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February 6, 2012

Western Front

Scrappy Rain, Scrappy Rain

by Geoff Young

Ever since I was introduced to Bill James’ works in the mid-'80s, I have wanted to learn as much as possible about baseball so that I can better understand and appreciate it. If you're reading this, you're probably wired the same way. It might be easier to watch without thinking so much, but we don't know how to do that.

I have a similar problem with music. I started playing guitar at the same time I started reading James (correlation does not equal causation), and although I'm a bit of a hack, I've earned enough over the years from my efforts to attract the U.S. government's attention.

My perspective as a listener tends to be informed by my experience as a performer. As with baseball, I find myself asking how things work. What is the melody? What are the chord changes? Sometimes I can turn off that part of my brain. It helps if I'm listening to a style of music I'm not adept at playing, like jazz or ambient/chill. These are easier to absorb without analyzing, especially if there are no words to distract me from the tune. I don't understand what Charles Mingus is doing, ever, and I love him for it.

Pop and rock are different, because when I listen to those, I'm usually trying to learn how to play someone else's song or looking for ideas on how to structure my own. As a consequence, my musical sensibilities aren't always hip. Compose and execute a strong melody, back it with a rich arrangement, and I'm there. Coolness doesn't enter into the equation. Give me ABBA, Burt Bacharach, Hall and Oates, or Jimmy Webb all day long. Someone else can worry about image; I'm here for the tunes.

The flip side is that I can't bring myself to enjoy music by a band that everyone thinks is cool just because everyone thinks they're cool. A prime example is Pavement, a band that became popular in certain circles in the '90s. I would love to love them, but I don't know how.

* * *

Arizona's Willie Bloomquist is small (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) by current MLB standards, his baseball skills are limited, and he plays hard. He is, according to the vernacular, “scrappy.” Many fans love him for this. They watch Bloomquist, and what they see doesn't seem so far removed from their own perceived level of ability. It is conceivable to watch him and think, “I could do that,” in a way that it is not possible to watch Justin Upton and reach the same conclusion. This makes it easier for some folks to root for Bloomquist than for Upton despite the latter's superiority at baseball. I haven't read the original research, but psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman references work done in this area:

Researchers Penelope Lockwood and Ziva Kunda at the University of Waterloo found that stars whose success was relevant to people and seemed attainable to them evoked inspiration. In contrast, if the star's success seemed unobtainable, some subjects reported that they felt deflated.

This could be a factor in Bloomquist's popularity. And in Pavement's.

Perspective is everything. What inspires endearment in some may inspire resentment in others. You might think it's great that a player of Bloomquist's caliber can survive in the big leagues with such a limited skill set. Or you might wonder why he is taking time away from more talented individuals who are languishing in the minors.

In Pavement's case, the band had trouble writing cohesive melodies and recording them without falling apart in the process. Depending on your perspective, you might think it's cool that people lacking basic musicianship skills can succeed in the business, or you might be annoyed that they have a recording contract when people who write songs and play instruments with some proficiency are struggling to support themselves and their families.

Bloomquist is a career .264/.317/.337 hitter. Except for a brief 12-game stint at the start of his career and a few other freakish stretches (e.g., the first two weeks of 2011), he has been a non-factor. The guy has played 845 big-league games and his career WARP is 1.2. But here he is, 10 years later, signing a two-year contract to remain with the Diamondbacks despite offering very little discernible value.

Is it cool that people lacking baseball skills can succeed in the business? Or is it annoying that they have a job when people with greater skills are struggling to support themselves and their families in the minor leagues?

Carve out a niche for yourself. Give yourself an opportunity at the expense of someone else (who may be more talented than you). When you're trying to pay bills, a sense of fairness may not be high on your list of priorities.

* * *

David Eckstein arrived before Bloomquist and was a better player (16.0 WARP). The 5-foot-6 Eckstein, who is scrappiness personified, enjoyed a lengthy career and was the object of affection or derision depending on whom you asked. I once penned an (unpublished, and probably unpublishable) essay comparing Eckstein to Pavement's 1994 release, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. That album ranked 210th on Rolling Stone magazine's 500 greatest albums of all time.

The album is decidedly lower on my personal list, but I listened to it a lot in the course of preparing that essay. If I'm going to hate something, I'd like to know exactly why. Here are some excerpts:

Because I can't stand when people fixate on Eckstein's throwing arm and neglect to mention his propensity for fouling off pitches, I'll start with what Pavement does well on this album. They create a nice vibe on a few numbers, notably "Newark Wilder" and "Fillmore Jive." These songs have other issues, but the feel is good.

Pavement also produced a gem in "Cut Your Hair." This is pop bliss, with melodic hooks, competent musicianship, and vocals that stay in key. It wouldn't be at all out of place on Wilco's debut album, A.M. In fact, every time I hear this song, I have to remind myself that it isn't Wilco.

If Pavement is Eckstein, then "Cut Your Hair" is the game-tying three-run pinch-homer with two out in the bottom of the ninth. No matter how many times you replay it in your head, you cannot figure out how that happened. Everything you know says the skills simply aren't there, and yet they did it.

Eckstein's career started humbly enough when the Boston Red Sox picked him in the 19th round of the 1997 draft. After stalling out in that organization, Eckstein surfaced with the Angels and became a key part of the 2002 World Championship team, starting at shortstop and batting .293/.363/.388 as its primary leadoff hitter.

