Monday, November 21, 2011

When prospects become tragedies

For a baseball fan this is the dark season as it is.  Baseball season is over, and nothing awaits but a giant sucking void between now and the first rumors of spring training in February.  Awards are given out in November, which is nice, but arguing over what in heaven, hell, or earth that guy was thinking voting for Michael Young for AL MVP isn't quite the same as Miracle Day back at the end of the season, or watching the kids break in, or hoping that Matt Kemp might get the Triple Crown after all, or whatever part of the season provided that extra boost for you.

For a real, passionate baseball fan, other sports don't quite cut it.  Football, the brutalizing overblown spectacle that it has become in the NFL at least, is the antithesis of baseball (George Carlin nailed that pretty well).  While I can occasionally engage a little with college football (what was FSU doing Saturday night?) it's not there either, and the B[C]S is a pathetic excuse for a joke, which discredits the whole enterprise beyond repair.  Even if basketball were appealing to you, the NBA is in the process of self-immolation, and the college game isn't quite rolling yet.  Hockey (more antithesis) is rather shadowy these days, the NHL having in fact ceded its #4 position in pro sports attendance to Major League Soccer, believe it or not.  So for a baseball fan, these are bleak, sad days, with little solace on the horizon.

Things are bad enough, in other words, without real life intruding on the escape-world that is fanship.  And yet real life has intruded, violently and roughly, into the baseball fan's offseason in ways to make the mind reel.

First was the kidnapping in Venezuela of Wilson Ramos, a talented young catcher for the Washington Nationals.  A little awareness of international news will remind one that this sort of thing is sadly common in Venezuela these days, and other professional athletes have had family kidnapped there for hefty ransoms, but this is the first case I know of where the athlete himself has been the kidnapping victim.  This story at least had about as happy an ending as possible, as Ramos was rescued a couple of days after being kidnapped.

Today's story cannot have a happy ending.  Greg Halman, a young outfielder for the Seattle Mariners, was stabbed to death while at home in the Netherlands, not long after being part of a tour of major leaguers visiting and giving baseball camps across Europe.  Halman wasn't quite the talent that Ramos is, being too prone to strikeouts, but he had made the majors and still had the chance to make it for good.  The sadness of having to use the past tense to describe that chance stings, all the more for those who follow that team more closely and perhaps saw him play or maybe even encountered Halman, maybe got an autograph.

Let us be clear: following any sport with any kind of intensity is thoroughly escapist.  (Admittedly for some people it seems to be a substitute for real life, particularly among followers of certain teams or college football conferences -- coughSECcough -- but we rightly worry about such people and know something's not right with them, yes?)  What is supposed to be the fun thing about sports (besides its unpredictability) is that real-world fears are banished as long as there's a game going on and your team is still in it.  Murders and kidnappings and wars and bills and all manner of other stresses are left aside for a time, to root in common with people you wouldn't give the time of day to in real life but to whom you are bound by this one common passion.  The only thing you're supposed to be wondering about Greg Halman this offseason is if he can cut down on his strikeouts and be a contributor next year, not oh God, how can this happen? or any of the other questions we always ask when tragedy intervenes rudely in our lives.  That in this case murder seems the clear cause (and according to early reports, his brother is a suspect) only deepens the hurt and confusion and disorientation.  (This column by Rob Neyer of Baseball Nation suggests that Halman is only the third active major leaguer to be murdered in the history of Major League Baseball.)

No, it's not unique to baseball; a young tight end for the University of Arkansas football team died unexpectedly this weekend as well.  So far as anyone can discern foul play is not involved there.  There is something particularly disturbing about foul play being involved.  Part of the issue is, I guess, that celebrities (which certainly includes professional athletes), despite the increasing tabloidization of celebrity these days, still have a certain untouchability about them in our naive little minds.  Yeah, they can screw up their lives with the best of us (and it becomes more entertainment fodder these days), but being murdered still shocks in most cases (the bloodier aspects of hip-hop rivalry a couple of decades ago notwithstanding).

Baseball players are supposed to play until they can't play anymore, then go get old and show up for old-timers games and tell stories and all that romantic stuff.  They aren't supposed to get kidnapped or stabbed to death.  It's not supposed to be real life.  It's supposed to be baseball.

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