Archive for the 'Myth' Category

Too Many Xs by Jesse Gloyd

Jesse Gloyd lives in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, California, my new favorite American neighborhood. Buckshot Boogaloo is his web site, where you’ll find thoughtful and valuable essays, and the Buckshot Boogaloo podcast.

I’m trying to catch the perfect mood, the perfect literary metaphor for Satchel Paige. I can’t. I can’t seem to put his life in the proper context. I can’t seem to figure out the perfect angle. It’s almost as if he purposefully made his life confusing a roadmap or a treasure map with X’s marking random spots. I can’t blame Satchel alone for my lack of context. My wife is eating cherries next to me. She’s eating cherries and flipping through a People Magazine. I can only turn up my music so loud. I can’t stand the sound of people chewing: the suck, the crunch, and the spit of the pit into the plastic drinking cup. The sounds are mixed up, faulty. They are metaphorically inaccurate.

It might also be metaphorically inaccurate to say Satchel Paige was Methuselah with a golden arm, but I’m not going for accuracy at this point. He threw three innings when he was fifty-nine. Charlie Finley put a rocking chair in the bullpen. Satchel needed his pension, so Charlie let him pitch. There’s a photo of him in the rocker with a nurse by his side. He is statuesque, a lizard basking in the sun. He looks ageless, metaphorically prehistoric. Metaphorically prehistoric sounds nice, it sounds correct, but it isn’t a thing. It’s confusing. It’s faulty.

Age rests at the heart of the confusing map that was Satchel’s existence. Age should be the perfect frame. It should be the mold that we use to cast the essence of Satchel. He was old. He was the archetype of old. He was Methuselah. He was bigger than Methuselah. He was a Patriarch, Biblical in stature. The problem is that age doesn’t tell the whole story. Age is the shadow. Age is the lamppost we use to lean. It helps us steady. It keeps us from falling.

I dedicated a great deal of thought to my grandmother when I was first putting this piece together. I wrote a detailed introduction (and then threw it out with a grandiose sweeping delete). The detailed introduction was introspective and sad. It was a window to a time when I mourned. The bridge was a bit shaky though. Satchel moved too fast to mourn. His type was rambling. He wasn’t easy to pin down. Age turned out to be the only common link between Satchel and my grandmother, age and the ravages of time.

She lived in Texas and moved around. I think her family might have been involved with the circus.

My grandmother was easy to pin down. Her life was rough, but she loved people and she made it through. The Great Depression bit her hard. She lived in Texas and moved around. I think her family might have been involved with the circus. She moved, Satchel moved. Satchel was always running away from situations; my grandmother confronted and dealt. The parallels between the two were forced, they were false. My perception was something of a lie.

Satchel Paige was a beautiful lie. Lying was his trademark, but his idea of the lie was masked. The lie became the story, the tallest of the tall tales. People paid to see him lie. They paid to watch him pitch, so they, too, could have a faulty leg to stand on when telling their own lies about Satchel. Bojangles taught him how to jangle. James P. Johnson taught him how to roll. He got the better of Dizzy Dean on more than one occasion. His lies have been documented. They were beautiful. They were integral. The best lies have a life. His could dance. His could sing. His could juke. His could jive. Understanding the lie, I thought, was the key to understanding Satchel Paige. The lies weren’t truly lies, though, because they weren’t malicious.

His lies were half-baked myths propped up with hyperbole and suspect detail. For example, his pitches, even though they were all of the same ilk, had different names: Bat Dodger, Midnight Rider, Midnight Creeper, Jump Ball, Trouble Ball, Bee Ball, Hesitation. The names made them strong, the names added to his legacy, they added to the hyperbolic metaphor that was his everyday existence. His pitches were his arsenal, his iconic weapons. But unlike Hobbs’ Wonderboy, Crockett’s Betsy, and Arthur’s Excalibur, Satchel’s pitches were disposable. They were more akin to symphonic movements. They were short, brilliantly violent bursts of poetry. They had voice. They sang. They were balladeers, their melodies existing as a means of bolstering the legend, and confusing the map.

his pitches, even though they were all of the same ilk, had different names: Bat Dodger, Midnight Rider, Midnight Creeper, Jump Ball, Trouble Ball, Bee Ball, Hesitation. The names made them strong.

He also had rules for living, rules for staying young.

1. Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.
2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful.
5. Avoid running at all times.
6. Don’t look back, something may be gaining on you.

