Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Nest in the Crevasse of the Game

Dave Ruder is currently a triple-threat musician-teacher-grad student, based in Brooklyn, NYC. Dave has owned two players' jerseys in his life: Rod Woodson and Pedro Martinez (the Pedro fit much better). You can learn more about him at He also occasionally writes about exactly what you think at Doo Doo Bloggin'.

“For Duchamp, cutting the glass and possessing the goods would remove this ambiguity, moving the window gazer from fantasy to fact to regret – regret, because possession is often smaller and more constrained than fantasy. Fantasy has free play; possession has its single, limited object. Literalized desire is therefore a kind of trap of appetite. You get your meat, but then meat is all you get. Just as Signifying Monkey gets trapped if he takes the game too seriously, the consummation of desire circumscribes one’s freedom to move and change. Better to balance at the boundary itself, to be in and out of the game simultaneously. At the gaming tables in Monte Carlo, Duchamp used to try to play so as neither to win nor to lose.”

Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, pg. 304

“The far-working lord [Apollo] replied, “Father, you can tease about my love of spoils, but this is not a silly story I have to tell. Here is a child, an accomplished thief, whom I found after a long search through the hills of Kyllene. As far as I’m concerned, for catching folks on earth off-guard, I’ve never seen anyone, god or mortal, as brash as he.”

Homeric Hymn to Hermes, translated by Lewis Hyde

I was never a successful operator in role-playing game circuits during my suburban teenage years. I had the modular books for several series, and even if I found a couple of cohorts, I never had the motivation to mount a campaign. The sweetest part of the enterprise was always the creation of characters. Once the dice have been rolled and we had a read on speed, intelligence, and power, there were several sweet days of letting this persona sit on your tongue – savoring the potential of new narrative paths to pursue. Once these paths had been sussed out, the character was exhausted without ever needing a first exploit. It was time for a new set of narratives.

This role-playing excursion neatly fit into my years of sports latency (post Penguins Stanley Cup 1992, pre 2001 Yanks-D’backs Series). What brought me back for good to the fray of American Big Four sports was a good set of character studies – a roommate who could contextualize the micro-narratives of the 2004 Sox, down to the David McCarty/Curtis Leskanic nitty-gritties. I knew well enough who Manny & Pedro were, but watching the guy who’s supposed to hit home runs hit home runs was not enough to lure me back. I needed something that was less of a direct route to how the game is played to animate the game itself – Alan Embree’s mustache is a good example. It had a compelling shape. It was featured on the field during play. However, in and of itself it had no appreciable affect on play.

At some point, for conversational ease if nothing else, this fascination with David McCarty the Pitcher et al. approaches fandom, i.e. rooting. You become used to the quirky sporting characters in the same way you grow to like your friends’ bands. They become your favorite. Maybe you didn’t grow up with them, but before you know it, these characters you have effectively drawn up through extended observation and exaggeration become those you expect things from and pull for.

Since 2004, I have had a rooting foundation based in personality and narrative rather than one based on geographical roots (I was born in Pittsburgh, child of two NYers). I am a man who eschews building an enduring loyalty for one set of characters over another1. Still something of a Steelers fan, I have no desire for a Black and Gold win for a couple of years. Two is enough for this decade. Somebody else could use it more. Can’t we channel something to those nice folks in Ohio? As a Mets fan, the same thing would be true had 2006 actually worked out. I can comfortably root only for the long-deserved championship, but comfortable rooting is theoretical and rare. One is often forced to choose between the 2009 Phils & Yanks or endure another round in the Celtics vs. Lakers bout.
1: This is to say nothing of loyalty to one’s fellow fans...

