Rise of the WeirdosEssays, Featured — By Paul Luikart on October 24, 2012 at 1:08 pm
The 2012 Major League Baseball season ended about a month ago. We are squarely in the midst of football season, at the beginning of hockey season, and at the beginning of the end of basketball season for the year. So, why a baseball essay now? Because the off-season is a time of reflection for the true fan of the game. Baseball is at a crossroads, and we the fans must consider this. The game has come to a point in its history where it must decide what will continue to make it relevant as it plunges on through the 21st century. Let us reflect upon that, baseball fans. To do that, let us first start with an important truth about the game: there are no more heroes in baseball.
Of course, the sport used to be full of them. It was a hero’s game. But just as surely as Elvis has left the building, the original baseball hero has passed beyond the doors of the clubhouse for good. It’s hard to define exactly what that kind of hero the baseball hero is . . . or was. It might be one of those things you can only identify in its absence. A sort of sports culture hum that, once shut off, causes entire stadiums of fans to look at each other and go, “Did something just . . . happen?” Attempting to define a baseball hero might elicit words like, “class,” “style,” or “character,” but those words don’t define, only describe. At any rate, even a marginal fan of the Great American Pastime could tell you there are definitely no more players, or people for that matter, in the game like Lou Gehrig, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, or Hank Aaron. Extraordinarily gifted ballplayers and good men. The last of the Great American Baseball Heroes was Cal Ripken Jr., and when he retired from the game in 2001, an entire archetype retired along with him.
It should come as no surprise that the death of the Great American Baseball Hero coincided with the upsurge of the goon. Or, more accurately put, the upsurge of the ‘Roided-Up Cheating Meatheads. The ‘Roided-Up Cheating Meatheads are the players who masqueraded their way through sometimes entire or near-entire careers as baseball heroes, only to be unmasked as the humongous (pun intended), double-dealing cheats they truly are. I’m thinking about Rafael Palmiero wagging his finger at the United States government, literally swearing he never juiced. (When you said, “never” Mr. Palmiero, were you under the impression it was Opposite Day in the Halls of Congress?) Or Mark McGwire, who came back to Major League Baseball, puked out an admission to juicing, shed a few crocodile tears and then asked for a job. As a hitting coach. On the team where he juiced. That’s like letting Gollum run a Cash-For-Gold operation in the Shire. And then there’s Jose Canseco, the most hated of the juicers by his fellow juice-goons, but the most honorable of them, in my humble opinion. “Honorable” because there was no wishy-washy with this guy, no lame-ass excuses (“I juiced for health reasons.” “I’ve always wanted teensy nads.”). Just a book deal full of straight-ahead self-destruction and old fashioned, schoolyard tattletales. I think Mr. Canseco is even coming out with a sequel. Title: The Mitchell Report II: More Juice Than a Florida Welcome Center.
In the wake of the damage these players did to the reputation of baseball, especially preceded as they were over the course of the history of the game by an abundance of Great American Baseball Heroes, the game has found itself floundering in its own kind of post-modernity. We, the fans, were certain of the truth of baseball, certain of our heroes on the diamond, certain of their goodness. We were certain the game was wholesome and represented something fundamental, even if we couldn’t quite put our fingers on exactly what, about the nature of what it means to be human. That certainty did indeed last for a long time. But what we were certain of turned out to be made of steroids and cork, not to mention the grubbing for salaries one would assume, upon first glance, to be the GDP of Portugal. “So, it is about dope,” we ball fans sighed. “It is about the money after all.” Now, we didn’t stop going to games, but we did get paranoid. We found out there’s nobody to trust in the league, from the commissioner on down to the bench-warmers. The game lost a certain, vital authenticity. A microcosmic example of how things are not what they seem in baseball: the post-game interview. Baseball fans are so familiar with the scene it’s become cliché. A sports reporter asks a player an honest, pointed question about the game, and whether the player has just won or just lost, whether the game is a seriously big deal or an incredibly inconsequential one, the player’s answers will be vague, emotionless, meandering, and ultimately pretty much meaningless. But true baseball fans, hardened and paranoid as we are, are still smart. We are certain there is more going on in the game, the specific one at hand or the game in general, than what those vapid, droned answers reveal.
