Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Joy in the moment: The Right Way To Play The Game is usually wrong about this

Note to the baseball-phobic: this post is mostly about baseball, though there might be conclusions drawn from it that are not baseball-specific.  Proceed with caution.

One of the sideshows that have played out over the course of this baseball season and, with some amplification, the postseason as well is the purported over-celebration of some players, or the curmudgeonly prudishness of others, depending on your point of view.

During the playoffs so far, the exuberance faction has mostly been represented by the Los Angeles Dodgers, with particular offense being committed by Yasiel Puig, an emigre Cuban outfielder and recipient of a large contract, who is prone to celebration upon hitting home runs, or thinking he has hit home runs.  At least once his celebratory bat flip ended up preceding not a homer, but a double or triple.

Puig is guilty of some mental lapses in his game and mistakes that have a direct effect on the course of play.  Possessed of a strong throwing arm, Puig sometimes lets his arm strength fool him into making crazed overthrows.  He also makes ludicrous attempts at spectacular catches only to have the ball bounce by him, sometimes with no more than a loping jog of pursuit after.  These obviously give the opposing team extra hits and bases and opportunities for runs, which isn't good.  These hurt the Dodgers, and the Dodgers need to get that kind of mental error fixed.

I'm just not quite certain what (aside from being wrong about having hit a home run) is such a horrible offense in a bat flip, short of one that hits another player.  For one thing it isn't always done even in celebration.  Tampa Bay Rays rookie Wil Myers got into trouble earlier in the season for bat flips that were no more than awkward attempts to get rid of the bat and start running to first at the same time.  The charge is that Puig is intentionally flipping the bat to "show up" the opposition, whatever that means.

Another incident in the series between the Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals involved some supposed shenanigans on the part of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, normally one of the more stoic players in the game.  When one of the Cardinals accused Gonzalez of "Mickey Mouse" antics, Gonzalez responded in the next game by, after scoring a run, putting his hands to his head in mouse-ears shape.  The Cardinals, the latest self-appointed Keepers Of The Unwritten Rules, presumably found this an offense as well.

The Cardinals seemed to pick up that role from the Atlanta Braves, who inserted themselves into more than one incident during the season over the presumed Right Way To Play The Game.  Any kind of display after a home run seemed to bring out their particular ire, even though the Braves themselves fielded at least two of the biggest home-run preeners around.  The Braves only lasted one round in the playoffs, presumably not long enough to get hugely offended at the Dodgers' offenses.

I find this disturbing, mostly because one of my favorite parts of this season involved an unlikely starting pitcher for one of the worst teams in the league.  Jose Fernandez, age twenty at the start of the season with no experience above Class A baseball, ended up in the Miami Marlins' rotation to start the season due to injuries to other starters and (possibly) to an incompetent owner looking to curry favor with betrayed fans howling over the selloff of most of the team's actual major-league players during the previous season and offseason.  Fernandez had not only talent but also a compelling story; a Cuban defector, one who came across as a teenager in 2008 (on a third attempt, having spent time in prison after the failure of the first two) in an attempt that involved having to dive into the waters to save his drowning mother's life.

In one of those freakish scenarios that happen just often enough to tease sports fans into insanity, Fernandez not only succeeded, but thrived, wildly beyond anyone's expectations.  He represented the team in the All-Star Game and ended up being named National League Rookie of the Year by one organization.  He came close to a no-hitter in one start.  He racked up tremendous strikeout totals for a rookie, and crazy good stats for a pitcher of any experience level.

And the best part was, to me, that he enjoyed doing it.

He was happy when he won.  He was happy when his team won (which was seldom).  He was particularly happy when he got a base hit (for some reason pitchers get extremely giddy about hitting, considering they're usually so poor at it).  And he got really happy when he hit a home run in a September game against the aforementioned Atlanta Braves, this season's principal Defenders Of The Right Way To Play The Game.

