The Heroic Role of the Baseball Villain

Yuniesky Betancourt has frequently been the subject of fans' scorn (via Cacophony).

Yuniesky Betancourt has frequently been the subject of fans’ scorn (via Cacophony).

Franklin Gutierrez remains, at least in title, a Seattle Mariner. That this surprises us is not because of his salary, which was reasonable for all parties, nor his fit with the team, which is busy converting all its second basemen into outfielders as if they were Sneeches. Perhaps only slightly more shocking is his ability to keep all of his cells from disbanding in a fit of spontaneous combustion.

No, what made Gutierrez’s status as Mariner so counter-intuitive is that he’s already been a Mariner 173 times over the past three seasons, and the result hadn’t been pretty. His six-win season of 2009 was a thoughtful gift to the city of Seattle, long since repaid.

These situations usually call for a change of scenery, much the way a twenty-something moves to New York for six months seeking enlightenment. That such spiritual journeys rarely end well has done nothing to diminish their popularity. Occasionally, the protagonist stumbles across true love in an unpredictable yet entertaining fashion, or spends a year pitching half his games in Petco.

Most of the time, however, character trumps setting. The disenchanted youth trudges down the same colorless pavement toward the same cubicle, while a blanched and unshaven Joe Saunders peers down at the same miniscule strike zone.

Often, the hero has little choice of his change of scenery, delivered via pink slip or agent’s text. But before Gutierrez was yet again felled by some nameless, vengeful deity, he and his employer both chose to repeat their shared history. Though it was a reasonable wager for all involved, many fans were underwhelmed by the move. It was a story, they felt, that already had been told. Even the comedians had run out of material. After all, fans like to have some variety in their misery.

Baseball isn’t very good at cause and effect. The slider an inch off the black gets called a strike on one pitch, a ball the next. The hanging curve sneaks past the impatient slugger, while the perfect sinker finds the end of a flailing bat and drops into right center for the go-ahead single. For all the criticism of its languid pacing, the centisecond of action is so tangled with variables and chaos that it’s almost imperceptible.

This truth is anathema to modern man. Sports are supposed to be a microcosm of life, a simplified model, one in which the rules make sense and are always the same, where (unlike life) winning and losing are objective concepts. Through its history, the game has struggled and gained ground against the random variable, controlling the climate, replacing each baseball that brushes the earth, and now finally reinforcing the judgment of the umpire.

Luck slowly has been strained out of the game, though a colossal amount remains. Prospective statistics like BABIP and FIP have dragged uncertainty into the periphery of baseball’s consciousness, but it’s an unwanted visitor. Their battles against intangibles and clutch have met so much resistance for the simple reason that they would make the sport more rewarding if they were true.

Some of the game’s greatest moments–Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch, Fisk’s wave, Jeter’s flip–are moments in which a player’s will seems to strain, but not break, the boundaries of physics. Like life and literature, we want our sport to ring true, to follow natural laws. Our primary instinct since childhood is a sense of when a thing is unjust, or random.

Meanwhile, our friend Franklin Gutierrez is randomness anthropomorphized. There’s no literary diagram, no rising action that brought him here, no fatal flaw exposed. He’s Camus’ Stranger, shot to death for no reason on a hot afternoon. He’s a symbol for how dumb and meaningless this whole baseball matter is. Gutierrez is a fine person, but as an idea, he’s a psychological horror. How to care about a game that doesn’t make any more sense than real life, a diversion that doesn’t divert?

Randomness is insidious not only because it’s beyond our grasp, but because it dances just outside it. Leonard Mlodinov, in his book, The Drunkard’s Walk, illustrates an example. A random number of green and red cards are generated and ordered, and the participant is shown the first couple dozen of those cards in the series, enough to get a handle on which color is more common. The participant is then asked to guess which color the cards afterward will be.

Let’s say there were seven green cards and three red. The optimum strategy, the one that lab rats find through intuition, is always to guess green, and settle for being right 70 percent of the time. But the human brain, with all its brilliance and hubris, tends to reject such low ambitions. It tries to find patterns, tries to time when the red cards appear and, on average, scores less than 70 percent.

