I wrote a thing about Adrian Beltre for The Classical’s Deadspin Journal.
I wrote a thing about Adrian Beltre for The Classical’s Deadspin Journal.
Meanwhile, on other parts of the internet, there is a group of writers trying to raise money for a new sports website. I’m honored to be a part of that group, and as such here is the intro video for The Classical:
We’re not talking about a blog here, we’re talking about an in-depth publication featuring high quality, fact-checked, heavily reported essays. We’re talking about smart, funny, intellectually considered content published every day. Not just by the people mentioned in the video, but by writes you love and writers you will love.
Also: we’re giving out cool prizes, ranging from chip clips to our personal sports memorabilia to the folks who donate.
For more info, or if you care to contribute, CLICK HERE.
And obviously, tell your friends. And also obviously, if you have any questions, fire away.
Recently I sat amidst the fog of a Seattle summer morning and read a short essay by George Orwell entitled “Why I Write”. Like Orwell, I recognized at a young age that I was a writer whether I actually wrote anything or not. I wrote short novels in elementary school, poetry in high school, essays in college, all of them shamelessly derivative. When I read, I found myself considering what worked and what didn’t work, how the words evoked reactions from me. Each time I faced my lack of originality and the surplus of talent already out there in the world, and walked away, I came back again. I think that most writers feel this way, especially in their youth.
Six months ago I turned to the internet and baseball, primarily to find a way to toy with words while escaping the drudgery of the endless string of term papers. The quarter ended but the writing didn’t. Last night my wife threw a sidelong glance at me. “Why do people write about baseball, anyway?” she asked, glancing at the open Word document on my screen.
“Funny you should ask,” I said.
In his essay, Orwell outlines four primary reasons why writers are driven to write, ignoring financial concerns. They are:
1. Egoism, the desire to accrue fame and reputation, and to prove one’s worth in relation to one’s colleagues.
2. Aesthetic enthusiasm, simple appreciation for the subject matter at hand.
3. Historical impulse, the desire to catalogue the past exactly as it happened and to put events in their correct order.
4. Political purpose, in its most open-ended sense: writing with intent to persuade the reader and alter the world through that connection.
In the realm of sportswriting there will never be any shortage of the first of these four causes. This is especially true online, where self-promotion and social networking have become increasingly vital to one’s success. Fame is a sort of social capital for writers, so easily quantified through the number of page views, comments, and followers. This is neither a good nor a bad thing, and I very much doubt that many people are drawn to the vocation solely or even primarily for the ego boost it provides. The anonymous internet commenter is always there to provide an instant remedy for such delusions.
Aesthetic enthusiasm, on the other hand, seems perfectly suited to the sport of baseball and the internet does nothing to decrease its sentiment. Few people would write about baseball if they didn’t already love the game. If the writing is good it will foster this love in the reader, only furthering their desire to read more. What makes baseball writing so vivid and varied is that each writer can find (and convey) their own unique appreciation of the sport. It can be economics, statistics, or militaristic imagery; it can even be poetry.
The historical motive is the least obvious, but perhaps the one to which baseball owes the most. I am continually amazed at the precision and quantity of data available to the baseball fan, minutia spanning from the alteration of the length of a stirrup to the performance of men who played the game in wheat fields a hundred and thirty-five years ago. That we have this historical foundation is due to the labor of thousands of determined, admiring fans. The internet, however, erodes this impulse somewhat, as it’s difficult for the writer to create a sense of permanence in a form of media which is inherently transitory.
Orwell’s own passion came from the political purpose of writing. He concludes the essay with this line: “And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” Those who have read Animal Farm and 1984 would be unsurprised. Baseball doesn’t appear as though it would suit Orwell particularly well, but there are certain elements of political struggle present in sportswriting.
The world of baseball naturally lends itself to partisanship. It divides people into cultural regions, bound to a single baseball team, and demands of them an oath of loyalty. These regions are peppered with the occasional transplant, who must struggle in foreign lands and can only rely on USA Today and the internet to receive tidings from home.
