The Seattle Mariners yesterday signed free agent outfielder Franklin Gutierrez to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. The former All-Star, who turns 32 next month, suffered a gastrointestinal relapse early last year after signing a similar deal, and spent his summer vacation convalescing in his native Venezuela. He believes that he's healthy and ready to contribute in 2015.
Reaction to the move appears to fall into three categories. The casual fan, the kind who doesn't understand the definition of the term "minor league contract" and feels that athletes who perform poorly for whatever reason are letting them down, is upset by this move. The more nuanced lady or gentleman considers it at best a low-risk, medium-reward transaction, and at worst a nice story for a player who deserves better than the hand (and organs) that got dealt him. And then there's my reaction, which is moderate dismay.
I'm not dismayed at Franklin Gutierrez's desire to play baseball, nor the Seattle Mariners' continued willingness to see if he still can. I like Gutierrez just fine, and the team can invite Lenny Randle to spring training for all I care. The problem is more personal. As a semi-semiprofessional comedic baseball blogger, Gutierrez's mere mention weighs a heavy yoke on my shoulders: the obligation to create material.
First of all, there's the whole concept of Gutierrez being a real life human being with feelings and parents. That's not really good, from a joke standpoint. Obviously, he's suffered more pain and doubt than I can imagine, and we have no reason to think he's not a good person, and if you want to adhere to that policy than we really can't go much of anywhere. My way of skirting this philosophical conundrum is to remove myself from the equation: I don't consider my words or jokes serious enough to even be considered by Gutierrez himself or the people who care for him. It's a whole different level. It's how we can talk about people losing their jobs and risking their livelihood - by making it about the game. Maybe that's a copout, and it's perfectly consistent to treat sports as seriously as all other human endeavors. That sounds awful to me personally, but if that's your stance, I can't argue with you. But in this case, that's not my main concern.
A few weeks ago, the esteemed Jeff Sullivan took a moment to talk about Mike Kickham. If you haven't, please read it. It's good. I have no interest in Mike Kickham as a baseball player, but the part that stuck to me was a single paragraph at the bottom of the article, regarding the since oft-used Kickham While He's Down: "Here’s the deep dirty secret: we all actually think puns are fun. They are fun. Everybody is wrong about puns. No, let me amend that: everybody acts wrong about puns. They don’t act like they actually feel. People who freak out about puns are liars."
I don't really like puns. I reflected on it, and I agree people overreact and like to be seen overreacting to them. But I still really don't like them. And it's taken me weeks to figure out how to explain it. I still haven't, but Gutierrez just signed, so this is my best shot.
Let's start with this: I have a good friend named Matt. (I'm not going to change his name because anyone who knows both me and Matt will recognize his description immediately, and everyone else has thousands of Matts to choose from.) I've known Matt for more than fifteen years now. Matt loves to tell puns: some cringeworthy, some clever. Or at least he did, until I and the rest of my friends slowly groaned the habit out of him. Eventually he figured it out and stopped, and everyone was happy.
Except he wasn't happy, and it always bothered me. So I started to try to resuscitate the puns, even encourage them. Not necessarily because I missed them, but they made him happy, and they made him much more happy than they made me unhappy. In terms of utilitarian calculus, we'd all been selfish and seized the smaller, greater good from the bigger, personal one. Matt was a perfect example of Jeff's line of thinking: we treated each pun like the worst pun ever, and in his case, they really weren't. He's slowly worked them back into the arsenal, if not enough.
Here's the thing about puns, and about a lot of jokes in general: they're often a lot more fun to say than they are to hear. The thrill of comedy to me (and it is, very much, an exhilarating feeling) is to think of something that might be funny, and then say it, and find out if it is. You never really know. It requires context, and audience, and timing, and a bunch of other factors, out of which the original little kernel of humor at the center is hardly the greatest. But it's a very sudden alchemy, so sudden that the process fails if you slow it down. In that sense it's like hitting a baseball, I guess. You see a pitch and just swing.
There are some puns that are genuinely witty and original, or subtle, puns so good that they manage to shed the word "pun" entirely and become the more sophisticated "wordplay". There is no difference between these two things, except how much the person describing them likes them. Some of these are good. Bob's Burgers, for example, uses lots of little examples of puns, but these are pleasant because they're entirely optional. Other puns, like ESPN headlines, cry out for attention from their readers like spoiled children (Author's disclosure: at the time of publication, there is literally not one pun on ESPN's main or MLB page. I can't believe it).
But that's what I struggle with when it comes to the common pun: they're so fun to say that they become irresistible. Everything else falls by the wayside: the audience, the timing, even (as many comedians learn two seconds afterward) decorum. The punchline becomes a demand. Suddenly the relationship between comedian and audience, so crucial no matter what type of comedy, disappears: the comedian no longer cares whether you find them funny. They don't care if you've heard the joke a thousand times before. They don't even care if they have. That's how you get memes.
And that's why I hate lazy puns, which are the cave paintings of memes. Because I think all jokes should have that respect for the audience, a silent preface that says, "Stop me if you've heard this one before." Because if they have, you probably shouldn't tell it, no matter how much that disappoints you.
This is why we've gotten to Franklin Gutierrez. As an example, I wrote this about Gutierrez for the FanGraphs+ player captions prior to the 2013 season:
Profile: Franklin Gutierrez’s career has played out like a bad episode of House. Last year it was a pectoral tear, followed by a concussion, followed by a groin pull that ended his season. He mixed in some sort of stomach issues for good measure. We’re simply never going to know what could have been for the defensive genius, as the sheer variety of his injuries have prevented him from making any progress as a hitter since his 2009 breakout season. He’ll be back in 2013 to handle center field when he can, though one wonders how long the leash will be this year with a capable center fielder in left (Michael Saunders) and plenty of spare pieces to push into the corner outfield positions. Don’t draft him, but do keep an eye on him; if he’s healthy in spring training and starts the season hitting like 2012 and not 2011, he has the potential for double-digit home runs and steals. There’s also a chance he develops lupus.
The Quick Opinion: Despite everything that’s happened, Franklin Gutierrez is the starting center fielder for the Seattle Mariners. This exact moment. On December 16. Unless he fell down an elevator shaft this morning.
These were okay jokes in 2013, though they would have been better in 2011. By 2015 they're almost worthless. This is one of those tragic things about humor, and literature, and pretty much every other human endeavor: everything fades. Few things fade faster than baseball, with its long history and endless repetition. It's a tremendous challenge having to make new jokes about the same basic premise year in and year out. That challenge is why I like it. But it's also why I have such little patience for puns, and memes, and every other form of cliché. It's why I have to find new Franklin Gutierrez jokes, if there even are any.
You don't, of course. You don't have to do anything. You're not beholden to me, or really to each other, on this wild frontier that is the Internet. But it's a little weird if you don't, because it seems like the fun is in being creative. I understand the appeal of running jokes, but even running jokes have some variance in their delivery: timing, context, something that makes them unexpected. It's not as easy to try to make up new jokes, and it's certainly not as safe. But it's worth it, I think, to not go through the same ritual of Best Shape of My Life and ARod steroid references and, yes, even Gutierrez health jokes. We can all still joke about all these things, of course; we just have to go one extra step and try a little harder.
Fortunately, this is only for a couple of months at most. Either Guti will exceed his expectations and redefine his comedic legacy, or he'll be gone again. It'll probably be the latter, and it'll probably suck, because for all the talk of winning and how to win, sports is usually about losing and failing. Let's hope he succeeds, and if he doesn't, let's hope we can find a way to make the sadness diverting.