I got the flu a few weeks ago, which caused me to fall behind in my work projects, which cause me to fall behind in my home projects, which caused me to fall behind in my blogging. Meanwhile, my 10-month-old daughter, who I used to be able to entertain by simply sitting her down in the middle of a room with a bunch toys, recently figured out how to stand up from that seated position, and is now walking all over house. Which means even less time for blogging, as she must be watched every second of the day, lest she try to eat every little pebble she finds left on the floor.
No time: that’s the downside. The upside is getting to watch her personality emerge with every new skill she acquires. Once she learned to reach out and grab things, we soon discovered she is fashion conscious, with an unusual preference for floral patterns. When she learned to say "Hi", and we discovered that she’s a very outgoing and friendly kid. Then last week, when she stood up by herself for the first time, she looked me straight in the eye and gave one of those villainous laughs you hear in the movies when the bad guy realizes (mistakenly) that his big plans are indeed going to succeed. Oh, Daddy, watch out! I am now officially mobile! Nothing can stop me! I had to laugh back. "Oh, dear," I thought. "I think this girl is going to be high-maintenance."
This is also one of the joys of baseball for me: watching a team’s personality unveil itself over the course of a season. This 2008 A’s team, I find, has been particularly difficult to peg. There’s no one guy, no star, no Giambi or Tejada or Swisher, who has emerged as the team’s dominant personality. The pitching has been consistently good, but the rest of the team seems rather schizophrenic to me. One day they’re scoring 9, 11, or 15 runs; and then they go get shut out in three out of the next five games. They steal more bases than I can remember any A’s team stealing since Rickey was around, but at the same time, they make some simply godawful baserunning mistakes. The defense seems to be fairly efficient, but then they’ll go and drop easy fly balls for no apparent reason. I would rack up their inconsistency to their youth, if not for the fact that a couple of the older players on the team, Jack Cust and Emil Brown, have been just as much a source of that inconsistency as any of the players who are fresh out of Little League.
I seem to be living a Little League existence lately. The last A’s game I went to, I experienced the Little League-style cheering of Jeremy Guthrie’s kindly aunt. Yesterday, I experienced Little League-style cheering of a very different nature. It was Field Trip Day at the Coliseum, and I chaperoned a bunch of fifth-graders in my oldest daughter’s class to the A’s-Rays game. The good news is that there was lots of good news: after losing two consecutive games to Tampa Bay in exasperating fashion, Dana Eveland was masterful, the game went along quickly, and the A’s scored a bunch of runs, winning 9-1. The bad news is that these 10- and 11-year-olds used any good news as an excuse to scream piercingly at the top of their lungs. I went to the Coliseum expecting a baseball game, and a Beatles concert broke out. My ears are still ringing.
This where I think Pat Jordan’s remarks about how celebrity culture is preventing fans from getting to know modern athletes may be a bit beside the point. I will remember these two games as “the kindly aunt game” and “the screaming kids game”. The games had distinct personalities, but the actual personalities of the players didn’t really have anything to do with it. Our social brains are hardwired to assign personalities to not only people, but things, even things as abstract as a ballgame. So does knowing the personalities of the players lead us to understand the results on the field, or is it more the other way around: we ascribe to the players the personalities we experience when watching them, whether we know the players or not?
I’ve been attending quite a few actual Little League games lately. My wife’s nephew, who was a very good player at age 10 in the 12-year-old Little League division, is now age 12, and completely dominating his league. So far this year, he’s batting .500/.630/1.029, and his left-handed pitching arm is doing even better: 64 strikeouts in 45 IP, with a 0.20 ERA. In one game a couple weeks ago, he gave up one hit and struck out 17 in 7 IP (they won 1-0 in extras). Having used up his pitch count for the week, he played first base the next day. He came up with bases loaded and two outs in the 6th and final inning, with his team trailing by a run, and hit a rocket straight over the center-field fence for a game-winning grand slam.
When I watch my nephew play, he seems to have an aura like Tiger Woods or Kobe Bryant out there on that Little League diamond: the whole personality of the game revolves around him; he’s the dominant player who can pull a magical shot out of his bag anytime his team needs one. And yet I’ve known this kid since he was born; I’ve changed his diapers, I’ve fed him, I’ve watched him grow from a toddler to a goofy 12-year-old kid who’s pretty normal in every way except that he’s really, really good at baseball. Nothing I know of his off-the-field personality would lead me to assign that "star player" personality to him on the field. And yet, when I watch him play, I do it, anyway. It seems to me that the on-the-field personality that I perceive in him is more an emergent property of the game, than of the person.
What does the future hold for him? Is that "big star" aura a persistent part of his personality, a trait that predestines him to a career in pro baseball? Or are these last few months of Little League the glory days of his life? Will he one day read Jordan’s A False Spring, and think, hey, that was me–I could throw that speedball by you, too, before that flaw of mine was revealed, and it all just fell apart?
I could make some prophecies. I feel their lives, their destinies spilling out before me. The denial of the one true path, played out on a world not their own, will end soon enough. Soon there will be four, glorious in awakening, struggling with the knowledge of their true selves. But the idea of "one true path" is a fiction created by human psychology. In real life, there’s a 10-month-old girl, taking her first steps towards her destination, a place unknowable until she gets there.