The world is small. There was a time when the thirty miles between Tacoma and Seattle was a trek one might make once in their lifetime, a pilgrimage for the dying. News spread from place to place through the tales of traveling salesmen, and legends grew like unchecked weeds. Now it’s an hour on light rail, a lifeless chapter of a Franzen novel, a couple of duels of Hearthstone. Everything is accessible, and equally, depressingly real.
People used to know their ballplayers back then in a way they don’t, now; they shopped at the same stores, sometimes drank at the same bars. They were distant heroes to children, but in the way all adults are: elevated, authoritative, coordinated. The heroism didn’t really change, but as the world grew smaller baseball players somehow moved farther away, disappeared into starlight. They still know them, in a different way: through canned interviews, tweets thanking various deities. Baseball and baseball players have grown more symbolic.
In reality there is nothing all that heroic or comic or tragic about baseball. The whole nature of the game is contractual; it is filled with well-meaning people performing to their various capacities, accompanied by die rolls. In seeking to care about the results, we create our own layer of irony atop these performances, add our own absurdity. And in so doing we divide them: we separate the real person from the ballplayers on our screens. We insult ballplayers with throbbing right elbows, who are perfectly good people; we worship guys who are jerks or bigots. Our ethics and our loyalties are constantly set in conflict with each other, as soon as winning is concerned. We want to keep our heroes while knowing that they’re also people. The only sane thing to do is to disassociate.
One of my favorite television shows growing up was Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you're not familiar, it was a show about a man and his two robots sitting in an empty theater, cracking jokes at the bad movies they were forced to watch. I loved the heart of the show, the machine-gun style references and abstract connections. But what I loved perhaps most about it was that empty theater, replicated by the humble nature of the show’s low-budget, public access origins. Nominally, the protagonists of the show were trying to escape their floating prison. Usually, though, they were just living – an existential state only half a step away from Waiting for Godot, and yet somehow with the exact opposite result: pointless joy.
The crew of the Satellite of Love kept in contact with earth, down to the spending habits of American defense secretaries, but Earth didn’t interact back with them. There’s a humility to the whole one-sided transaction, something about the disconnectedness of the exercise that made it pure. This wasn’t humor about punching up, or shocking an audience; it was about amusing for the sake of amusement, comedy in a vacuum. It's how I feel about baseball.
Franklin Gutierrez made that short, long trip from Tacoma to Seattle a few weeks ago, long after anyone thought he ever would. I have made jokes about Franklin Gutierrez. I may have called him "a fifty-win player in a ten-win player’s body." I may have called him "a bad episode of House M.D." I may have called him "the stepped-on ant with one good leg who can only labor in circles, over and over." I may have called him "The Russian judge whose fatal flaw is to be bad at hanging curtains," and "a thrift-store copy of Operation with half the body parts missing." I may have made some jokes about a well-meaning man.
Then, a week ago, certain game-winning events forced me to tweet this:
Every fleeting, ultimately inconsequential moment of Franklin Gutierrez's continued success is an absolute joy— Patrick Dubuque (@euqubud) July 22, 2015
They’re not the paradoxical statements they seem. It’s just another example of that disassociation: the split between Franklin Gutierrez, the real person I don’t know, and Franklin Gutierrez, the man occasionally on the screen. I don’t write about baseball to become part of baseball, part of the real baseball with athletes and press passes and people wearing suits. I don’t want to be hired by a baseball club, not that it’s a looming threat. I don’t want to meet Edgar Martinez, as nice as I’m certain he is; what would I say? But most of all, I don’t want Franklin Gutierrez to read the jokes I’ve written about him. Not because I worry they’d hurt him or embarrass me (I doubt very much whether he would care), but because I want to keep him up on the screen, and myself in the darkened theater.
For me, comedy is a puzzle: you get all this sensory data thrown at you, the same information that everyone else is getting, and you try to create something new and interesting out of it. The thrill is connecting different pieces of the world and occasionally discovering something really great and funny or even true, and feeling that truth. I can be one of those pieces, but I often don't have to be. Baseball is the movie, but I’m the one who doesn’t want to be real.
The irony in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 analogy is that there’s a second screen. Michael J. Nelson, Joel Hodgson, and the other cast members are legitimate celebrities among their cultish following, and they’ve all done quite well for themselves. Even at the time, the real world did occasionally seep through the façade: while their infamous (and somewhat apocryphal) feud with Joe Don Baker was hilarious, it was also unsettling to see the two sides operating in the same universe. No matter how small the MST3K folks felt they were, they couldn’t interact with their medium without ultimately affecting it.
One of the first articles I ever wrote about baseball, a fanpost on Lookout Landing, was about a Mariner pitcher named Rob Dressler. There wasn’t much to the story: Dressler’s numbers on a losing team belied quality, and unknown, peripherals. He had a bad Spring Training the next year and was cut, and retired from baseball. Dressler found the article on my own website, where I'd posted it for archival purposes – there are not many articles about Rob Dressler – and commented on it. The comment was benign; the article itself was largely benign, if perhaps a little wry. And yet the comment horrified me, and I couldn’t bear to reply to it. I felt as though I had invaded Dressler’s personal space. It may be one of the reasons that I chose to become more and more comic, more ludicrous, to ensure that I would never be taken seriously. In the end it becomes messy, as it always does.
Reality television, autobiographical history and social media have blurred the lines between author, actor, and character. Irony clings to everything like a dusky laminate. And baseball players are't exactly actors, although the product they create, particularly in the case of the Mariners, is similar to improv.
We as fans want our team to do well, to be able to enjoy baseball. With any other medium we could just change the channel, put on a different movie, but with baseball we have one channel. It means we have to wish that good men get fired, or perhaps qualify our satisfaction when a star opponent gets injured. It feels clumsy to preface every article, every statement with "these are for the most part good real people but". It would make the 140-character limit of Twitter a nightmare. So it has to go on being assumed, and maybe occasionally reminded.
But it'll never stop being problematic. I've tried to dodge the issue the same way MST3K did: by lying low, and by avoiding hurtfulness and anger (if not cynicism) in my writing. Often times I bemoan the late start I got as a writer - I was 32 when I posted my first piece - and wondered what it would have been like if I'd started the same time as the Zumstegs and Neyers I was reading but never thought to duplicate. But I couldn't have, because I needed Lookout Landing, Twitter, and the modern internet for it to happen. The top-down model of journalism, writing, and even art is fading away. It's a good time for us here in the dark, in the audience.