Where Have You Gone, Ernest Hemingway? Of Baseball, Tanking, Winning, Trying, And Life…

This essay is only incidentally about baseball, but like so many things that sieve through my brain, it was sparked by a conversation about baseball. On the satellite radio MLB channel, one of the interchangeable hosts—I really have trouble telling them apart: some are ex-general managers who nobody will hire, some are ex-players, and a few are sportswriters, but they all seem to say the same things, though one says them with a bilateral lisp—was interviewing a New York sportswriter. That alone would normally prompt me to switch to the Beatles Channel (or the weather), but as I reached for the dial I caught one of the writer’s comments. He was talking about the fact that the New York Yankees’ opponent at the time, the Tampa Bay Rays, were almost a .500 team, and were competing despite a tiny payroll, unlike many other teams this year, which have adopted the controversial strategy of fielding cheap and crummy teams (called “tanking’) in the hopes of getting high draft choices as a reward for  miserable won-lost records.

“I guess you have to admire the Rays,” he said, “though in this day and age, it makes no sense to try to be a .500 team.”

What a nauseating, unethical position, and how characteristic of the downward trend in American values and spirituality!  It makes no sense to try be a .500 team? This sentiment warps so much in American life today. It translates into the envy, resentment and anger that typical, normal, healthy Americans lug around on their souls all day because they aren’t rich like the people they see on TV, or the neighbor down the street who had wealthy parents and left him a bundle.

It makes sense for the Rays to try to be a .500 team because it means the team is doing the best it can, despite limitations beyond its control, to give its fans something to cheer and care about. It makes sense to try to be a .500 team for the same reason it makes sense to aspire to be the kind of steady, honest, hard-working middle class American who raises happy and well-adjusted children in a stable home but will never win any major awards or be the subject of features in their local newspapers. It makes sense to try to be a .500 team for the same reason it is right to work hard and well no matter what your salary, or whether you are being paid at all.

Ambition is a great motivator, as long as one understands that achieving one’s goals is often as dependent on chance and chaos as it is on industry and talent, and if you prepare yourself to be bitter about that, bitter is how you are likely to wind up.

I learned to love baseball passionately following a .500 baseball team–indeed a sub-.500 baseball team— that seemed like it would never be anything but. This was in an era where the New York Yankees literally won the pennant every year, with a rare exception now and then. The system was rigged to favor them, and had been for decades. The Boston Red Sox began every season knowing that getting to the World Series was a pipe dream, and their fans knew it too. Nevertheless, they tried. As an almost good team, they had a chance to win every game—not a great chance, when they were playing the Yankees, but a chance. Often the Sox made a good fight of it while going down: our hopes were raised, and there was that wonderful-horrible moment that is the beating heart of baseball where anything can happen from a miracle to a tragedy as the ball is hurtling toward the plate and fate’s resolution. Life is like that, and the sooner you realize and accept it, the better off you are.

The best hitters make outs 60% of the time, and the best teams still lose at least 35% of their games. The typical players and teams do worse than that, just like the typical American, indeed human being, loses a lot more often than he or she wins. The important thing, the thing that undergirds ethics, and integrity, and responsibility, and honor, is that you do the best you can, and pick yourself up when you fail, and try again. It’s not a bromide. It’s the only way to live without going crazy, becoming a serial killer, or surrendering to despair.

Early on in my youthful explorations of literature, I was drawn to the works of Ernest Hemingway. Not because I liked his spare writing style (i didn’t, and don’t) but because his philosophy of life and what made a heroic one was the perfect balm for a Red Sox fan. Hemingway’s heroes always lost in the end, but did so with guts and principles: they lost, but you admired them while they were going down. (The fact that Papa Hemingway killed himself with a shotgun to the head was early evidence that espousing principles and living by them were often very different things, but that’s a story for another day.) He was also right. An ethical life isn’t one that ends in victory, but rather one that accumulates as many small accomplishments , inspirations and moments of positive human interaction as possible on the way to the ultimate defeat, which is death.