Because of the remote nature of the game, most fans connect to it through argument. Some of the most romantic experiences we have with baseball are arguments: the kibitzing of the angry mob on sports radio after the blown save, or the debate at the bar over the Hall of Fame. The national media takes this argumentation and capitalizes on it, sensibly stoking the fire in order to drive traffic. Fans from each corner of the country clamber for the mystical quality that is “respect” from the journalism personalities.
We also see this political undercurrent to the never-ending battle between the sabermetric and traditional baseball analysis communities. These debates are pitched, and much is at stake; Felix Hernandez in part owes his Cy Young award to the charisma of baseball writers, as does Bert Blyleven his plaque. But as often as these conversations result in good, intellectually stimulating give and take, more often they’re simple diatribes aimed at the already converted. Edginess and a willingness to ruffle feathers win out over insightful analysis. Fans are yet again driven to take sides, and the result is an atmosphere eerily similar to politics.
Orwell would have been fine with all of this. But Orwell lived in a different time, one where he could afford the luxury of moral superiority. He wrote in the era of Hitler, and in Hitler the idea of an enemy to which all other enemies since have been compared via hyperbole. It was a time when strength fought strength, one of the reasons we still find that moment in history so appealing. But as fine a book as Animal Farm was, there is little in baseball that is so black and white. When it comes to baseball, I find that I can’t avoid being a relativist.
There’s one aspect of writing that Orwell couldn’t foresee, and that’s the blurring of the line between writing and publication. The act of writing itself, regardless of whether it’s read or thrown away, has the effect of organization, forcing the author to order his or her own thoughts. The research and reflection necessary for good writing – or even writing that just tries to be good – helps people to improve upon their knowledge. This is the same with conversation, which helps people clarify their ideas and understand how relevant they are to the world around them. Every piece of writing is an extension between author and reader, an attempted exchange of ideas. This exchange can certainly be persuasive. But in the end it’s primarily personal, an individual expression that may or may not reach the next person down the line.
Here at Pitchers & Poets, there’s little pretense about our preference for the aesthetic. I believe that everything has to mean something, even baseball. It’s not enough for me to say that something is good or that this causes this to happen; I’m not even particularly interested in efficiencies or the process of winning baseball games, beyond a clinical, mathematical viewpoint. I want to write about baseball as allegory, as a symbol for something greater than the game itself and greater than me, myself. The game is something that connects all of us, forms a framework by which we can develop other ideas about the world as a whole.
My hope is that this framework can attach to the framework of others to build something meaningful. It’s not a war, nor is it an attempt at a Pyrrhic victory. I write because I like sharing ideas, and sharing them makes them better. Why people read baseball writing is a separate discussion entirely.
I was back in America for about three days before baseball welcomed me home. It was early in Friday’s Red Sox -Mariners game. I was seated midway up the first base line, top of the lower level, enjoying the rare ambiance of a crowded Safeco Field, wondering the first name of the Seattle pitcher (last name: Beaven), when a hard-hit groundball en route to first baseman Justin Smoak decided it would rather be a line drive, and struck him in the face. Smoak took a few steps back, shocked I think, and fell.
It was that moment – the ball leaping up suddenly, Smoak stumbling and falling as if he’d been shot, the sloppy aftermath of the play that nearly saw Carl Crawford thrown out rounding third – that brought baseball back to life for me. It also brought to mind another scene:
I was at a Dodger game in late 2002 and Kaz Ishii was on the mound. Ishii was a rookie that year and one of my favorites. He paused midway through his windup, threw a video game curve, and generally behaved like a renegade pop star. At some point, with the Astros hitting, I got up to use the restroom. Inside, I heard the crowd gasp loudly, and then through speakers I heard Vin Scully describe Brian Hunter hitting a line drive off Ishii’s head and the ball caroming all the way to the backstop. I ran back to my seat. The crowd was silent. Ishii was out cold in the middle of the infield. Scully’s matter-of-fact-description was still ringing in my ears.
