The shoulders of José Constanza are not, I will admit, the likeliest resting-place for the full weight of Western civilization. Look at him. The guy is listed at 5’9″ and 150 pounds, soaking wet in galoshes no doubt, on the Atlanta Braves’ roster. Until a few weeks ago, he didn’t even have his own Wikipedia page. José is roughly as likely to achieve lasting fame as his honorary stepbrother, Seinfeld’s George Costanza, is likely to leg out a bunt or chase down a gapper. But don’t be deceived by such trivialities. José has been chosen for a higher purpose. And his fate may just seal your own.
There is precious little to be known about José, the human being. I see him on the streets of Santo Domingo, chasing stickballs, I imagine, across mahogany-shaded sandlots, hustling and diving and laying out to snag the attention of the buscones who scour the backstreets for raw talent, leaving school and family to pile into roach-ridden hovels with boy-men more desperate than himself—and then landing the big break, the gringo’s visit that opens the door to the gleaming Academy, and ultimately across the water to the land of big money. And then the slow deflation of dreams deferred, of detours through the clean alien worlds of Kinston and Gwinnett, pride-sucking stints with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers and the Akron Aeros, endless hot bus rides and the ache of the bat bag and veiled slurs in half-grasped English. Such is José’s life for six years, seven hundred and forty-three baseball games, three thousand one hundred and sixty-four long walks to home plate and, more often than not, right back to the dugout, without any promise of a more estimable future.
And then a hernia changes everything. Deep in the groin of one Nate McLouth, that slumpingest and most-mocked of the BigBraves, something stretches to the point of no return. Nate is whisked, mercifully for all, to the operating table. And for lack of a better option, a certain pocket-sized Dominican journeyman is pluck’d from obscurity and whisked to the Big Show. Where for two wondrous weeks—and counting—Constanza, a fine but unspectacular baseball player for all of his 27 years, proceeds to uncork his best impression of Ted Williams. Hits well north of .400, wreaks havoc on the basepaths, bashes a home run (after hitting six in his entire minor-league career!), makes a circus catch in left. Up here, his new teammates fondly call him Georgie. José’s translator says he doesn’t mind. They probably don’t know his story, most of them, any more than I do.
In another sense, though, I know everything there is to know about him. José Constanza cannot hide from me. I have his ISO and his BABiP, his OPS and wOBA, his O-Swing and his Z-Swing, his BIZ and OOZ and UZR, right here at my hot little fingertips. Baseball feasts on failure, and every failure is witnessed and counted and wrung out and laid flat and, ultimately, embalmed as a statistic. If José aims his bat a quarter-inch too low, if he hesitates for a quarter-second on a liner in the gap, it will be known, and known forever.
In this respect, as in so many others, he is no different from any other ballplayer. In fact, it took me some time to recognize that the weight of Western civilization was resting on his shoulders. Perhaps I should have been tipped off that José was up to something when the cameras—they see all!—caught him licking the barrel of his bat after a foul tip. No real reason, says José Constanza’s translator. I just like the taste of burning wood. Sure, José, and I just like a little brimstone in my coffee.
But no, my first real clue to Georgie’s cosmic significance came later. It came, to be exact, on August 7, when his name appeared innocuously on a major league lineup card for the ninth straight game, and this mere fact caused the Braves blogosphere to crumble into smoking, blood-spattered, apocalyptic ruin. Here Iinclude, as Exhibit A, an abridged (and mildly sanitized) transcript.
“Commentator A.” An avowed supporter of the Atlanta Braves, and an avowed disciple of the latest and most arcane statistics used to analyze baseball performance.
“Commentators B, C , D, E & F.” Avowed supporters of the Atlanta Braves, and avowed skeptics of the latest and most arcane statistics used to analyze baseball performance.
Sabermetrics. The latest and most arcane statistics used to analyze baseball performance. Named after the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).
Jason Heyward – the Braves’ 22-year-old right fielder and superstar-in-training, once the top-rated prospect in all of baseball, yet currently embogged in the proverbial Sophomore Slump, and losing playing time, as a result, to José Constanza.
Act I. Scene I.
Commentator A. I appreciate what Constanza has done, but…eventually Heyward will need those starts. He’s the better overall hitter.
