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March 15, 2013

In A Pickle

To Communicate a Failure

by Jason Wojciechowski

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You've heard this one, even if it's past its sell-by date by now: "Epic fail, bro."

Or a conversation like this: "Did you see DeAndre Jordan's dunk last night?" "Yeah, omg, Brandon Knight got wwwwrrrrrecked." "RIP."

Or you've seen people like Grant Brisbee doing GB Things with GIFs.

The part of the internet/pop/Twitter/baseball/nerd culture that I hang around in has lately taken strongly to amusement at the failure of others. Before you snort and move on to some other excellent piece on this website, though: This isn't a scold-shame-boooo kind of thing. I like watching the GIFs in the second link above just as much as you do! I'm speaking more from a descriptive point of view. I take no normative stance on how hard you laugh when someone falls down. There's no room for kinkshaming here, even/especially if your kink is watching Shane Victorino go boom.

I do, however, wonder why we enjoy baseballs hitting players in the nether locales, colossal screw-ups that result in three errors on a single play, and slides that wind up three feet short of the bag, Wesley Snipes–style. The word "schadenfreude" comes to mind, but it doesn't truly fit—the actual misfortune and pain of others isn't bringing us the delight so much as some aesthetic aspect of that misfortune. We don't look at a lopsided final score and and feel the same way as when we watch some poor sap get devastated by a dunk or trip over his own feet chasing a popup.

This suggests something about the scale of the misfortune being important. Losing a game has lasting and obvious repercussions for a season. It's written down forever in cold type. A single play, though, is just a single play. It's the rare hilarious GIF-inspiring action on the field, in fact, that can be fully captured in a scorebook. Go back to the Grant Brisbee link above and look at how each of those GIFs would be scored (from bottom up, so the numbers match).

  • E3
  • Strike 2, CS 2-6
  • Single + E8?
  • Ball
  • Strike swinging
  • Not actually recorded because there's no play
  • ???
  • Ball

The lack of context for the plays we all like to laugh at helps us feel less like assholes for laughing. In a handful of those GIFs, you can see a score graphic. Maybe in one or two, you were watching the game or have a particularly strong memory of the events and know the surrounding circumstances. But I'd wager that for most people, most GIFs of funny sporting occurrences represent mere moments in time divorced from any idea of which team won or lost. As we get farther from the actual events, we'll forget not only whether the goofy play caused the player's team to lose that day but also whether that loss even mattered. If we keep making GIFs over the next few years, we're going to have masses and masses of them, in most of which we won't be able to identify the when and where and who and why and we'll forget literally everything about them beyond what is contained inside the four walls of the image. Are you confident that you'll remember what Chad Qualls' face looks like in 2025? What if your kid shows you that GIF of him falling down out of the frame and asks who it is? My answer would be easy: "Who the hell knows, Young Bean, let's watch it some more, it's a riot."

Indeed, the nature of the GIF itself exaggerates this lack of context. Not only do The GIFmakers Of The World often crop their images such that we can't see scores and counts and crowds, but the entire point of the GIF is that it captures only the briefest of moments and then plays it over and over and over and over and over and over until either your browser crashes or you go back to that document you're supposed to be editing. You will never actually see the end of the play, much less the game. Indeed, Grant comments on one of the best GIFs of the year (ever) in the linked article above:

I've heard some people say this GIF isn't complete without the conclusion of the play, which is the right fielder winging it 50 feet above the catcher. And I've seen versions of the GIF that are sped up, Benny Hill-style, in an attempt to get it all in.  

Nonsense. You don't need an additional error to make this one sing. It's people colliding, Matt Downs trying to jump on the grenade, and a ball thrown down the line. It's perfect.

The image, despite being on its face incomplete (it loops at the point that the ball has gotten past Jose Altuve at first base, long before anyone has tracked down the errant throw, long before the baserunners have settled into wherever they're going to settle into, long before, as Grant notes, the right fielder makes yet another horrendous throw), is, in Grant's opinion and the opinion of many others, already perfect. The rule isn't "less context => more funny," it's "for each event there is an exact amount of context that maximizes the funny." GIFs allow us to narrow the story to just that amount of context and no more. They provide the perfect vehicle for divorcing a moment in time from its depressing surrounding facts. Hell, by repeating for as long as we let them repeat, they allow us for a while to stop the most depressing surrounding fact of all: that time is passing, that games and series and seasons are ending, and that we're all dust.

The joy of the GIF is thus that it permits us to laugh at things at which we might otherwise feel some discomfort laughing. In the GIF, there is no salary or tough roster decisions or missed playoffs or long walks back to the clubhouse. In the GIF, nobody is haunted by their mistakes because to be haunted requires the mistake to have happened. In the GIF, the mistake is always happening.


