Archive for the 'Legacy' Category

13 Ways of Looking at a Hall of Fame Candidate

w.h. audenSince our blog is, after all, called Pitchers & Poets, we thought we would subject a few of this year’s Hall of Fame candidates to the imaginary scrutiny of both a pitcher and a poet of our choosing. Below, see the Hall of Fame analysis of a professional pitcher, and the response from a prominent poet, as you await the final ruling:

Jeff Bagwell

Cardinals hurler and freelance groundskeeper Jim Otten: “Unless steroids make goatees grow faster, you can’t prove anything.”

Poet WH Auden: “Now he is scattered among a hundred cities, and wholly given over to unfamiliar affections to find his happiness in another kind of wood.”

Barry Larkin

Reno Silver Sox hurler Nathan Ginsberg: “One of the best hitting and fielding shortstops of his generation. Writers, you know what to do.”

Poet Allen Ginsberg: “When will you be angelic? When will you take off your clothes? When will you look at yourself through the grave? When will you be worthy of your million Christs?”

Bernie Williams

California Angels farmhand Ronald Sylvia: “Probably not Hall-worthy, but he had a great career.”

Poet Sylvia Plath: “His head is a little interior of grey mirrors. Each gesture flees immediately down an alley of diminishing perspectives, and its significance drains like water out the hole at the far end.”

Jack Morris

Old timey Pittsburgh Allegheny Ed “Cannonball” Morris: “Heckuva competitor, good lifetime numbers, and a fine face-whisker set. Probably deserves a shot at immortality.”

Poet Robert Lowell: “He has an angry wrenlike vigilance, a greyhound’s gentle tautness; he seems to wince at pleasure, and suffocate for privacy.”

Edgar Martinez

67th round draft pick for the Houston Astros in 1996 Ben Keats: “I have never met Edgar Martinez, but I once saw him order dinner from across the restaurant.”

Poet John Keats: “He hath heard the Lion’s roaring, and can tell what his horny throat expresseth.”

Tim Raines

Early 80s California Angels starter Dave Frost: “Rock has been overlooked for way too long.”

Poet Robert Frost: “He is all pine and I am apple orchard.”

In Defense of Outliers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing is Frivolous

When I first met Clay Huntington, he was only my friend Janelle’s grandfather. He seemed like an important man. He sat in the press box at Mariners games. He drove a red Crown Victoria. He had something – I didn’t know exactly what – to do with the Mariners’ AAA team, the Tacoma Rainiers.

Now Janelle is my girlfriend. She has been for a couple of years. Clay passed away last week. He was 89 years old. If you live in Seattle and follow baseball closely, or live in Tacoma and follow local news at all, you probably heard about it. The term every obituary has used describe Clay is “civic icon.” It’s a formless phrase, but I think in this case it works. Clay’s purpose in life was defined first by his family, second by his community, and third by baseball.

It’s impossible to talk about him without talking about Tacoma, the Puget Sound, and really the entire Pacific Northwest. When I started this article, I was drinking coffee out of a cup with his face on it from some long-ago function at which he was honored. On Thursday, the Rainiers put together their own tribute to Clay. They carved CH into the dirt behind second base, they presented the family with a customized jersey, they played a video tribute and took care of everybody with a nice suite on the third base line.

Clay was Pierce County Commissioner. In 1976, he threw his hat in the ring for governor of Washington before dropping out due to low polls and sagging fundraising. Clay would have probably been a good governor – the kind of executive who finds compromises where they need to be found, runs the state efficiently, and is legitimately concerned with the well-being all of his constituents. But I’m not surprised his campaign stalled out. Clay was never one for the spotlight, and although a great advocate for causes he believed in, he lacked the requisite taste for self-promotion.

I mention Clay’s politics because they are an integral part of what he taught me. Clay was a journalist, a play-by-play man, a leading force in bringing baseball to Tacoma – and then keeping it there. He founded the Tacoma Athletic Commission and the State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame, which this year inducted Edgar Martinez and John Olerud. He was by all accounts loved and respected in the press box, the announcer’s booth, and even in the clubhouse.

His personal interests and mine lined up pretty squarely. I too love politics and baseball. I try, if not always as hard as I should, to be an active citizen. But the special thing about Clay Huntington, the thing that will stick with me, was the way he held these institutions in equal regard. To Clay, baseball was a crucial part of the fabric of the South Puget Sound. It was, if not necessary, then worth celebrating, and worth fighting for, and worth a lifetime of hard work on its own merits alone.

