Archive for the 'Situational Essay' Category

A Game of Forms

I’m not sure I should admit this, because it’ll probably destroy any chance I have of writing for The Classical, but I know nothing about bullfighting. This is at least partially my fault; I have a longstanding rule that when I read the word “bull” in a Hemingway novel, I immediately skip forward to the next chapter. But however elaborate and nonsensical the version of bullfighting that exists in my head, I tend to think of it as a rather graceful sport. The bull charges, the bullfighter glides just out of reach, and the scene continues like a dance until, again in my mind, just before bull or man is bloodily gored in front of thousands of men, women and children. The sky is blue. There are trumpets in the background.

I relate this anecdote to provide context for my mood on Monday morning. It looked to be an arduous week, and so as I prepared my office I gave myself a little treat: I dialed up and enjoyed the phenomenon of position players pitching. There stood Chris Davis, who according to the media guides weighs thirteen pounds less than Seattle Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin, as he cast his entire repertoire at the Boston Red Sox in the bottom of the 16th. There was the fastball clocking 89, or perhaps a tick faster than Jered Weaver’s, but even more enjoyable was the indecisive knuckle-change that seemed to give up halfway to the plate.

It was one of his mistakes, however, that led to what drew my interest. With a runner on first, one of Davis’ fastballs found itself up and over the plate, and Mike Aviles relocated it to te base of the left-center wall. Marlon Byrd rounded third and met Matt Wieters.

I have, like many people, complained about catchers blocking the plate as they wait for the ball. The home plate collision invoked a new round of controversy after it felled Buster Posey last year, but I’ve long found the practice distasteful. Catchers are no more entitled to the runner’s path than any other fielder. In this case, however, the catcher stood well in front of the plate, stretching out to receive the relay at its earliest point and sweep the tag back over the plate. The throw was true and early. Wieters turned. Byrd threw his left elbow into the catcher’s ribs. The two men sprawled over, the dust billowed, and Wieters held up his mitt dramatically to reveal the ball still inside. The crowd cheered; the inning was over.

The play felt wrong to me. It felt dirty.

I realize I am in the minority in this respect. The rules don’t talk about home plate collisions in the same sense that the U.S. Constitution fails to tackle abortion: like government, the game of baseball evolves, however slowly, as a sort of social contract between the representatives and the People. In this sense the home plate collision is baseball’s pittance to its fans, a rare acquiescence to the natural fan appeal of goonery. Hockey has its referee-sanctioned fistfights, football has its everything; baseball, in comparison, has merely sacrificed Ray Fosse to the altar of bloodlust.

My idealized baseball would involve no contact at all between the players beyond the tag.I’d like to leave the collisions behind, relegating them to the memories of belt-grabbing and knee-high cleats. My ideal form of baseball is more like my version of Hemingway’s version of bullfighting, an ethereal grace under pressure. In fact, my idealized baseball would involve no contact at all between the players beyond the tag; every moment in baseball centers on each player’s interaction with the ball, not each other. This renders the tag as the most potent and percussive act in the game, like the flourish of the cape. The rest of the game becomes a sort of waltz, performed either by Kinsella’s ghosts or Plato’s forms, both in some way seeking perfection.

This is romantic of me, I realize. But the game is moving this way on its own accord, becoming more visual and less visceral. The players themselves become less real as they are increasingly separated from the fan by distance, security and tax bracket. The game has become an increasingly televised event as baseball’s culture spreads across the country and globe. And perhaps most vitally, the game itself is no longer held in common between player and fan; fewer and fewer people play the game they love, preferring to watch passively. This is not a sign of decay, only change; we as fans love our game a little differently than we once did. Baseball is more symbolic, less tangible than it once was.

Maybe that’s why I felt so strongly about Byrd’s slide; after all, he wasn’t trying to hurt Wieters, nor break any rules. What he did wasn’t wrong. It just wasn’t the baseball I’ve romanticized, that we all romanticize to a certain degree. When Alex Rodriguez tried to slap a ball out of a player’s glove a few years ago, he was condemned, not for his desire to win, but by his gaucheness. This felt the same. The game, for me, is greatest when it is at its most gentlemanly, and it’s a shame that Wieters was unable to flick his wrist and tap the bull as it charged toward him.

The Argument for the Fair-Foul Bunt

Every afternoon, my Twitter feed is inevitably punctuated with lamentations over a mislaid bunt. It’s an act equated with cowardice, bearing the mark of gray-haired managers conducting mindless and archaic rituals. As a strategy, it’s pointless. As an action, it’s nothing more than surrender, impotent and futile. As a game mechanic, the bunt is broken. Something has to be done.

For most people, especially those of the statistical bent, that something is simple: stop bunting. In our current offensive era, the price of the bunt is too great. For all but pitchers and the most tepid of hitters, the sacrifice of a potential multi-base hit is too great a cost for the chance at legging out an infield single. And the sacrifice bunt is even worse; as Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin note early in The Book, game states simply don’t often [-ed.] justify the strategy. The most intuitive example is the bottom of the ninth inning, runner on first, no outs. The average manager would call for the sacrifice and be thrilled with having a runner in scoring position with one out. And yet in doing so, the team’s odds of winning have dropped from 35.3% to 29.6%. An out is too valuable to be sacrificed, no matter how nobly.

