In one of the more pressing baseball debates of today, Meg Rowley and Patrick Dubuque present a point-counterpoint on Christian Bethancourt and fun.
I hold what I imagine to be a minority opinion: I suspect that Christian Bethancourt being a so-so two-way player will be less fun than him being a mediocre position player who occasionally pitches. Not that it won’t be cool that he’s trying; just less fun.
Position players pitching is perfect. It’s the rare baseball moment when every possible outcome is good. We’ve removed stakes, and absent the potential to alter how the game ends, it can only change how the game feels. It’s like staring at one of those Magic Eye 3D posters: amid what was chaos, an image of healing comes into focus, sketched out in pitcher form.
Imagine our guy fails; that’s easy, we assumed he would. We’re granted permission to enjoy his failure, to find notes of humor and self-awareness because what he’s really doing is performing a service. This is an act of care disguised as embarrassment. There is no winning in these moments, which also means there is no losing. The losing has already been done. Position players pitched 22.1 innings in 2016; they allowed 14 earned runs. Some of those were probably the result of indifferent defense, but I couldn’t be bothered to investigate which ones. Who cares?
Two different teams threw Erik Kratz out there. We’re working with different standards of success. We look on these performances and revel in the fact that they contain all the components of throwing a baseball. Our guy got the ball to the catcher’s mitt (when he doesn’t it’s funnier), and got his outs (exect when they don’t and smile knowingly), and if he gave up a few runs along the way (he often will), well, that’s part of pitching, too. Only his job isn’t to pitch, so we don’t have to be mad about it.
He was never going to salvage the game, but he allowed you to accelerate through the stages of grief. This pitch helped you arrive at acceptance before you even got out of your seat to go home. You can laugh again. Aw shucks. The silliness of it is understood from the outset, allowing us to unclench. And just imagine if it works!
Here is Christian Bethancourt pitching the ninth inning against the Marlins on June 13:
It was his second pitching performance of 2016. The Padres lost badly. It doesn’t matter. His fastball topped out at 94 miles per hour; he threw a 49 mph eephus. He recorded a strikeout looking. Here’s a guy who has tried all his life to be a catcher or an outfielder or any something that wasn’t a pitcher, managing to run into a random inning of good relief. Think how many professional pitchers want to stack up innings of good relief. Him failing comically lets us push through our grief; him succeeding lets us marvel. Look at him go! Who knew he could do that? It’s almost enough to justify you staying to until the end.
It’s all different now. Bethancourt is changing categories and assuming a new set of stakes. What he does matters because it will happen in moments that do. The range of acceptable outcomes has been hemmed in; he has chosen to be limited where before he was limitless. This is no longer funny. Of course, there have been two-way players who have excelled at pitching and hitting, and more may follow them. But they were fun, if we can use such a small word to describe the likes of Ruth, because they were exceptional. Their promise was limitless in another direction; doubly marked by the rarity of what they were doing, they offered the chance to see something transcendent rather than comforting.
We like guys who are game to pitch in; we’re naturally drawn to those who aren’t self-serious. It’s good to be willing to engage in acts of care. We have less patience for people who are only OK at their jobs, and less still for those who are actively bad at them. Christian Bethancourt wasn’t especially good before, but he also wasn’t expected to be. Before, we delighted in a catcher throwing 96. Now we’ll expect something. That something might prove to be cool. But it’ll be less fun.
There’s an old platitude regarding American culture, noted ironically by Twain and unironically by Ayn Rand, that there’s nothing democracy hates more than someone who rises above their station. Christian Bethancourt, by straddling the thin white line between position player and pitcher, threatens to do just this, to be more than his peers. It’s a dangerous act, as Meg notes above: things will never be the same for him. There will be fame, but along with it, there will be expectations.
And make no mistake, Bethancourt will almost certainly disappoint. Most interesting ballplayers do, as Pat Venditte, Billy Hamilton, and Deion Sanders before him, as Shohei Otani will someday soon. And Christian Bethancourt is assuredly no Shohei Otani.
And yet I don’t care. I want Bethancourt to be a two-way player, even if it renders him a two-way mediocrity. Perhaps especially if it happens.
Baseball is hardly life, but there is one element of culture that you and your favorite athlete both share: we live in an era of specialization. Baseball players are the embodiment of singular purpose, driving themselves to their utmost limits in one very specific aspect of their abilities, while fans berate them for wasting time doing things like, say, healing, or being there for the birth of their own children. And to a lesser extent, this is where we are all headed. The days of well-rounded humanities education is fading; as corporations grow and organize work takes on more specific, specialized demands. We are all doomed to making Adam Smith’s pins, of one type of pin or another. The big picture, the understanding and synthesis of the moving parts, the artistry, is left to the realm of the executive. So, too, is it with ballplayers.
Meanwhile, a different and unpopular force in baseball has had the opposite effect. As teams creep toward the logical conclusion of rostering 16 pitchers on their 25-man rosters, fans bemoan the lack of flexibility left to the manager in making in-game decisions. But at the same time, it’s opened the door for the utility players, the generalists. Christian Bethancourt may not come close to being the best two-way player the game has ever seen, but at no point has the game needed him more.
There’s a price to be paid in spreading one’s self thin, rather than focusing on one’s most marketable single aspect. Once the season has begun and the novelty of his duty has worn off, fans will compare his statistics to his peers and find them wanting. But the truth is that, in terms of expectations, it was always going to be this way; regardless of the letter next to his name on the roster, people knew what he was capable of, and they would want more and more until he could no longer supply it. This is the way of things.
Bethancourt can’t control what people expect of him, or even to the limit of his training, what he can supply. But at least in this form, he (and we, through him) are relieved of the crushing burden of constant maximization. He won’t be able to be everything for everyone, and he may even become a curse, a joke, for failing us. Instead, all he can do is play baseball the way he wants to play it, and I’m happy he gets the chance.
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