I sometimes struggle with this concept. I tend to write sports off as frivolous. I tend to disparage myself for spending more time reading about baseball than about the burgeoning war in Libya or about local politics or about whatever else that seems, at first glance, more weighty. Sometimes I tell myself I will only write about baseball until the time comes to write about something “more serious.” This, of course, is silly. Sports are plenty serious. They merit our attention not just as important cultural entities, but as enclosed worlds to be respected and appreciated on their own terms.

This is the lesson that Clay understood. Pursue your passions without doubt, without shame, and with a greater cause than your own ego in mind. Until the end of his life, Clay lived this. He went to work at the radio station he owned, typing away on his typewriter. He read every kind of magazine every month. What mattered was not whether he was reading The Atlantic or the Sporting News – what mattered was that he was reading at all.

Miguel Cabrera: The Man With No Nickname

There is no nickname listed on Miguel Cabrera’s Baseball-Reference page. I consider Baseball-Reference to be the baseball site of record in this day and age, and it has evolved into one of the last word’s on semi-formal cultural markers like nicknames. Cabrera is certainly prominent enough to have a nickname, and that such a good ballplayer wouldn’t acquire even one of note was surprising. Baseball-Reference isn’t even stingy with nicknames. For example, Carl Crawford, who I have never heard referred to by any nickname whatsoever, has been attributed the moniker “The Perfect Storm.” It’s a great nickname, but not hard-earned, and Cabrera deserves at least a similar treatment.

How does one of the game’s greatest hitters lack even a tenuous moniker on the Baseball Encyclopedia of today? Has one of the best hitters in baseball not sparked the meager imagination required for even a pop culture nod? There are three nicknames on the Baseball-Reference page for Albert Pujols: The Machine, Prince Albert, and Phat Albert.

Even before this offseason’s debacle of a DUI arrest, the unstoppable locomotive that was Miguel Cabrera’s career shimmied on the track. It was late in the season, 2009, the Tigers were in a heated playoff race, and Cabrera’s wife called the cops at 6 a.m. to report an incident. Cabrera wasn’t arrested, but the criticism came fast and furious, including questions about his motivation and game preparation. The Tigers would lose their first place position on the last day of the season, to the Twins, primarily because of the team’s inability to hit (though in his defense, Cabrera hit well in the 163rd and final game of the 2009 year for the Tigers). A fulcrum-type player, Cabrera, the superstar, could either stand up or fold the season after such a tumult.

Cabrera stood. After the season, he addressed a pattern of alcohol abuse, and started to see a therapist. As I noted in my earlier post on Cabrera, before the 2010 season, he said he’d be better, all-around. Indications seemed to be that he had kept to his word, and it showed in his 2010 numbers.

How does one of the game’s greatest hitters lack even a tenuous moniker on the Baseball Encyclopedia of today?

He had improved, and if there was a list of players for whom improvement would seem impossible, Cabrera would be on it. In 2010, the 27-year-old had, according to Fangraphs, his best season as a hitter, with his average up from 2009, his power up, his on-base average up.

MLB.com writer Roger Schlueter wrote, “In 2010, Miguel Cabrera hit .328, got on base at a .420 clip (the best in the league), slugged over .600 (.622), had 38 home runs (and a total of 84 extra-base hits), compiled a league-leading 179 OPS+ (the best of his career) and also led the league with 126 RBIs. Cabrera’s 126 RBIs left him tied for seventh-most for any player with at least 30 intentional walks. For most players, a season like this would stand out like a sequoia in the middle of a pygmy forest. But for Cabrera, his 2010 was simply another data point on an extraordinary career arc.”

Cabrera was, and is, the kind of hitter whose offensive influence seems to expand beyond his single spot in the lineup, sailing ahead of his teammates like the flagship of an armada.

The term “nickname” comes from the 15th century, derived from the Old English word eaca, meaning “an increase,” and related to the word eacian, meaning “to increase.” A nickname increases, obviously, the number of names that apply to an individual. But it also adds to the persona, the sort of ether that hangs around a cultural figure.