However, there’s an aesthetic power within the bunt. Part of it lies in the sacrifice itself, the unselfishness it shows and willingness to put team before self. Another part rests in deception. We admire the physical feats of strength in our athletes, but we’re doubly impressed by their cunning, their ability to defeat their opponents spiritually as well as physically. The flashing neon green of Rickey’s batting gloves, the brazenness of the shift, Drysdale’s fastball up and in: these are all moments of psychological warfare, a combination of style and strategy, an imposition of the will.

Every sport has its feints, its moments of clever misdirection: football has the draw play, hockey the stick deke, tennis its drop shot. In each case the offensive player uses deception to manipulate the odds in his or her favor. The bunt seems ideal for this purpose. It’s provides the batter with alternatives, an opportunity for hitters to create their own style. The more individuality that can be imbued into the pitcher-hitter matchup, the more interesting that matchup is. The bunt is exciting; it provides us with quick action, snap decisions, bare-handed grabs and throws across the body to first. It seems a shame to throw these things away just because they don’t help one’s team win.

We shouldn’t hate the bunt. We should hate the game for killing it.

Ross Barnes, Dapper GentlemanThere was a time when the bunt was not only acceptable; it was noble. In the 1870s, the National League had just organized, and people were still trying to sort out this what this “base ball” game was all about. A viable strategy in this era was the fair-foul bunt: if a ball landed in fair play and then rolled foul, even in front of the bag, it was considered in play. Enterprising batters would chop at the pitch in an attempt to put English on the ball, spinning it away from fielders. Rather than being shameful, however, baseball culture of the 1870s treated the fair foul bunt as a legitimate and even honorable practice. Henry Chadwick, baseball’s first chronicler and robber baron, defended the play against its critics, countering arguments that the fair foul being easy or cheap as “absurd”.

Few people were able to master the skill; none was better than Ross Barnes, who used it to hit over .400 four out of six years. Numerous steps were taken to restrict the fair foul, including the creation of the batter’s box, moving the plate into foul territory, then further scooting the batter’s box a foot farther back from the plate. None of these change hurt Barnes, who hit .406 in 1876. The following year it was eliminated entirely, not because it was deemed unfair, but because umpires, who at that point lined up off to the side of the plate, had difficulty determining fair and foul balls in front of the plate. The fair foul bunt was soon forgotten, and the bunt itself has been dying slowly ever since.

The umpire stands where he belongs now, and the reasons for banning the fair-foul bunt are gone. There isn’t much chance that it will break or even significantly alter the game. It’s unlikely that hitters would be able to consistently put the kind of English on a 95 mile per hour fastball that Ross Barnes could against the junk of his own era. Scott Podsednik’s major league career is probably still over.

But at the same time, there’s no reason to put up extra barriers against a tactic that’s already disadvantageous enough. It’s time to restore some incentive to the bunt, and perhaps provide an opportunity for style and excitement in the process. Anything that gives hitters more choices and gives audiences something to watch beyond strikeouts and dingers can only be a good thing.

A True Nightmare by Ross Allen

Ross Allen is a Cubs fan and former second-rate Division I tennis player.

I awoke several weeks ago from the most searing nightmare. It brought me back to my teenage years when I would awake from horrible dreams involving Craig Biggio, Shane Reynolds, and an antiquated dump known as the Houston Astrodome.

However, this dream was more horrifying than any before because it involved my favorite player, Chicago Cubs slugger Carlos Zambrano, instead of my most hated. Zambrano has been my favorite ballplayer for a decade. I saw his first major league start, the second game of a double header in August, 2001, and have been transfixed by his passion and energy ever since. A man who could develop tendinitis in his elbow from furious online communication with his family is a man I must believe in.

The nightmare began in a half-empty Marlins stadium. At first I thought this was any other regular season game, due tothe general apathy and limited number of spectators. It was the bottom of the 8th inning and the Cubs were leading by three runs. This game, I quickly realized, had much greater significance. The normal post-season banners were out and the chalkboard voice of Tim McCarver* came on. It was just like I was listening to a portable radio at the park. As I continued to curse McCarver and everything he stood for to the random guy sitting next to me, the jumpotron showed infuriating replays of the 2003 National League Championship Series. Eventually the play-by-play man informed me that this was game 7 of the National League Championship Series and the Cubs were nearing their first pennant since 1945.**

The bottom of the 8th rolled by without any incidents. The first out was an easy ground ball to short and the second was a routine foul pop to left field. After the third hitter walked, Cubs skipper Dale Sveum came out to settle Kerry Wood down, and he struck out the final batter on a great curveball away. The top of the ninth went by similarly without incident, my confusion and stress only increasing. As the TV cameras kept moving to Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen, who had the weirdest and cruelest grin on his face, I figured something horrible had to go wrong.

The bottom of the ninth started like any other Carlos Marmol save opportunity. He hit the first batter and walked the second. Every count went to 3-2. Marmol’s slider was unhittable, but it also couldn’t hit the plate. A strikeout, a walk, and a strikeout later I was shaking in my seat. The Chicago Cubs were now one out away from heading to the World Series.

