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September 26, 2012
The Orthodoxy of Winning
I was surprised to find the Orioles-Rays game still on when I came home. It had stretched into the 13th inning, though, nearing four hours. I didn’t have much time—I had to go back out again in a few minutes—but Chris Archer, who as a Durham Bull I have watched, interviewed, and written about often over the last year or so, was pitching a third inning of long, late relief. This was just his fourth career appearance in the major leagues. So of course I wanted to tune in.
Archer issued a leadoff walk to Endy Chavez, then made a poor throw on Manny Machado’s sacrifice bunt attempt for an error. That put two men on. Mark Reynolds followed by hitting a tantalizing corkscrew fly ball into shallow right-center field that retreating second baseman Elliot Johnson couldn’t quite catch. It ticked off his glove—oh, poor Elliot—for a single, loading the bases with no outs in the 13th inning of a game fraught with post-season implications for both teams
In this kind of tender situation, it was no surprise to see Rays manager Joe Maddon make an unusual defensive change—so unusual that it required an extended mound conference. He replaced outfielder Sam Fuld with infielder Reid Brignac and stationed Brignac between first and second, scanting the outfield in order to create a five-man infield—all drawn in now with the winning run on third and force on at home.
The urgency of the moment was high, especially with a highly demonstrative, sometimes highly strung rookie pitcher on the mound—and for me, too, what with the clock bearing down on me. Would I get to see the outcome of this most dangerous of scenarios?
It’s the stretch drive. Anxiety is high, and superstitious game-watching rituals are in full effect. Fans are trying vicariously to drive their teams to the playoffs like jockeys, each flogging a very-much-alive horse, perhaps a dark one, e.g. Diamondbacks, Phillies, Rays.
In these passionate autumn days, let me give you a bit of a hard time for being a fan. Actually, let my favorite baseball iconoclast, Fernando Perez, do it. In an interview I did with him a couple of years ago, something I wound up having to cut for space (warning: the interview is long anyway) wound up being the thing that made the deepest and longest-lasting impression on me. Perez lamented the rigid “orthodoxy of winning”: “You’re watching a less interesting game than you could be watching.”
He went on, more strongly:
Fandom is a great beacon of our cultural idiocy. It’s profound selfishness. Wanting your team to win and not understanding why they can’t is so dumb. [The media] walk into a clubhouse and [ask], “Why didn’t you guys win?” [The fans] forget that they’re gonna go to the other side and go, “How did you guys win?” That is an unfortunate thing to me about the way we look at the game.
If you’re feeling uncharitable, you could argue that it’s Perez’s very reticence about winning at all costs that has contributed to his currently unemployed status. (It’s more the long-term effects of the disastrous wrist injury he suffered in 2009, though.) In fact, Perez comes by his heterodoxy honestly. When Perez played for Tampa Bay, he was an avowed admirer of the approach and attitudes of Maddon, his manager. You can see why when you read Maddon’s five rules of managerial engagement, which he laid out around the same time I interviewed Perez. Here are three of them:
Process: "If you get really involved in the outcome all the time, you're going to miss a lot of good things. Everybody wants to win, but how do you do that? You win by performing the process properly."
Now, you’re a Baseball Prospectus subscriber, and so you’re probably a good deal more rational as a fan than the one Joe Maddon is imagining in the above commentary. Yet none of us is immune to the rooting instinct. Without the competitive urge, even (perhaps especially) a vicarious one, the drive and indeed the animal need to triumph, watching sports would be virtually meaningless, because they would lack the soul that animates the action and makes of it something more than a hobby.
I was fortunate to grow up in a place without a major-league professional sports team. I’m unhampered by the childhood attachment that is as nearly impossible to shake off as the one we have to our parents. I was a distant Pirates devotee in my youth, because I had relatives in Pittsburgh and we would go to a game once a year when we visited. I spent a lot of time wishing Johnny Ray would turn out to be awesome and then feeling disappointed when he wasn’t. (Sign of wrongheaded, in my case juvenile fandom: I just looked at Ray’s stats, and he was actually pretty good.)