And we’re right. That’s where the post-modernity comes in. Baseball, it turns out, rather than being Truth, is made up of a lot of disparate truths. Watch any slow-mo highlight montage, and there revealed is an astounding amount of skill and passion for the game. Hang out with, say, the Red Sox, and there are booze-filled romps through the clubhouse. There is this pitch called a gyro-ball you throw kind of like a football. There are sabermetrics, which sounds cool mainly because the word “saber” is in there. (Then, you find out that sabermetrics actually have nothing to do with the use of sabers in baseball. Sad face.) Bizarre Venezuelan kidnappings. Pretend retirements (though, as a blue-blooded Cubs fan, I wish it was real, Mr. Zambrano). Madonna, er, Kate Hudson, er, Cameron Diaz feathering nests in Yankee Stadium. Sheesh.
Knowing these truths and truths like them, how are we baseball fans supposed to come up with one coherent baseball paradigm? Well, it seems that presently there are a couple of prevailing schools of thought on that. The first seems to be this: Think about the game more nerdily. Fans have learned from the baseball players themselves that they, the players, are not to be trusted. So, instead of idolizing the players, idolize the statistics they produce. Players are deceptive. Numbers aren’t. It makes for a much less emotionally invested fan of course, but you can still high-five each other, only instead of high-fiveing over a long home run in the bottom of the ninth, you high-five over a player’s 2009 Double-A slugging percentage combined with his 2010 Triple-A average walks per game combined with the precise number of times he picked his nose on camera during 2011’s Opening Day ceremonies. The plus for the fan is that when an ump discovers enough cork in a player’s bat to raise the Titanic, the fan can easily detach his loyalty from the player, since the fan cares primarily about numbers. A those-numbers-now-suck-therefore-I- will-root-for-better-numbers-somewhere-else kind of thing.
The other prevailing school of thought is less of a school of thought in an academic sense and more a kind of mental posture. That is to say, we fans are really waiting around for the Great American Baseball Hero to come back. We are Vladimir and Estragon of the bleachers. We hope for the distant silhouette of Ernie Banks rising up out of the dugout. But we will only ever see a ghost if we see anything at all. That hero, I maintain, is dead. Unable to be resurrected. Passed on. Post life. But, darn it all to heck if the desire for a hero in the game of baseball will not die in the hearts of the fans. The nerd school of modern baseball, much to the chagrin of nerds, doesn’t capture our hearts. It can’t. Numbers don’t lie, but they also don’t live. Baseball fans want the game to have life, to have vigor. Statistics-based baseball might be a fine way to put together a ball team if you’re a general manager without much money, but it’s a dead end way to cheer for the game. The Great American Baseball Hero is a thing of the past. But we find that the game still needs a hero. Therefore, who can fill the role?
Weirdos. That’s who. In the vacuum that exists in the game today, left by the heroes and cheats, there is a strange strain of baseball players that has risen to the surface. The Weirdo has really always been part of baseball in some way, but until now usually as an anomaly. Every now and then there was a strange cat in some lineup somewhere who did odd things, but his antics were a kind of low-lit sideshow. Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about the superstitions and odd behavior general to most all baseball players—the guys who won’t step on the foul line when they trot off the field, the guys who jack their stirrups up to their hips for good luck, the guys who fiddle with their batting gloves after each pitch while they pray to St. Christopher. That’s just some OCD that’s part of the fabric of the game. I’m not talking about Manny Being Manny either. Because, as it turns out, that was actually Manny Being A Jackass. I’m talking about the intentional, pure Weirdos.