What strode to the plate next was something so disgusting and repulsive that I can barely stand to describe it. It was Carlos Zambrano. My Carlos Zambrano walking to the plate in a garrish Miami Marlins uniform. He was the starting pitcher. It was his turn in the batting order. I was conflicted. I had never before been in a situation where I was rooting for him to do anything but hit it straight out of the ballpark. This is the man with most home runs by a pitcher in the DH era. This is the man who could break Wes Ferrel’s all-time mark someday. What is more exciting in baseball than seeing a pitcher help his own cause? What is more exciting than seeing a pitcher win a game with both his arm and his bat?

The at-bat was like any other Carlos Zambrano at-bat ever. It was not long or climactic. There is a reason his slugging percentage is a career .395 and his on-base percentage is .251. The run was never going to be walked in and it wasn’t. The 1-0 fastball, right in the middle of the plate, left his bat so much faster than it left Marmol’s arm. As the ball traveled through the blue Miami air, my dream popped, punctured by the ball I never saw land.

*Imagine for a second how horrifying it is to hear Tim McCarver’s voice in a dream. I haven’t recovered.

**The play-by-play man must have been someone other than Joe Buck, because Joe Buck would not have provided me with such useful information without a million clichés that forced me to rip off my headphones and throw them at the redneck Marlins fan in front of me, who still was asking his friend to explain to him who those six individuals in black were on the field.

We Are Taking The Talent: As Told By Former Miami Marlins Scout Ramos Crews by Dylan Little

To paraphrase Bruce Chatwin, the fictional process is at work.

There used to be a pair of trees that jutted over the skyline of San Cristobal, D.R. My bartender Diego said they were called the Hermanos del Fuego because smoke poured out of their heads at night. Sometimes when I was too drunk to tally pitch counts I’d imagine the fat parrots gliding around their branches. Often I spent half the night on Diego’s patio watching them fume and wondering if the trees were hiding some kind of secret toothbrush handle factory. Diego told me it was time to quench my curiosity or he would close my tab.

The day after I signed a thirteen year old for $600 I packed a machete, three mayonnaise sandwiches, and four bottles of Chupacabra Delite and hiked towards the trees. I reached the trees around nightfall. At first they looked like a normal pair of trees but then I started to inspect the trunk. When I scratched the surface the bark flaked apart like wet cardboard. It was perturbing. This tree investigation would be no Woody Woodpecker cartoon. It would be like watching one of the long movies where sometimes you don’t see an ass or a helicopter for an hour. I was committed for the duration.

I wandered around collecting lumber for the sake of heat and light. I had dumped about six handfuls of kindling into a pile when I heard a creaking noise. I silently hid behind a boulder, within eyeshot of the Hermanos. I watched as the trunk of the westerly tree slid open like an elevator door, then slid shut. A few minutes later the Hermanos del Fuego began to smoke and a red beacon began to flash in the canopy, as if from inside a jungle submarine. After a few minutes all the smoke and the lights stopped and one of the trees pooped out a freeze dried cube of paper. I made sure the coast was clear and dragged the cube back to my fire pit. With the heat from my fire I was able to peel off a couple thawed memos. The letterhead showed the logo of the fucking New York Yankees.

Working my way through the cube I found several contracts. These weren’t your typical seven figure butt slaps. The Yankees were sharing ink with Madonna, Pepsi and Godfather’s Pizza. Most of the papers fell apart in my hands like wet toilet paper so I couldn’t make out the alphabetics for shit, but I was able to peel out a complete set of hieroglyphics. When I deciphered the contract code I almost had an angina. Per the written words in my hands, the Bronx Hillbillies were paying Halliburton to genetically manufacture baseball players.

Yep, I got pissed. Yup, I ate all my sandwiches in thirty seconds.

Next thing I know I’m thumbing through a dripping wet series of email exchanges. The subject heading of the email chain was “The Methuselah Project”. The Yankees wanted a lab mercenary (I will call him Dr. Turducken) to mix the genetic material of Jamie Moyer with that of Julio Franco. They wanted create players that would last for thirty years. Turducken said that the genetic material had been realized but there was only a thirty percent chance that a Methuselite would become a professional athlete. There was a sixty percent chance the offspring would be born without elbows. The Yankees wouldn’t listen. They demanded an eternal lineup. It reminded me of the movie where the alien general was desperate to teach the enchanted piglets to invade the earth.

When I discovered that Turducken’s address was Hermanos del Fuego Laboratories my heart began to spasm blood into my eyes. I was a scout for the Miami Marlins. This was our turf. In a decade we had won two World Series but had remained the fourth most popular professional sports team in the tip of our peninsula. We took a lot of abuse. A week after we won the World Series I was denied lodgings at Don Shula’s bed and breakfast. Lebron James keeps on saying the Marlins are his favorite soccer team. We couldn’t afford Jeff Conine. Twice. How could we get respect in South Beach if word got out that the Yankees were manufacturing a dynasty right under our noses? That night, I sat by the fire and got hotter and hotter.

