring Training and the first game of the season, as those are the times when the uncertainty–the sheer possibility–is heightened, when a Dbacks fan or a Pirates fan can dream about contention.

On the micro scale, each baseball game is a universe, too, just like an individual episode of The Best Show. Each new game adds to and draws from the collective mythology of baseball, and presents the opportunity to witness something entirely novel and entirely knowable. A baseball game is both self-contained and all-containing. As Patrick put it in his recent essay, Why I Write (About Baseball): “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.”

This sucker is the alpha and the omega.

Young Astros Third Baseman Jimmy Paredes

As I’ve mentioned, I recently returned to Houston, Texas, and rededicated myself to the Houston Astros and my Astros blog, Foamer Night. Through the pretty deliberate means of starting an entire blog on the topic, I am throwing myself into the Astros universe in much the same way I threw myself into The Best Show universe by listening to back episodes of the show, researching Tom and his friends, reading his Tweets and those of his guests and friends, watching for his credits as a writer on Monk, and generally surrounding myself with the mythology of the show. And there I find the same satisfactions as I watch the young Astros day after day. The excellence of Wandy Rodriguez when he’s clicking is the ultimate Houstonian’s inside joke; the exuberant cut of rookie third baseman Jimmy Paredes’ jib brings a smile as though it was the familiar voice of a comedian with no new album to pitch; a slider low in the zone rather than one hanging like a pair of undies on the line marks incremental improvement for a young pitcher to the attentive fan. These are the planetary bodies and celestial citizens that occupy the creative universe of the Houston Astros.

Postscript

The seeds of this idea were sewn long before Eric’s last post, though I think it goes without saying that I am thrilled to learn that Scharpling will participate in The Classical alongside Eric, Bethlehem Shoals, and many other friends of Pitchers & Poets.

  1. They’re still around, of course, though now they take on an appealing political shade
  2. I happen to be battling this phenomenon as an Astros fan, see below, and it requires a laser-sharp focus on the day-to-day.

Defiling Baseball’s Stonehenge

We tend to think of the baseball field as something static, a quiet temple or a sanctuary for youth.  This is especially true at the stadium: the field takes on a beauty that borders on lifelessness.  The grass is shorn into perfect diamonds, lacking the blemish of a single weed.  The source of the conflict is at the plate, but the field radiates out from the pitcher’s mound, a Pythagorean web of arcs, right angles, and perfect circles.  Even the chalk, pure white against the brown earth, gives the impression of definition and permanence.  The result of this meticulous grounds keeping, twenty minutes before a game, recalls the replication of divine order.  It was this spirituality that led Roger Kahn to write that “the ball field itself is a mystic creation, the Stonehenge of America.”

In light of this, it’s strange that baseball involves more (intentional) desecration of its places of worship than any other sport.  The field of play, once as pristine as a Grecian idyll, is tampered with by human hands.  Most noticeable to the fan among these alterations are the numbers painted on the outfield walls, but rustic tales abound even from the game’s infancy.  Teams with skilled bunters banked their third base line, helping the ball roll fair.  Opposing teams preferred to soak the ground around the plate to kill the ball within reach of the catcher.  Even the pitcher’s mound, the most conspicuous feature on the field, wasn’t immune to a few inches of alteration in one direction or another.

The destruction hardly ends when the game begins.  Even as the shortstop casts away the tiniest pebble from the dirt before him, other fielders etch their cleats in the dirt as if it were wet cement.  Lenny Dykstra spat so much tobacco into center field that Andy Van Slyke described it as a toxic waste dump.  The same players who hop, gazelle-like, over the foul line on the way to the dugout then proceed to strap on a batting helmet and kick up a sandstorm at the plate.

No locale in the baseball field is more war-torn than the batter’s box.  The hitter (unless he is managed by Maury Wills) is bound to a six-by-four foot chalk-lined prison, and he fights back by scuffing and erasing the lines.  He does this in front of his captor, in full view of the umpire and every fan at the stadium, and yet the crime rarely earns punishment.  The famous example of this is, of course, Carl Everett.  Everett was famous for erasing the back of the box to give himself a few extra milliseconds to react to the pitch.  Five years into his career, umpire Ron Kulpa finally drew a line in the sand, or in this case the clay, driving Everett to apoplexy and physical, forehead-based violence.