Books, by contrast, are frequently about context. Events don't stand alone (and they certainly don't repeat infinitely) but are instead situated in the scheme of things, their causes and effects identified. People are motivated to act and they act and their actions intrude on the world and shape it. This convention of what a book is and does might make the idea of a book about failure and despair and horrible people and moments a dicey proposition if there isn't some point to sharing all that misery. Unfortunately, it isn't clear what point Filip Bondy, a New York sportswriter and columnist, had in mind in Who's on Worst, due out March 26th from Doubleday.

The structure of Bondy's book, which carries the cumbersome subtitle "The Lousiest Players, Biggest Cheaters, Saddest Goats and Other Antiheroes in Baseball History," is straightforward: 15 themed chapters ("The Mendoza Line: The Worst Hitters of All Time" and "Number 1/8: The Oddest Ballplayers of All Time" are two examples) with each chapter containing a handful of sections. Every chapter ends with a top 10, some of which were written about in the chapter itself and some of which are, I guess, bonus boners.

The point doesn't have to be grand for a book like Who's on Worst to be successful. I don't mean that I want Bondy to play cultural critic and identify trends or ills in our society. He doesn't need even to do baseball analysis, diagnosing why hitters couldn't hit a stationary barn with a cricket bat or why managers couldn't manage a Dairy Queen. If Bondy wants to write a humor book about funny baseball failures, then great! Humor is a valid end in itself. And indeed there is some evidence that a humor book is exactly what Bondy was going for, or at least is what Doubleday intends in its marketing. The front cover, as you can see at the link just above, is jaunty and features an Astros player face down in the grass with the ball ... well, it's not clear where the ball is, but it is clear that said player has not made a catch. The marketing copy describes the book as "a hilarious celebration." Harvey Araton calls it "witty."

And indeed Bondy's prose is loose and breezy. The book is an easy read and does elicit laughs. There are sections on colorful cheater Joe Niekro, who upon being ordered to empty his pockets produced a photograph of his son before eventually divulging a nail file; extreme specialist Herb Washington, who appeared in 105 career games as a pinch-runner without ever taking the field or stepping to the plate; and Nippy Jones, who reached first on a hit-by-pitch only because he showed the umpire the shoeshine mark left on the ball when it clipped his foot. These amuse and add background that even dedicated fans may not know. You've probably heard of the shoeshine incident, but how much could you tell me about Nippy Jones otherwise?

Bondy, however, to the book's detriment, does not shy away from legitimately depressing failures and weirdness as well. Donnie Moore, who gave up a legendary home run to Dave Henderson when the Angels were one strike away from the World Series and wound up killing himself three years later, gets a section. Is there a joke you can make about Donnie Moore? To Bondy's credit, he doesn't try, but Moore's very inclusion in a book labeled "a hilarious celebration" borders on offensive. Moore's story is a part of baseball history and certainly should not be ignored, but if you're a member of his family, how do you feel about that story appearing in the same volume as Joe Niekro's nail file goofiness?

Indeed, there are no fewer than three suicides in the book: Moore, Hideki Irabu, and Marty Bergen (although to be fair, Bergen's gruesome ax-murder/suicide was only told in passing in a section about his brother Bill). There is also an entire chapter on steroids, which is probably too inflammatory a topic in the general public to really be all that funny, and a number of horrifying drug tragedies: Steve Howe, who was suspended multiple times for drug abuse and eventually died in a car accident with meth in his system; Eric Show, who died at 37 after ingesting an unspeakable quantity of substances in one night; and Ken Caminiti, who passed at 41 from cocaine and opiates, are all in the book.

In fact, Show's section immediately precedes that of Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson, the Yankees pitchers who swapped families before the 1973 season. Bondy for some reason chooses to focus on the "feel-bad" and "public relations disaster" aspects of the trade rather than the quirky, out-of-mainstream personal decisions that they were. Worse yet, Howe, Show, Caminiti, and Kekich/Peterson share a chapter with Jimmy Piersall (who had anger issues and received psychiatric care), Ruben Rivera (famous for stealing and selling a glove of Derek Jeter's), and John Rocker (more or less unrepentant racist and xenophobe). The subhead of said chapter is "The Worst Teammates Ever." Even putting aside the idea of Ruben Rivera appearing alongside Steve Howe as if they're in anything like the same category historically, I fail to see how reducing Howe's and Show's and Caminiti's and Piersall's struggles with addiction and/or emotional disorders to "clubhouse cancer" status is at all a good idea. And including Kekich/Peterson under the same heading as if players should abandon their freedoms to carry on whatever personal relationships they want to because it would upset their more staid teammates? This is misguided at best and wrong at worst.

For all that, the book isn't a bad one. There are, in addition to the above, some minor issues like referring to on-base percentage as a "sabermetric" and misconstruing WAR and completely minimizing George Steinbrenner breaking campaign finance law because he brought World Series banners to the Bronx, but much of Who's on Worst consists of harmless fun-poking at the expense of public figures notable for playing a game. Significant portions of the book are not appreciably different from the GIFs we so adore, in other words. The fact remains, though, that a more focused look at particularly amusing and inconsequential failures could have helped Bondy live up to Doubleday's "hilarious celebration" billing.

 

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

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