My mercenary team rooting and player-narrative construction are intimately related. Just as I needed more than watching the big man regularly demonstrating how the game works by striking out twenty fools to keep me interested, I need more seasonal narrative arcs than one city/region’s beat writers can provide to keep me in it. I crave a broader view that exposes the hidden, beautiful strangenesses to really make a sport mean something to me2. I’ve come upon a framework to discuss this, a kind of mapping of Lewis Hyde’s treatment of Apollo and Hermes from his amazing Trickster Makes This World. Hyde’s project is to paint a picture of an ur-trickster, culled from myths, songs, and tales of the world’s peoples. Hyde analyzes a stable of mischief-makers from around the globe, but he spends the most time in the specifically late-Greek view of Hermes & Apollo as illustrated in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes.
2: There is also this idea of baseball fandom as mathematics. Looking at the box score, the initiate sees the secret meaning and beauty hidden in Joe Mauer’s 4-for-5 day represented in shorthand. It’s like visually scanning music notation and talking about what it sounds like.

Hermes to Hyde is everything liminal, everything gleefully subversive, everything connective, whereas Apollo is everything normative, everything evincing straightforward use of power, everything with the light of day beating down on it. This is to say nothing of the Dionysian3 and differs from many views of the two brothers, but this dichotomy resonates with me.
3: I’ve been thinking there is something Dionysian about Luis Castillo. Sacrifices himself willingly and for nothing, causing fans to drink more, only to reappear (surgically) reconstituted and ready to do it again a couple of frames later.

“Hit the ball.”
Rooting philosophy of one L. R. Levy

Trying to map these characterizations of Hyde’s to something familiar, it at first it seemed to me that Albert Pujols must be Apollonian – steadfast, always visible, fundamentally flawless, powerful. Pujols is the golden boy who sends projectiles forth over great distances with fearsome force and grants prophesies of impending MVP trophies. Watch him go first to third, appreciate his proper fielding position on routine plays that don’t even concern him; this seems to be a player oozing Apollo. Apollo seemed like a five-tool kind of deity. Conversely, there seemed to be a trickster’s lilt to the play of several categories of players. First, the Kings of Thieves: the 80s Henderson/Coleman/Raines- type. Second, the always hungry mischief-maker who although divine at times is his own worst enemy: Three True Outcomes fellas like A. Dunn, M. Reynolds, etc. Third, Raven who steals the sun and slips through the pore of heaven: the control-artist starter (Maddux, most notably).

Upon further reflection, it seems that these attributions are kind of arbitrary. If we declare Rickey to be Hermes, we see the parallel in speed and disruption, but would Hermes would never have had the patience to match Rickey’s OBP. As Hyde points out, no human being can ever live up to a trickster’s standards, there is a fundamental gap between deity narratives and real lives. Character though they may be, people are inevitably compromised by a need for survival and a habit of mundanity. I realized the better metaphor for tricksterism in baseball was in myself. The player’s action is not a tribute to a particular deity; the player’s action is almost uniformly in the service of the rules of the game4. If I may be so bold, Mark Reynolds is still trying to win the game the best way his skill set allows him, and if there’s something waggish about his tendency for feasts and famines, that’s an external projection5.
4: Barring the spitball, the corked bat, the Clear – i.e. actions which are beyond the rules of the game but are undertaken for the purpose of winning, as opposed to say, stopping in mid-swat-trot and building a sandcastle in the infield

5: Although here we could also feature a guest lecture by Prof. Lastings Milledge of the School of Baseball Showmanship. [Has he continued this on the Bucs & the Nats? I lost track.] Paul O’Neill, Jose Reyes, Kevin Youkilis, Joba Chamberlain and the art of the character-building sideshow, i.e. the difference between creating a consumable personality through your play and creating it through your comportment, is hardly an insignificant topic here.

I find the true Apollonian and Hermetic spirits as defined by Hyde come through less in the comportment of players and more in the way I feel as the proceedings unfold. I feel the trickster spirit most not through watching a sneaky athlete but through observing moments when the action on the field sidesteps the issue of winning the game. Deriving joy from Pujols’s burial of a Brad Lidge delivery somewhere in Galveston is an Apollonian moment to be sure, but not because of the personality of the hitter. This moment is a pure exercise in the rules of baseball. The ball is hit over the fence, and the Cardinals take the lead. This is clear to all – there is no ambiguity as to the meaning of such a monster shot. Regardless of whether your heart is broken or swollen, we’re in Apollo’s realm.

