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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Narrative Likability Factor: A Metric For Humanities Majors" & The Minnesota Twins

Any of you who have read this blog before are well aware that I have no problem being conversive in sabermetrics.  This is not a intended as an anti-SABR diatribe or parody.  All I intend to suggest is that at times, and especially in the romantic seasons (i. e. spring and fall), it is easy to become immersed in baseball humanism.  Baseball humanism is the perception that the game possesses a metanarrative, something akin to a parable, or a synechdoche of American history, which makes it more than just a mechanism for enabling gamblers.

Certainly, at its worst, baseball humanism inspires crass nostalgia, old-fogeyism, and self-righteousness.  It is the undercurrent of belligerent steroid conspiracy theories, short-sighted assertions that baseball's "Golden Age" happened prior to integration, basically the entire body of Murray Chass' forgettable canon, and the abundant moralizing of other half-wit sportswriters.  Being a good baseball humanist does not, as Chass believes, mean you hate statistics and stubbornly believe that the abject coincidences of your own experience are necessarily equivalent to "truth."  Bill James and Rob Neyer, two of the most notorious voices of sabermetrics, are both apparent baseball humanists.  The power of baseball humanism (like all humanisms, for that matter) is in our hope that the game, governed by a fairly knowable system of laws, conventions, and politics, is analogous to everything else, that broiling, festering knot of opaque inconsistency and unfathomable immensity we call life.

Some of the heroes of baseball humanism are obvious: Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Curt Flood.  The powerful social implications of their careers are inestimable.  Likewise, there are antiheroes - Ty Cobb, Pete Rose, Jose Canseco - whose stories, though not to be emulated, are equally compelling.  One of the reasons we adore sport is that the lives of such athletes unfold in front of us as though they were the protagonists of a serialized fiction.  And we have great patience for every variation within the genre.  We are equally amused by the heroic ascensions of Horatio Alger (i.e. Hank Greenberg) and the absurdist tragedies of Franz Kafka (i.e. Milton Bradley).  Omniscience is limited, obviously, but not as much as proponents of privacy would expect.  Thus, we are guided along by an anonymous author whose incredible skill is his ability to write as eloquently as Michael Lewis and Buzz Bissinger, when the occasion demands, but also as amateurishly as Gene Wojciechowski and Mark Fainura-Wada, when his aims are satirical.  It's a dexterity not even John Dos Passos could equal.

One of the great joys of the postseason is joining narratives in media res.  For those players who advance deep into October, especially, a major episode is being written, one which, when we reflect on their "story," will likely help to guide our interpretation. (Clemente's story is soulful, regardless, but is made so much sweeter by his performance in the 1971 postseason.  Similar claims can be made for Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, Brooks Robinson, etc.)  In this season's postseason primer, I preview each team based not on their talent, but on their dramatic potential.  What narratological traits have guided them so far, what kind of stories could be yielded by a deep run in October.  Let's begin with a look at the narrative potential of the first team to officially punch their postseason ticket, the Minnesota Twins.

