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September 19, 2012

Sobsequy

Reading Lolita in Durham

by Adam Sobsey

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DBAP/ DURHAM—Brett Butler is probably best known to you as one of the premiere leadoff hitters of his decade, roughly 1983-93. He ranks 25th all-time in stolen bases (less than 30 shy of Maury Wills), and is tied for 78th in career triples (131) with… Joe DiMaggio? Yep. You could look it up.

Maybe you’re an Atlanta Braves or Cleveland Indians fan. In that case, Brett Butler is the main guy (Brook Jacoby and Rick Behenna were the others) traded after the 1983 season from the Braves to the Indians for Len Barker. That one pops up on numerous “most lopsided trades ever” lists, even though Barker had thrown a perfect game in 1981. To add insult to injury, the Braves also gave the Indians $150,000.

Or you know Butler as the guy who came back from throat cancer and played in a game just four months later. Or as the player who, in the 1989 Earthquake Series as a San Francisco Giant, is reported to have said, as the ground shook: "Somebody's trying to shake us up. All right, Lord, I heard ya!" Or even as the answer to this trivia question: Who is the first batter Roger Clemens ever faced?

Less likely is that you know Brett Butler as nothing more or less than the manager of the Reno Aces, the Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Reno franchise has existed only since 2009, and Butler has been the Aces’ skipper since day one.

As for me, I know Brett Butler as the first player I ever saw who clued me in on the difference between a minor leaguer and a major leaguer. I was a kid when Butler played for the Durham Bulls in 1980, the Bulls’ first year of operation after an 11-year period of dormancy in which there was no Bull at all in Durham. They were a Class-A Braves affiliate when they returned, managed by the legendary Dirty Al Gallagher. Butler was promoted to Durham from low-A mid-season and proceeded to hit .366 in Durham, post a perfectly ludicrous .513 OBP, steal 36 bases in 66 games (and be caught 15 times) and play with the kind of aggressive, assured intensity and skill of a surefire big leaguer.

In retrospect, that’s pretty amazing. Butler was no bonus baby, a 23rd-round draft pick in 1979 out of Southeastern Oklahoma State, not exactly an elite program (although it did produce another great athlete, Dennis Rodman). Yet he played like a superstar-to-be for the Bulls, by far the brightest light on a team that went 84-56. His teammates included Behenna, who nearly threw a no-hitter in the Bulls’ second home game of the year; (Royal) Albert Hall, who made Butler’s 36 stolen bases look piddling compared to his 100 (!) swipes; and Joe Cowley, who is famous for being the only guy in history to throw a major-league no-hitter and then never win another game.

All I really remember of Butler from that year, 1980, is a sort of mental snapshot of him at the old Durham Athletic Park, the one immortalized in Bull Durham. In my memory-image, Butler is streaking around second base with such poise, such assurance, such competitive confidence that it is as though he is actually making a beeline not for third base but for the major leagues. In short order, he was there.

Yet there he was, standing on the field of the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Monday afternoon, a scar running up the right side of his neck to his ear (presumably from his battle with throat cancer), giving an interview to the media the day before his Reno Aces took on the Pawtucket Red Sox for the Triple-A Championship. Some of the other reporters I regularly powwow with at the ballpark were murmuring that Butler looked like he belonged in a Civil War movie. Fair enough, but to me he resembled nothing so much as a still-spry old billy goat: the appropriate facial hair, the capering body language, and an almost cartoonishly raspy voice.

He was asked something about the meaning of the Triple-A Championship. Butler’s response partook of that wonderful tradition of athletes rewriting clichés and figures of speech by inadvertently misstating them. He said that winning the Pacific Coast League title, which the Aces did last week, and winning the National League pennant, which he did as a San Francisco Giant in 1989, was “like kissing your sister.”

Of course the famous expression is that a tie, not a provisional championship like a pennant or a PCL title, is like kissing your sister. There’s no reason to mind, though, that Butler rewrote the phrase on Monday afternoon, since it isn’t clear who coined it (Bear Bryant? Eddie Erdelatz?) or even if the simile is original: “listening to a church service on the radio is like kissing your sister,” for example, predates the sports formulation by at least a couple of decades. (Be careful, or you can inadvertently conclude that going to church is like making love with her.)