But such moments are few and far between. Pavement has trouble with song beginnings and endings. The lead track, "Silence Kit," begins with 20 seconds of aimless noodling that sets the tone for the entire record, that lets the world know they just don't care.

Fantastic.

The song has its moments. The use of flatted fifths in the intro is a winner–I'm always down with the devil's interval–and the builds at 0:58, 1:21, 1:35, and 1:58 are nice. But it's all undermined by out-of-tune guitars (Jandek does it better) and sloppy technique (there's a glissando at 0:50 that doesn't gliss, and the change in time signature at 2:07 is clumsy to the point of distraction). The net effect is something close to unlistenable.

Reports are mixed as to whether Eckstein retired last month. He sat out 2011, so if he has played his final game, it was as a second baseman for the Padres during their unexpected run of 2010, when they paced the NL West for most of the season before running out of steam. Regardless of whether you or I think such things matter, Eckstein drew praise for his leadership role on that team. His presence mattered to someone.

The second cut, "Elevate Me Later," meanders less and stays in tune more. It's still out of tune, but the first song set the bar so low that almost anything would be an improvement. The playing is sloppy, the vocals are weak, and the chord progression is stale, but this song has potential. Ignore the guitar flub at 0:33 and the drums speeding up and slowing down at various points, and you'll be fine. Better still: Listen to Pere Ubu instead.

The next track, "Stop Breathin'," comes perilously close to establishing a groove. The guitars remain out of tune, and they still sound like this is their very first time playing together as a band. This track is listed at 4:28, and the outro instrumental takes up more than half of it. There are listenable melodies but it goes on too long. This sounds like high school kids trying to play Pink Floyd.

Eckstein's WARP in his two years with the Padres was -1.7, so whatever contributions he made weren't on the field. Before coming to San Diego, he enjoyed a fair measure of success, most notably in 2001, 2002, and 2005. More than half of Eckstein's value over a 10-year career came in his first two seasons. A good first impression goes a long way.

Later comes "5-4=Unity," which is one of the funniest and most audacious things I've ever heard. Pavement have trouble with 4/4 time. Their attempt to move from 4/4 to 3/4 in the middle of "Silence Kit" didn't go so well, but does that stop them from trying to pay homage to Dave Brubeck?

We should all have such chutzpah.

Pavement and Brubeck both hail from Stockton (the most miserable city in America according to Forbes), which is like saying that Walter Silva and Walter Johnson have the same first name. Pavement Bassist Mark Ibold was quoted in an October 2009 interview as saying, "Dave Brubeck - Skills = Disaster."

This isn't false modesty. He's exactly right, and as a musician, I'm ashamed to admit that I kind of like it. Why shouldn't we be proud of our flaws? Just because you can't keep time, doesn't mean you can't play music. Ask The Shaggs.

* * *

This is a bit tangential, but I don't plan on writing about Pavement ever again, so what the heck. Pavement's lead singer is named Stephen Malkmus. A quick check of various genealogy sites confirms that this is an uncommon surname in the United States. But back in the 1950s and 1960s, there was an infielder named Bobby Malkmus. He got into 268 big-league games and hit .215/.265/.301, mostly for the Phillies. His career WARP was -0.4. If the term “scrappy” had been used to describe players of that ilk back then, it would have applied to the 5-foot-9 infielder from Newark (New Jersey, not Wilder).

Malkmus also spent 12 seasons in the minors, enough to collect nearly 1,300 hits. His best performances came in 1959, when he hit .300/.361/.498 for the Denver Bears, and in 1966, when he hit .300/.374/.430 for the PCL San Diego Padres. But those were aberrations; Malkmus typically hit in the .260s with middling power and not enough walks to make a difference.

After getting cups of coffee with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957 and with the Washington Senators in 1958 and 1959, Malkmus was selected by Philadelphia in the Rule 5 draft. He hit .211/.267/.278 in 1960 while committing just two errors in 330 2/3 innings at second base, third base, and shortstop for Gene Mauch's team, which would finish eighth out of eight.

Everyone has his moment, though, and Malkmus' came on September 15, 1960, when the Phillies hosted the San Francisco Giants. With the bases loaded and his team trailing, 6-2 in the bottom of the sixth, Malkmus stepped to the plate against Sam Jones. Moments later, Malkmus tied the game with his first big-league homer. As with Eckstein's unexpected blast, it provided a brief spark for a lousy team. It gave hope where previously there had been none. And as with Eckstein's blast, it sent the game to extra innings, where the inferior team that had mounted an improbable comeback lost anyway. Willie Mays and his three triples got the headlines, while Malkmus' dramatic homer became a mere footnote.

Oh well.

Malkmus hit .231/.276/.327 for an even worse Phillies team the following year. He received a single MVP vote (as did Pittsburgh's Dick Stuart, who hit a slightly better .301/.344/.581), played eight more games for the club in 1962, and then returned to the minors for several more years before calling it a career in 1967.

* * *

Relative to their peers, Pavement are not very good at what they do. There may be other valid reasons for liking them, just as there are valid reasons for liking Eckstein or Bloomquist (e.g., hitting homers for a sick kid). But we shouldn't confuse our liking them with their being good. Let's at least be honest about that much.

Information is your friend. Whatever your opinions of Bloomquist, Eckstein, or Pavement, have a clear understanding of why you hold those opinions. Then when someone asks why you love X or hate Y, you can respond in such excruciating detail that they never ask you anything ever again.

This is how I think about baseball. This is how I think about music. Welcome to my world.

35 comments have been left for this article.

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