Perhaps the primary crusade in baseball analysis over the past decade is the drive toward the distillation of the baseball player’s true talent. On a throughline from wins above replacement to independent pitching metrics to BABIP noise to video-capture data, every aim has been to sluff off some of the noise, the complicating factors, that stand between the performance of baseball players and the ability, tapped or untapped, buried within their marrow. Meanwhile, teams have adapted and refined these concepts, with the aim of freeing more of their own collected natural talent: more rest, fewer innings, more relievers. Peak performance is the philosophy of the modern game.
As I lumber into my own middle-age, I find myself less interested in the concept of true talent than I once did. Perhaps it’s just that the years have cleared away the noise surrounding my own, or perhaps it’s because my own peak performance is only a distant acquaintance at this point. But after a three-day vacation spent resurfacing our deck and scrubbing mold and dirt off the gutters, I could measure the decline in my own skills: the amount of time it took my weary legs to find their balance on the top rung of the ladder. There is a battle in this, like the bitter flavor of medicine. It’s the feeling of having tackled something that demanded the effort, of having something that requires all your strength.
One of my favorite things in all of sports is the no-hitter. I don’t really care about the statistical significance of the achievement, how many walks it takes to tarnish the result, how it’s only a single game, just like any other game except with the hops all bouncing in the correct direction. I care about no-hitters because the players care about no-hitters, and that emotion from one man can imprint itself on an entire crowd, an entire evening.
This is Fernando Valenzuela. A decade after Fernandomania, a half-decade after it became clear that Fernando was never quite going to be one of those pitchers, a Hall of Famer. Despite what we know of his true talent in 1990, for one night, he could be as great as any of them. But the image that lasts with me is the sweat dripping off his ruddy face, the obvious exertion of a man who clearly doesn’t have it anymore, but will search for it anyway.
We all have our aesthetic notions, the tweaks we’d make to the game. For myself, I’d like to see a return to the style of the seventies and eighties, the four-man benches, the four-run complete games. It’s not for pace of play, though I’d take it; it’s because I want the exhaustion of adulthood to play into what constitutes baseball greatness. I don’t want everyone to be fresh, at the top of their game. That’s not what life is like. Life is nearly falling off ladders.
Summer is good. It’s good for baseball, obviously, but it’s also good for other things, like hammock afternoons and catnaps and attending the annual street fair of my local one-traffic-signal town. For people who live in more urban environs, eight short blocks of vendors and some local entertainers (a lot of musically inclined retirees and a blacksmith with a truly enjoyable storytelling schtick) doesn’t sound like much, but it was a nice way to spend an afternoon.
It was also a prime excuse to browse a place called “The First-Floor Attic,” which specializes in…nothing. The store houses as hodge-podge a collection of silverware and old guitars and taxidermy and collectibles in their boxes and a lot of junk not in boxes as anyone could want—which is to say there’s also a pretty significant collection of baseball cards and memorabilia for perusing, too.
Nestled between various uncased, unspecial late-eighties and nineties Topps and Donruss I found card cases housing old cigarette cards, diminutive and embossed. None of the cigarette cards in the pile had anything to do with baseball, or even other sporting figures, though those are the exemplars of the genre I’d expect to find in such a place. But no: instead of shortstops, boxers, or cricketers, I found multiple pieces from a series capturing famous paintings. One, titled The Sleeping Sportsman, struck me in the moment—my brain fogged by the scent of barbecued pork and candy floss, possibly—as entirely charming, and the price was reasonable: two dollars. I had that left over from purchasing my sandwich.
When I took it to the register, the woman there looked at it, looked at me, and said, “Do you have a dollar?”
My reverse-haggled prize turns out to be number 19 of 50 from the 1926 Art Treasures series issued by De Reszke Cigarettes. The artist, a Dutch painter named Gabriël Metsu, whose surname is spelled Metzu on the card, is noted, apparently, for his lack of a defining style or aesthetic across the arc of his career. The card, too, doesn’t tell the whole truth of the actual painting: the faded pink on the man’s trousers and powder blue on the woman’s apron belie the original’s rich 17th century pigmentation. I’ll forgive it the effects of age none of us can control, but the card’s iteration of the painting is much cropped. The spoils of the sportsman’s hunt that the painter rendered lie just out of frame, and a second man, whose expression is merely suggested on the copy, seems to be getting away with something. But the card’s moment is benign: the dog at the sleeper’s feet waits patiently, and there’s a hint of a smile on his lips.
Saturday afternoon, as the Phillies made their way through the third inning, surely on their way to solving lefty Brent Suter and the Brewers’ line-up after a disastrous Friday night, I let my eyes close. A little nap. I wouldn’t miss anything.