Hermes has many domains; foremost among them is derailing the intentions of the certain. This can best be seen in a moment like Randy Johnson’s pigeon. A Cy Young Winner hurls the ball – nothing could be more straightforward – but a bird gets in the way. The ump makes a non-pitch ruling (incorrectly, but then this game was in March), implying this is beyond the scope of the game, when in fact if rulebooks had been consulted, it would be a clear ball. Johnson may have hit his spot with that one had it continued on, but clearly he had not meted out his sacrifice to the trickster god beforehand, and things moved from everyday baseball into murkier realms. Further interpretation was needed. That pitch (should have) functioned within the game, and despite the shock it caused, it could not easily be interpreted within the framework of the game, despite the fact that violent avian death is generally easier to parse than a Giants’s strike zone.

But trickster moments go beyond the blooper reel6. My own collection of trickster moments are clear to only myself and those who share my sporting ethos. Mark Bellhorn brought out a Hermetic streak in me: I was interested far more in watching him exist than I was in watching him succeed. He never slammed any Gatorade jugs, never did back flips, but his quiet, tobacco-ed presence and his thrilling inconsistency at the plate allowed me to project onto him a character who could do anything at any moment. Every strikeout in a big situation he racked up, every walk with two outs and the basses empty, every meaningless eighth inning single created excitement because he was simply thrilling for his empty presence. I stopped caring about who won the game when it was Bellhorn’s time, I just cared about this bizarre character in the batter’s box. My expectation was only that he would act within the rules of the game, but team, situation, playoff implications, etc. all melted at this point and I was left with a pure if abstract swoon over baseball and the players who animate it.
6: How much would the Greeks have loved that “Tommy Lasorda Falls Down” clip though?

To say that the Apollonian fan wants to emotionally take part in a win all the time is partially true. The Apollonian wants the game to continue with clarity and order. The Apollonian treasures an immaculately tabulated score card, telling the story of the game with perfect fidelity. The Hermetic appreciates the flourish devoid of internal meaning – Manny high-fiving a dude in the middle of the play – because it at once functions as baseball and expands the set of actions available to a baseballer. It would be a third category to talk about preferring the dance that the grounds crew does in the 5th inning to the game itself; just as Hermes is the trusted emissary of Zeus, and hence mischief serves ultimate authority, my concept of a Hermetic fan lies on a foundation that the game will eventually proceed in its logical fashion. The Hermetic fan is simply keeping a second score alongside the R-H-E. Yogi’s concept of a score beyond what is officially indicated is getting at it7. There is how you played, and there is how you did.
7: The more I think about that quote, the more I think about Anthony
Braxton’s “Concept of the Sweating Brow”.
There is something about this concept that is particularly appropriate to baseball with its constant cycles of short activity followed by a longer period of repose. Evaluating only the topical activity is surely falling short of picking up on what’s really happening. It’s not that the Hermetic fan finds the game in and of itself lacking in any way; there is, as Hyde points out of Duchamp, something of great value to be found in taking stake out of it and allowing in infinite narratives or coincidences to be mixed in with the hard work of playing ball.

1 comment:

  1. You can see some of the Appolonian/Hermetic dichotomy within ballplayers if you examine their behavior on and off the field, which I think necessarily provides a perfect opportunity for this kind of dichotomy. As you note, when they're on the field, they must necessarily be there to win the game according to the prescribed rules. But the bawdy stories of late nights, practical jokes, gambling debts, etc. is a great Hermetic counterpoint to this, I think. There are some players (Boggs and his chicken comes to mind) that stray less from their order-loving side when off the field-- indeed, there are more superstitions and rituals that athletes conform to off the field than anyone can count. But For every ritual there are just as many shaving cream pies, prostitutes, rookie hazings, and other rule- and logic-defying acts. In the end, I think that the on-field/off-field dichotomy of a ballplayer illustrates your larger point about the difference between deity and man-- man, and here we deal with our "finest" specimens, is always an imperfect mix of all archetypes, a mutt of our imagined caricatures.


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