Regardless of who said it and what he actually said, I was delighted to hear Butler not only use the phrase but play fast and loose with it, because I currently happen to be re-reading Lolita, which is also about kissing (and so much more) your relative, in this case your stepdaughter. And Vladimir Nabokov’s novel is about so much more than incest: pedophilia, the corruption of America by Europe (or vice versa?), the refuge of art, the play of language; etc. Incest was a pet subject of Nabokov’s, cropping up again in his late masterwork—or, as some critics called it, his Waterloo—Ada, or Ardor, in which it the particular incest in question is kissing (and so much more) your sister.

Well, Triple-A is kind of incestuous, I guess, what with a guy like Josh Bell repeatedly victimizing the Durham Bulls as a Norfolk Tide all through 2011 and then, after Baltimore DFA’d him in April and traded him to Arizona, showing up as a Reno Ace last night to hit two more singles; what with Brent Clevlen, who has played against the Bulls for three different teams over the preceding three seasons, including homering at the DBAP as a Louisville Bat in 2010, homering again at the DBAP last night for Reno; and what with Tyler Bortnick, a Rays draftee who probably would have been a Durham Bull this very season had he not been traded for Ryan Roberts at the July 31 deadline, going an Ace-high 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles and making two fine plays at third base—Diamondbackward. The guy who played third base for the Bulls for most of 2012 was Matt Mangini, whom the Rays released about a month ago, whereupon he was signed by… the Arizona Diamondbacks, whose Double-A franchise, the Mobile BayBears, Mangini helped to the Southern League championship last week.

But to look at Lolita, or Triple-A, through the narrow scope of incest is to miss the point. The real theme here, in Nabokovian and baseball terms, is always time. When scarred and silvered and slender Brett Butler stands before you, telling you that winning the pennant is like kissing your sister, it unifies you for a moment with the kid you once were, 32 years ago, watching him charge from second base at the old ballpark—which is still standing and active and only a mile away from the new one—directly to the majors. He becomes all Brett Butlers at once: the one with the cancer, the one standing in the batter’s box as Roger Clemens’ first big-league adversary in 1983, the one talking to the gods as the October tremors shake the Bay.

Nabokov would have appreciated this. He makes a point, after all, in the voice of Humbert Humbert, to tell us early on in Lolita that when describing nymphets “I substitute time terms for spatial ones”; that their “mysterious characteristics” live upon “that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes.”

It is much the same in baseball, that least timebound of all sports, with its concentric rather than linear movement, its diamond refraction of action. I don’t know whether Nabokov ever watched a baseball game—he certainly traveled around the country enough to have scarcely been able to avoid it had he tried—but I suspect he’d have liked the sport. Comprehending it is not entirely unlike his favorite pastime: catching butterflies.

Nabokov’s potential affinity for baseball might have been especially true in the milieu of the minor leagues, where nearly all the players are nymphets of a type: most of them dwell on an intangible time-island where they are the baseball version of nymphets, that is, prospects. They won’t be prospects for long, though. Nabokov gives his nymphets a five-year lifespan, and that’s approximately what a minor leaguer gets, too, before he’s just another humdrum, perhaps attractive but no longer bewitching grownup bouncing between Triple-A paymasters, his career probably hobbled, permanently, by his fatal flaw: that hole in his swing, or his lack of a third pitch, or his speed killed by an on-base inability. Read Nabokov as Humbert and Lolita drive tens of thousands of miles all over the US, and substitute in your mind Nelson Figueroa and Brent Clevlen, wheeling from coast to coast, motel to motel, franchise to franchise.

Oh, so—Nelson Figueroa started last night for the International League champion Pawtucket Red Sox. Why not? He was on regular rest, he had pitched well in his last few starts (winning a pair of series-ending games in the IL playoffs), and he was 38 years old. Nabokov would have appreciated that his mound opponent, the Reno Aces’ Trevor Bauer, was 21. Bauer was four years old in 1995, the year that the Mets drafted Figueroa, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up a Mets fan.

The day before the game, Monday, minutes before Brett Butler’s rewrite of a-tie-is-like-kissing-your-sister, Figueroa sat in the visitors’ dugout at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. He recounted for the assembled media the day he finally got to pitch for the Mets, in 2008, 13 years after they drafted him in the 30th round. In spring training, he met, chatted with, and was instructed by Dwight Gooden and Howard Johnson, his childhood heroes, and he wore their old jerseys because those were the ones that fit. (HoJo told Figueroa, when he went up to swing, to try to hit it into the opposing team’s dugout; he had no chance of getting hit, you see, so why not terrorize ‘em?)