When day broke I heard the pinging of the retractable door. I waited until I saw Dr. Turducken walk out of the tree and I popped out from behind the big rock. He was looking at his cellphone. I cut his head off with my machete. Blood was still spurting when I rolled Turducken’s skull down the hill. I drug his body inside the tree and used his still warm fingerprints to gain access to the laboratory. The industrial fridge was stocked with vials, test tubes, and buckets of genetic essence. I also found some buffalo wings.

While they were reheating, I took a Louisville Slugger signed by Jim Leyritz and made ice shavings out of every piece of glass I could find. By the time my wings were done I had demolished every computer and all of the lab’s centrifugal technology stations. I snapped all of the candles at the Derek Jeter altar. I propped the fridge door open with a trashcan, rendering millions of dollars of genetically engineered sperm completely inert.

On my way out of the tree I got a text saying that we had signed Jose Reyes. It was a great feeling, knowing that I wasn’t acting alone, but then again Fishies like to swim in conspiracy. Of course I had to leave the country after I destroyed the lab but before I left I signed into FB using my daughter’s account. I left a note on the Marlin’s official FB wall. It said “Don’t fuck this up. This isn’t a rebuilding year. This is the year we build on the demolished bones of our enemies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image by Infinite Jeff (click through)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Situational Essay: A Cardinals Fan Reflects on the End of the La Russa Era

Brian Kist writes the blog Punk On Deck. He’s on twitter, too, @punkondeck.

The Cardinals did it.If I based fandom on general managing style or minor league makeup, I might have difficulty justifying this, my favorite team’s success. But since I, like most fans, root for laundry, I don’t have an obligation to defend or laud how it happened. The Cardinals are the World Series Champs. They just are.

I watch baseball because it’s fun. Attempting to degrade or justify a team’s results is not fun. Personally, I like a more sabermetric approach to the game than the Cardinals have practiced over the years. Yes, things are getting better, but the team still feels like a throwback to an earlier era. Transactions like giving Kyle Lohse a four-year deal after a career season is the type of alienating personnel move I’m talking about. Fans like me have had to put aside management techniques and blindly follow the birds on the bat. It’s quite a feat to get a respectful, yet lukewarm response when you announce your retirement immediately after managing your team to a World Series title.

But now Tony La Russa has retired and there’s one less thing to defend out of laundry loyalty. To say LaRussa was polarizing is a misnomer. He had the people who disliked everything he did on one side and the people who merely respected what he did on the other. Not too many outside of friends, colleagues, and family were raving fans of his style. LaRussa played every game as if it were his last but with the caveat of being loyal to a fault to underachieving veterans. This style made him a great (the greatest?) playoff manager, but a chore to observe during the heat of the summer. It’s quite a feat to get a respectful, yet lukewarm response when you announce your retirement immediately after managing your team to a World Series title.

and while I was not a fan of LaRussa’s managing, I will say that, in an odd way, I admire the way he went out. He spent the last few days before the end of the World Series talking to reporters, opining about what he doesn’t like about Moneyball. He didn’t like how it portrayed scouts and he had issues with the emphasis on on-base percentage (I know that isn’t the point of the book. I suspect LaRussa knows this, too.). Then he wins it, in uber-Tony-mode, making more pitching changes than any manager in the playoffs ever. After the parade, he drops the mic and points at the big baseball scoreboard. There’s nothing you can say to him after that. The final out was recorded, and somehow, he was on top.

Brian McCann Has Never Been a Train Robber

Bryan Harvey, who has previously written here about Jason Heyward and John Henry, 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 released his eBook, Everything That Dunks Must Converge, in April.

The best Westerns do not feature the men who laid the tracks for the railroad’s methodical predictability, and seldom do they make heroic the movements of a conductor checking his watch for an estimated time of arrival or of a gritty man, hunched over and sweaty, shoveling coal into a hot furnace. No, the best Westerns feature the men who threaten the set path with dynamite, upending the train’s metal cars, blowing open the safe’s cold door, holding passengers and employees at gunpoint, stealing the business man’s gold, and preventing the execution of plans laid in hard steel. In short, watching too many westerns can make a person believe that the only way to be a hero is to become the personification of riotous freedom. And, if you come to believe that rebellion is the stuff that makes men courageous, then you can also come to believe that order is a lukewarm drink sipped by quiet men. And baseball is full of quiet men.

Brian McCann has never been a dynamo, and he’s never been a train robber. There is no mystery to the Braves catcher. He’s homegrown and ripe with familiarity–another ballplayer taught to swing a bat by his father. And, if he were in a Western, he’d probably have a green visor and an accountant’s arm bands, because the truth of the matter is that Brian McCann’s game has always been calculated, reduced or enhanced by a score on an eye test, a vision-correcting prescription, or how many starts can a catcher make without blowing out his knees. Nothing about Brian McCann has sparked our imaginations to run wild about whether he’s killed a man, got a family somewheres, or just how far can he hit a baseball. By consistently hitting around twenty home runs every season, he’s shown himself to be a power hitter that always makes contact, and there’s something less dramatic about a slugger who doesn’t come to the plate with an all or nothing mentality. In other words, Brian McCann, in all of his chubby generosity, has found a way to be too dependable for his own good, for his style of play is not as inspiring as say a Buster Posey’s, who has risked his very life protecting the plate. And, while announcers, fans, and analysts weep over his tragic sacrifice, the cuddly McCann is discussed in a manner that, like his name, suggests he is merely capable. Both men are catchers, but only one is followed through swinging saloon doors by hushed whispers and pointed fingers. Only one of them is a gunslinger, and Brian McCann is not that man.Brian McCann, in all of his chubby generosity, has found a way to be too dependable for his own good

