Wednesday, March 2, 2011


If you've been alive over the past week or so, you've probably heard Charlie Sheen insist that he is a winner. WINNING. While we could cut to photo of Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen
embracing, and contrast with Sheen, clutching onto Mike Walter's thigh with all the desperation of your average Sherbourne and Shuter fiend, and ask gently whether Charlie really embodies his mantra, I'd like to leave aside his Cobain-esque rants to talk for a minute about the enigmatic nature of that adjective. Because winning, surely, is a worthwhile goal, most especially in professional sports.

In the book The Hustler by Walter Tevis (terrific novel, even better Paul Newman film), Fast Eddie Felson is a great pool shark playing the greatest pool shark. Fast Eddie can beat anyone and he knows it, but in order to become the true winner he's got to learn how to be a man. That woeful summary makes it sound like a tacky Angels in the Outfield for pool sharks, but's actually a dark and discomfiting film about humanity. In the end, Fast Eddie becomes the best pool shark in the world who can't play pool. There might be a cautionary tale here for our own Wild Thing.

Not to bash Hill and Lind's 2009 seasons, which were both terrific in their own right - but there's more to the mythology of Jose Bautista than 50 home runs and 100 walks, even if those are the magic numbers that make the monster statline look sustainable. Adam Lind is a hardworking kid from Muncie, Indiana and Aaron Hill always looks like he's stretching to get 6 feet out of that 5'11 frame of his. What set Joey's 2010 season apart from Hill and Lind's 2009 years was presence. Machismo. Mojo. Boneriety. Whatever you want to call it. As the season wore on, Bautista made the batter's box his, which is the first thing any high school pitching coach will tell you is the key to success. ("Dare that pitcher to come into you, son. Who does he think he is?")

I have some experience with the Fast Eddie phenomenon. In the book, he recalls his nascent days playing pool, reflecting that when he first started winning that was when he finally began to respect himself, which only led to more winning. Last year I began to play eight-ball somewhat seriously, against people who, to put it bluntly, staked their manhood on their pool game. As I played them more and improved I began to garner their respect. One night a guy at my bar, the tall gangster Slug-looking motherfucker who carried around a posse of idiots and tried to dominate every female within a three-meter radius, saw me put down my coins and disappeared onto the dance floor. Five minutes later one of his friends came over and told me that Slug was talking about playing me.

I'd seen the guy run ten or eleven games in a row before, and here he was afraid of me? It occurred to me that if I could win the psychological game, getting the balls in was the easy part. When I did play him, we played for 5 dollars and he tried to play me slow and wound up scratching the eight. The guy was a far better pool player than I was, but when he tensed up he only cost himself. He was Tevis's classic loser.
The first few home runs off of Jose's bat in 2010 were pleasant surprises. I remember when he hit his 14th or 15th home run at Fenway somewhere around mid-June, I thought to myself, "that's nice. Kid could actually have himself a 20-homer season." Bautista was still batting at the bottom of the order, and I took his surprising outburst of power with the same grain of salt I reserved for Alex Gonzalez's. Even as a fan of the team, I found him decidedly unremarkable. He was emblematic of the roster: a (then still clean-shaven) right-handed bat with the odd stroke of lightning in his bat, a description which fit at least 5 other Jays at the time: Hill, Wells, Gonzalez, Buck, Encarnacion, et al.

But as the season wore on, Bautista become notable. Suddenly you couldn't miss him. The home runs kept raining down, the beard came in, and when Ivan Nova thought he could come up and in with a fastball, Jose shook his head menacingly and said, "no, you can't." He realized, I think, that pitchers were frightened of him, and that knowledge only made him better. My entirely unscientific explanation for why his first-half OPS+ was 144 while his second-half OPS+ was 199: in the first half he learned how to mechanically improve his swing; in the second half he began to learn how to psychologically dominate the game.
All of which is well and good, but as we've seen, winning is a precarious thing. I don't know if there is a Sarah Packard in Jose's life. I don't know if he's going to crash spectacularly like Fast Eddie does in the film and Sheen seems sure to do in the next year or two. But I can imagine that he's riding on a very tall wave right now. He should be a superlative player going forward, sure, but where does the buck stop?

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