Figueroa still has some of those (incestuous) practice uniforms at home. (John Manuel’s blog post for Baseball America has good Monday quotes from Figueroa and Bauer.) He took the mound as a Met at Shea Stadium for the first time on my birthday that year, 2008, and beat the Milwaukee Brewers. “My career could have ended after that,” he said, although he quickly added that he was sure glad it hadn’t—sure determined that it hadn’t—that he definitely wants to pitch next year, and that he was treating Tuesday’s championship game against Reno like Game Seven of the World Series.

Which almost became Wednesday’s championship game. It rained—poured—all day in Durham, great tropical barrages that overspilled gutters and drowned out all other sound. It came down in a variegated variety of ways that Nabokov himself would have delighted in distinguishing: there were heavy cascades like a deluge of gravel, there were sidelong lashings and swashings, there were long stretches of unblinking, unhurried plain-Jane-rain. There was every kind of rain imaginable throughout the day, so varied as to provide the attentive eccentric with a day’s worth of entertainment. (Nabokov: “An eccentric is a person whose mind and senses are excited by things that the average citizen does not even notice.” Rain, for example.)

And then, mysteriously, two hours before gametime, it stopped raining. The sky lightened, took on a many (50?) Nabokovian shades of grey, grew deeply, steeply beautiful. The game would start on time. The late, lambent light fell over the field as trippingly as

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta. The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.

trips from the tongue. (Just as Nabokov says it does—it was self-consciously beautiful light, light commenting on its own beauty, announcing and confirming its loveliness and containing more of its loveliness within the very commentary: “The trip of the tongue taking a trip…”)

And then the game: After Trevor Bauer threw a 1-2-3 first inning, the only one either team would get until the eighth—when both teams got one—a 1-2-3 inning provided in part by one of Tyler Bortnick’s nice picks at third, A. J. Pollock hit Figueroa’s second pitch of the bottom of the first inning to deep right-center field.

For a moment, it looked like Pollock, who would later be named the game’s MVP (I thought it should have been Bortnick), had himself a leadoff home run. Instead, the ball hit off the wall on the fly, the throw from the outfield missed the cutoff man—or maybe the cutoff man was just letting it hop through toward third, futilely, boing boing boing—and Pollock had a leadoff triple. Two pitches later, Figueroa threw Tyler Kuhn a curve ball, not a bad pitch, but lefty-hitting Kuhn poked it the other way into very shallow left field for a run-scoring single.

Josh Bell struck out swinging. Mike Jacobs struck out looking.  Jacobs would go 0-for-5, one of only two Aces not to run the bases—and then, immediately after the game and champagne, be called up to the major leagues. He was the third-oldest player on the Aces’ roster last night (Brett Tomko is 39, even older than Nelson Figueroa!). Jacobs is almost 32 and, like Nelson Figueroa, was originally drafted by the Mets (1999, 38th round).  Jacobs hit 69 homers in three seasons with the Marlins from 2006-08. No Lolita anymore, just an old Haze getting another hazy raise up to the majors.

And then, after Jacobs struck out, Brent Clevlen hit that homer of his, a full-count bomb on what my (speak,) memory(!) tells me was a curve ball.

And it was 3-0 Reno after one inning.

Top of the second, PawSox riposte. Danny Valencia whacks a leadoff double down the line, zips to third on a wild pitch. Nobody out. It’s gonna be 3-1, game on.

Bauer almost walks Andy LaRoche, getting a favorable call on 3-0. Then he strikes him out. Then Bryce Brentz swings at the first pitch and fouls out to third base. And J. C. Linares grounds out. Pawtucket doesn’t score. Still 3-0.

Bortnick singles, a little blooper, to start the bottom of the second inning. Figueroa bounces back, retires Ryan Budde and Keon Broxton on fly balls.

But then Pollock doubles, scoring Bortnick. And then a pair of evilly, deviously soft singles by Kuhn and Bell: two more bloops, and those are Figueroa’s undoing: it’s 6-0, Reno. Figueroa gets Jacobs to pop out to end the inning, in which he has thrown 23 pitches, 19 for strikes. That sounds good, but not all strikes are beautiful strikes, just as not all nine-to-14-year-olds are nymphets. The final strike, the one that results in the pop-out by Jacobs, is the last pitch Figueroa throws. Maybe it’s the last one he will ever throw. Thirty-eight years old, throws an 87-mph fastball, a slider that made Fangraphs’ honorable mention for worst slider in baseball last year. He is Humbertish, bumberting his way to an ignoble end, perhaps. Or maybe he is a sort of minor-league immortal, haunting rotations from Reno to Rochester, Bees to Bats.