I sat in my seat at Safeco and I thought about Kaz Ishii, and then I thought about the way that in baseball like in anything else, one thing reminds you of another. And that without the first thing, the exposure to baseball itself, it’s hard to be reminded of those other things. It’s hard to be fully engaged. And before I could lapse fully into Proustian reflection, I got distracted by some statistic up on the scoreboard.
The Smoak play was awful random and fast and electrifying. It stunned my senses. And I thank it for making me realize how far from baseball I had drifted. The truth is I’ve grown accustomed to a certain idisyncratic level of baseball fandom. For the last two-plus years I’ve thought about baseball every day. I’ve written about it almost as much. To leave mid-season, even just for a couple of months, was to change my life in a more significant way than I had anticipated. It was to be removed from the source of so much of what I did.
I still feel slightly removed. Not in the sense that I didn’t know who the hell Blake Beavan was or that David Ortiz was having such a good year, but in the sense that I haven’t fully caught up mentally to the season, or even to sports in general. The sports brain isn’t clicking as fast as it should be yet. My interest in the standings and the story-lines isn’t where it should be. But that will come.
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.
Hi all, a quick note: I (Eric, if you didn’t read the byline atop this post) will be outside the country as of tomorrow and until mid-August. That means there will be no baseball and hence no baseball blogging in my life. But P&P is far larger than me.
Ted will hold things down this summer (he always does, really) with some fine guest contributors helping him out. Principle among those is Patrick DuBuque, the talented writer of The Playful Utopia, who you may know from his two previous posts here, or his new-ish role at Fangraphs’ NotGraphs blog.
Now that that’s over with: a song. During 90s 1B Week, Corban Goble wrote about the theme song to Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Grffey Jr on Nintendo 64. I played that game a lot, mostly at my cousins’ house. One of those cousins, Travis, is an awesome musician. He sampled the theme song in creating this:
We don’t do too much self-promotion here on Pitchers & Poets, but sometimes it’s necessary. And as our traffic grows — which it has quite a bit in 2011, thank you new readers! — we hope that you follow the site in all its other iterations on other platforms.
We also hope that you tell your friends about P&P –the content and the podcast. We appreciate it a great deal when people spread the word. Now is a good time to do it, too, because next week we will be celebrating something everybody loves, First Basemen of the 1990s, with the help of many good friends. With that in mind:
You can follow Ted on Twitter @Ted_PandP
You can follow me, Eric, on Twitter @ericnus
You can follow the blog itself on Twitter @pitchersnpoets
You can follow the blog on Facebook by clicking here.
You can subscribe by RSS by clicking here.
And most importantly, you can get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org — we love hearing from readers.
In all the Opening Day hysteria and marathon liveblogging (my eyes still hurt), I failed to properly note that I wrote a couple of things elsewhere this week. Sorry if you’ve already seen these on Twitter:
You See What You See: An essay for FreeDarko about Nick Van Exel, Showtime, and my young basketball fandom. There’s even a Raul Mondesi reference for those of you not into hoops.
Hails From Hollywood: An article for Seattle Weekly on Ken Levine, television writer and Mariners broadcaster and all-around hilarious mensch.
Exciting news: my first article for Slate was published today — a slideshow essay on great unbuilt stadiums including Seattle’s Floating Stadium, Edmonton’s Omniplex, New Fenway Park, and so on.
Hey readers, as you may have noticed, we’ve redesigned the site. We hope you like it. Before moving on, Ted & I would like to thank three dear friends for donating their time and creative energy to the cause:
All three were crucial in the process. You’d be smart to support them in all their endeavors. Also, we’re not 100% done but close to it — your feedback is welcome in the comments or at email@example.com. Thanks.