To have a torrid passion for the game of Brian McCann, an individual would have to be in love with the catcher almost as much as they are in love with the game of baseball itself, for even his game-winning hits, whether in the All-Star game or a meager regular season outing appear to be the work of percentages, that they were due to happen, like an accountant playing the odds in poker, rather than the mythos of The Natural’s Roy Hobbs or Jason Heyward’s spring training blasts. And, while McCann’s swing is round and smooth, it’s delivered in a very matter of fact style, lacking the poetry of Ken Griffey, Jr., the killer instinct that rode Fred McGriff’s line drives like a bullet, or the freakish monstrosity of a Barry Bonds lightning strike. And it also lacks the same static crackle that resonates from the bat when Chipper Jones sends one flying for the fences, but I doubt there’s any science behind the difference; the physics of Brian McCann hitting a baseball 400 feet are the same as when any of those other guys do it; so why then doesn’t a Brian McCann home run have the same scorched earth effect as it sizzles down our optic nerves and is engraved upon our brains?

Somewhere along the line, the career of Brian McCann became less than the sum of its parts. He was too quiet, too underrated, too underappreciated, and there was a storyline that was all too easily available for defining his career; a metaphor that was perhaps too perfect to do anyone any good, even if that somebody happened to be a Major League baseball player who hits clutch grand slams with an air of regularity.

Cowboys and baseball players are the quintessential American heroes, but how many cowboys wore glasses? Then consider not just the Western genre but all of Western literature, and ask the same question: how many of our heroes wear glasses? The list probably isn’t much longer than Atticus Finch, Harry Potter, and Ben Franklin; a pacifist lawyer, a moping teenage wizard, and a bald tinkerer, not exactly the vivacious, muscular archetypes of the sports world.

For the longest time, no matter who was calling the game, the discussion about Brian McCann began and ended with a mentioning of his glasses. Were they fogging up? Was he wearing them? Was he not? To Lasik or not to Lasik? What did he see at the plate? Behind the plate? He was always at the crux of where the baseball universe unfolds with a Big Bang crack of the bat, but he was reduced to a pair of eye glasses, or spectacles, which has the same root word as spectator. Think T.J. Eckleburg, gold rims and blue sky, in a Braves uniform and a catcher’s mask, and you have Brian McCann reduced into a passive symbol, like a teddy bear at bedtime, watching, listening, not saying a word; his whole world limited by a flimsy pair of frames.

A few days ago, Ted wrote a great column that revolved around the general principle that familiarity with the limitations of a subject breeds disinterest, and maybe even disappointment, because it is the idea of unlimited potential that spurs the imagination to run wild. To back up his statement, Ted cites the example of how a city’s enthusiasm wanes drastically after a team is mathematically done with its season. Another example of this principle can be found by looking at the television show Lost, and how more people watched when the island could be anything they as a viewer imagined it to be, but the more the show proved that the island was really nothing more than a physical hub for the characters’ physical time on earth (or a wampeter, a la Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle) and the real focus of the show was simply the characters’ relationships with one another the more people split into camps that admitted confused frustration, hurled scornful disdain, or heaped on praise.

And people’s reactions to the show’s ending, especially the negative ones, seemed to be founded on the stubborn belief that the show should have been what they imagined it to be, rather than what the writers wrote it to be. And the same vehement reactions can be seen in how the average fan reacts to a prodigious athlete when his/her talents wind up less than what the fan had hoped and longed for. And that’s the challenge with rooting for a player like Brian McCann: the response to his play on the field is never visceral, because he is, to quote long-time NFL coach Denny Green, who we thought he was, and, therefore, we will never be surprised nor disappointed with his play.

When McCann came to the Majors, he was twenty-one years old and viewed as the obvious sidekick to future face of the franchise and (then) can’t miss kid, Jeff Francoeur. Chipper Jones was thirty-four and still hitting well over .300, but the search for the heir apparent had already begun and McCann garnered very little consideration for the position. Francoeur was the guy on the cover of Sports Illustrated, hitting his way into the hearts of the fanbase, and McCann was prepping to give the Hall of Fame introduction. Now, it’s five years later and Francoeur is in Kansas City and less than we wanted him to be, Chipper Jones is one more injury away from a church softball league, and the young phenoms, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward (well, one more than the other), are all the rage, and McCann, who carried the Braves’ offense single-handedly for the first half of the season, has had his thunder interrupted by Dan Uggla’s hit streak. In some ways, it’s as if McCann’s baseball cap is already faded blue, like a synthetic throwback, that, somehow, he got old without a legacy.

So, while the only catcher to hit twenty home runs in each of the last four seasons (including this one) inhabits a universe that is neither shrinking nor growing, he does shed his skin, like a snake giving us the chance to every so often admire his sheen.
There are athletes who explode into our worlds, announcing themselves like hurricanes, threatening to decimate what was, leaving the past in a haze of grainy black and white photographs, and then there are those who catalogue the scope of their world in mechanical increments, without our knowing, and we find them one day like a bear in the attic, bridging us to some mundane, insignificant moment when we may or may not have learned something. And, while scratching our heads for the memory, we say to ourselves:

“Damn, Teddy Ruxpin sure could talk, couldn’t he?”