Obviously my father helped me understand this too. Dad was a brilliant, eccentric, fascinating man who had more than his share of tragedies and obstacles in his life—certainly a lot more than I have had, in great part because of him. He grew up poor, he was abandoned by his father, and had his foot blown up in the war by an idiot in his own platoon. His career didn’t take off in the directions he hoped for, in part because he refused to follow authority when it was stupid or corrupt. He lost more often than he won, and when he died, his obituary never appeared in any paper. My father, however, had charted out a single priority in life, which was to be the kind of father his own father had not been. He would be home every night to eat dinner with the family, and home every weekend too. He and his beloved and loving wife of 61 years saved and economized so they could pass along resources and security to their children and grandchildren. My Dad could be called a .500 success by some people’s standards—but until the day he died, he did not apologize for the life he led, the choices he made, or his many disappointments and failures to anyone. He was kind, fair, generous, honest and courageous, or tried to be, every moment of his life.

And his son was watching and learning.

Hemingway is out of fashion now, both as an author and as a philosopher. Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” the quote often attributed to Vince Lombardy but actually the hell-spawn of UCLA  football coach Henry Russell (“Red”) Sanders is the view of life our modern culture projects. If you are powerful and famous, that’s what matters; if you are not, you’re a flop…or a victim.  If you are not as wealthy as someone else who doesn’t seem objectively more deserving than you, then life is unjust: why even try? One reason Americans valued sportsmanship and being “good losers” was that they innately understood that life was losing, you better get used to it, and that there was much more to a meaningful life than making it “to the top.” whatever the “top” was.  Now we have been subjected to a losing Presidential candidate’s non-stop caterwauling about the fact that she lost an election, for 18 months. That’s typical of America’s role models today. If you don’t get what you want, and if what you want isn’t total victory, then life is a tragedy.

Yesterday the Tampa Bay Rays finally reached .500 by beating the Mets (above), despite all of the predictions that they would be a losing team, and all of the critics who said that they would be better off not even trying. The irony is that unlike me when I was 12 and following the hapless Red Sox, most Rays fans don’t even care: the team’s attendance is pitiful. Never mind, though: their team is still dedicated to give the fans who do watch the games a good show, the best they can muster with one of the lowest payrolls in the sport. Maybe they won’t be able to keep their heads above the metaphorical water for the whole season, but they are playing the ethical, noble, Hemingway hero way. They are trying. They are fighting. They have respect for themselves, their duties, and the people who care about them.

That makes them winners to me.


27 thoughts on “Where Have You Gone, Ernest Hemingway? Of Baseball, Tanking, Winning, Trying, And Life…

  1. To be fair to the Rays, most of the people down there just don’t care about baseball. Having lived in the area myself, more people seemed interested the Florida Panthers (hockey team).

    • I can’t speak to their television and radio audiences, but ballpark attendance has always (at least as long as I can remember) been poor, even when they were fielding World Series winning teams. For whatever reason, people simple don’t come to that stadium.

    • I believe (and have no evidence to support this belief) that watching Baseball in an open wind blocking stadium during summer anywhere south of, say, Oklahoma City, is an exercise in torture and a distraction to the game itself.

      Americans have gotten used to comforts, and 90-plus degree ballparks ain’t comfortable.

  2. My now deceased best friend and college roommate’s favorite line from “The Old Man and the Sea,” spoken by Diego, I think, “But I fear the Indians of Cleveland.”

    Hem not my favorite either as a stylist or as a man, but he was (or his heirs are) the original geniuses in branding, right behind the Steinway family.

  3. “Tanking,” like many fads, will be self-correcting. The plan’s success depends on a team trading veteran players for young ones, then being bad enough while the kids are developing to earn top draft picks. This works fine if there are two teams doing it, but if there are ten then there won’t be enough good young players to go around. I say it dies out in around 2020, as some current tankers remain mired in last, wondering, “Wha’ happen?”

  4. Even putting aside ethical considerations, tanking to get better draft choices in baseball is just stupid. Unlike basketball and football players, baseball players invariably spend at least a couple of years in the minor leagues, and lots of things can happen (not to mention the switch from aluminum to wooden bats, which affects both pitchers and hitters in not necessarily predictable ways). Predicting long-term success isn’t a complete crap-shoot, but there have been a lot of seemingly sure-fire stars who, shall we say, didn’t turn out that way.
    Since the MLB draft started in 1965, there have been as many overall first draft picks who didn’t play a game in the majors as there have been Hall of Famers (two each). Fewer than half were either Rookie of the Year or (ever) an All-Star. Compare that to basketball, where literally every overall #1 has played in the league and there have been 14 Hall of Famers (not counting an obvious future HoFer like LeBron James and a few others who seem to be on their way). 60% more NBA #1s have been ROY or an All-Star than MLB #1s in the same time-frame.
    I can wrap my head around unethical behavior if it serves a selfish goal. I don’t like it, but can understand it. But when the payoff is so meager…
    (Not to mention that, as a Mets fan, I remember when the Mets–by no means the “best” team–were 14 games behind the Cubs in August of ’69, and won the World Series. It ain’t over til it’s over.)