Commentator B. [Commentator A], we all understand you want to use metrics to prove your case on anything. Then please explain to me why the developers of SABER have stated in repeated interviews…that the metrics system is flawed…I honestly would like an honest answer and not some…….I know more than you because I look at different stats…
Com. A. [Explains several of the “metrics,” including BABiP (Batting Average on Balls in Play), which suggests that much of Constanza’s success can be attributed to luck.]
Com. B. I respect your view but I contend they are just numbers.
Com. A. [You] can say they are garbage all you want. But it really is like saying that you don’t believe in gravity or the speed of light or the pythagorean theorem.
Com. C. …All of this infatuation with applying endless stats to a game involving humans, human judgment, the wind, the rain, turf, maple vs hickory bats, baseballs in humidors and on and on…is for you and the others that really want to spend endless amounts of time second guessing what the guys are doing on the field and in the dugouts…. I’m in love with the game of baseball …. not some math geeks efforts to run the game like it was a rocket going to the moon.
Com. A. …It’s not trying to run it like a rocket ship, it’s trying to run it correctly.
Com. B. Grow up and stop getting defensive. You want to live in a metric world fine. Go for it. But I do have a problem when you try to look down you nose as you do reapeatedly to people that want logic instead of arbitrary numbers. By your Metric holy numbers……..Constanza never should have been on the roster.
Com. A. All these numbers do is show you what they did and how they did it. It digs through the chaff to get to the wheat. It shows you that (over a large enough sample size of course) you can expect player A to be this type of player.
Com. C. I’m betting Ted Williams didn’t studfy physics to make him the all time greatest hitter…here we’re just enjoying a kid’s game….of course a long comes a bunch of adults and screws it up….
Com. A. Yu are being aggressive. You accuse me of not presenting facts (and i have) you offer no facts of your own to back up your case…These numbers make the game better by providing a better tool for the mgr’s ,gm’s coaches, fans scouts..etc to use to determine player value. It’s foolish to not take advantage of more information when it’s available.
Com. B. …How old are you [Commentator A]? ” no i not aggressive you are”. Grow up son. And I call you son, if you want to try and question me there……..I served 10 years in the US ARMY, also gave up a baseball scholarship to do so. So just maybe I might know a little bit about a game I was good enough at playing to earn a scholarship even though I turned it down to serve my country. What about you?
Com. D. …I guess that you mean that Georgie can not play up here with all of us Phds with a chaw in our cheek cause he’s just a little 5-9 guy that spent 7 years riding buses?… No wonder he doesn’t speak English after all those years up here. I do not blame him a bit; if he did he might screw up and read those numbers and find out he can not do what he is doing…
Com. A. I’m saying that Constanza is probably going to regress to his normal numbers eventually in the big leagues. It may start tomorrow, it may start 3 weeks from now, it may start in April of next year, but He’s obviously not going to keep hitting .423.
Com. E. …there is one thing that can’t be quantified in numbers to predict performance and that is HEART AND DRIVE…i’m not saying constanza will keep it up but there always needs to be some magic for a team to win.
Com. A. [cites examples of players’ major-league performance conforming to their minor-league trends]
Com. B. Anybody can pick 2 names at random. You used avg/obp/ops…..where is your holy metrics? You believe in them use them…Son With all due respect you wouldn’t last 3 days in basic training at fort benning. Don’t test me son.
Com. A. I lasted 4 years in the Army, I’m 38 years old. I’m 6 foot 3 235 pounds…You silly attempts at belittling me as some sort of weakling is amusing.
Com. B. No soldier is as defensive as you sir. I am sorry, but we have pride and honor…You miss the point of all of the criticism. You claim numbers that are arbitrary and mean nothing. Baseball is a game of numbers but you are going over the top and not looking at logic…You are not a soldier. If you ever were, then I am embarrassed.
Com. A. I’m not defensive, I’m frustrated with the complete lack of cooperation or even an attempt to go “ohh, hmm you might be right about that” not it’s been pretty much “BURN THE WITCH!!!” …I left the army after 4 years to get away from all the meathead career army people…I’m the grandson of a 3 war vet AF colonel who started in the army air corps (which became the air force) he said that he retired because there were too many thick neck idiots coming in and not enough cream of the crop.