These rules added to the myth. They became canonical. They helped create the perception. But perception is easily corrupted, especially self-perception. After all, Satchel was always running. He was always looking back. He was running away from women and professional obligations. He rambled. He lied. He sang. He danced.

In 1959 he rambled onto the set of Robert Mitchum’s The Wonderful Country. He played Tobe Sutton, the fictional representation of a Buffalo Soldier. In a sense, his rambling existence owed as much to the Buffalo Soldier as anything. He was a warrior, but he was taken for granted. He had to fight for respect, and the respect that he earned needed the lamppost of hyperbole and metaphor to help prop it up for the masses to accept. It was drunken respect, sloppy respect.

The social ramble ain’t restful.

His involvement with the film was chronicled in the December 1959 issue of Ebony. Director Robert Parrish stated that Satchel had “every possibility to become a definite screen personality.” Screen personality. His legend lived, and still lives, in the deep mine shaft of a nation’s collective subconscious as a personality. He was great, he was magnificent, but his magnificence was hidden by his personality.

Then there was the time that he led a band of Negro League legends to the Dominican Republic. A government official commissioned him to round up the best of the best. His team would represent Rafael Trujillo1. Trujillo was ruthless, but Trujillo loved baseball. While Satchel and his team (a team that featured Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell, among others) were playing in the Dominican Republican and being praised for their skill, Trujillo was executing as many as 30,000 dark skinned Haitians. It was Trujillo’s intent to lighten the country. The paradox is chilling. There were rumors of midnight executions. Cool Papa Bell was convinced their time would come if they didn’t play well. Armed Dominican soldiers would line the field. They were veterans of the firing squad. They were veterans of destruction, agents of death.

In the end, everyone made it home fine. The trip lined their pockets and added to the fractured legend that was their existence. The legend and the lies that accompanied Satchel were a needed thing. They increased his status and made him a desirable figure in a rough world.

In 1971 Satchel Paige appeared on What’s My Line? The audience knew to be excited, even though Satchel looked old, weathered. His suit was brown. The atmosphere was camp.

Soupy Sales was curious, “… is that because, you are well known, because of your appearances on television?”

“Nope,” said Satchel.

“Are you known for your work in the theater?” asked Sandy Duncan.

“Nope,” he lied.

“Are you well known?” asked Henry Morgan.

“Yap,” said Satchel, grinning because he was. He was in on the joke. He was always in on the joke. There were times it seemed he was so deeply in on the joke that reality was blurred. Sometimes the line didn’t even exist. His cheek was Kaufman-esque. His cheek helped him make a living and travel the world long after the golden arm had lost its efficiency. When he was on What’s My Line? the arm was hidden beneath the brown sleeve of his brown suit. He seemed pained, distant, forlorn. The laughs may have been some sort of anesthetic to the pain of age, but he had to have had an understanding of his importance.

Maybe perception and understanding are the keys to grasping the metaphorical map. I have a hard time perceiving the existence of my grandmother now that she has been dead for a few years. I can grasp it sonically when I listen to Patsy Cline sing “Faded Love”, which is why I generally skip “Faded Love” when it comes up on random. Too many things seem to be coming up on random. My disdain for the sound of chewing is probably rooted in some self-preserving desire to disconnect. I don’t want to listen to people exist. I don’t want to think about people ceasing to exist. I want everything to float along. I want my life to fill with hyperbolic metaphors. I want these metaphors to take over and numb the pain and sadness that comes with time.

I want to personify hyperbole, because Satchel was the personification of hyperbole. I want to give a life performance drenched in melancholic melancholia, to be the embodiment of embodiment, the era of an era, the man with the golden arm, and the metaphorical metaphor. Satchel was those things.

But the reality is that my stable existence, my duties as a father and husband are far too important, far too meaningful. Satchel Paige wasn’t fond of the social ramble; he wasn’t fond of looking back. This is fine, except that life is too short. We need to enjoy the social ramble, and our very existence depends on us looking back. If we don’t enjoy every annoying sound, and if we don’t let ourselves embrace pain, we run the risk of losing connection with the outside world. We run the risk of fossilizing our essence, of creating a metaphorical hyperbolic legend that stifles reality. We run the risk of creating maps with no real direction and too many Xs marking too many spots.

