Enthusiast’s Notebook: The (Late) Morning After the Night Before

When you talk about Carson Cistulli, you talk about a guy who, after the Red Sox win a playoff game in improbable comeback fashion, watches every last postgame interview.

Highlights Include:

  • Coco Crisp discussing outfielder discussions during pitching changes. He seems to trip over his words a bit, which suggests to me that either a) these conversations are so uninteresting as to render them totally forgettable, or b) these convos are either really nasty, or otherwise deeply heartfelt—just taboo in some way that he’s totally not at liberty to reveal. Though the former is probably true, I’m just going to believe the latter because it’s more interesting.
  • Coco Crisp’s obvious joy at having participated in what he calls, “The best game he’s ever played in,” or something to that effect.
  • Francona describing the scene at Fenway. Just the way he says the words “unglued” and “magical”. It has more pathos in it than an entire Cormac McCarthy novel.

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One glaring omission in all of those interviews—and really in any interview with any professional athlete ever, it seems—is any acknowledgment of the role of chance. In Game Four, for example, the Rays had an unbelievable rate of hits per balls-in-play. Granted, they put a lot of balls in play, but not nearly enough to merit their gaudy hit total. Likewise, last night, Dice K gave up 3 HRs versus 7 fly ball outs. The major league average of HRs / fly balls is around 11%, so you’re looking at 2 more HRs that you’d expect. Finally, you want to talk about chance, the Red Sox’ chances of winning after B.J. Upton’s double off Papelbon were 0.6%. And yet Papelbon says there was never any doubt.

I understand that it’s important for an athlete to believe that he has the ability to will his own greatness (or his own facial hair, if Ross McSweeney has anything to say about it). I’m sure that such a frame of mind enables athletes to play to their potential. But I also believe—just as a normal guy who has had experience with both success and failure—that having some understanding of randomness and chance can be very liberating. It can allow you to write off your failures a little more easily and also to stay modest through your successes. Like, for example, Ross won our wiffleball game this past weekend. From what I know of chance, I know that he was bound to win one at some point. Still, I know that it probably won’t keep happening with any regularity. That knowledge, like my belief in myself, also helps me to perform to my potential (aka to throw nasty wiffle slide pieces).

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In a different, but not totally unrelated story, Kenneth Koch writes in his poem “Some General Instructions”:

Do not let your fear of ignorance keep you / From teaching, if that would be good for you, nor / Should you let your need for success interfere with what you love, / In fact, to do. Things have a way of working out / Which is nonsensical, and one should try to see / How that process works. If you can understand chance, / You will be lucky…

Koch writes here what Emerson is always constantly saying, which is also what the Red Sox repeat ad absurdum in their interviews—namely, that it is essential to trust your talent. Things really do work out if you are able to maintain faith in yourself.

If my understanding of this blog’s readership is at all accurate, you, the Reader, are both a) young and b) talented. There is also a good chance that you aren’t totally satisfied with your current station in life. You feel perhaps that said talent is not being utilized in the proper way and that your prospects for greatness are fading. Well, greatness is probably best understood not by fame or by scale of production but, ultimately, as the faith one has in one’s own talent.

To have such faith requires a great deal of courage. Courage is a concept which is abused quite a bit, whether in the narrow and excessively pious way it’s used to describe members of our armed forces, or in the similar, but ritualistic way it’s used to describe certain moments of athletic heroism. But courage exists in less conspicuous, less dramatic ways, too. It exists anytime someone chooses to forgo the guarantee of personal comfort for a state that is, ultimately, more pleasant but also maybe a little scary for whatever reason.

If you are smart and talented, it’s your responsibility to do something a little silly-seeming with that talent, I think. Only in those acts which are totally useless, done totally for their own sake (see: autotelic)* do we realize what is best about being alive.

*A. Bartlett Giamatti discusses this concept admirably in Take Time for Paradise, which book Father Thomas Dailey invokes here in an excerpt from short piece on the importance of play. While Dailey’s emphasis is on physical play, I would suggest that intellectual play is just as important, and would encourage anyone to read the following with that in mind:

Play is what the philosophers deem an autotelic activity, one whose sole purpose is contained in itself. It usually involves some physical activity, thus distinguishing it from mere idleness (and thereby providing some health benefit). But the activity we call play is defined as such by being freely chosen for its own sake, something more desirable than necessary, more enjoyable than useful. In this respect, play is contrasted with work and the culture of business that absorbs the vast majority of our time, and risks absorbing our very selves in the process.