Com. C. …Pardon me but you are an arrogan elitest SOB. You skated thru a tour in Europe in peace time and were so damn smart you detest the thick necked “moron” that died so that weasels like you could preach statistics on a baseball blog…You are disgusting…..I’m out of here…you guys can have this little weasel
Com. F. Look out world. We are being attack by geek monsters!…Hide all of your “FIRST BORN”. THE GEEKS ARE TAKING OVER!
You dare to bring BABiP into my home? Sir, you are a coward and a blackguard! Fetch the dueling pistols! Just Southern men being Southern men, we might say. And Southern manhood is indeed a delicate thing. We take offense easily and badly—this much is the stuff of proverb—and nothing offends us more than an infringement on possibility. Hence the fondness for the tall tale. Hence the suspicion toward Big Government. And hence the fixation on baseball’s mythological Intangibles: Heart, Drive, the Hot Hand. The fabled conservatism that supposedly defines the South, and thus much of Braves fandom, is just a symptom of the deeper and wider condition of romanticism. A world in which little Georgie is forever imprisoned by his numbers, never given the chance to make his own magic, is a world in which the romanticfinds little reason to live.
Heyward vs. Constanza is just an excuse, of course: a convenient dueling-ground for the Forces of the Old and the Forces of the New. It doesn’t hurt that Constanza is a throwback, a scrappy, pesky, hustling, grinding, hit-‘em-where-they-ain’t sparkplug rugrat(did I miss any?) who seems tailor-made for the small ball of yesteryear. Heyward, for all his neo-Ruthian exploits (see the trails of carnage he left through the Braves’ spring-training parking lots), is very much a product of modern baseball: hyped and coddled at every step through the farm system, fawned over by sabermetricians even—or especially—when his Standard Stats seem wanting, and doggedly milked by the PR machine as the messianic new face of African-American baseball. Heyward’s greatness (30 home runs, .400 OBP, plus arm, double-digit steals, etc.) is preordained and predetermined; it’s the inevitable output from a computer program, one that damn well better get it right, considering all the money we put into it. If he doesn’t fulfill his destiny, it’s going to be our fault for pressuring him too much. Or not giving him the at-bats. Forgive the old-timers if they can’t find the romance in all of this.
And if they can’t look to baseball for romance, after all, where can they look? Doesn’t the greatness of baseball depend on its indeterminacy? In this sport, impossible things happen routinely; its Valhalla is bedecked with portraits of unlikely heroes. Bill Mazeroski, a man whose offensive prowess earned him the nickname “The Glove” (in the spirit of “He’s got a great face for radio”), naturally slew Mantle and Maris and the rest of the mighty Yankees with one blast over the Forbes Field fence. Kirk Gibson, staggering to the plate on a blown knee, a shredded hamstring, and a flu-ridden stomach, naturally tore the hide off the ball and single-handedly snatched control of the ’88 Series. Francisco Cabrera (another Dominican Brave), after managing to bat only ten times during the whole of 1992, naturally stepped in for the eleventh time with two down in the ninth and the pennant in his hands, and naturally plated a lumbering Sid Bream to provide a life-defining moment for a generation of fans. Baseball is the sport in which no lead is safe; in which there’s nothing, in theory, to stop a game from stretching on towards extra-inning infinity; in which a hitter—even one as mortal as José Constanza—can at any given moment soar above the rules, the rhythms, the very boundaries of the game with one transcendent swing and one heroic trot.
And yet! And yet no other sport is so encrusted with numbers. No other sport is so quantifiable. No other sport, in fact, is so predictable, because no other team sport depends so much on the isolated work of the individual. For those fans mindful of rain and turf and hickory bats, the greatest fear is that the geeks at the walls will one day complete their conquest. Today’s “metrics” may be flawed, but science marches on, as long as there’s money to fuel it. Imagine a world in which we can predict not only José’s long-term value but his moment-to-moment reactions. A world with electrodes in José’s brain, feeding real-time data to MLB-sponsored supercomputers. A world in which we could all pause our TiVos, freeze that backdoor slider, hit the Markov Chain button, anticipate the swing and the miss (or the kiss of the bat?), and turn back to our dinner with muttered oaths but unoffended eyeballs. A world in which José is nothing but a stream of bits, and to actually “watch” him is a messy waste of time. To know baseball fully would be to kill baseball. Wouldn’t it?