  1. “Trujillo’s 30 years in power, to Dominicans known as the Trujillo Era (Spanish: La Era de Trujillo), is considered one of the bloodiest ever in the Americas, as well as a time of a classic personality cult, when monuments to Trujillo were in abundance.”, via wikipedia

Sam Fuld: Learning the Legend

I don’t know where I first heard about Sam Fuld. I can’t recall whether it was a Jonah Keri tweet that alerted me to the remarkable feats of the 29-year-old out of Phillips Exeter Academy and Stanford via Durham, New Hampshire, or if it was a TV highlight package, or one of the blog essays or comments that have sung his praises in the last few weeks. I don’t know who planted the story’s seed in my mind, where it has since taken root and grown, bearing fruit in the form of a question, a yearning that is somehow also a signal of communal upswell: “Who is Sam Fuld?”

Fuld runs, flies, throws, hits, thinks, speaks with the power of myth already, strengthened by his relative obscurity. I, for one, don’t watch him play regularly, so all I see or hear about him are the feats and marvels in past tense. Fuld’s is a story that so far relies only on stories, without the daily truths that can chip away at myth’s sculpture.

When it comes to a phenomenon like Fuld, which seemed to materialize within a day or two, there’s a drive to find its nascent moments, when the early adopters recognized the novelty and the charm of what they were witnessing. The adopters not only realized the potential; they also spread the word among their local friends and within the greatest circle of friends the world has ever known, the Internet, and not necessarily in that order. Sam Fuld may have stumbled fearlessly into the bullpen while making a catch, and flung himself through the air to save three runs on a deep fly ball, but it was the ones who told the Fuld story, through enthusiastic tweets and posts, that stimulated their fellow fans’ imaginations and spread it. The myth is in the telling more than it is in the doing, and Sam Fuld got told by some influential tellers.

From the springboard moments when the enthusiasm of the fresh discovery of something new pumps adrenalin through the veins, the legend flowers. Others join in the mirth. The room fills with the aroma of the remarkable (for me that smell is that of a sausage with onions outside of Fenway, I don’t know what it is for you). Fuld makes another catch, and a moment becomes a trend. More twitter drops, more stories emerge. Each game is a new opportunity for us to watch, to nail another talisman to the wall to mark the improbable continuation of a blessing.

A single is just a single until it’s Dimaggio’s single for the 56th game in a row.

In Fuld, we sense something of ourselves. He has walked both sides. Probability suggests that he’ll be walking on our side again soon enough, but providence buoys him for the moment.

Like Werner Herzog sailing down to Antarctica or filming the oldest cave paintings in history, I want to be an archaeologist of the human condition, trolling along the obscure edges of my own personal history. But I’m not willing to scour my browser’s history for the first few moments that the Fuld story formed. It’s a load of work to find the making of a myth, and it’s a futile business, to boot.

In the past, it was simple and perhaps more important-seeming to trace the origins of origin. “A traveling salesman passing through town told me about Sam Fuld at Smitty’s Bar” or “My father worked with a man who used to tell stories about Sam Fuld.” If not to identify, then to at least put narrative to the origins of a story. The way the information was delivered was sewn into the legend itself. Now, of course, the beginning isn’t as important as the sheer accumulation of data. Fuld’s catches, his biography, his steals and hits don’t matter in the string of narrative that mark beginning, middle, and end. They are important in the aggregate. The myth of today, like slot machine winnings, is a pile.

What’s lost is the pleasure of the telling. It’s hard to tell Sam Fuld’s story. There isn’t a narrative path to follow yet, but rather a disparate-seeming collection of ephemera. “Fuld went to some good schools, learned a thing or two, then he made a catch, then he made another catch. He still plays baseball.” How do you convey that to another human without just sending a link to the Twitteratti’s collective tellings, along with a sampling of video clips and transactional histories? A well-worn phrase with new applications in this field of techno-myth: the fragmented narrative.

But then again there’s this word “legend” in use concerning Fuld. I’m the one who pulled the word “myth” in on the conversation. A “legend” might be more applicable to a Fuld situation. defines the term legend in several applicable ways: “1. a nonhistorical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times and popularly accepted as historical. 2. the body of stories of this kind, especially as they relate to a particular people, group, or clan.” The body of stories is a concept that resonates, as it refers to the collection of stories rather than a single dominant story.

When I think of a body of stories that comprise a legend, Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan come to mind. I know a smattering of facts about each without any particular awareness of a linear narrative that surrounds them. For example, Bunyan is really big, and his friend is a big blue ox. Come to think of it, that’s all I can remember. Davy Crockett killed a bear when he was three, and he patched up a crack in the Liberty Bell. I don’t know the story of his life, just a few juicy details.

