And Now for Something Completely Different
I wrote this for the Baseball Prospectus Idol contest, knowing it stood little chance of being selected. I lack the number crunching skills to make it with that crowd of smarty pants. But still and so, here's my homage to baseball.
When I was young, baseball was played by giants on mythic Elysian fields. Raised in rural British Columbia, I escaped my weekday prison of a single-channel universe by running to my grandmother's house every Saturday morning where I witnessed the game's magical appearance in gauze-shrouded silvery tones on her console television set. I would perch myself precariously on her knee, as the warm, folksy drawl of Curt Gowdy and the crisp and pointed barbs of Tony Kubek welcomed me into the temple of baseball.
These were the days before air conditioning, when the sun-scorched Okanagan heat would drive most people under shady trees or into cooling waters. Instead, every Saturday I remained indoors, riveted by the shimmering black and white images of Bunyan-esque men, wielding the mighty tools of their trade, while my grandmother, fuelled by nicotine, caffeine and refined sugars, looked on with a curious air of detachment. A first generation immigrant and orphanage survivor with a grade school education, my grandmother was a single mother at a time when the term didn't exist. She also held down two jobs and couldn't afford to allow to be part of her vocabulary petty concerns like passionate commitment or religious intensity. Which was fine, because I worshipped at this altar with enough enthusiasm for both of us.
Like many of my friends, I also played organized baseball, but there was no apparent connection between the static, clumsy and largely boring game we tried to play in mundane living color, and the majestic other-worldly endeavor I saw unfolding before me on the monochromatic screen. The fields were immense, the bats too heavy, the bases too far apart. The players were mostly inept, the coaches only mildly interested, and the games interminable. This was the irreconcilable difference between fiction and reality, legend and fact. The heroes I saw playing on TV dominated the screen, whether it was Carl Yastrzemski striding purposefully into the batter's box, Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax toeing the rubber or Roberto Clemente roaming the fields with the swagger of a Giant-era James Dean.
Then I started to grow up, as we all must, and I and the young players around me got a little better. Consequently, I fell into the trap of youthful hubris that allowed me to arrogantly believe in the possibility that we were bridging that massive gap between Us and Them. In a sign of the scepticism of the Watergate era, I began to wonder if it was not such a magical thing to play this game. Somewhat contradictorily, I no longer hungered for the comforting awe of myth, choosing instead to challenge my childish assumptions by scrutinizing them under the cold eye of reason and realism. Watching the game no longer served me in this pursuit, as we had color TV by this time, and an aspect of the fantastical was lost in the transition from the mythic other-worldliness of those black and white images of my childhood to the gaudy rayon reality of my young adult years. Perhaps these men we saw on TV were not gods playing a great sport on an entirely different plane from the rest of us, but mere mortals, well-remunerated people, enjoying themselves at a past-time that provided distraction for the rest of us. Players like Reggie Jackson still had the swagger, but the world had changed. A bitterly divisive war fed our growing appetite for cynicism, while free agency highlighted the economic fact that baseball was not just a sport, but a business venture. Add to this the emergence of some tell-all books, and a near-mortal blow was dealt to the aura of invincibility that had once cocooned major leaguers. Still, it was not so much the world that had changed as I. Thankfully, time would serve to heal me of the largely self-inflicted wounds that had turned me away from the game I loved as a child.
As I was at the start of a lifetime inclination towards Truth over Fact, and as I began to realize that mine was the ability of a mortal and not a talent of mythic proportions, by the time I exited my youth, it was clear that my love for baseball would have to endure as a fan, not a player.
And as I aged, the line between legend and fact grew increasingly blurry. Fifteen years ago, I joined a strat-o-matic league, which helped to reinvigorate my interest in the game I had largely abandoned in my youth. I became voracious in my search for analytical sources that could give me the edge over my competitors. Luckily for me, I came first upon Bill James, whose determination to apply some logical statistical criteria to the evaluation of players' performances was matched by his ability to write intelligently and passionately about his love of the game. Later, I found Rob Neyer, who led me to the founding fathers of Baseball Prospectus, and in every instance I was introduced to a community of devotees, both writers and readers alike, who were not only knowledgeable and curious, but also eloquent and open-minded. I began to see that the legends could endure as a celebratory storyline onto which one could feature a more clear-minded examination of the reality behind the lore, and perhaps even help create a new narrative informed by a more honest appraisal of the accomplishments of those who played and continue to play the game.
And just as I recognize that fuzzy-headed nostalgic yearning for the good old days is yet another form of life-denying attachment to stasis, on terms both familiar and unfamiliar I return to the game of my childhood, chastened by youthful failures, but impressed once again by the glory of the game played at the highest level by the greatest talents. True, the game is no longer played by gods in black and white in our grandmother's living rooms, or broadcast on transistor radios stashed in student's desks. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. And yes, it turns out that those who play the game so well at the very highest level are mere mortals, with flaws and scars just like the rest of us. But how much more impressive are their deeds taken in this context? These are people who rose from the same earth as the rest of us, but can play this game we love with such skill that we can often only stand on in slack-jawed wonder. And drawing now on a global pool of talent, we are surely witnessing the highest level of talent and skill to ever play this great game. We should be ever thankful. Every generation will have their heroes, and so my Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax are today's Johan Santana and CC Sabatthia, while my Roberto Clemente is today's Ichiro. I wait with great anticipation to see who tomorrow's icons will be.
As I wander anxiously through my middle age, muscles withering and spine arching, and I see the creeping specter of senescence lurking in the not so distant greenery, the game, which has endured more controversies and indignities than any politician this side of Governor Blagojevich, remains. As I shrink back to the world from whence I came, I see that baseball has always been a game, such a unique and inspiring blend of low and high culture, played by great athletes, capable of remarkable feats of strength, agility and poetry, and that the people who ply this trade today at the major league level are at the pinnacle of this sport for a reason. They are the best players of the greatest sport, practitioners of this unique combination of low and high brow culture, tobacco-spitting Nureyevs of yore having morphed into protein shake-drinking Baryshnikovs, and I cannot wait to prop my grandchildren on my knee and introduce them to these giants of my and their childhood.