However, Carl Everett is the exception to this phenomenon, not the rule.  For every time a batter is called out for stepping out of the box, or warned for covering the chalk, countless others are unchecked.  In his biography, Planet of the Umps, Ken Kaiser had his own solution: “Just before the game began, after the groundskeepers had laid down all the chalk lines, I’d run out the back line of both batter’s boxes.  I couldn’t call a player out for being out of the batter’s box when there was no batter’s box.  I rubbed out that line every time I had the plate for my entire career.”  The umpire has his own priorities in a baseball game, and they veer away from divine right toward the safety of his own cranium.

There’s a baffling, fifty year-old story of psychological warfare conducted over field conditions between then-third base coach Leo Durocher and his own team’s owner, Walter O’Malley. Durocher had been driven to distraction by O’Malley’s on-field gimmick: replacing the field’s coach’s boxes with rubber mats.  Durocher was notorious for his compulsive eradication of all chalk in his vicinity.  Perhaps it was to sidle a few feet closer to his charges on third, but it’s also possible that Durocher was acting out against the rigidity of baseball, with its hard lines and its countless rules.  The mats proved indestructible, but this didn’t stop Durocher from continuing to hack at them with his cleats.  It’s possible that nothing could.  “I wonder,” he mused, “whether I’ll have to buy a new pair of shoes before O’Malley has to buy a new mat?”

“Mats,” chuckled O’Malley, “are cheaper than the kind of shoes Leo wears.”

What drives a man to this kind of obsessive behavior?  The naturalist might look at this metaphor as an indictment on humanity’s effect on the environment, his capacity for razing the most calculated natural beauty.  The genealogist might consider these activities as a need to leave one’s mark on the world.  The cynical businessman, meanwhile, could envision this frenetic activity, most of it being of little utility, as the human imperative to look busy, to evoke some change as evidence for one’s effort, win or lose, on the field.  Or perhaps baseball is just full of little boys tearing the leaves off of trees.

Yet there’s something fitting in all the defilement that goes on amidst a baseball game, a sort of reverse chaos theory.  After every game, the grounds crew will emerge to reset the entire scene to its factory specifications.  The scoreboard will be reset, the infield raked, and everything will begin the way it did the day before.  And though everything begins anew, the game is meticulous in its history, so much that a minor anecdote about a team’s third-base coach survives a half-century.  In a world that is full of deterioration, and constant reminders of the fragility of the earth and of youth, it’s comforting to find in baseball and its scenery an eternally renewable resource, no matter how hard they try to erode it.  Baseball may or may not share the mysticism of Stonehenge, but it seems to bear comparable endurance.

 

Asceticism and the Baseball Fan

I began the evening writing about Derek Jeter: it’s the sort of thing one does out of obligation, a futile action that marks one as a Baseball Writer.  It’s seven o’clock and a faceless tweet reminds me that the Mariners have begun the second half of their season, so I throw the game on in the background and continue perusing Henry David Thoreau, collecting my thoughts on America’s Captain.

The game proceeds as one would expect.  Josh Hamilton sends one over the wall in the first, Nelson Cruz does the same in the third.  Jason Vargas appears confused, suddenly unsure of what it means to be Jason Vargas.  The voice of Mariners’ broadcaster Dave Sims rises and falls like a metronome in the background as the Rangers tack one run after another, until in the middle of the sixth the score is 5-0 and Thoreau is irritating me even more than usual.  “If I have unjustly wrestled a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself,” he smirks.  The banality of the broadcast booth might be even worse, but I’ve learned to tune it out.  Still, these are no conditions for art.  A headache burrows behind the edge of my temples, as if I’d gulped down a half-bottle of Boone’s.

The Mariners, over the course of six games, have dropped from a playoff probability (according to coolstandings) of seventeen percent to two.  The baseball season grinds on in its plodding, determined fashion, but the average fan isn’t expected to accompany every step of the voyage.  There are days like these, when the weather is nice and the lawn needs watering and the inevitable result of a terrible baseball team hardly requires us to devote three hours in observation.  This is why writing is hard, and why there is such appeal in being a dilettante.  Days like this make me want to write about politics, or food, or insects.

Is this a personal voyage, or a universal one?  Is it a test of strength?  Like anything else I can only know baseball through my own perspective, and there’s little use in hiding the fact that, for all my years of casual fandom, as a writer I’m a neophyte.  I can’t help but wonder if I’m experiencing, for the first time, the truly unrequited love of the baseball fan, subjected to countless weak ground balls to second, home runs by opponents that barely clear the walls.  Baseball’s routine is more punishing, more rhythmic and unerring and indomitable than any other sport.  Losing is lonely, and it takes forever.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, acclaimed British travel author, wrote a book about his experience living in a French monastery entitled “A Time To Keep Silence.”  Short on money, and in need of a secluded place to work on a manuscript, Fermor found what he felt to be a perfect fit in the Abbey of St. Wandrille.  His initial reaction:

Back in my cell, I sat down before the new blotter and pens and sheets of new foolscap.  I had asked for quiet and solitude and peace, and here it was; all I had to do now was to write.  But an hour passed, and nothing happened.  It began to rain over the woods outside, and a mood of depression and unspeakable loneliness suddenly felled me like a hammer-stroke.