Mark “The Bird” Fidrych was ahead of his time, and the game lost the Grand Poobah of Weirdos when he died in 2009. I mean, the guy was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with Big Bird, a smile on his face (Fidrych’s face, not Big Bird’s) with just enough mischief in it to suggest that the conversation before the photo shoot must have contained the phrase, from Fidrych’s mouth, “No Big Bird, no Fidrych.” If he were alive now, he would preside over the blooming of his kind, a sort of Jedi Master of Weirdness to the Padawan Weirdos. All due respect to The Bird and the lonely road he paved.
What makes today’s Weirdo baseball players different from Weirdos of eras past, Fidrych excepted, is that today’s Weirdos are, so far, really good baseball players. I opine that the Weirdos of the past became weirdos because they weren’t good enough, I mean really, consistently good enough, to get much attention any other way. It was either become weird or become a farm boy again, with nothing to show for a professional baseball career except for a few faint stories of those glory days. Weirdness was a kind of survival mechanism that might have bought them a little extra time on a pro roster.
The Weirdos today that come most readily to mind, to name names, are the San Diego Padres’ Heath Bell and, of course, the San Francisco Giants’ Brian Wilson. Both of them were 2011 National League All Stars. Both of them were supremely weird during the All-Star Game. Let’s examine Heath Bell’s wearing of a Yoda backpack. During a break in the game, the camera caught Bell walking over to a kid in the stands. Bell was wearing a backpack of the pint-sized Force master slung over his shoulder. He proceeded to engage the young fan in conversation. All the kid wanted was an autograph. Bell declined, because MLB’s rules prevented him from signing during a game. But, he told the young fan, he was allowed to sign before the game, and promptly pulled some pre-autographed swag out of the Yoda backpack that he gave to the kid. Then he gave the kid the Yoda backpack. Later, Bell, when called into the game in relief, charged out of the bullpen and slid into the pitcher’s mound. Keep in mind, now, Bell is an All-Star. He doesn’t have to act weird.
Brian Wilson is the pinnacle of baseball Weirdness. His weirdness is legendary, already deserving a place in Cooperstown . . . somewhere. He has a long, black beard. He wears illegally orange shoes and spandex tuxes. At the All-Star Game, he obliterated the aforementioned post-game interview cliché. Fox’s Eric Karros, smart enough to realize he was in for something, began to talk to Wilson with a smile on his face. Karros, by the way, had the misfortune of having a very product-heavy ‘do that day. After a few questions, Wilson looked at Karros and said, “I must say, you have immaculate hair,” and then to the camera, “Let’s get a shot of that.” There was nothing Karros could do. He had met the greatest of all baseball Weirdos; he had been trumped by the greatest of all baseball Weirdos. Keep in mind that Wilson is also an All-Star and not only that, a World Series champ to boot.
Baseball fans, meet your new heroes, the Weirdos. If the game of baseball is to retain its relevancy as the Great American Pastime, and I think, in the words of Cubs broadcaster Pat Hughes, “It’s got a chance . . . !” to do that very thing, then the game needs to let go of its past. Both the good and the bad. The bad we may just as well forget, having learned some lessons. The good will always be remembered, which is why there is a Baseball Hall of Fame. But, fellow fans, we must quit waiting for the past to return. What I’m talking about is reinvention and rejuvenation. We must walk away from baseball, in one sense, so that we can walk towards a new and better baseball. To that end, we fans should encourage Weirdness in the MLB. Now, I could sit and watch Brian Wilson’s antics all day long and not grow sick of them, but I know that other baseball fans might say, “Okay, get on with the game.” But the Weirdos bring a heretofore absent spirit of playfulness to baseball that refreshes it. Bell, Wilson and their kind don’t take themselves or their game too seriously, a mistake shared by the old heroes and the goons alike, but they take it seriously enough to compete and win. The proof of that is in their accolades and accomplishments. But they also choose Weirdness. And therefore, we, the fans of baseball, the ultimate drivers of the game itself, should choose Weirdness, for the sake of a better game, for the sake of a brighter and more beautifully bizarre baseball future.