The same is true of Sam Fuld, and his legend. The bullet points are lively, and unlikely. Where it came from has little to do with where it is. The act of telling, whether the tellings are truth or lively fictions conjured in the heat of the moment is irrelevant. What’s important is the telling, and that goes on. There’s a hint of Chuck Norris in the fantastical tweets, a stitch of Moses in the sense of delayed gratification and the virtues of patience, and a smidge of Moneyball in the stoutness of Fuld’s secondary stats, and his self-awareness and poise. Add it all together, and what do you get? Who knows, but I’m looking forward to the telling.

Lightning Round: Otis Nixon’s Hair

In search of a topic for today’s post, I solicited one on Twitter. I said I’d write for 45 minutes on whatever people came up with. The first topic submitted, by Pete Beatty, was “Otis Nixon’s Hair.” I have done my best:

When I think of Otis Nixon I don’t think of his hair. I think of his face. Otis Nixon had the face of a man who had lived a dozen lives. It was expressive and weather-beaten and looked like something out of an American folk art exhibit. Hell, Otis Nixon’s entire career could have been folk art. And now that I’m researching his life, well, the rest of it could be folk art too.

I will write about his hair because that is my assignment. But mostly I will write about his life and legacy. Otis Nixon was born in January 1959 in Evergreen, North Carolina. A fitting name for his hometown because Otis Nixon exudes permanence. On Baseball-Almanac, his high school is listed as unknown. Wikipedia and Baseball Reference eschew any allusion to his high school whatsoever.

It’s not as if Otis Nixon emerged out of the tobacco fields of North Carolina to become a light-hitting, fast-running, switch-hitting center fielder. It may have seemed like that to me, because by the time I became a cognitive baseball fan, Otis Nixon was already an established veteran ballplayer. But in that interlude after his career began and before I became aware of it, Otis Nixon faced hard times. He had drug problems. He missed the 1991 World Series because of a drug suspension. He was an alcoholic.

The definitive Otis Nixon is probably the one you see in this Braves image from the late 1990s. I’ll always think of Otis Nixon as a Brave. Maybe because of pictures like this, maybe the 1999 World Series.

By the time this photo was taken he was around 40 and his face had reached fully petrified Otis Nixon status. Plus there was enough of that hair left to give a glimpse of the dashing Otis Nixon of a few years earlier. The Otis Nixon who stole 70 bases in a year and six in a single game. The Otis Nixon who shined in an era of similar (if often better) outfielders, like Brett Butler and Vince Coleman and even Kenny Lofton. You can still imagine the jheri curl pushing through the helmet and flying backward in the wind as Otis Nixon blasts off out of his long lead at first base.

Otis Nixon would tell you that he blasted off a lot then (sorry, couldn’t resist). He was a drunk and an addict. There were arrests and accusations of violence from men and women as recently as five or six years ago. But now Otis Nixon, like any American Folk Hero, has evolved. He’s a Christian. He is married to Candi Staton, a soul and gospel singer you might have heard of. He runs the Otis Nixon Foundation and On-Track Ministries. And best of all, he’s written a book with an awesomely Clyde Frazier-esque title: Keeping It Real With Otis Nixon.

Here is talking about it:

He talks like a baseball player. He makes corny jokes. The whole thing looks a little unscripted, a little unplanned, and like most everything else on Youtube, amateurish. The hair is gone, too. The hair that prompted this hastily written essay. But the face, small and sinewy and cut from wood, looks entirely the same.

Cliff Lee and the Myth of the Moment

There was a shining half-season last year when Cliff Lee pitched for the Seattle Mariners, and every fourth day (the fifth belonging to King Felix) he’d pitch and push back against the growing realization that the team couldn’t hit its way out of a pile of day-old rally fries. The accuracy of his fastball, so familiar with the low corners, and his metered pace defied the hitters who would disappoint once he quickly allowed them the stage again. Lee was, at that time, a brilliant journeyman, a gentleman of the road. His pitching was mercenary, and context-free.

Now he’s a settled man, towing with him to the pitcher’s mound a satchel of stability, money, respect, and esteem. By actively choosing Philly over New York and eschewing the biggest or at least the most prestigious paycheck on the table, he deliberately chose to pitch in a smaller (though equally rabid, I’d argue) baseball market, alongside three other studs who undoubtedly dissipate the hot glare of the spotlight. Lee, once the Tarantino-esque mysterious free agent, has moved in with a nice suburban family. Where will he hide his gun?

