Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Curtain: Success, Failure, and the Human Condition

In response to some of my stranger moments on the page in my university writing workshops, I’ve occasionally been called a “modern beatnik.” Much as I hate to come off as the hollow, selfless echo of fifty-year-old “influences,” I do appreciate the compliment. After all, behind the convoluted similes and Nietzsche references that coalesce On the Road, Kerouac’s writing teems with life. We both write nonconformists, but while he writes about freedom, I write about losers. Even though I’m an unpublished hack and Kerouac lived his writing through to its natural conclusion – cirrhosis and a premature death – what ties them together, I guess (and makes the comparison even conceivable), is the shared fascination with how fuckups define the human condition.

Many a lazy sportswriter has written about how baseball embodies failure. How a .300 hitter fails 70% of the time, how a perfect season is impossible – the list goes on. But I think it’s worth revisiting how fascinating we, as a species, find failure. While my father and I were in Southern California to watch the Angels play the Blue Jays, we stumbled upon a tour of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles.
(The Bradbury building, better known as the place where Blade Runner was shot)
Tours generally offend me on a philosophical level – for their very lack of life; their premeditated facade of carefully plotted re-enactments – but this tour was different. Our tour guides were a retired couple from Minnesota, who knew less about their subject matter than the resident Raymond Chandler fan or several of the employees of the various heritage buildings. As they felt the tour slipping away, our hapless guides resorted to reading various passages from Chandler stories which may or may not have related to the sites we were visiting. In a way, their clumsiness was charming – it made the tour a universal, organic experience as opposed to an oiled machine. And it’s that lack of oil that makes life real.

Within the passages the nervous older woman stammered through, I found myself noticing the same hunger for destitution that drives me (and, I suppose, my Kerouac-shadow-writer). Along with the slick hustlers and femme fatales immortalized in Hawks’ version of The Big Sleep, Chandler writes the city’s derelict. More than Marlowe himself, it is his “elevator people” that makes his city breathe – that make for the kind of created world that inspires a retired Midwestern couple to conduct a slightly socially awkward book-tour.
(Image by Vivien Maier - http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/)
To visit LA is inevitably to notice its underside: the middle-aged black woman scratching her face at a street corner, the greybeard holding out a palm on the front steps of a major bank. But then it’s that dynamic that defines, and unites, the urban experience in general. Be it Toronto, where in high school I smoked joints in abandoned playgrounds blocks from Regent Park; be it Los Angeles, a foreign city in a foreign country; be it even small-townish Victoria, British Columbia, my new home, where the homeless flock in winter to escape the snow: bottle people are the grease of society. Or maybe its oil leak, or something; human, real, they are ostracized for the very humanity they reflect back at us. People live lifetimes avoiding the reality of failure, and it’s this fear – far more than distaste or stinginess – that drives them past that extended palm without so much as a cursory glance. The urban poor intrigue me precisely because they don’t succeed in our society’s drive for homogeneity. I think the balance between interesting failure and boring success can also be found in the experience of a baseball game.

A “great” baseball game is repetitive. The game that Jared Weaver pitched on Sunday against the Blue Jays is illustrative; in 7 2/3 innings he struck out 15 men, issued four walks, and gave up four weak hits. In judging pitching talent, there is something called the “Three True Outcomes” – the three outcomes of an at-bat that are entirely controlled by the pitcher: walks, strikeouts, and homers. Weaver’s command of the game led to a profusion of True Outcome atbats – of 30 batters faced, 19 either walked or struck out. 

When a guy has no-hit stuff, it makes a game compelling in its own way. But while that dominance is appreciable – it’s an appreciation of success. Watching a sniper mow down an overmatched army is not entertaining in the same way as watching someone overcome the odds can be. Consider the WPA (win probability added) graph for Sunday’s game. The Blue Jays had a 50% chance of winning before the first pitch was thrown, and as the game progressed, it gradually shrank to 0% when Travis Snider struck out to end the top of the 9th. From my seat high above the third base foul line, this approximates my ballpark experience; as soon as Weaver was announced as the Angels starting pitcher, I became sceptical of the Jays’ chances – and only moreso as he struck out 2 in the first, then 6 of the first 9 batters. By the time Snider beat out a slow hopper in the fifth for the Blue Jays’ first hit of the game, I had all but given up hope of anything but avoiding the no-hitter.