We want to believe we’re better than the rats, and we are, when it comes to science and warfare and dancing. When it comes to predicting, though, we tend to get in our own way. Not even logic is enough to save us; we conveniently forget it the moment it clashes with our desires. Other strategies are necessary.

The problem of the randomness of suffering permeates history. In his comprehensive work, The Golden Bough, the anthropologist James Frazer surveys the expanse of civilization and lists a string of ancient ceremonies invented to solve it. Patterns emerge: the idea of evil as a nebulous, invisible force that harries the common folk, which evolves into a sentient and antagonistic class of devilry; the transference of that evil, by mystical means, into some animate or inanimate object; and the driving off of this force by physical means, through a show of superior force or banishment. The evil is never destroyed, only forestalled, and such practices eventually become periodic, then ritualized.

These rituals reek of superstition and mysticism, and Frazer’s Eurocentric perspective is less than helpful as he describes men pounding the ground with sticks, painting faces, screaming and debauching. But in some cases, the practice turned out to be occasionally legitimately helpful (as in the application of certain curative herbs to wounds) and always carried the medicinal weight of the placebo. More than anything, such actions are an attempt to take the aspects of life that were beyond understanding and make them actionable: a logical attempt at pragmatism.

The advancement of science carries many of these threats out of the realm of the unknown, but not all. And for those that remain, the practice is much the same in modern times. Camus and the existentialists of the atomic age found themselves thrust into an existence just as arbitrary as those felled by the bacteria they could not see.

The same is true of baseball in our own enlightened age. Advanced metrics and improved forms of measurement have thrown light upon darkness, but only to illuminate the randomness and unfairness that exists. For the loser, the questions are just as heavy; more so if there are fewer places to look for answers.

At the root, the civilizations described by Frazer and at least 29 baseball teams each season are hunting for those same answers. In a utopia, where conflict is unimaginable and everybody wins, this drive never exists. But in the real world, as noted by anthropologist Rene Girard, the desire to avoid conflict and the desire for the possessions of others creates increased tension within society. Unchecked, this tension builds until it spills out into war or anarchy. Humans aren’t good at being happy with what they have.

Society’s solution, Girard found, was a phenomenon he dubbed the scapegoat mechanism. The harried group took those feelings of anger and guilt and projected them onto a single person and destroyed or banished them.

It’s a process meticulously described in the 16th chapter of the Book of Leviticus, wherein Moses was instructed to lay the sin of his people onto a presumably innocent goat and then cast him into the desert. In so doing, the guilt of the masses was absolved, hurt feelings and grudges forgotten, debts repaid. The ritual prevented grievances from spiraling into larger issues due to overreacting.

Sports teams are equally prone to such fits of recency bias. Teams that win championships are likely (and justified) in maintaining the roster that won the trophy. Meanwhile, the runner-up, usually having the same or nearly the same talent, has just failed under the brightest spotlight and must deal with sore disappointment. This leads to dramatic turnover, which harms rather than strengthens the team more often than not.

In the NFL, Super Bowl teams that lose see their records dramatically fall the following year, as they tend to overcompensate and overcorrect their rosters. Winning teams earn the luxury of patience.

The San Francisco Giants have proven a model of stability over the past half-decade, striving (and, occasionally, overpaying) to maintain their existing roster. The team handed generous renewals to Hunter Pence and Tim Lincecum before the offseason even began and before their relative values could be established. Staying the course might seem unusual for an 86-loss team, but general manager Brian Sabean believes that the team’s 2013 record is an outlier, and two championships buy him the time to prove it.

Other teams, sick of losing and wanting quick answers, have mortgaged their futures for free agency just to feel the spark of winning, thus dooming themselves to another cycle.

The obvious solution to the problem of overreacting to failure is to determine the best process and stick to it, to avoid scapegoating altogether. But people are terrible at accepting the idea that the things that happen are tinged, if not discolored, by luck. We build religions and identities on the virtues of success, and by extension, the immorality of losing. To fail to punish a poor performance is, by this same logic, to condone it.