Trevor Bauer, in the role of Lolita, tries to let Pawtucket back in it—remember that Lolita is, at least in Humbert’s telling, not entirely innocent. It’s she who seduces him. What is Nabokov trying to pull? (I’m reminded of Robert Christgau on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, released the same year Nabokov died: “To call this band dangerous is more than a suave existentialist compliment. They mean no good. It won't do to pass off Johnny Rotten's hatred and disgust as role-playing—the gusto of the performance is too convincing.” Ditto Nabokov. Does Lolita really “seduce” Humbert Humbert? Are we to believe, in his first-person, peremptory voice, that she is somehow a guilty party to her own sexual abuse?)

Bauer walks the first two PawSox of the top of the third inning—eighth- and ninth-place hitters Jonathan Hee and Che-Hsuan Lin—on eight pitches. He will wind up walking seven batters in 4 2/3 innings and later say: “I felt like I had good stuff, just no idea where it was going.” My wife, who has materialized at the ballpark, out of rainy thin air, from a vacation I thought she was still on, compares his performance to one that A. J. Burnett might give. That is, after walking Hee and Lin, and having them advance to scoring position on a passed ball, Bauer strikes out Jeremy Hazelbaker (now there’s a Nabokovian name) and Tony Thomas, who disputes his check-swing punch-out vigorously with another Nabokovianly named participant, home plate umpire Eric Loveless. Linares grounds out to end the (scoreless) inning.

What little hope the PawSox have left is lost in the lights in the last of the third. New PawSox pitcher Chris Hernandez gives up a single, a walk, and a sacrifice fly; another infield single; then should be out of the inning with one run scoring when Poll,ock lifts a fly ball to right field. But something happens to Pawtucket right fielder Bryce Brentz under the brightness: he either loses or bruises or otherwise abuses the chance, and it becomes a two-base, run-scoring error. In the following inning, Brentz will repeat this performance with another two-base error, but for now it is 8-0, and the game is, effectively, over.

There is really only one more half-inning of note. In the top of the fifth, Bauer allows a leadoff homer to (redeemed!) Tony Thomas. Strikes out Linares, gets a flyout from Valencia. But then LaRoche doubles, and Bauer responds by issuing his sixth and seventh walks of the night. He is at 101 pitches. His manager has been trying to tug him along to five full innings so he can qualify for the coveted W, but enough is enough. Brett Butler comes to the mound to make his change.

Bauer angrily slams the ball into Butler’s hand. Then he stalks off the field and, once in the dugout, brushes brusquely past his teammates’ high-five offers. As Butler comes off the mound after handing the ball over to reliever Mike DeMark, Bauer, still in the dugout, barks angrily at Butler, who chases him toward the clubhouse corridor with words of his own.

Later, I ask Bauer about this rather brazen exchange, and he admits that he allowed his anger at himself and his poor control to get away from him (just as his pitches did), and he wrongly took it out on Butler for not letting him finish the fifth. He says they’ve already talked it over, patched it up. He is obviously a bit chastened by it. Right, he’s 21. A veritable babe, a faunlet.

Butler, for his part, is even more cavalier about the incident when asked about it after the game, brushes it aside diplomatically, with avuncular tolerance. It was interesting, though, that on this strange stage—nationally televised but nationally unwatched, for the most part, I would assume—Bauer indulged a tantrum after such an erratic performance. Butler was, after all, quite right to end it when he did: Bauer had just thrown his 101st pitch, the bases were loaded, a guy he had already walked twice (Hee, he) was due up, and a very comfortable 8-2 lead in a winner-take-all championship game was in danger of getting very uncomfortable.

Mike DeMark, Mark DeMike, he K’d Hee. That “solidified it,” Butler would later say of the outcome, the closest I’ve ever heard a manager come to saying that a game was over by the time it was halfway through.

Bauer was asked afterward, by a clueless reporter who had joined our four-man interview in-progress and whose question did not show evidence of having watched the actual game (Bauer: 101 pitches, only 49 strikes): “What was working for you tonight?” Bauer, who has big wide eyes and floppy longish hair, replied, self-deprecatingly, “Anything I could throw for a strike.” Which wasn’t much.