The better baseball games, at least viscerally, are the worse baseball games. Take Saturday’s game. It was a game of failure – glorious, spectacular, epic, eye-popping failure. But it was also a game full of tension – and, as any writer learns early on, tension is the lifeblood of strong writing. The WPA graph generally favours the Angels slightly, but it reads like a heart-rate monitor. Every half-inning, more or less, the line would buzz in an opposing direction.
 (Brett Cecil throws a first-inning pitch.)
I could add more adjectives to “failure,” but they would never suffice. It was the best game I ever saw – but then I can’t rightly say I saw it at all. Can you say you watched a baseball game if you didn’t see who won? This is an essential question about baseball, about games, about life. For all its talk of beauty and glory – and for every moment that I breathed that in on Sunday – baseball is still a game, and games define themselves by winners and losers.
I was forced to walk out after the 11th inning – a waste of a front row seat and almost two hundred bucks, some might say. And yet, my walking out at the exact moment I did changed my perception of the entire game. The Blue Jays lost the game, but by leaving the game at the absolute pinnacle of their success, it felt like a win. Octavio Dotel had just struck out Jeff Mathis on what can rightly be described the most dramatic pitch I’ve ever seen in person. It’s what I call the ultimate payoff pitch – the moment when one pitch, barring a foul ball, must determine the outcome of the game. It only comes up in the exact situation that Mathis faced in that inning: bases loaded, two out, 3-2 count, home team at the plate, game tied in the bottom of the last inning. “Everyone in the park,” as the sportscasters must say, “knows what pitch is coming.” Dotel blew his best fastball past Mathis, the roaring crowd groaned, I clapped vigorously all the way to my Amtrak, deliriously happy just to be alive – in the game, I mean, though on some level perhaps literally.
In the larger scheme of things, of course, it doesn’t matter that Dotel got out of the jam, because the Jays lost, but to stress that point is to complete undermine the roller-coaster experience of fanhood. This is what a game of failure can offer: excitement. And this was an exciting game. The Angels should have won it in the 11th. The Jays could have won it in either of the 12th and the 13th. The Angels came very close to winning it in the bottom of the 13th. And when the Angels finally won it in the 14th, it was a misjudged fly ball that put the winning run on base.

And it was exhilarating. In about the sixth inning, after the fifth or sixth runner had been thrown out on the bases, I realized what the game reminded me of – a house little league game. You know how when kids play, everyone kicks the ball around, so the baserunners start running wild? Eventually, emboldened by their success, they start getting greedy – some kid tries to steal two bases on one pitch. Well, even clumsy eleven year olds can sometimes make a single short throw-and-catch throw in the time it takes a guy to run 180 feet, and the kid gets nabbed. On Saturday, it was as if each baserunning mistake on the Jays part that went unpunished led to an even more egregious mistake, until eventually someone would make a decent relay throw and kill the rally. All told, there were six baserunner kills in the game, five errors and multiples misplays on both sides of the ball.

Chandler once said that “The private detective of fiction is a fantastic creation who acts and speaks like a real man.” A real man, he implies, would choose a higher calling in the real world. When you look into the eyes of a major league baseball player who’s almost as young as you – I actually have a year-and-a-half on Travis Snider, though I haven’t accomplished a tenth of what he has in his life – you realize that somewhere behind that stern, focused gaze, is a fallible human being.

The dynamic between an individual baseball fan and an individual baseball player is inevitably a beta-alpha relationship. The very fact that I cheer on a given player prevents that player from ever respecting me. He sees me living vicariously through his successes on the baseball field, and he disrespects me.

My seat for Saturday’s game was a few paces behind the first-base line, directly level with the spot where the players practice their windsprints in the minutes leading up to first pitch. Nursing his injured ankle just spitting distance away from me, Rajai Davis practiced his leads, and after I shouted a word of encouragement, he looked over at me. Coldly. Expressionlessly.
I’m a notable character, even without any Blue Jay gear to represent – long hair, caveman beard – so I think Davis saw me. But I have no idea what passed through his mind (or, for that matter, Bautista or Snider’s when they noticed me too). I don’t know if he was sizing me up or merely looking through me, if he was aware that I was a Jays fan or presuming I was a heckler. Maybe he detested me – hated my idolatry, even as he knew intimately his own failings, the tenderness in his knee...or some more private demon.

At field level, I felt myself tapping into the psychological aspects of the game on the field. Impactful or not, there’s no question that gamesmanship still occurs on a baseball field – and observing it up close injects a life back into the game experience, a lifeliness which can be lost over months of channelling a baseball experience through choppy streams on illicit internet websites. Conferences between the first-base coach and the runner, Jose Bautista’s jumpy, daring leadoff and subsequent pickoff: these are frozen, human moments in my memory. The in-game tension takes on a new meaning when you can see John McDonald’s nervous eyes flickering as he discusses strategy with first base coach Torey Lovullo, mouth obscured by a pair of batting gloves.

I play games. It’s what I do. Poker, fantasy baseball, junior baseball, pool, card games – you name it, I’ll play it. Major league baseball, which was once my only real game – the game that defined my childhood – is now just another pastime. Fantasy baseball isn’t so much different than poker, in its way – drafting an Albert Pujols isn’t so much different than picking up pocket Aces on the button, is it? They both greatly improve your chances of winning. Pujols could blow out an ACL and the Aces could run into a straight, but when you’re gambling they’re all the same. But pocket aces can’t get Steve Sax syndrome. They’re inanimate, definite. You could run a computer program and simulate every poker game ever played. You could input every possible type of chip and player distribution. The possibilities are huge, but they’re finite. Baseball isn’t like that – it’s a game played between human beings, and human beings fail – because we’re alive.

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