I lived in New York for about half of the 1990s, getting there just in time to latch onto the Yankees’ rise to a dynasty. But it’s been 10 years since I could get worked up about the team. It was a temporary, circumstantial allegiance. The only team that still gets my pulse racing is the North Carolina Tar Heel men’s basketball team. I know I’m watching mostly underage kids, the majority of whom aren’t good enough for the pros and are being exploited by the NCAA, which I know to be an appallingly corrupt, greedy, hypocritical organization that I should probably be boycotting. But I can’t help “wishing and hoping something good’s going to happen,” as Maddon put it, when I watch UNC play—or, in Perez’s blunter words, being blinded by the “great beacon of our cultural idiocy.” I grew up with Tar Heel basketball. My father has been a faculty member for almost four decades. I remember exactly where I was when freshman Michael Jordan’s jumper beat Georgetown for the national title, and I felt cheated last year when the Tar Heels’ bright NCAA Tournament hopes were dashed by a freak wrist injury to point guard Kendall Marshall.
(Aside: my fandom got a different kind of corrective not long after Marshall’s injury. I was up in New York City the following week, looking for a place to watch North Carolina take on Ohio in the regional semifinal. Down here on Tobacco Road, every television in almost every bar has the tournament games on, including the sound. In New York, the bars were mostly showing spring training baseball games. They don’t care about college sports in the big city. Lesson: one way to break free of the chains of fandom is to go out of town.)
Rooting for the Tar Heels—which I no longer do with anything close to the thrall and gusto I used to—has actually helped me as a watcher of baseball. You can’t get too attached to players at the college level, because they can wear the jersey for only four years (the good ones fewer, of course). This is another temporary, circumstantial allegiance, just as it was for me to the Yankees, although of a different type. (Rooting for a team regardless of its personnel, with the uniform taking precedence over everything else, is what Maddon and Perez might criticize; it’s the sports analog of Dr. Johnson’s famous opinion that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”)
As a minor-league malapropist, I have a similar way of watching ballplayers. You might get five seasons of Justin Ruggiano as a Durham Bull, but you’re probably more likely to get five days of Justin Garcia, and Durham gets only one visit a year from non-divisional opponents. I get plenty of exposure to the Bulls’ Leslie Anderson, but only three or four games each season of Lars Anderson. I’m equally interested in both of them, at least in theory.
It’s only natural for me to have some investment in how the Bulls fare, but it’s genuinely immaterial to me overall whether they win or lose. There are interesting stories to pursue regardless, players to track and talk to, prospects to watch, ideas to consider. Once these Triple-A players reach the majors, I stay interested in them. I care about San Diego because longtime Bull Dale Thayer pitches for them. I keep tabs on the Astros because of the surprising success of Lucas Harrell, whom I watched (and interviewed) repeatedly when he was a Charlotte Knight, pitching against the Bulls (Houston also has former Bull Aneury Rodriguez). Ditto Todd Redmond, who finally got a big-league call-up after the Braves dealt him to Cincinnati. And of course there is Ruggiano, the long-suffering Bull, who as a Miami Marlin this year has baseball’s 20th-highest TAv among players with 300 plate appearances (although he is currently day-to-day with a shoulder sprain).
But I don’t care whether the Marlins win (fortunately!). And because I’m not a fantasy league player (if you think Perez is rude about fandom, you should have heard his thoughts on fantasy ball), my interest in players doesn’t wax and wane with their performance. I’m just generally interested, in a narrative way, in how they do, what happens to them, and what their subsequent lives are like after they stop playing in Durham. That’s how I find material, like the warning letter Mike Ekstrom got from Major League Baseball about taking too long for his warm-up tosses—Ekstrom posted it on Twitter, and I’m one of his followers.
If I have affection for any ballclub, it might be the Rays, of course, but that’s not because of the team itself. I have never seen them play a game in person—in fact, I’ve never been to Tampa—I only watch them sometimes when they happen to be playing on a national carrier. Were they in last place this year, rather than in the thick of the postseason chase, I’d still want to keep tabs on Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Joyce, and other former Durham Bulls. The Rays simply have more of them, far more, than any other team has. If they were all still Jonny Gomes’ teammates, out in Oakland, I’d probably monitor the A’s far more than I do.
It’s liberating, this sort of detachable fandom, and I’m grateful to Triple-A for enabling it. It’s a little like the affection I have for parts of Southeast Asia, where I lived and traveled for a while. I’m happy when good things happen in Laos and Indonesia, but it doesn’t hurt me when bad things happen. I just like to check in periodically and see what’s going on over there.
And I get to watch baseball in the way I watched the bottom of the 13th inning between the Rays and Orioles on September 13: passionately, excitedly, charged up with an ample history of caring about the players in question. I cared about young gun Chris Archer, about the struggling Reid Brignac, just into the game only for his glove—and also about the Orioles’ Robert Andino, Matt Wieters, and Nate McLouth, the next three Baltimore hitters, all of whom I saw play in the minors. But I didn’t have to be burdened with an investment in who won. Both teams are great stories, offering plenty to root for if you’re free of geographical or other attachment.