Butler told us on Monday that Bauer could throw 98 mph, but his fastball topped out at 92 on Tuesday. Bauer said he had no feel for and threw only two or three of his his mysterious, almost infamous “reverse sliders,” which he compared to a cutter if the cutter were thrown by a lefty. (I am thinking of shuutos and screwballs, prolific prospects, the secret of inscrutable pitches…) His changeup, which he threw to lefties and righties alike, was his best pitch last night—it saved him, I thought, from an even earlier exit.

Butler made a biggish deal the previous day about Bauer being the smartest player on the field, a “mechanical engineer,” but the wits and precision simply weren’t there last night. He and DeMark and Demel (Sam) and Albaladejo (Jon) walked 11 PawSox, and the Aces routed them anyway. This is Triple-A, national championship or no.

I didn’t interview any Pawtucketers because, by the time we were done with (and doused by) the cheap-champagne spray of the Aces’ clubhouse (which is usually the Durham Bulls’), virtually the entire Red Sox contingent was dressed and out of the ballpark. I did, however, get a few words with a precocious, loquacious youngster in the lobby who wanted to show me a drawing he was making on his smartphone. It transpired that the boy was the son of a PawSox employee (pitching coach Rich Saveur), and thus it made sense that he filled the screen from corner to corner with pure black digital ink—although he barely knew he was at a baseball game and, when informed that his father’s team had lost, replied, “What are you talking about?” It was nonetheless a funereal, blank-ink-to-the-corners night for Pawtucket. Make up a limerick, will you, O reader?

At the end of Lolita, Humbert Humbert speculates on what kind of “immortality you and I may share, my Lolita”—they’re some of the most beautiful last lines I’ve ever read in a book. After the Aces closed out the game—the final score was 10-3, if you must know—I found myself wondering something similar about Reno’s triumph. Butler, after noting that his 1989 Giants team lost the World Series and had to settle for the consolation of the sister-kissing pennant, was emphatic about his team’s championship pedigree in the postgame clubhouse.

But what is that pedigree, exactly? “Champagne again?” one of the Aces exhaled as he went into the clubhouse following the last out of the game—not exactly a one-for-the-ages comment on the moment; it was just the latest in a series of late-season clinchers for the Aces (playoff berth, division title, PCL championship, and now this). For most of these players, the best part of the game was when it ended and they could look forward to a flight home and some prolonged rest after the wearying grind of the Triple-A schedule, which has fewer than 10 off-days in a 144-game summer. For called-up Mike Jacobs, the majors await, dwarfing the stature of the already underwhelming little trophy with which the Aces posed after winning it—and winning it, no less, by triumphing in a boring, mistake-laden, walk-waterlogged, rain-drenched slog of a game (the rain returned and fell again in the late innings). They didn’t pitch well, and their batters struck out 10 times, three of them against Pawtucket’s Jose De La Torres, who ought to be pitching in Fenway Park next year.

So if winning the PCL title is like kissing your sister, then is winning the Triple-A championship like getting to, say, third base with her, or even all the way home? No, the analogy doesn’t want to extend to such taboo lengths; this was, after all, just a glorified exhibition, not exhibitionism, salacious, unnatural. The city of Reno, N(aboko)V is not about incestuous love or forbidden marriage but marriage’s opposite, divorce. Come next year, Clevlen may have run off with Cleveland (or anyway Columbus), and Figueroa may be doing figure-eights in his driveway—which happens to be not in Brooklyn but Arizona, where he now lives and where Trevor Bauer may very well be throwing his reverse-sliders for the rattlers. Josh Bell may toll in a different time zone, and Bortnick, Budde, and Broxton may be Bees in Salt Lake. I am thinking of basalt and bases, of un-Met Buffalo Bisons remarried to Blue Jays, of Triple-A trophies whose permanence atrophies.

There is no immortality in the minor leagues, there is only mutability, only abnormality, only the heterogeneity of time. There is only the yearly dance of prospects with suspects, the recalls and rehabs, the annual September roster disaster (40-man manifest) that turns Bulls into steers and Aces to knaves and makes a terrible travesty of Triple-A at tournament time. I will be looking again next year at this tango of terms and trying to untangle from the thorns of the minors which ones are the roses, the bullish Brett Butlers charging around the secondary base of the minors, and headed, like aces on top of the deck of baseball cards, for the big leagues. Reno is only shorthand for renovation.

Adam Sobsey is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Adam's other articles. You can contact Adam by clicking here

Related Content:  Minor Leagues,  Trevor Bauer,  Triple-A,  Lolita,  Reno Aces,  Durham

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