Category Archives: scouting

[game 50] Sugar

I read other blogs and comments, you know. I know what this type of sports chat is supposed to sound like. And I know I don’t measure up.

I lack the clarity, the fury, and the venom necessary to meet reader expectations.

Since beginning this, I knew I would be writing more timidly and more naively than is appropriate for sports. I am too in awe of the players, too respectful of their skills, and too removed from doing anything remotely comparable myself. I see the players as entertaining us, yes, and that gives me a certain license to cheer or boo. But I keep seeing them as people too.

Sport is interesting to me because it presents a simplified, vivid version of many of life’s great trials. There is glory and self-doubt, daring and caution, discipline and freedom, self-knowledge and blind faith, individual and team, winning and losing, vengeance and compassion, competitive fire and pure exhaustion. Every element of a sport involves testing limits—can it be done faster, better, longer? The limits come both from history and from each individual. Are you good enough?

That’s the question echoing in every stadium and sand lot. Are you good enough? When I watch baseball or any other sport, I am looking for the same bedtime story I always want to hear: if I try hard enough, and practice, and believe in myself, I am good enough.

Ah, but what is good enough? Sports is serious, a business in more ways than one. There is a vast infrastructure out there devoted to finding what might be talent, chipping at it a little, polishing it some, denting it, turning and twisting it until it’s more recognizable, and controlling it until it gives the finders what they want.

Principally they want money out of it, but what we see as these nets are cast and hauled up and cast again is the journey from raw ability to excellence. We see, or think we see, the crystallization of competitive hierarchy, in which the worthy are rewarded and the excess cast aside.

In baseball, the widest hierarchy extends from the rookie leagues to the majors. At every stage, the players are ranked. At many stages, the players have to be ranked very quickly, very efficiently perhaps. But even though we have perfected the means of finding the least raw scrap of talent and giving it some kind of audition, our mechanism is a bit overloaded. Coaches and scouts don’t have long enough to nurture each player, or find out what’s needed to overcome a flaw. Classifying the flaw is enough. Detect it and move on.

What would it feel like to have a remarkable, unusual skill but only be able to tap it unpredictably? If you are trying to be hitter, and in the course of a week hit two homers and then stumble through strikeouts and singles and grounding into double plays the rest of the week, what do you tell yourself? That you’re the greatest home run hitter ever? That you will be? That you will be if you could just do something three times in a row that, currently, you can only do when you are barely expecting it?

This is why my blog lacks the zestful condemnation of the Twins when they fail. (They failed, tonight. Scott Baker was pitching, and lost to the Rays, 5-3.) What would it be like to be Scott Baker, to pitch well a good deal of the time, but not in any way always. (Tonight, the sixth inning was the problem, in the form of a three-run homer from Evan Longoria.)

Not just tonight, but every night. Not just in the majors, but at every stage from college ball to Triple A. To be in the zone a while, and then out of it again, over-thinking, over-throwing, losing the release point that is such a subtle element of your mechanics that it can come and go when your brain and body are focused on nothing else. But still, it eludes you for a moment. Gone again, then back. Then gone.

How would it feel to know that facts support both your highest opinion of yourself, and your lowest? That you can throw 96 miles per hour, and that you can’t anyone out? That you held a team scoreless for six innings and then gave up three runs? How do you reconcile these truths?

And how would it feel to be competing every minute? To know that your success requires someone else’s failure, and as you rise through the minors, your friends will have to do the failing to let you through? How would it feel to have someone grading every element of your efforts, and seeing your work so dispassionately that the ability itself is lost under the microscopic scrutiny? To know that no error is forgiven?

We admire our sports heroes, and we love them, but I’m not sure we really would trade places if we could. I’m musing on these points tonight because for a full month I’ve been watching Joe Mauer sail along with such ease, adding power to his arsenal as he excels in almost very game. But, over the last few days, he’s looked a good deal more mortal. He has made little mistakes, normal, little mistakes. How would it feel to wrap your hands around the bat the same way you do every night and then swing just a little late or just a little high or just a little wrong, and not know where your skill went?

(Let it be noted that Mauer had a single, double, and triple tonight and once again resembles the idealized baseball player.)

I’m also musing like this because I’ve taken a night off from the Twins to watch the movie Sugar. It’s the story of a pitcher from the Dominican Republic who travels through some of the stages leading to the major leagues. It’s a fine film on many counts, but it especially reminded me of why this blog is doomed to be wimpy. I keep seeing the players as characters, and tragic ones often as not.

See Sugar. It will make you think about what it takes to get to the bigs today. In baseball, player supply exceeds demand. For thousands of hopeful ballplayers, that means picking through a minefield and facing more failure than most anyone can endure. It’s a bittersweet film, and you can draw your own conclusion about whether the ending is hopeful or sad. It let me step aside from baseball as I think I know it and see it a different way, so I found something wonderful there.