The fate of my hometown baseball team did not perhaps deal quite so severe a psychological blow as the bare, foreign walls of this elementary prison.   But as the bottom of the sixth arrives, the broadcasters begin to discuss Derek Holland’s prospective perfect game, and watching the spectacle, I begin to wonder how this doesn’t happen against the Mariners every other week, or how anyone ever successfully write an article about Derek Jeter.  I feel like I understand the tiniest fraction of Fermor’s despair.

But Fermor continues:

My first feelings in the monastery changed: I lost the sensation of circumambient and impending death, of being by mistake locked up in a catacomb.  The mood of dereliction persisted some time, a feeling of loneliness and flatness that always accompanies the transition urban excess to a life of rustic solitude.  …  One is prone to accept the idea of monastic life as a phenomenon that has always existed, and to dismiss it from the mind without further analysis or comment; only by living for a while in a monastery can one quite grasp its staggering difference from the ordinary life we lead.

Fermor went from sleeping eighteen hours a day, living in a haze, to sleeping five, his body sharp and his mind focused on his work.  So perhaps there’s hope after all for the monastic life of baseball.  Every writer stares at the blank page sometimes and wonders if they’ll ever write again, just as every baseball player goes through a slump and wonders if another hit will drop in.  Every fan, at some point, wonders if they’ll ever again have a team worth rooting for.  And yet we all muddle on.

Derek Holland opened the bottom of the sixth with a bases loaded walk to Franklin Gutierrez.  Then, of all people, it was Chone Figgins who fought off an inside fastball, dropping it over Ian Kinsler’s glove for a single.  I smiled, turned off the television, and took my wife to go walk in a nearby park.

#EARPLUGS

In honor of Milton Bradley and his earplugs, Ted and I have decided to begin a campaign. In the tradition of the Rangers’ #claw and #antlers gestures, we want to get the Mariners — not just Milton to begin using #earplugs. Kind of like this:

Seeing Ichiro (or even Ryan Langerhans, or especially Bradley) do the earplugs after an RBI double would be all the vindication Ted and I could ever want as bloggers. We urge you to get in on #earplugs now. Spread the word. This isn’t a revolution, but it may be something close.

Charlie Sheen is Mr. Baseball

For all of the madness that Charlie Sheen has injected into the pop culture conversation of late, there’s a side note, a low harmonic hum just beneath the blaring orchestra of drugs and sex, that bears noting here: the man loves baseball.

Evidence:

  • Sheen invited current and retired ballplayers (some speculate that he’s imitating Brian Wilson this whole time, which, if it were sanctioned would prove to be near-Franco level pop culture foiling) to his house to watch the movie that he made about baseball. That movie, Major League, is one of the best baseball movies ever, due, in no small part, to Sheen’s performance. He referred to himself and his buddies Wilson and Lenny Dykstra as “gnarly gnarlsons.” Of the visit, Wilson said, “When Rick Vaughn calls the bullpen I’m going to answer — on a professional level, of course.”
  • He’s ready to make the next Major League movie.
  • A story came out from Houston’s Richard Justice that Sheen had a go-to guy to set up a full-on baseball game every time he came to town. A full game! This not like rounding up the usual suspects for a pick-up game of basketball; this is occupying a college baseball field with full sets of nine or more.
  • He wears what he purports to be a Babe Ruth World Series ring.
  • Of the few people he follows on Twitter, two of them are baseball stars (Nick Swisher and Brian Wilson). In the pictures he links to via Twitter, he wears an Indians cap.
  • He gave a pep talk to the UCLA baseball team, in which he inspired the team with the following message: “Don’t do crack, drink chocolate milk, and enjoy every moment. That’s all I got.” He wore a Cincinnati Reds hat for the raspy appearance.
  • Of course, Eric let us know about Sheen’s trips to the ballpark to take batting practice and oh, by the way, mash. Must be the tiger blood pulsing through his veins. Or the chocolate milk.

Is Sheen the ambassador that baseball is looking for? Probably not, but his love of the game seems to be some kind of a space anchor for him as he hurtles through the Milky Way.