It’s Not Love (But it’s Not Bad) by Pete Beatty

You may remember Pete Beatty from “Jim Thome Takes His Rips,” during 90s 1b Week, from his having edited Craig Robinson’s Flip Flop Fly Ball the book, or from his key role in The Classical (pledge drive ongoing!). Pete tweets @nocoastoffense.

When serious rumors of Jim Thome’s return to Cleveland started to bubble up on Twitter yesterday, my first response was sourness. It felt like something between a mercy fuck and an indulgent non-victory lap. Thome is a great guy, a Hall of Famer, and an Indians legend. I love the dude. But he did say in 2002 that they’d have to tear the Cleveland jersey off his back. That was just before he tore the jersey off his back for 85m of the Phillies’ free agent dollars. It still rankles. But I carved out part of Thursday evening to slay those goblins of resentment, grieve them properly, and appreciate what Jim Thome’s return to Cleveland means.

To tell you that, I am starting with a confession: I like to look at pretty girls.

Living in New York City—and spending my 9-to-5 in a part of NY that it’s fair to deem as pacified by cappucino—I spend a lot of time in the presence of unattainable women. I’m not immune to noticing them. This neighborhood sure has a lot. And they’re dressed really well. Also it’s summer. I happen to be single at the moment, too. So I look. That’s part of being alive. Woraciousness is in my nature. The day I don’t notice pretty girls will be a sad day, probably because I will be dead.

I try my level best not to have a destructive male gaze. I temper my heart of a dog by making up stories about the women I see. I look at their shoes, their clothes, their auras, for hints about what their jobs are, who they are, what they’re like. I saw a girl this morning wearing floral print hospital scrubs. She had greasy ringlets and gaudy jewelry, but there was a calm warmth in her eyes that made me think she was a good sister/daughter/mom/girlfriend. There’s a girl I see often on my commute who is around my age. I assume she isn’t into guys because of her haircut. She has “So it goes” tattooed on her left bicep; she is worried about making ends meet, in my story. There’s the mid-twenties-ish lady who gets on the N train at Atlantic-Pacific with peroxided hair, an affinity for neon accessories, and a smoky voice. She’s a lot of fun to know, I imagine, a tomboy with terrible taste in music and guys, but a thorough enthusiasm for life that trumps my brainy cynicism. Or so I have imagined.

These narratives in re the hidden lives of pretty girls are not methodical, but there is a rough set of genre conventions. I try to keep things positive (mental hygiene is important), and I almost always check for a wedding band. I am not a saint.

This was a relatively short but intense summer on the east coast. That day when everyone’s sap rises—and my girl-storytelling season starts in earnest—came late this year. The annual riot of femininity in the male mind didn’t arrive until some weeks into the baseball season, after the Indians had posted a profoundly unexpected 30-15 start. In fact, the beginning of this year’s Indians felt like a month full of that one magical day when tank tops and skirts above the knee get reinvented every year. The Indians were succeeding by being both lucky and good, and it was rewarding to watch. A young, projection-thwarting team playing compelling, if sloppy, ball. They were an obvious regression-to-mean candidate, but fuck math in a summer like this.

Math has a way of fucking you back harder, though. Josh Tomlin’s alchemical command of the strike zone wavered, and a lot of his mistakes have been transmuted into home runs. Every decent bat save for the steady Carlos Santana has spent significant time on the DL. There was the Ubaldo trade, which felt a lot like buying groceries on a credit card. There were flashes of fight through July and the beginning of August, but when Detroit’s Austin Jackson gunned down Kosuke Fukudome to close out a three-game sweep for the Tigers last week, I said my goodbyes to the Indians’ hopes. But this team made me happy, on balance. The minor bummer of their sundowning is a vaccination against hopelessness next year, just like looking at girls in their summer clothes, girls light years out of my league, is an inoculation against loneliness.

And so in its way is Jim Thome’s return. For the same reason I look at pretty girls and make up stories about them, I can’t wait to see Jim Thome in an Indians uniform again. It’s rank sentimentality, it’s cheap, it’s whatever. It’s not a championship, it’s not lasting fulfillment, but it is real. Thome will look particularly ruin-porn-y in the cream alts and the block-C hat. He narrowly missed playing for World Series winners in Philadelphia and Chicago. I suppose I wish for his sake that he’d been on a winner. But seeing him walk back into Cleveland and dance across my laptop screen for this September, I can’t help but notice he’s not wearing a ring. I’m glad, because that leaves room in the story for me.

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

Situational Essay: Of Broken Bats and Broken Bottles: Athletes, Musicians, and The Number 27 by Simon Broder

Simon Broder is a starving writer and Blue Jays fan living, working and ostensibly writing his first novel in Victoria, BC. He blogs about the Jays at .363.

My first favourite number wasn’t twenty-seven.