Wouldn’t you know it, with the bases loaded and no outs, Andino hit a grounder right to… Reid Brignac, who gloved it and forced out Chavez at home. That brought up Wieters, pinch-hitting for Taylor Teagarden, who was batting .116 when his seventh-inning, two-run double became the main reason the Orioles managed even to get the game into extras. I watched Wieters in person battle David Price when both were in Triple-A back in 2009—and Archer’s mound presence bears some resemblance to Price’s.
Archer fell behind Wieters, 3-0, although the first two pitches show up as strikes on the PITCHf/x graphic. Was he going to succumb to that most disheartening of outcomes, the bases-loaded, extra-inning, walk-off walk?
One thing he wasn’t going to do was throw a breaking ball. Fastball, taken for strike one. Fastball, taken for strike two. Fastball, fouled off. Then Archer elevated another fastball, a little above the strike zone but too close for Wieters to lay off of, and Wieters swung and missed for the second out of the inning.
Up stepped McLouth, a player I’ve been so interested in that I chose him, in a Baseball Prospectus Lineup Card entry in April, as one of “11 bench players who could have a big impact” (which he has, but not for the Pirates, who released him at the end of May—well played, again, Dan Duquette). Just the day before this game, McLouth’s ninth-inning drive to the right-field wall gave the Orioles a walk-off win over the Rays.
Archer dealt McLouth two fastballs, the first called a strike (although it doesn’t appear to have been one according to PITCHf/x), the second for a ball. He then finally went to his most dangerous pitch, his slider, for the first time in the inning, and dropped it in for a strike. He followed that with another slider, further inside, and McLouth fouled it off. Then Archer missed with a fastball, bringing the count to 2-2. Archer, now feeling good about the slider, went back to it here—it was not an especially well-located one, I thought, but it did the job: McLouth swung and missed for strike three.
Archer had pitched out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam, on the road, and his pumped reaction on the mound was infectious. You wanted to jump and down with him, even if you didn’t care who he was or even had never heard of him. The color commentator delivered the usual line about how Chris Archer just grew up a whole lot. Oh, be quiet.
Archer had, to that point, thrown 51 pitches. He can throw twice that many, but given how hard those last couple dozen were, how high the stakes; given that it was a tight, high-anxiety game heading for the 14th inning; that rosters had expanded and there were other options in the bullpen—and that, okay, fine, commentator, you don’t want to risk puncturing Archer’s newly grown-ass confidence by running him out there for a potentially game-losing 14th inning—given all that, why not take him out?
That’s what I expected, anyway, of Joe Maddon, the same brilliant (is he, though?) Joe Maddon who put Reid Brignac in as an extra infielder and watched Brignac immediately produce an out. Fernando Perez told me, two years ago: “The best sports advice I ever got is from Maddon. He said you have to be trying to succeed as opposed to trying not to fuck up.”
But I had to leave then, and that was perfect: a weightlessness, a clarity, a suspension of mind about the game as it lumbered into what I like to call extraneous innings. I recall reading a review of a movie a few years ago, one I didn’t see, in which the reviewer (Anthony Lane of the New Yorker) singled out for praise a shot of someone diving into a pool—and how the editor’s ingenuity was to cut away before the diver hit the water.
It was like that. I got to stay up there in mid-dive, watching Archer’s graceful spring up over the perilous water, and I was glad I left after he fanned McLouth because I pretty much knew that even though Maddon may (or may not) be some kind of genius, Archer would almost certainly lose the game if he was left in for the 14th inning. I didn’t really need to know, in any case. I didn’t find out until much later that Maddon indeed sent Archer back out to the mound, and that Archer—after Brignac struck out in the top of the 14th, and then Archer himself did the same, trying to sacrifice—got the first two outs of the bottom of the 14th and then, walk-single-single, just like that, indeed lost.
What I want to know from you is whether—and if so, how—you root this way. I suspect that BP readers are of an enlightenment that enables them not wear MICHAEL YOUNG 4EVER shirts or weep when the Astros lose again. What are your mid-dive highs, and how do you manage the lows, as for example when both the Braves and Red Sox collapsed last season? How do you manage the ecstasy and agony of fandom? Is it possible to delight in provisional triumph even when it is followed by the finality of defeat? For every team but one, after all, that’s how it ends.