  • Retribution Songs (Verse 1): In order to reach the World Series, the Twins will need to upset at least one and likely both of the AL East juggernauts.  New York upended Minnesota with relative ease in the ALDS a year ago, so that sting is relatively fresh for several Twinks, but the personal scars run deeper for Carl Pavano.  Pavano spent four years in the Bronx as part of the largest contract of his career ($40 Million).  During that time he managed to make only 26 starts and compiled a 5.00 ERA.  Through a combination of flukish injuries, off-the-field antics, and clubhouse scuffles, he became one of the most ridiculed figures in New York sports and a major scapegoat for the Yankees inability to get past the Division Series from '05-'08.  Last year, Pavano pitched an outstanding game (7 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 9 K) against his former team in Minnesota, but the Yankees still won, finishing off their sweep.  This year, Pavano will likely get the chance to pitch in Yankee Stadium, in front of fans who unmercifully booed him for most of his tenure in New York.  Beating the Yankees is always sweet, but for Carl Pavano it would be even sweeter.
  • Retribution Songs (Verse 2): If the Twins matchup with Tampa Bay in either the ALDS or the ALCS, their lead singer will be Delmon Young.  The Devil Rays made Young the #1 draft pick in 2003 and in 2007, at the age of 21, he played all 162 games and finished 2nd in the Rookie of the Year balloting.  As reward, he was traded to the cold Northwest for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett.  The following season, the team exorcized the "Devil" from their name and went to the World Series.  The underlying narrative was quite simple.  The entitled, bat-tossing Young had been the bad egg amongst a group of outstanding prospects, including Josh Hamilton, B. J. Upton, and Elijah Dukes.  For two seasons Young floundered for the Twins, struggling to even hold onto a starting role, while Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett were key players for the Rays.  This year, however, in the parlance of our times, the "script has been flipped."  Young was on the Final Vote ballot for the All-Star game.  He leads his team in doubles (42) and RBI (105), and he just turned 25 last week, while Bartlett is in danger of losing his starting position to Reid Brignac and Garza has posted the worst ERA of his career (4.01, not that bad).  If Young can help the Twins eliminate the Rays, it would be a cold, raw plate of revenge.  This is the window of opportunity for the Rays team as it is currently constructed, featuring many of Young's longtime compadres.  Next year, Tampa will lose many key players, slash their payroll, and begin the rebuilding process.  They'd like to do so on the back of their first championship.  Standing in their way is their former top prospect.
  • Overcoming Adversity: If Justin Morneau cannot recover from his concussion in time for the playoffs, the Twins will take the field without two of their three highest-paid and most popular players.  Minnesota lost long-time closer, Joe Nathan, before the season even began and Morneau, who was an MVP candidate in the first half, hasn't played since the All-Star Break.  Nevertheless, the Twins are in the running for the best record in baseball, fueling Ron Gardenhire's candidacy for Manager of the Year.  
  • Dome Sweet Dome?:  This is the Twins first year in a new waterfront stadium, Target Field, which is, by all reports I've gathered, a lovely place to see a ballgame.  Moreover, its opening inspired Twins management to raise their payroll by $30 Million and resign the face of the franchise, Joe Mauer.  Nevertheless, there is still a small but vocal minority who believe the Twins sacrificed a franchise icon and one of the keys to their prolonged success by leaving the florescent glare of the Metrodome, and they can back their arguments up with a pretty potent home-field advantage demonstrated over many seasons.  Bringing home the first Twins championship since 1991 would be the most effective way of putting a sock in the naysayers.  
  • Sweet Ole' Jim:  The Twins DH, Jim Thome, is high on the list of greatest players who have never won a World Series.  He hasn't even been to a World Series since 1997, and, at 40, he's not got a lot of chances left.  By all accounts, Thome is an all-around nice guy and a superb teammate.  He's also put the team on his Paul Bunyan shoulders for much of the second-half, following Justin Morneau's concussion, so he's more than just a familiar face.  In terms of "win one for the gipper"-type sentimentality, Thome is pretty easy to get behind.  

As with just about any team, you can point to several other soulful players - Orlando Hudson, Francisco Liriano, J. J. Hardy, Matt Capps - who have something to prove in the bright lights of the postseason.  The likely pairing of the Twins with the Yankees makes them feel like a natural underdog.  However, we should point out that they will have the third highest payroll of any team in this year's playoffs (regardless of how it all plays out in the NL).  And, frankly, does MLB need anymore fuel for their "if you build it, they will come" mantra?  Especially since, by "they," MLB means "the affluent."  New York and St. Louis both won championships in the opening season at their gaudy new stadiums, each within the last five years.  It's kind of a tired premise.  Still, of all the teams battling for a playoff bid, only the Reds (1990) and Rangers (19-never) have gone longer without representing their league in the World Series.

Narrative Likability Factor: B+

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