It was 3. Three, because three is the quintessential baseball number. Three outs, three strikes: three is baseball’s time-clock. From three I branched to the number nine. Three repeated three times, nine is just as fundamental to the baseball experience. Nine innings. Nine players. Besides, John Olerud wore the number nine, and I already had a numerical bond to the Jays’ first baseman given our birthdates (8/5/68 and 8/5/86). We looked like distant cousins (tall, thin, pasty). He was coming off of one of the best offensive seasons in Blue Jays history, but it was because of the numbers that I idolized Johnny O.

Twenty-seven is three outs times nine innings, and any baseball fan knows what the number means: perfection. In a way, the number 27 (three times three times three) contains within its mathematical parts the entirety of a baseball game. But the importance of the number twenty-seven extends beyond this abstract baseball sense: ever since Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix expired two weeks apart from each other in 1970, conspiracy theorists have expounded the merits of the number twenty-seven for an entirely different reason – because it’s the age at which musicians die.

Amy Winehouse was born in September of 1983, which made her, as of July 23, 2011, twenty-seven years old. And like Joplin, Hendrix, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison before her, she left in her wake a critically acclaimed catalogue and a well-documented history of substance abuse. Is 27 truly the expiry date for the excessive lifestyle or is it a self-fulfilling prophesy? The number itself has become almost as superstitious as Turk Wendell’s toothbrush or Nomar’s batting gloves. If Wade Boggs didn’t eat chicken one day and went 0-4, there’s no doubt that we would point to the dietary choice as the reason for his failure, when, if anything, it was probably his fixation on the dietary choice that distracted him at the plate (and he might well have gone 0-4 anyway if the pitcher had good stuff on the night). If Kurt Cobain found meaning in the 27 Club, well then maybe one night he shot up with a gun in his hand, testing his willpower to join the famous foursome. We won’t have any indication whether Winehouse chose to join the club or whether her body simply gave out until we know the official cause of death, and we’ll likely never know for sure.

Death is messy in all the ways that numbers aren’t, and maybe that’s reflected in the music of the six stars who died at the age of 27. I know that as an adolescent coming out of my shell, I discovered in music something essential that wasn’t represented in my linear, mathematical understanding of things like baseball; something dynamic, free, and chaotic. For all of its carefully calibrated chord structures and notations, music is spiritual expression. As I realized the world was actually a pretty fucked up place and not the suburban daydream waxed by paternalistic play-by-play announcers, music became the outlet for my angst. Negotiating from one-hit wonders to classics like Soundgarden and Nirvana, I embraced the nineties as my era. I became a fake-nostalgic GenXer, patterning myself an outdated grunge kid, some free-ranging dissociative individual out of a Linklater flick or an idealistic hip hop video. The bottom-line chutes of office work, or public school education – or, yes, baseball – gave way to the experience of life itself. Fair and foul boundaries were blurred. Life – real life, not Kantian philosophy or pep talks – was relative, a world as far from the baseball diamond as one could get.

Baseball rewards – in a way, expects – perfection. Nothing represents what baseball strives for better than the perfect cube of the number 27. Three to its own exponent – an impenetrable mathematical fortress. Take out all the threes, and 27 is a prime number. Baseball players are lauded for their reliability, their machinelike focus on each game at hand. Adam Dunn hit exactly 40 homers for four years in a row. The ideal baseball team would be composed of five Roy Halladays and nine Albert Pujols’; a complete game every night and a 1.000 OPS from every slot in the lineup. There would be no struggle, no personal demons to overcome, because demons affect performance and baseball is all about performance.

If baseball players are the pillars of one model of orderly society, art is littered with the corpses of social outcasts. Nietzsche and Van Gogh went crazy. Dostoyevsky was politically oppressed. Brian Wilson couldn’t get out of bed for a decade. But there’s a reason why A&E can get away with running low-budget shows like “Hoarders” and “Intervention” back-to-back for 24 hours at a time. Even in the baseball universe, we can’t escape the pull of human-interest stories. Roy Halladay didn’t become the best pitcher in baseball until he was forced to reinvent himself in low-A ball. Josh Hamilton recovered from hard drug addiction. Zack Greinke overcame anxiety. Of course, the oft-repeated stories are always about the successful recoveries – the Lenny Dykstras and Ken Caminitis who fall victim to their own excesses are relegated to occasional fine-print bulletins and lamentful obituaries. They become “True Hollywood Stories” or the subjects of sanguine television movies.

Jacoby Ellsbury was born three days before Amy Winehouse. Think about that for a second. Jacoby Ellsbury is older than Amy Winehouse. In a game in which an early middle-aged man is referred to as a “shell” or a “corpse” by cynical commentators and some men shift to the coaching ranks in their mid-thirties, Ellsbury is a paragon of youth. He’s 27 and he’s having the best year of his career – hitting .300, stealing a ton of bases and just now adding power to the mix. He’s emerging as one of the best young – emphasis on young – players in the game today. To say that he’s still very much alive would be understating the point.