Play responds not only to the physiological need for activity but also to the religious longing of the human spirit. As A. Bartlett Giamatti, the former baseball commissioner, once wrote, taking the physical acts of toil and turning them into means of play “is to replicate the arena of humankind’s highest aspiration. That aspiration is to be taken out of the self.” Beyond the avoidance of inertia wisely counseled by healthcare advocates, or the enabling of endurance chemically activated by laboratory researchers, play opens us to what Giamatti calls the “condition of paradise … a dream of ourselves better than we are, back to what we were.”

***

“Any time you come back from 7 runs down to win Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS, that’s something special.”

—Every last Red Sox player, in a veritable orgy of periphrasis.

***

TBS had a shot last night around the Top of the 7th of a not insubstantial number of people making for the exits. Wha-? It was surprising, I thought, how many people wouldn’t just wait the extra three innings—to see their team for the last time until April, if for no other reason.

Here’s a quick stat. The number of people who feel sorry for the early departees: 0.

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We cannot say what we cannot say. We can’t whistle it, either.

So clearly the Sox heeded my warning and got to growing some facial hair. And what success!

But, even in the glowing afterglow of victory, a question forms itself in my mind: why was JD Drew’s game-winning hit only scored a single?

Check it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqH35SBwFEE. The ball sails over Gross’s head (and why again was he playing so shallow? Two outs, tie game, man on second–the one thing he can’t allow is for a ball to go over his head, right?) and then one-hops into the bullpen.

This is an automatic double, as stipulated in Rule 6.09(e): “A fair ball, after touching the ground, bounds into the stands, or passes through, over or under a fence, or through or under a scoreboard, or through or under shrubbery, or vines on the fence, in which case the batter and the runners shall be entitled to advance two bases.” Note: this is NOT a ground rule double; ground rules govern events particular to specific parks, such as a flyball that lodges in the roof of the Humphrey Dome or a grounder that is carried away in the beak of a Tsetse fly while playing in the Guatemalan bush–these are gound rule doubles.

Anycrap. So Drew hit what was, by rule, a double, but was only credited with a single. It doesn’t particularly matter, because Youkilis scored, and as soon as he reached home plate, the game was over. But still.

But still if he had hit a home run, the final score would have been 10-7 rather than 8-7. Even though the extra two runs wouldn’t make a difference to the outcome, they would have to be counted because they happened, no? So why not in this case? If it matters some of the time, shouldn’t it matter all the time?

End-of-game scenarios present a lot of dilemmas along these lines. Ferinstance: tie game, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, no outs. The batter lofts a flyball deep to rightfield, clearly deep enough to score the runner from third and end the game.  Does the rightfielder make a play on the ball? Catch it, don’t catch it–the game is over either way. His every defensive instinct is probably compelling him to track down the ball, but why bother? It’s futile.

Now let’s rewind the tape and change up the scenario a bit. Instead of no outs, how about bottom of the ninth, tie game, bases loaded, but two outs. Is there a batter in the on-deck circle? There’s no possible way he could get an at-bat–either the current hitter gets on base, forcing home the winning run, or he makes an out, sending the game to extra innings. So would the next guy in the lineup actually go through the motions of putting on a helmet, selecting a bat, and stepping onto the field, knowing full well as he times his swings against the reliever’s pitches that what he’s doing is irrelevant?

How do we behave when it becomes clear that our actions can have no possible influence on the world? What happens when rationality produces absurd results? What if knowing the future is possible but also pointless because we’re powerless to do anything about it?

Wittgenstein said that questions such as these can’t be answered but must be asked.  For him, asking them was the same as morality or ethics or the Point Of Being Alive or whatever. It’s how we choose to behave in the face of the absurd and pointless and vague and rationally-untenable that matters. 

So I think that I’d slip the donut on the bat and take a couple of cuts, and I’d probably try and catch that ball no matter what. After all, if I just let it fall, it would negatively affect my defensive zone rating, weakening my position during salary arbitration.