Fernandez, after hitting the ball, apparently took too long to start running.  This was apparently the judgment of Braves catcher Brian McCann, self-appointed Chief Enforcer Of Baseball Decorum.   Keep in mind this is a twenty-year-old rookie pitcher.  If you are tempted to chastise him with the expression "act like you've been there before," you are ignoring the fact that Fernandez most likely hadn't been there before.  Furthermore, apparently the Braves had no problem with their own catcher/outfielder, Evan Gattis, preening like Madonna in her prime (if Madonna looked like a lumberjack) after hitting a homer earlier in the game.  (According to later accounts, Fernandez actually said "wow" as Gattis's homer left the park.  And maybe some other stuff too.)  OK for me but not for thee, Braves?  To hell with the Unwritten Rules Of Baseball, you just violated all the rules of The Right Way To Play The Game Of Life, and your early playoff exit was richly deserved for that alone.

The Cardinals, at least, have kept their prudery limited to postgame comments to the sports media, even more craven than D.C. media in their mindless pursuit of talking points and clickbait.  They got to the World Series, where they get to play the Boston Red Sox, whose idea of lightheartedness is apparently to disguise themselves as Confederate Civil War generals.  Unless you're a big fan of big ugly beards, it's going to be a rather characterless Series, unless one of the Cardinals attempts to forcibly shave Dustin Pedroia or Mike Napoli mid-game.

Why must games be such joyless affairs?  Even before the emerging science on head trauma put me off football for good, the hyper-militarized regimentation mixed with real showing-up and taunting that characterizes most football games was already starting to put me off my feed.  Does baseball have to be so rigid as well?  The game needs a lot more Jose Fernandezes and a lot fewer Brian McCanns in my not-all-that-humble opinion.  The kid pitcher is embarrassing you?  Shut up and get a hit.  If you can't do that, act like a damn grownup, not a spoiled rotten child.

Life itself is far too often a joyless affair.  The trudge from day to day, most days ending with more weariness than sense of accomplishment.  The increasing sense for so many that there really is no hope for things to get better.  The paranoid hoarding of profit and treasure.  The inability to savor any achievement, because one can't stop pressing on towards the next.  The wearying mantra that "too much is never enough."  The craven envy driving people to strive after The Latest, The Newest, The Hippest, The Coolest, The Hottest.  The Way To Play The Game.  And just when the clouds seem to lift a little, the next bit of bad news, unidentified stuff on a CT scan or the downsizing at work or the whispered degrading gossip at school or online, the brutality, the hatred, the jealousy, the anger, the fear.

And yet for entertainment, for diversion from that grinding existence, we so often turn to stuff that is if anything even more relentlessly grim.  I have to admit I don't get the appeal of these oh-so-popular shows in the ilk of Breaking Bad or such.  Life is hard enough.  Why in the world would I make my down time even harder?

Where is the joy in life?

Not merely happiness, though that's good itself.  Where are we allowed to be joyful?

The church?

Sadly, that merits a "ha!"  Too often, too many times, it is overrun with Brian McCanns, jawing at the Jose Fernandezes for Stepping Out Of Line, for Excessive Celebrating, for Inappropriate Display Of Joy (or Inappropriate Display Of Sadness), for innumerable violations of The Unwritten Rules Of Religion.  The joy that comes not in some mere display of extroversion, but in the awestruck silence, the lone trickling tear even, simply doesn't fit into Proper Church Decorum, so it has to be chastised.  The sorrow that hangs like an anchor on the heart, dragging the soul into the cold murky depths, is Not Proper Church Behavior, and must be rebuked, or at best ignored.  We Have Our Rules And They Must Be Followed.

Before I go any more into Hunter S. Thompson mode, a stanza of "Blest Be the Tie":

We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear,
And often for each other flows the sympathizing tear.

If you are in a place where you can find that, cling to it.

If you are in a place where you can "share our mutual joys" or let loose with a great resounding belly laugh with each other just because that moment that just happened could not be received in any other way, count yourself fortunate.  Those moments don't happen often enough to waste on somebody else's idea of The Right Way To Play The Game.

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