January 16, 2013
How to Hit, According to Kevin Long
A ballplayer I know told me recently that Kevin Long’s Cage Rat (Ecco, 2011, 198 pp.) was a great book, so I went and got it from the library. I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that, whatever the reasons why the ballplayer called it a great book, they have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. By “great,” it’s necessary to keep in mind that what’s meant isn’t really Ulysses-great; people throw the word “great” around to mean things like enjoyable, not a waste of time, even serviceable. The word is a tool to denote general positivity.
Cage Rat is made of strictly functional, ugly prose—it’s often barely functional at all, in fact—rendered by as-told-to specialist Glen Waggoner in self-consciously vernacular style. Or maybe “vernacular”: it often sounds stilted, like a writer trying to sound like how he thinks someone like Long talks. That sections of it may in fact be transcriptions of actual Long speech is immaterial. It’s all clichés and received ideas cut into ribbons and reassembled. It’s probably exactly what all parties involved wanted.
Long is the Yankees’ hitting coach—he insists, twice in a 22-page span, on that title, as opposed to “batting coach” (“hit is just about the most active verb in the dictionary”). Cage Rat is supposed to sound like him talking to you while you follow him, breathless, from Starbucks (“one thing never varies: Venti Caramel Macchiato with a triple shot”; yikes) to Yankee Stadium—cage, clubhouse, talk to players, watch film, make notes and reports, grab food, game time—and maybe then you finish up at a bar after a Yankee win. And—most importantly—“you” in this case are intended to be a probably 16-year-old boy who wants to be a ballplayer. The target audience is aimed at with maximum efficiency, from the think-positive, get-in-the-cage attitude to the occasional deployments of hortatory profanity: “Forget that shit! Stay the course! Believe in yourself!”
In other words, people like me (and probably you) are not the audience for Cage Rat, a reminder once again that the gap between insiders (or those who want to be) and outsiders in almost any pursuit is massive and often unbridgeable. For example, Long flogs RBIs as a hallmark measure of production—he (or Waggoner) even sometimes spells them “ribbies,” ugh. Driving in runs is a badge of honor among hitters, in never-leave-a-soldier-behind fashion. Pitchers, for their part, love wins and saves. We know those to be circumstantial stats in many cases, but an athlete’s mentality is almost always circumstantially oriented. He’s got a thing to do, right now, and he invests himself completely—if he’s doing his job the way it ought to be done—in accomplishing that thing.
Advanced stats, which tend to be rate-based, are called peripherals for a reason: they’re outside of the performer’s vision. The sabermetric community sighs, eyelashes fluttering, when Zack Greinke invokes FIP, but the vast majority of players care deeply about showier yet often deceptive stats that are the off-putting equivalent of shiny six-pack abs to an enlightened girl in glasses. Who lives in her mother’s basement.
So if you got the thing done—an RBI groundout, a two-runs-allowed save—you rose to the occasion. That’s why Long/Waggoner’s prose is just fine for the project of Cage Rat. It gets the point across, and it “sounds like someone actually talking,” so why care about anything more? A forceout scores the runner from third just as inarguably as a double to the gap. Or, from a pitching standpoint, what a book like this achieves is something like “pitching to the score” (a mandatory Jack Morris reference in the wake of his recrudescent Hall of Fame bid). So you clogged the basepaths with clichés. Big deal. You won the game. Next?