Lee pitched a midweek day game against the Brewers that I had the chance to watch pretty closely. Recalling the joy of the Lee pitching performances of yore, I zeroed in on his work. I saw the same guy, the same meat of Lee’s game: the big curve working off of the hard, straight fastball, the clock-like wind-up and delivery, the intimidating demeanor of an ace. But the intangibles were fuzzy at the edges: the location, the genius of his pitch sequences, the actuality of his impermeability (“I’m beating you because I’m beating you, and I will continue to do so.”)

His fastball still hummed, touching 94 at times, but the precision was lacking. He left them up, and the Brewers were touching them with long fly outs and drives to the gaps. Lee’s cutter, which usually hints at the corner of the strike zone before ducking out of it at the last moment, hung like a mediocre slider. Brewers were hitting the ball squarely, which if you’d told me that would happen during any of his starts in Seattle last year I’d tell you to go jump in a lake.

On this particular sunny spring day, the sparkle of his first half in Seattle in 2010 was absent. This is notable because somewhere along the line Cliff Lee became, for me, the pitcher that doesn’t falter, who wills himself past fallibility. The average performance means that I have to accept that Cliff Lee is capable of average performances. It’s like watching your dad trip.

This Brewers game is the exception, and a light one at that, as Lee is actually pitching very well this year (24 strikeouts to 2 walks), and even today he was able to stop the bleeding at two earned runs through six. Gosh, was it only two? There was another one unearned, but I could’ve sworn it was more. And anyway the Phillies caught up soon after he left the game. But in the symbolism that each baseball game represents for the single viewer, this faltering performance represented a shift in the Lee archetype. For Lee, a bad start is nowadays a ripple in a broad pond, a Philadelphia stinker that’ll soon be lost in the greater body of great starts, that will span years in the city and in the uniform.

Lee’s stopovers in Philly the first time around, Seattle, and Texas were ethereal, and fleeting. Once he was gone, you felt like one of the townsfolk watching the aloof hero disappear into a dust cloud on the way to the next town in need. But Cliff Lee has settled down. His career has taken on linear airs, which comes with the small forgivenesses afforded by family, knowing, as families do, that time is a healer and all we’ve got is time.

The Angel of Life

I turned on NPR yesterday to hear a couple of people who were not Frank Deford talking about the Dodgers being taken over by Major League Baseball. If you weren’t aware, the Dodgers have been taken over by Major League Baseball. Although it may not feel that way to fans who have followed the McCourt ordeal closely and to bloggers trapped in the never-ending cyclone of baseball information, this is big and news. National news. It was the front page story on the New York Times website.

I marked the occasion by starting a Twitter campaign to get MLB to appoint former assistant GM Kim Ng to run the team (I’ll take credit for this idea, because why not?). I also marked the occasion by grinning joyously. It may not seem that way, but this is good news. This is progress. For a fan like me, who is willing to sacrifice short term goodies for long term stability – or at least solvency – the MLB takeover of the Dodgers is a good thing.

Another thing I’ve been yelling about on Twitter is the Jewish holiday of Passover. Passover celebrates the ancient Hebrews and their escape – at the hands of god, acting through Moses – from the grip of the Egyptian Pharaoh and his slave-driving, child-killing ways. The comparison I’ve been working with most is recent callup Jerry Sands as Moses. Kershaw as the Angel of Death. And on and on. Now a more apt metaphor has presented itself:

The Hebrews left Egypt only to encounter 40 years of wandering the desert. It took them 40 years to find the Holy Land. This takeover by Bud Selig, this liberation from the hands of the Pharaoh McCourt, is the first step on the Dodgers’ journey to their own land of milk and honey. There may be rough and confusing times ahead. After all, nobody took Bud Selig for a savior. There may be false idols and bland, unleavened bread in our future. But there is also a better day coming. This is a freedom story.

Some other thoughts:

1. The Dodgers are not the Montreal Expos. They are not the Hornets, either. The Dodgers have a history of fantastic attendance. They have a wonderful stadium. There is no reason at all to be concerned about the team leaving LA.

2. This seems obvious but it also seems worth reiterating: so much depends on who the new ownership is. Less depends on how long it takes for MLB to line that owner up. After all, having a limited budget for off-season maneuvering might have prevented the Dodgers from signing Juan Uribe this year. Not such a bad thing to put Colletti on a shoestring.

