|Even I can run hard out of the box (which would be odd after a strikeout).|
For fans who wish we could play, it’s hard to forgive a multimillionaire for failing to do the things we know we could do or for making the mistakes we know we could avoid. So when Alfonso Soriano or Aramis Ramirez don’t sprint out of the batter’s box or when Ryan Theriot gets TOOTBLAN’d or when Lou decides John Grabow should pitch in a game we think the Cubs have a chance to win, we self-respecting Cub fans get a bit angry. I’ve been trying to figure out the reason behind the outrage, and the conclusion I’ve come to doesn’t reflect on us all too well.
The thought came to me as I was remembering the accounts and myriad replays of Carlton Fisk’s dramatic home run in Game 6. Pudge watched that homer. He jumped around and waved like a maniac. It’s the stuff of legend because he acted exactly the way any person capable of emotion would have . . . and because it won Game 6 of the 1975 World Series in the 12th freaking inning. Here’s my personal favorite recollection of that shot, courtesy of Good Will Hunting. It’s extremely NSFW, with a big stinking emphasis on the F. But I love the scene. Just don’t play it if you’re in an un-effing-friendly environment.
Anyway, I got to wondering: Pudge was waving because he wanted it to stay fair, but what if fair/foul wasn’t the problem? (It hit the foul pole, for crying out loud. How beautiful is that drama?) But what if it stayed fair and ricocheted off the Green Monster? Fisk could have been held to a single or even thrown out at second. What he did in that glorious moment—watched the ball and gestured emotionally—resembles pretty closely the antics of some of the most derided players in the game. What’s the big difference? The moment? The stakes? The results? Ultimately, I think the difference is the answer to the question, What would I have done if it were me?
We are proud people. As much as we want to live vicariously through the athletes who do what for us would be impossible, we just as badly want them to reflect the qualities we claim to possess in ourselves.
Sometimes it’s as simple as geography. I went to Valparaiso High School. Jeff Samardzija did, too. So I and all of my fellow Valpo Vikings wanted to see the kid succeed. It would promote the notion that somebody from our town could be great. Someone like me could be a big-league baseball player. As it is, I have to live vicariously through the graduates of Fort Osage High School.
Obviously our personal stock in our favorite players isn’t limited to such specific minutiae. If you’re a hard-working, blue-collar type, you’ll tend to admire the multimillionaires who aren’t afraid to sacrifice their bodies to break up a double play. The intense competitors in the stands greatly appreciate those players who, when they hit routine grounders to short, consider the dash to first a race against death. Perfectionists love a guy with ridiculously impeccable fundamentals. Dancing bears bow to Kevin Millar. You get the idea.
We feel strongly about players who do the little things because the little things are all we have. When a professional with all-world talent still manages to play with the heart and grit of one of us common slow-pitch softball junkies, it makes us forget about the salaries they make and reminds us of what we could have been if only Disney hadn’t lied to us about all that dreams-come-true mumbo jumbo. Living out our dreams through someone else is more believable when that someone does things the way we do. Watching them do something that goes against our character feels like a betrayal of our dreams, like they’re dancing on the graves of our aspirations. Lazy selfish ballplayers make lousy vicars.
Our desire as fans to cheer for athletes who conform to our own image causes us to place too much importance on rather insignificant details and arrive at inaccurate conclusions. That could have been a triple. He shouldn’t have dived headfirst into first base. Or he should have. He doesn’t care. He’s lazy. He only cares about his own stats. He’s a clubhouse cancer. If he was more like me, he’d be a much better ball player.
Let’s get one thing straight: if players were more like us, baseball wouldn’t be very fun to watch. I don’t fault anyone who likes a player for espousing their same values or work ethic or haircut. But we need to understand the difference between what makes us like a player and what makes him a good player. Sometimes they’re the same thing, but not as often as we think.
On the other hand, talented people often think they’re above doing the things common people have to do to get by. And that sucks. But at some point, we need to realize that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we appreciate talent much more than character, hustle, grit, or work ethic. If Mr. Rogers were the starting second baseman for the Chicago Cubs and he made 6 errors in a game and went 0-5 with 5 strikeouts (but tried real hard doing it) we’d boo his face off. That’s a fact. But rousing applause will greet any Cub that hits two homers in a game, regardless of the little things he neglects and big blunders to which he’s prone.
Why? Because deep down we know the qualities we possess are much less valuable in a baseball player than the talent we lack.