    • I would somewhat disagree here. Tanking in other sports is generally used to refer to a single season’s activities — and even then I suspect it is more in the minds of fans than the players. The idea is that getting a top draft pick for one year, or perhaps two years, will enable your team to get back on the road to contending for titles.

      Tanking is always going to be more who the manager or general manager put out on the field or court. Players are always going to compete to the best of their abilities — if they don’t they are likely not to have a job the next year. So management, in theory, fields a team that has little likelihood of winning much.

      In baseball it isn’t that simple and it cannot be that short term. The most spectacular recent example is the Houston Astros, who went through a period of time in the late 2000s where they were consistently mediocre, in part because the owner kept thinking they were one player away from another World Series. Under new ownership and a new general manager, they divested themselves of just about every major leaguer of any value, trading them for as many prospects as possible and rebuilding their farm system (which had dwindled to one of the worst in baseball).

      The Astros suffered through three consecutive horrendous seasons (100+ losses each year) before ascending to become one of the very best teams in baseball and winning their first World Series last year.

      It wasn’t enough, though, to just dump salary and get high draft choices. You also have to succeed in drafting players who are going to both make the big leagues and become stars. As Curmie has mentioned, that is hard and teams see their top draft picks flame out as often as they become stars. The Astros succeeded rather spectacularly with their #1 picks. That and the moral luck of signing Jose Altuve when no other team would give him a look went a long way to rebuilding their team.

      I am not a fan of the current philosophy of dumping your talent at the trading deadline, but it is a fact right now so you learn to live with it.

  5. There is a parallel in American Society which could possible explain the ‘tank’ mindset in Baseball.

    For the past 20 years, I have watched the unethical do things that were, well, unethical, unworkable long term, or downright stupid. These folks then leave the job when their strategies fail, or (if they time it right) just before, and move to the next victim company.

    In teaching, I have seen Administrators who could not manage their way out of a wet paper bag get the school board to buy out their contract and send them along with a glowing review to the next stepping stone school district. They fail spectacularly, so much so in fact that the school board that hired them cannot have that fact know publically (lest they lose the next election,) so whitewash the situation and provide the miscreant with references to get rid of the debacle. There are people who work this system to ever increasing salaries (look at the references!) while damaging the careers of those (especially teachers) who looked to them for professional leadership and a modicum of fairness.

    I have watched directors, vice presidents, and CEOs of companies rig the bonus structures in their favor (at the expense of those who work there) and write themselves golden parachutes and, again, glowing references based on accomplishments that were more marketing than marketable. They left the employees, Board of Directors, shareholders, and (worst of all) the customers holding the bag, trying to recover from the financial and organizational damage left in their wake.

    I have seen politicians do what they do, and get away with breaking the law because of connections and their politics. I have watched politicians on both sides of the aisle use their position of trust to further their own power, becoming rich at the country’s expense.

    I have seen lawyers destroy the spirit of the law, perverting the justice system for their gain and many times to the detriment of their clients.

    I could go on. These predators used to be held in check by societal standard, standards that no longer apply. The lowering of personal expectations started in the 1960s produced a generation of self worshiping selfish brats who have risen to positions of leadership and power. Common Americans have become desensitized to the phenomenon: looks like everyone does it, and the rich and powerful are seemingly immune to opposition.

    The rot of the American soul that permits this behavior to flourish is the same that allows Baseball to lose sight of some core American values: hard work, pride in a job well done, and doing the right thing for the sake of it being the right thing. Being scorned for doing your best is the new thing in virtue signalling. Why try when those who do not profit over you? The scammers are promoted and exalted on every side.

    This is a communist attitude. This is a hedonistic attitude. It led to the destruction of every society that embraced it, all the way back to Rome (and likely before.)

    America is slouching down this path, hand in pockets, listening to cheery music on earbuds while wearing rose colored glasses, on the way to a $15 dollar an hour job that will be replaced by a mush more economical machine much sooner than we think.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.