But this is not really about baseball, just as it’s not about the Southern man. As promised, it’s about the fate of civilization. The disenchantment of the diamond, that project to which the “metrics”-mongers are so fanatically devoted in the eyes of their enemies, is merely Step 8,732 in the disenchantment of the whole God-forsaken world. Old Max Weber, who gave us that word (actually, he said: Entzauberung!, with a Teutonic flourish of his bushy eyebrows—or so I imagine), saw it all coming. The gods will be driven out! Magic will succumb to reason! And lo, we will be no more than cogs in a machine, locked in an “iron cage” of soulless bureaucracy. Weber was not one to sugar-coat things much; he also foresaw modernized life as a “polar night of icy darkness,” haunted by “sensualists without heart” and “specialists without spirit.” His thoughts on Sabermetrik would surely have been dire. But Weber also held out hope that a new breed of heroes might someday emerge: a breed with the ability to find and defend some precious patch of meaning amidst the soul-crushing forces of rationalization; a breed able to harness the powers of modernity without succumbing to dissolution, anomie, and protein shakes.
Like all of us, I guess, I aspire to be that guy. I love sabermetrics. I love taking a player—for comedy’s sake, let’s say Wily Mo Peña—cooking him down to a handful of decimals, tossing him back like a shot of whiskey, and feeling the satisfying warmth of digested knowledge. I also love watching baseball, love all the stuff between the boxscore lines. I love seeing two grown men barrel into each other in shallow left field. I love the broken bats, the barehanded rollers, the rundowns, the dogpiles, the mound visits and patted behinds. I love seeing a borderline dinger coaxed into fair territory by a little gesticulation and sweet-talk. I love the simple feeling of adulation when Francisco Cabrera, or whoever, fulfills my fondest hope.
But adulation is a dying art. Today’s baseball gods are a far cry from Olympians like Cobb and Ruth; steroids, endorsements, Twitter feeds, reality TV, vapid postgame interviews, and yes, statistical cynicism have made sure of that. The kid’s game has been ruined by grown-ups; the numbers say that we’ll all come down to earth, when all we want to do is leave it for a while. So is ignorance really bliss? Doesn’t the thick-neck idiot have something we covet? Is baseball fandom, truly meaningful baseball fandom, really possible without sticking one’s head in the sand? Or can I have my Constanza and my Heyward too?
In the old times, whenever the Higher Powers got too lazy or fractious or full of themselves, whenever things got too heavy or dull or one-sided, you could count on the Trickster to show up. The Trickster was pesky, scrappy, and a sparkplug. He went by Puck, or Loki, or Coyote, or Anansi, or Brer Rabbit, but regardless of guise, the message was the same. Keep it loose! Rules and numbers, science and progress, are all well and good, but go all in and you’ll hear that iron door locking behind you. So long as you don’t know everything, leave yourself a little wiggle room; without a little irreverence, a little wildness, a little bat-licking crazy juice, the unexpected is impossible. Small wonder that tricksters so often did double duty as world-builders or fertility gods.
What do you say, José? You’re nothing but a bush-league scrub, underneath that small-sample veneer, and you know it. You’ll cool off any day now; the metrics are coming for you. I dare you to prove me wrong. That’s what I’m saying to my TV on the night of the twelfth, as Constanza digs in—for the first time in his life—against the Cubs’ plume of molten rock better known as Carlos Zambrano. First time up, he drags a bunt toward first, does a little softshoe to dodge the tag, and is called for leaving the baseline. Baselines! says José Constanza. I don’t need your stinkin’ baselines!
But he digs in again in the fourth, one out, bases empty. Takes three straight pitches. Waggles his bat—or the bat waggles José, it’s not clear. Gets a fastball at the letters, middle of the plate. Lifts his leg sky-high like he’s going to defile the thing, and then reaches out instead and swats it toward the opposite field. Looks for all the world like another one of his slap singles, and from the way José takes off out of the box, you’d guess he thought so too. But it just keeps carrying, like it’s hitched to piano wire on a Hollywood set. And before you have time to blurt out what you’re thinking—No chance, this can’t happen, dude weighs a buck fifty, he’s got six homers in the past six years, and he already hit his one fluky big-league shot the other night—it’s screaming over the fence and José Constanza is sprinting round the bases, holding onto his helmet like he’s on the ride of his life.
Outlier, say the metrics. Magic, says baseball.