Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Fruitless Obsession

I haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” and if this entry has any similarities to that the book, it is purely coincidental. What won’t be coincidental is that Gladwell has probably written about the topic much better than me.

I’ve been thinking about an issue a lot lately, so much that it’s become a quiet obsession, but ultimately it’s going to be an obsession in which will prove to be fruitless because it’s not quantifiable. What I’m trying to define is the exact moment when something (whether it’s a pop culture event like a television show or movie or song or a living organism such as an athlete or an actor or a writer or a ham-and-egger) goes from ordinary to extraordinary.

That seems like a very generic introduction, but I will explain it further using the professional athlete as a cypher. I began collecting baseball cards in 1986 and when I first opened my wax packs, I was excited to gaze upon any Jim Rice, Pete Rose, Steve Garvey, Ricky Henderson cards. These were super stars and more importantly they were older stars, stars with a track record, stars that had an impressive resume, stars that did stuff and that were slam-dunk Hall of Famers. In my mind these cards were surely the ones that were worth more than the pieces of cardboard that simply had a mishmash of minor league numbers on the back. The were the cards of prospects who had little more than a promise of greatness and an avalanche of hype.

Why would you value a picture of a guy who COULD something over the card of a man who DID do something? To me, this was logical.

After visiting a few baseball card shops and baseball card shows, it became apparent to me that my thinking was backwards. The thing that drove this hobby isn’t finding someone who already did do something, the trick is to find someone that is about to do something. That’s the hardest nut to crack. Because for every Bo Jackson Future Stars, there are a 1,000 Pat Dodsons from the same sub set of player. It occurred to me that baseball card people were interested in the blind prospect, the gold around the corner, the two in the bush versus the one in the hand. And for awhile, even though these players did absolutely nothing, these cards were valuable until one day they were proved that they weren’t.

At some point, most collectors turned into prospectors: betting a few bucks on Gregg Jefferies or Steve Avery or Cory Snyder. Kids bought magazines like Beckett Baseball Cards to find out who are the “no doubt” Hall of Famers who were destroying the minor leagues and were just waiting for a chance to dominate the Major Leagues. And while there are ball players that flame out and prove that they aren’t stars, there are a handful of players who did become great. Players who eventually become starting ball players, consistent All Stars, perennial MVPs and Cy Young winners and ultimately Hall of Famers.

After some time these players become the men who everyone talk about as the upper echelon of the game. What I want to know is the day, the specific game, the specific at-bat where they turn from prospect to star. When they realize their potential. And it’s also interesting to determine the opposite, the instant where everything goes to shit, when a player goes from prospect to suspect to an after thought. There has to be a moment. But where is that moment?

Finding this moment is difficult to pin down because a transformation is usually made over time: from fan (cult) favorite to city favorite to national favorite to a transcendent star. The latter is someone like Derek Jeter or Tom Brady; a player whom someone who doesn’t follow sports would now. Perhaps this is difficult to pinpoint because there are four different stops along this line, but these points are there. And it usually springs from an event: a big hit, a winning drive, etc. That event usually gets people talking and if he does it again, more people talk. The more that player’s greatest becomes ordinary, the more people talk about it and the more his stature grows. Though that greatness genesis begins somewhere.

It might be difficult to pinpoint an athlete’s greatness on a grand scale because it’s difficult to get a group of people looking at the same sky to agree on the color of said sky. So an argument ensues on the first “great” thing that a player has done.

One might think that a game-winning sacrifice fly in the eighth inning might be the start and shows the onlooker that the player can deliver when the game is late. Another person may say that a sacrifice fly is an out that virtually 99% of all major leaguers can do, but a game-winning hit is where the legend begins. Another may counter that there have been plenty of regular-season heroes, a true great makes his bones in the playoffs. And so on.

Perhaps it’s easier to determine your personal appreciation for how an athlete excels at his craft. Going back to 1986 and finding out that Roger Clemens struck out 20 Seattle Mariners certainly put him on my radar. As a relatively new baseball fan, I knew that this was a big deal (though I wasn’t sure exactly how big of a deal it was) but I started intently following him: watching his games, reading the press clippings the next day, making sure I watched the local sports report for tidbits on him. As his record grew to 8-0, 10-0, 12-0 and finally 14-0 to begin the season I had gone from a Roger Clemens fan to a Roger Clemens fanatic.

I wanted to read everything about him, his posters adorned my wall, I feverishly opened packs of cards to find his cardboard likeness. I talked about him non-stop that summer. Over the years that fanaticism never maintained the frenzy (it couldn’t) Roger Clemens was always my favorite player. I made excuses for why he pitched poorly in the post season, why Oakland Athletic Dave Stewart always seemed to have his number, why it was okay to ignore new manager Butch Hobson. Major League Baseball was Roger Clemens’ world and I was happy to observe it.*

* Of course then he pulled the ultimate villain move when he packed up his gear went north, never really acknowledging the Boston fans on his way out the door, holding some sort of vendetta against the Red Sox, ramping up his training and winning two Cy Young awards as a Blue Jay. Then he complained about the lack of winning Blue Jay players until he forced his way to the Yankees, retired, unretired, got embroiled in PED allegation, sold his wife and his colleagues out in a trial and behaved like a miserable self-absorbed person. Beginning with his defection to New York, Roger Clemens has been Public Enemy Number One.

Clemens is an easy example because his rise to popularity came at around the same time I began my obsession with baseball. Therefore it’s easy to chart my Clemens fandom with my love of baseball. But there are countless of other players that have come and gone that I have really enjoyed watching play. And while the game has stayed constant, the players have not and I’d like to be able to find out when I began liking them.

And while it may be simpler to pinpoint the greatness of athletes, you can do the same—albeit it’s tougher—with actors and actresses, musicians, writers or pretty much anyone. With an actor there is a certain scene in a movie where you realize, “Yes! This person is good at his craft and I like what they are doing. I want to see more of their work.” The same thing is true with music, you can listen to a CD once or twice or ten times and it finally clicks*. For a writer, it’s a book. And if you drill down even more, maybe it’s a particularly poignant page or paragraph.

* For me, music is a bit tougher because I always tie music to memories. One of the reasons why I like Pearl Jam, especially albums such as “Ten” or “Vs” is for the songs themselves, yes, but it also reminds me of college and my 20s. These CDs and others like it (Smashing Pumpkins “Siamese Dream”, Beastie Boys “Check Your Head” to name a few) remind me of friends I haven’t seen in awhile, meandering drunken conversations that went nowhere and everywhere, dancing with girls whose name I have long forgotten. It reminds me of a time when my life was laid out before me and the possibilities seemed endless. There have been other CDs and songs that I’ve loved since the 1990s, but they’re tethered to memories too. I remember devouring Cake’s oeuvre around the time my first daughter was born and I can’t hear “Italian Leather Sofa” or “Alpha Beta Parking Lot” without thinking of her.

The bottom line is that this is a very tough exercise whether you choose an athlete or an entertainer because you’re never going to know that you’re in that moment. For every Manny Ramirez cracking three homers against the Yankees as a Cleveland Indian rookie, there is a Todd Benzinger launching a late-inning home run off the seemingly untouchable Minnesota Twins reliever Jeff Reardon to prolong 1988’s Boston Red Sox Morgan Magic.

The ability of hindsight is absolutely key when figuring out when your favorite player truly becomes a favorite player and not a, to borrow baseball card parlance, a common with a great moment.

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