A nickname is a way for a large group of people to codify their affection for a baseball player. The nickname embodies a player’s character and style, and it becomes a shorthand for the initiated, bringing the fan closer to the player, and fans closer to one another. When Cardinals fans praise The Machine, they honor not only the mechanical precision of the team’s best hitter, but they also honor their commitment to his success, and they use the nickname to signal to others the sort of fan that they are. They enrich themselves and contribute to the collective usage of the baseball player’s persona.

When Miguel Cabrera asked, “Do you know who I am?” he could as easily have asked, “What’s my nickname?”

Outside observers who are not as affected by his daily excellence have often wondered if Cabrera would get too fat, if his defense would hold up, whether he cared enough. He has been so consistently great from so early on that his greatness has become commonplace, allowing room for these minor slights. For an example, see prominent Tigers blogger billfer, who included this footnote on a year end wrap-up of the 2010 Tigers season: “*Note Cabrera would have fit my proprietary [monthly] ‘top performers’ criteria for every month but September, when he was still OPS+ 130, so let’s just save everyone the time on him.”

There was only room in the baseball multiverse for one unflappable demigod.

There was only room in the baseball multiverse for one unflappable demigod, and that was Prince Albert. And for a while, Miguel Cabrera’s booze-related faults illustrated just how stoic and productive Pujols really was, reinforcing the trope that greatness is an endurance sport. Of his faults in the wake of the 2009 scandal, Cabrera said, “Sometimes you feel like your body is kind of lazy.” Lazy! If Prince Albert has ever let the l-word escape his lips, it’d be news.

But the Pujols contract situation has lately tarnished the once-spotless Machine’s chrome fittings. Pujols himself now seems capable of the sort of slick self-evaluation that Cabrera let slip during his arrest, the Cardinal’s contract deadline being a muted version of the Tiger’s impaired braggadocio. A machine is not supposed to question its place in the hierarchy; it is supposed to hit without question. This is the first season that we’re watching Pujols hit as a human being with a few flaws and foibles. It may even be just enough humanizing to jar him from his perch as the unflappable superstar. However far apart they remain, he and Cabrera are closer now than they ever have been.

(Just to be clear, I don’t think that the Pujols contract conversations are particularly compelling or anywhere near the scale of the Cabrera saga, just that the negotiations showed a different catch of light in the Pujols diamond.)

The window for Cabrera to occupy some kind of baseball equality with Pujols may be small, but it’s there right now. Albert is slumping to start off the season (.222/.225/.447 thank you very much), while Miguel Cabrera has of late knocked walk-off hits and been walked in the late innings to avoid giving up a late run, putting up .382/.488/.794 numbers. Early in his first season as a mortal, Pujols is playing poorly. Early in his first season as a question mark, Cabrera has answered with a firm-handed statement: learn who I am.

He may not glow with perfection or righteousness, but he gives us the chance to watch a human story, and he plays out the story that most of us aspire to. It’s a story about exceeding some expectations, even as we fail to meet others, hoping that on any given day the former outweighs the latter.

In The Neverending Story, my second favorite movie as a kid, at the pivotal moment the child empress asks the main character, a bookworm named Bastian, to save her magical world by saying her name out loud. Bastian throws open the windows, face in a lightning storm, and screams her name, which happens to be his late mother’s name, and in so doing he recreates a universe.

In his work on myth, Roland Barthes says that “myth is a type of speech,” defined not by its content–in this case the particulars of the empress/mother’s name–“but by the way in which it is conveyed by a discourse.” The saying.

With every hit, each of which affirms his excellence, Miguel Cabrera says something.

The Sheff Retires

We passed over the news when it scrolled across the bottom of our screens a few weeks ago, but Gary Sheffield has retired.

With that, I thought it a good time to re-post parts from the wonderful paean to the man penned by Eric back in August of 2009, in a post he called The Sheff Abides:

No matter where he’s gone Gary Sheffield has always been that guy. He’s never been your favorite player, but he’s often been your favorite team’s best player. He’s never been enough of a problem off the field, or enough of a superstar on the field to elicit romantic baseball love or fanatic baseball hatred from fans. Gary Sheffield is meant to confuse, meant to muddle, and meant to be pondered. In my mind he is a first ballot Hall-of-Famer.

The game, it seems, happens around Gary. He simply is. The Sheff abides. He doesn’t put on a uniform, but rather the uniforms seem to put themselves on him.  He doesn’t come to the stadium either. The stadiums he plays in grow organically from the ground beneath where he happens to be standing, so as to leave him at ease in left field, the batters’ box, or the on-deck circle. These things happen by sheer momentum. They are just the way of the universe.

