December 26, 2012
Why the Best Talent is Boring
At the Trade Show during the Winter Meetings in Nashville, I was talking to a well-known baseball talent evaluator who writes for another publication. I can’t quite remember the exact subject of the conversation. We may have been talking about some college players he was high on. We may have been talking about Joe Dillon, who was standing a few feet away from us behind the D-Bat table (he’s now part of that company). Dillon was a classic career toiler, amassing over 4,000 minor-league plate appearances, scraping together a couple hundred big-league at-bats over four seasons, doing a stint in Japan, and losing an entire season—the one that would probably have given him his best chance at establishing himself in the majors—to injury (he officially retired). Only will and determination got him back in the game and another decade in uniform.
With Dillon and all he represents lurking behind us, the general subject of prospects—which was certainly the matter at hand, since that is always the only and ultimate topic of conversation when you’re talking with a talent evaluator—took on a somewhat fraught condition. The talk had probably moved into Guys Who Make The Most Out Of Their Limited Abilities, or perhaps into The Mental Aspect Of The Game and how that is as important as physical tools, or maybe it was more specifically about a particular player who could, would, or did manage to succeed despite a limited apparent ceiling. What I do recall, very distinctly, was the shot this evaluator fired across the bow. Actually, it was more like a smart bomb, a way to end the conversation right then and there with a strongly-worded salvo.
“I like talent,” he said.
He went on to elaborate, an impassioned rant gathering around that declaration, although nothing further was necessary. Those three words functioned as a concise manifesto. To a certain kind of baseball eye, nothing but talent really matters. Nothing else is pleasurable to watch. Nothing else is worth writing about. The 20-80 scale measures visible talents, nothing more.
It’s true. And let me fire my own shot across the bow: it is also a little boring. Talent is boring because it’s unassailable, uncomplicated, incomprehensible. The inscrutable means by which talent is made—“God-given,” if you like—has in it something alienating, is surrounded by a shroud of inarticulable giftedness. I once asked a ballplayer about his 80-grade speed, and he shruggingly called it “an inalienable tool.” He was just really, really fast. He didn’t know why, or how. He just tried not to do anything to endanger that tool, nothing more. The conversation about his wheels ended right there. What else was there to say?
I once had a writing professor who encouraged us to read bad books. You can’t really learn anything about writing, he said, by reading only flawless prose. The means of manufacture of the very greatest writing is impenetrable for most of us. The best you can do is write bad imitations of it. Perfect books are not models of instruction. They are unique summits that can’t be re-climbed. I learned how to write plays from reading obscure, sometimes shoddy, often rule-violating pieces by the American avant-garde of the 1980s. No one produces those plays much these days. They’re full of astounding moments that arise out of muddy and misshapen dramatic bedding. You can see the holes, you can see the technique, you can see where better choices could have been made. That teaches you to try to do it better yourself.