Carson Cistulli is almost sure that American Studies is an academic discipline being taught at colleges and universities in the Fifty Nifty. He is less sure, but will confidently assert, that Myth and Symbol was an early methodology in said discipline—and one that has since fallen out of favor. What this column presupposes is, “What if it didn’t?”
In case you haven’t heard—or otherwise don’t care—the Boston Red Sox recently acquired 32-year-old center fielder Mark Kotsay from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Luis Sumoza, a reasonably talented, if not top, prospect. The move is generally regarded as one of necessity: J.D. Drew, the Sox’ starting left fielder for most of the season, was put on the D.L. the previous day, and his prospect for a speedy return, as always, is questionable.
To anyone familiar with baseball over the last five years, you’ll recognize Kotsay as the Oakland A’s center fielder during the last season of the Big Three (Hudson, Mulder, and Zito) and, after that, during that team’s most recent playoff appearance. To anyone less familiar with baseball, but still, inexplicably reading this article, all you really need to know is that Kotsay currently possesses what you might call an “underwhelming” skill set. While his first year with Oakland was quite good (116 OPS+), his next three years were a study in post-peak performance (97, 88, 57 OPS+, respectively). And while this year, during which Kotsay has batted something like league average, has marked something of a resurgence, the Quivering Quaker—as he’s known to nobody—isn’t what you’d call “a catch.”
In light of Kotsay’s close relationship with mediocrity, the Sox’s decision to acquire him—especially after having failed to land the considerably more talented Brian Giles just two weeks earlier—has a bit of a pinch-your-nose-and-swallow feel to it, and, to those of a more idealistic bent, might smack of compromise. Lesser-informed Sox fans will—after ejaculating, “Mark Who?”—will wonder audibly on sports talk shows all over New England why the Sox couldn’t have traded Julio Lugo, Mike Timlin, and a case of beer (Sam Adams, I’d assume) to the St. Louis Cardinals for Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel, Albert Pujols, and a case of lower quality, if European-owned, beer.
Still, Kotsay is decent, and the Red Sox, after the loss of Drew to injury and Brandon Moss to Mannygate ’08, need a 4th outfielder-type to go along with their other 4th outfielder-types Jacoby Ellsbury, Coco Crisp, and whoever’s wandering around the streets of Pawtucket. Statheads might question the wisdom of giving up any sort of prospect for an aging player who doesn’t seem to produce any better than a number of other guys currently playing in (even their own) AAA.
But the Sox are well-run and, if the Kotsay Acquisition seems, at some level, to be an exercise in Lowered Expectations, it’s also the sort of decision a major league organization has to make in service of its larger goal—aka, winning as many World Serieses as possible. Of course, the thing that has set the John Henry-owned Red Sox apart from their less successful ancestors, is the Front Office’s understanding of what it wants. Rather than providing a series of ad hoc solutions to problems as they arise (see: Yankees, New York; or Royals, Kansas City; or America, United States of), Theo et al have some sense of a Platonic team which they are destined never to realize but which informs all of their personnel decisions. Mark Kotsay is obviously not the right fielder in that Ideal Team—in fact, in The Republic, when Socrates says, and I quote, “The ideal baseball team is like a body,” he placed Mark Kotsay somewhere down around the cankle. That said, Kotsay has some skills—plate discipline, defense—that will help the Sox until Drew comes back. He’s a pretty tart, but palatable, lemonade made from the lemons (i.e. J.D. Drew) that God gave the Red Sox.
This phenomenon exists ad nauseam in “real life.” Consider a hypothetical example. Pretend your name is Harson Carrington Histulli and pretend you hold both a Bachelor and a Masters Degree. Pretend you even had a book published recently; and not just some sucky book that piggybacks off the Zeitgeist, but a really, really good one. You’re thinking to youself, I got it going on. You’re thinking, The world is my g-d oyster.
And then you, Harson Histulli, you say to yourself, “I’m gonna get all employed and shit.” You’ve had a considerable run of good fortune, and you’re still thinking of the world as any manner of bivalve mollusk, and so you’re like, “I’m gonna work wherever I want.” So what you do is, is you send out some hot CVs (short for the Latin term meaning, “Lies about all the jobs I’ve worked”), you send out some hot recommendations, and you wait around for your dream job to be given to you.
But guess what happens? Instead of having a variety of employers throw money at you, what they do instead is they don’t call you, or acknowledge your existence in any way. All of my hot CVs and all of my hots recommendations must have gotten lost in the mail en masse, you think to yourself without a hint of irony. So you call each of the respective employers, the ones who you were positive were going to hire you stat. But instead of saying that, due to a horrible error at the USPS, they never received your CVs and recommendations, instead they say something like, “Yes we received everything, and we’ll keep you in mind,” followed promptly by (and inexplicably in an English accent), “Good day, sir.”
To recap what has happened so far: first, you felt good about things; second, you tried to get the ideal job for your tastes; third, you failed. Now you, Harson Histulli, are unemployed. Also, you have a rent to pay. Also, you currently have no income to speak of. You have a couple of choices to make. You can, if you want, go “off the grid,” setting up a tent just outside of city limits, mending your own clothes, and dumpster-diving for food. Only problem is, you possess no skills other than a penchant for sass-talk and a decent understanding of Standard American English. You can “off” yourself, but that’s unlikely considering your low opinion of “the void.” Finally, you can get a slightly less ideal job. And while that might mean telling your parents that you’re not famous yet, and telling your fiancee that you’re not wealthy yet, it’s not the worst thing. You make due. You take a job that has some of the qualities of the ideal job. You take the Mark Kotsay of Jobs.
This doesn’t mean you, Harson—or the Boston Red Sox—should ever resign yourself to mediocrity. Just as Mark Kotsay is not the best right fielder out there, neither is teaching composition at Portland Community College that so-called lesser job you took. But what are you going to do? It’s the choice that most resembles the ideal.
Lest the reader begin weeping immediately at Harson’s harrowing tail, there’s one last thing to consider—namely, the influence of random variation on any matter involving some question of “success.” Just as a pitcher with his BABIP, each one of us is subject, at some level, to the whim of circumstance. A chance meeting, a relative “in the business”: these are based largely on luck. The luck of being born to the right family, if none other. But these circumstances do not reflect anything of the agent’s own talent, which is the more important, more interesting quality. We can more or less devise the innate talent of pitchers by divorcing their performances from those of their fielders. To do the same thing for our friends and acquaintances is more difficult, but still possible.
And finally, there’s the question of compromise. G.K. Chesterton handles this subject in Orthodoxy, and I seem to have misplaced my copy of that book, but I remember that (not surprisingly) he’s bemoaning both the use and reputation of compromise in the modern day (1915, or so). For a proper compromise, he says, it is vital that both parties have a clear idea of what they want, so that each party comes away with a result most resembling the one they’d desired. Difficulties arise when one party begins to concede points about which the other hasn’t even inquired—in effect, guessing at what he’ll eventually have to concede.
This is a problem, though, and one of the great burdens of adult life—namely, knowing when to concede and when not to. When one becomes (mistakenly) resigned to concession, on the false grounds that “that’s what life is all about,” he’s made a mistake. That said, action is necessary sometimes. If the Red Sox were to have a better outfield post-Drew’s injury, they were going to have to act. Any one of us will have to do the same on occasion. And with action comes the very real possibility of compromise. But just as with the Red Sox, it is right for us, too, to have a real idea of what the optimal outcome would be, and work from that.