3. For the first time in my life, I am singing praises for baseball’s anti-trust exemption.

4. On that note, I would love it if somebody could explain the bylaws that make it possible for Bud Selig to actually remove Frank McCourt from control of the team. Couldn’t this lead to a new round of ugly litigation? (This, of course, being the worst case scenario.

5. Somehow none of this seems any worse than Fox and trading Mike Piazza. Maybe it’s because this time I’m 24, not twelve.

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. 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.

Situational Essay: Jason Heyward Jars These Mountains

Bryan Harvey, contributor of the thought-provoking Situational Essay below, is a high school teacher and poet, who writes for The Faster Times and The Lawn Chair Boys. His poetry has appeared in the Cold Mountain Review and DeckFight Press is releasing his eBook this Friday, Everything That Dunks Must Converge.

My Southern blood told me it was too cold for baseball. The gray clouds and crisp air set a mood more in tune with the gridiron than the baseball diamond. Then the gray clouds turned to black and rocks started to fall from the sky: it was hailing.

The game was in the bottom of the fourth and the Braves were down four to one. Winter was not yet over in the nation’s capitol. The players still stood on the field like statues; they didn’t take one step toward either dugout. They stared intently at the pitcher’s mound, the batter’s box, and the umpire, stubbornly insisting on playing this game of summer through the forty degree weather that now sent fans running for cover, in hoods and coats and scarves, begging concession workers for coffee, hot chocolate, and chili.

My fiancee, bundled up in her hood like a Gloworm, tugged at my hand, but I didn’t want to leave our seats just yet. I wanted to watch Jason Heyward blow pink bubbles of gum in a dark hail storm, his brim pulled down low, his legs crouched for the next play. He looked like he had a balloon in his mouth. The sight was mesmerizing. It made you wish that he was at bat, mocking the pitcher with an act of pure youthfulness.

…the ferocity of his swing, cutting through the humidity, will have already remodeled the plains of our imaginations into deep valleys and sharp mountains

But he wasn’t. He was in right field, far from the batter’s box, far from the action, far from one of his iconic Opening Day home runs. But still he was the most intriguing individual on the field. It was like seeing folk hero John Henry channeling his mythic determination and perseverance into brushing his teeth or clipping his toenails, rather than hammering down railroad spikes: the ordinary appeared extraordinary. Standing in a green field became inspirational. I realized that legends commit to every moment, even the moments that don’t matter in any measurable way, when nobody (besides an obsessed fan) is watching.

A few years ago during a weather delay, my eyes would have studied my boyhood baseball hero, Chipper Jones, but my interest in him has been eclipsed by the possibilities that rest in a twenty-one year old. What’s so exciting about Jason Heyward is that no one knows what is to become of him: no one knows whether the steam engine will kill him or if he will tame the great American wilderness.

Chipper Jones, on the other hand, is a finished book, or an epic movie that has been syndicated on cable television. Number ten is Red from Shawshank Redemption, biding his time, protecting and hoping, while number twenty-two is Andy Dufresne, illuminating a drab world so that he can find a way out of it. Cold beers on a hot rooftop, we want him to stay in prison so that he can continue to inspire us with his physical presence. But it’s just as possible that Heyward will disappear from the game tomorrow through any of baseball’s proverbial sewer pipes, without saying a word, leaving us to question the spiritual significance of athletic talent not fully realized, leaving us to wonder what worlds exist beyond an outfield wall, or a prisonyard.

So often the legends of tall tales lose out to the machines of the world. John Henry suffers a heart attack. Pecos Bill watches his true love grow as distant as the moon. Mighty Casey strikes out. Bobby Cox doesn’t bring home the World Series. Jason Heyward loses the division to the Phillies, or in the Playoffs to the Giants.

On a day when it was too cold for baseball, he lost to the lowly Nationals, too. But it was not in vain. No matter what happens in his career, from here on out, Jason Heyward’s presence did change us. His Braves may never win a World Series, much less the NL East, but the ferocity of his swing, cutting through the humidity, will have already remodeled the plains of our imaginations into deep valleys and sharp mountains. I say this because I’ve already seen it happen. I’ve seen him blow a pink bubble in the middle of a hail storm, while the crowd ran, ducking, up the aisles towards cover, and the ground’s crew unrolled the tarp.

And afterwards, the hood was pulled back, and the yellow bubble of the sun shined over everything, even Atlanta’s six to three loss against the Nationals.