This is why managers continue to be sacrificed at the altar of public opinion, even through the numbers have long since proven the futility of the move. Players have their flaws amplified, their toughness and effort put into question. Each of these miniature witch hunts is born out of the same silly but powerful drive, the fact that suffering for any reason, no matter how true or how painful, is better than suffering for no reason.

Mlodinov wrote about this, too: studies have shown that not only is a sense of control desirable, it’s absolutely vital for survival. Studies have shown that subjects offered the veneer of choice, even in circumstances obviously determined by luck, are more satisfied, more happy, and ultimately, more healthy than their restricted counterparts. Survivors of the Holocaust spoke of the necessity to maintain some small sense of humanity, some private reserve that could not be touched by the horrors they lived through. Viktor Frankl turned this instinct into logotherapy, an important advance in psychology designed to combat the alienation of meaningless in a nuclear age. Life, much like baseball, is pretty trivial if it doesn’t mean something.

Reason can only stave this off so long. Eventually, the mob will have its way. What’s essential is how teams handle it.

It’s difficult to believe now, but the 1986 Seattle Mariners were a team of destiny. Slowly disentangling themselves from a decade of mediocrity, the M’s had developed a horde of young, exciting talent. The question, according to Bill James in his annual Abstract, was whether there was one or multiple Hall of Famers in the bunch.

The entire rotation was under the age of 27, including Mark Langston, Mike Moore and Billy Swift. The key members of the lineup were, as well, featuring rising stars like Alvin Davis, Harold Reynolds, Jim Presley, Dave Henderson and Phil Bradley. After years of forgettable (or worse) managers, the legendary Dick Williams was brought in to guide the kids with his grizzled hand.

None of those Mariners made the Hall of Fame. Henderson and Langston were the only ones who made the ballot, and they combined for two votes. The 1986 Mariners finished 67-95.

Fans wanted answers. Management couldn’t admit a mistake in Williams, who preached the same exact virtues he had in Oakland, Montreal and San Diego. The hitters collected plenty of home runs, and the pitchers threw plenty of strikeouts. Blame lay with an abysmal defense, one that sported four players near the worst at their position, and only one, Spike Owen, noticeably above average.

In need of a scapegoat, management turned to its power-hitting, age-23 star rookie, Danny Tartabull. Tartabull’s plus hitting was equaled by his minus-minus defense. The situation had been made worse by the team’s decision to start him at second base for 30 games, in which time he managed 10 errors. Management made him the symbol for the Mariners’ ills, using rookie expectations to hide poor roster construction, and shipped him to Kansas City for spare parts.

This time, the tactic failed. Mariners fans were irate at the deal, which looked all too similar to the triage-through-trades philosophy that riddled the franchise’s early history. They grew angrier as they watched and read about Tartabull’s development into a middle-of-the-order threat, while no longer noticing his defensive shortcomings or his nagging injuries.

Retrospect actually has vindicated the M’s to some degree, recognizing Scott Bankhead’s relative (if equally inconsistent) merits. They did not help the team, however, which languished in the second division for another half a decade. By the time the Mariners had their first winning season, five years later, only Reynolds, Swift, and a broken Alvin Davis remained.

This is the danger of scapegoats. Just as one man rarely can save a baseball team, he is equally unlikely to ruin it.

If the ’86 Mariners are a cautionary tale, they aren’t a refutation. Doubtless, the team underperformed its talent, and that an identical roster in 1987 would have regressed to the mean and performed much better. However, a team that fails to change, fails to improve itself through the offseason, is just as vulnerable to criticism as the team that changes the wrong way. Even when change isn’t necessary, the appearance of change is necessary. It is we, as fans, who are the demons that need to be appeased.

Thus, the scapegoat. But scapegoating is an art. It takes the perfect person as well as the perfect presentation. Exiling a player should feel momentous enough to evoke that sense of change without casting a shadow on the men he left behind. It should bring satisfaction without developing a taste for it, as has sometimes been accused of the citizens of Philadelphia. The scapegoat, by acting out the dramatic role of the villain, gives the fans catharsis and relieves his team of its sins.

