Sour Grapefruit

This is on the USS Rock N Roll blog today:

Tuning in to spring training baseball is simultaneously fascinating and boring (presupposing avid interest the game). There are many side plots[1], but a main factor of interest for me are the lesser-known young players scrapping for roster spots, fighting to be the 1% of the 1%[2] who make it. Or trying to make a memorable impression when injuries crop up.[3] Waves of players whose names I’ve never heard foul off cut fastballs, field fly balls in dramatic escapades, fly around the basepaths. The difficulty of the game is startlingly clear, and it strikes me how routine the elite players make it look. I am continuously reminded: baseball is hard.

I haven’t made it through a whole spring game yet, but at the moment I am consumed by the notion of how do we evaluate what is good? These young players no doubt evaluate themselves in a specific way, their hits, or walks, or on base percentage. But if Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon doesn’t see the swinging mechanics he needs to, it doesn’t matter. If pitching coach Jeff Jones doesn’t see the young reliever hitting his spots, or his arm slots, or whatever metric, even if the kid gets out of a jam and keeps a sub-3.00 ERA, it doesn’t matter. Because it wasn’t good enough.

The notion of what is good and how do we know what is good is on my mind because this week the improv team I coach was “retired” from the theatre which created it, after six months.  The explanation behind the decision essentially boiled down to the notion that even if audience members, the players on the group, and I felt the work being done was good, it doesn’t matter because the decision-makers concluded it wasn’t good enough. And we will lose that argument every time.

While I realize that putting my heart into something I cannot control is foolish, I don’t think it’s possible to successfully do any work without caring about it quite deeply. Involuntarily that leads to a strong emotional response to this sort of thing. At least in baseball there are statistics to help give the illusion of empiricism. Improv is not as hard as hitting a round ball with a round bat. But improv is hard. It is very hard to do it well. And it is tremendously frustrating to have someone tell you that your idea of “good” does not line up with their idea of “good enough.” It calls into question validity of my personal aesthetic, and that makes me want to throw things.

The more I try to pinpoint it, the more I think defining what is ‘good’ art and what is ‘better’ art is about as useful as deciding which type of tree is best, or whether stalactites are superior to stalagmites. And yet, this is exactly the job of producers. They must assign dollar value to artistic product and make large-scale decisions based on probable monetary outcome. That this can be supremely depressing is irrelevant, and probably a realization anyone in the entertainment industry has to process and understand each time it happens to them.

Beyond the platitude of “what the market will bear,” I don’t understand how we assign value to works of art. Matt Woodward is a visual artist in Chicago. He is a relentless, disciplined force, and his work reflects his daily commitment. Matt’s pieces are enlarged replications of ornamental architectural detail. (I highly recommend you check out his website) He takes graphite to paper and works the drawings over and over and over until he’s left with tremendously distressed and layered images. The pieces are never framed or kept behind glass. He gave an opening talk at Union Club in Chicago[4] for one of his exhibitions and basically said that his pieces are imperfect and he likes that they are going to rot and decay. Then he wiped one with his finger, and an old lady audibly gasped.[5]

Matt’s pieces sell for a lot of money. This is an extension of his mind and willpower being transferred over thousands of hours of painstaking work, which to me seems good and just.

The maddening thing is that one could conceivably toil like that every day and not sell anything, for any amount. One could spend hours and hours building something and never receive recognition because of the maddeningly unquantifiable nature of art evaluation. What is good and what is good enough?

It’s a bit of a reach to propose a direct connection between professional baseball players, a successful professional artist, and improv teams. I am not implying a one-to-one corollary, but there does seem to me a link in the randomness of an outside arbiter applying value to work put forward by others. Laboring on something gives the illusion of control, a feeling of accountability that one has to the work. But that control is surrendered immediately when an outside judge has power.

Despite the fact that the power is not in the hands of the people doing the work, in the end the work is always there to be done. It’s a simultaneously daunting and relieving thought. The work is always there to be done.

Even if watching the Grapefruit League is frustrating, it’s still baseball, spring is around the corner, and the work is still there to be done.

  1. [1]Such as, what happens when the 270 pound version of Miguel Cabrera plays third base for the first time in four years? Does hilarity ensue?! Does a professional ath-a-lete simply display the staggering physical acumen de rigueur in the league? We shall see!
  2. [2]These figures are arbitrary but seem highly accurate to me at the moment.
  3. [3]Two years ago the Tigers were so depleted of A-listers by injuries that in September there was merchandise online with the Tigers logo, but the team name was changed to “Miggy and the Mudhens” (referring to Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers’ AAA team, the Toledo Mudhens).
  4. [4]One of those places where you “belong,” and food and drink must go on a member’s account: no coarse exchange of lucre for goods and services.
  5. [5]This is clearly an exaggeration, if not an outright untruth. But that was the vibe of the moment.

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