For musicians, 27 is special. It’s the burnouts’ burnout, a descending blaze of shooting-star glory at a round and perfect age. But for Jacoby Ellsbury, and countless other baseball players, 27 is an age defined by success. It’s been one of the revelations of the Bill James statistical renaissance that 27 is actually the age at which most players peak. Most good players come up at 23 or 24 and begin their decline around 30, but the best year of a career will usually happen at the moment when experience intersects physical skills. Just run down the list of players in their age-27 years in 2011: Dustin Pedroia. Jose Reyes. Joey Votto. Ryan Braun. Adam Lind. Casey Kotchman. Most of them have been good for two or three years and should stay in their primes for a couple more, but at age twenty-seven any given player can really bust out of his previous mould. Take Kotchman: after half a decade in the failed-prospect wilderness shuttled between four different organizations, at 27 he’s finally found a regular job and is delivering with an OPS in the mid-.800s and plus defense.

We don’t yet know how Amy Winehouse died. It’s possible that it wasn’t directly drug-related, that it was the result of health problems brought about by a self-destructive lifestyle. Rumours now abound that it was due to delirium tremens, the toxic shock brought about by withdrawal from alcohol. That strikes a personal chord with me, as someone who underwent a much milder form of alcohol withdrawal six months ago – not nearly so serious, obviously, but frightening nonetheless. (There’s nothing like cold sweats and muscle aches at four in the morning to make you feel like a real man.) Either way, her death was not a function of a healthy human being in the prime of her life, but more like the expected conclusion to a train barrelling towards a broken bridge. This was someone who wrote 5 years ago: “I tread a troubled track/my odds are stacked/I’ll go back to black.” Predicting that Amy Winehouse’s lifestyle was unsustainable was a bit like saying the Dodgers’ financial situation was precarious.

After Kurt Cobain killed himself, William Burroughs reflected that “As far as I was concerned, he was dead already.” Burroughs hallucinated his way through inaccessible metaphors to the ripe old age of 83, while Cobain childishly languished in a self-imposed drug haze for a couple of years and overdosed seemingly at will, because he wanted to “join the club.” It’s as if only in death could his life take on some kind of meaning – or maybe, more likely, he saw it as the ultimate prank to play on the world. Still, 28 and 26 don’t carry the same weight as 27. And thirty is old, not in a life-expectancy sense, but old in the sense of what it is to be young and what it is to be a rock star. Twenty’s cool and anything over fifty has its place for a whole different set of reasons (I’d pay to see Keith Richards in concert) but 30-50 is an awkward place to exist as a rockstar. Have you ever been to an Offspring show? It’s a bunch of middle-aged surfers lip-syncing songs about revolution. They’re not punks, they’re rich men from Malibu. In her public appearance at the Grammys a few years back, when Winehouse slurred her way through awkward thank yous before staggering off the stage, there was something pathetic in the actions but there was something honest in them, too. This wasn’t an auto-tuned diva created by a publicity machine; this was a pure heroin addict singing about her problems. And even as the shrill condemnations and side-of-the-mouth Courtney Love references rained down, it was in that moment that Amy Winehouse came into focus for me. A famous person who was real – even real fucked up – was compelling.

Amy Winehouse’s public image redefined, or brought back, heroin chic(k). With that messy hairdo and those bleary eyes, she looked like a white Ella Fitzgerald coming off a binge after putting on too much makeup. In a way, it was a female reconception of the Cobain slacker look, a kind of stylized, “I don’t give a fuck, it’s all about my personal demons,” that ultimately becomes a stylized self-parody in the clutches of the handlers of such famous people. I’m not saying Cobain and Winehouse weren’t drug-ruined messes, just that their publicists did their best to weave that messiness into a public image and make it seem less…upsetting. Less what it really was.

And that’s where the worlds intersect. Celebrity culture is about keeping issues under wraps. The way that baseball dealt with the steroid era isn’t all that dissimilar to the way that the United States is dealing with the debt crisis – let’s fix the tilted painting on the wall instead of dealing with the fire in the basement. Even in the 21st century, we are a culture of suppression, a culture in which it seems better to hide the elephant in the room than putting him on the front lawn. Drug addiction is a serious problem in the world, and glorifying the 27 Club does gloss over the fact that many addicts die before 30, famous or not. In a way, saying that great musicians die at 27 is like saying Dominican Republican shortstops go to America to escape the poverty. Many people go to America to escape the poverty, it’s just that the major leaguers are the ones who succeed. Most find life only slightly more bearable on the other side. America, after all, is a country that publicized a domestic war on drugs in the 1980s while still doing business with cartel-supported regimes.

Stylistically, Ellsbury to Winehouse is night and day. Ellsbury is clean-cut ballplayer personified. His personality, his struggle, is entirely manifested in the game itself. He’s simply a left-handed swinging stolen-base machine, who shows up in the same crew-cut and dirty pants from March through October. In a way, what made Manny Ramirez such an enigma during his career was his refusal to do the same. He never seemed to buy into the organized baseball system. He dressed – and lived – like a rock star. But the world of baseball is no different than the world of rock, ultimately; within everything lies the struggle to survive. And while I don’t know if I’ll ever reconcile the perfect world that baseball once laid out for me in her numerical organization with the life I later discovered – that network of shortcuts, failures and, ultimately, the fallible thing that life is – I can do my best to live with a dual respect for the thrill of fair competition and rock’s ethos of struggle. After all, there’s no ambiguity in numbers, but as we’ve so recently discovered, even Ichiro! is human.