Baseball has lost many of its villains in recent years: Yuniesky Betancourt to Japan, Michael Young to fatherhood, and Alex Rodriguez to insanity. Old familiar faces like Barry Zito and Livan Hernandez, who once haunted franchises, have disappeared into the ether. Their hometowns are now tasked with finding new, friendly antagonists onto whom they can project their disappointments. It’s an important task. If they fail, they’ll inevitably turn on themselves, or worse, on a player who might otherwise have been a hero someday.

In Seattle, they’ll have to seek it someplace other than Gutierrez and his endless supply of humorous physical maladies. Nor can they count on GIFs of Raul Ibanez. The stopgaps, the pariahs, have all served their time. For the Mariners organization, the time has come. You can only blame the spirits for so long. Eventually, you have to look at yourself.

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Comments

  1. Andy Pettite said...

    This perfectly describes my views on A-Rod.

    As humans, we tend to project ourselves on others. And for me, A-Rod is my “fantasy image”.

    Namely, that my greatness has been held down by the incompetence of others, like Alex in Seattle and Texas. That I am bullied into playing second fiddle by the popular kids, like Derek Jeter not giving up shortstop, when it is obvious that A-Rod played better defense at shortstop.

    Even today, in my personal Parthenon of the gods of Baseball, A-Rod is the greatest hero of them all. It was McGwire and Sosa who introduced the evil of PEDs to our glorious paradise, it was Bonds and Clemens who succeeded off this great evil. But most importantly, it was A-Rod who died for the sins, who was crucified and burned at the stake. He died for the sins of the steroid era, and for such great contribution, I thank you Alex.

  2. Paul G. said...

    Bravo!

    I would say that scapegoats, on occasion, are deserving of the scorn they receive as far as winning and losing go. However, I do sense that the deserving scapegoats tend to congregate around the positions of general manager and owner rather than players. These roles are more difficult to fix. Yeah, the GM can be canned, but even a really good replacement would be hard pressed to fix a really bad GM’s work, at least in the short-term with much talent wasted. Owners tend to require either death or bankruptcy to be dispatched, though on occasion they can mellow out and get smarter as with George and the Yankees.

    There can be true deserving player scapegoats though. Some players implode through their addictions or stupidity or just plain meanness and wreck the place. Getting rid of them usually makes logical sense. In recent years we have also seen greed as a major problem with albatross contracts ruining the team’s ability to build a better roster. Of course, the GM and/or owner is often just as much to blame for overpaying, but the player is still part of the problem. If you want to get paid like a superstar, you best play like one or face the wrath of the fans. It’s inherent in the system. Alas, these type of players also are hard to move, so teams take it out on the Danny Tartabulls of the world. If you can’t kick the one you hate, kick the one you’re with, I guess. Do something!

    • Yehoshua Friedman said...

      The all-time scapegoat GM was the infamous Frank “Trader” Lane. In St. Louis he even tried to trade Musial, but the Busch ownership vetoed it. In Cleveland he reached his nadir in trading Rocky Colavito, a legendary curse for the died-in-the-wool Indians fan, eclipsing his successful trade of the setting sun of Larry Doby for Tito Francona. FO is the classic place to look for a scapegoat.

  3. Paul E said...

    Great discourse on an, unfortunately, all too familiar topic. Scapegoating (?) pervades and permeates society and sport is no exception. As a native Philadelphian I saw the heroes of my youth, Jurgenson, Chamberlain, and Allen, publicly hanged, drawn, quartered, and neutered by the angry mob as well as a print media looking for good copy. Strange, but it was the most talented who took the fall for the ills of their employers and whatever psychopathology (riots, unemployment?) was haunting the city or the individual fan.

  4. Dan said...

    Thank you for this. It was totally ridiculous and yet not, both in the best possible way.

    Lots of love for ’86. The first baseball stats I ever saw, on (still) the greatest computer baseball game ever made, Earl Weaver’s Baseball for the Amiga.

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