What Do You Do With An Aging Player?

Derek Jeter and the Yankees are currently embroiled in some low-hum sort of back-and-forth about how much they’ll pay the young legend for his final years of service. Will it be an insulting 15 mill a year, or a peaceful 20 mill a year, who knows? What’s notable about the negotiation is that Jeter has anywhere near the leverage to make this thing fair.

Here’s where I come from: I watched Craig Biggio slip and slide into statistical face-slappery as he got older. He played out his big money contract past the point when he was earning his keep, and when he and the Astros got back to the table, he took a monster pay cut because he wanted to play for the team what brung him, and the Astros were happy to oblige. The Astros side of the bargain was to give this guy, this scion of Houston, a spot on the baseball field from which to work a little longer, until he got to 3000 hits and we carried him off down the road on our shoulders.

The feeling at the time was that the Astros were doing Biggio a favor, and he was repaying us fans and the team with his glowing presence and the pleasure of his Hall of Fame credential-building. The money had less to do with it than anything. The currency in those negotiations were the good vibrations exchanged from player to fans to owner to fans to player: a big drum circle of love.

What does that say about Derek Jeter and the Yankees? I think it says that Jeter should be happy enough with the 189 million he put away for his prime years contract and change what he thinks of as the currency in this latest transaction. Because the money, for an aging player who is sufficiently wealthy, is about the last thing that he should be worrying about. The currency is the career.

Eyes open, Derek, and take a look at Brett Favre. Is he worried about some extra scratch at this point, or is he floating psychologically speaking like a man in a lifeboat out at sea, wondering where the hell the ocean liner underneath him went? Of course Jeter is unlikely headed for any kind of outright shame or embarrassment, but the general point is, with me bringing up both Biggio in the good guy sense and Favre in the d-bag sense, is that the negotiations for these fellows who are Hall of Famers in their craft involved not how the money would flesh out in the twilight years, but how the twilight years themselves would look. Biggio’s last years glowed like the dying embers in the fireplace of an Aspen ski lodge, because he made it so, he negotiated that with his employers and with his fans.

Favre’s career has barfed itself and passed out in a nightclub bathroom, because he showed up to the negotiations half in the bag and has stumbled around the place since then, alienating most everybody he gets near.

My point is that the currency of the late years in a career is not dollars for this caliber of player. Rather, it’s the way that you negotiate your positioning with the team and with the fans. When Jeter’s slowdown reaches the point that it inevitably will, when he is a wildly overpaid shortstop clogging a roster spot because he makes too much money to cut him, well that will play out as a badly negotiated contract. Not for his bottom line, of course, but for the bottom line of his legacy.

I feel like a schmuck for bringing up the “legacy” deal. It’s just a sleazy way to admit that we are all sitting around in judgment of our fellow man and woman, waiting to decide how we will perceive them after their tours of duty in the public eye are complete. Ooh, how is his legacy, is her legacy in tact, how many miles across is that legacy? Yes, that’s our job as fans, but at the core of it there’s this awful human truth that what you did 15 years ago either doesn’t matter or has become such a tired topic of conversation that it’s more important right here and right now that we’re all extremely happy with how much you’re being paid as a dwindlingly competent baseball player.

So the currency here isn’t money, and it’s not really even doing “the right thing.” Rather, the currency is in the perception. Negotiating the final years of a masterful career is about positioning oneself skillfully between the fans who want a winner on the field but who never really want Derek Jeter to leave or to diminish, and between the team, who want to win and to grab new players and to honor their old guys but see that they get along on their way. Upset the fans and you find yourself an albatross in the public eye and you tarnish your legacy and everyone’s in a sour mood (an example that comes to mind would be Carlos Lee, not a super elite player but a well-liked one who is basically the easiest joke in the Astros fan arsenal). Upset the team, though, and you’re out on your ass before you’re ready to stop playing (this is, of course, highly unlikely in Jeter’s case, but then who thought Favre would ever don a Viking’s jersey?).

Take care, Derek Jeter, is what I’ll offer. There will be a time when your brain tells your body to grab that sharp grounder, and your body will disobey. You will probably feel like the physical world is turning its back on you, that the rules were changed when you were looking away. The rules didn’t change, they’ve always been the same. Where there’s a variable, it’s in choosing who is waiting for you at the crossroads when it’s a new road you’ve got to travel down.