As fans, we love stories. We love extolling the virtues of our favorite athletes. We love cheering for heroes as they wage battle against their hated rivals. We love creating stories around players as they become more engrained in our collective consciousness.
With the emergence of twitter, these playful narratives have grown from the tables of our local sports bar to entire fan communities and even to the players themselves. They are no longer inside jokes of a select few, but ideas and identities embraced by everyone. They transcend cyberspace and are seen on signs, t-shirts, in mainstream media, and even accepted by front offices for ballpark promotions.
However playful, innocent, and creative narratives are, we should be careful. Sometimes they cause strife, struggle, and confusion at every level, from the fans, to the media, to the players themselves. Sometimes if we are not careful, we get entwined with a good baseball story as we would with any good book, and fail to see the world crumbling around us.
This year, Rays fans have created amazing narratives around two players who have outperformed expectations. Seemingly heaven sent, these two players saved our team when they were down and kept the Rays from falling in the standings and out of relevance. Early in the season, it was Sam Fuld with his exceptional defense and blazing speed and timely slap hitting. While a good real-life tale, Fuld’s performance on the field made him cyber-legendary.
Did you know Sam Fuld can leap small buildings with a single bound? He’s Super Sam.
Did you know Sam Fuld once scored on a bunt … off his own bat? Tis written in The Legend of Sam Fuld.
As the season has progressed, it has been journeyman first baseman Casey Kotchman who has captured the hearts, imaginations, and Twitter attention of the Rays community.
Did you know Casey Kotchman’s bat is made of the same wood as the wands in Harry Potter? It’s the Magic of Kotch.
Did you know pitching awards are now determined by who can get Casey Kotchman out the most? It’s the Magic of Kotch.
Where the narratives fail us, however, is when we mistake our own impressions of a player with his real life ability. We trick ourselves or trick others into believing Sam Fuld is not the second Joe Orsulak but the second coming of Carl Crawford or that Casey Kotchman is really Hal Morris and not another Pat Putnam, his number one comparison on Baseball-Reference.com and possibly the only baseball player known for eating dog biscuits.
Narratives also cause problems when they cause us to fight those who preach reality. Sometimes we are so convinced what a player is doing is magical that we fight, argue, and bemoan those who tell us to keep our feet on the ground. We tear up their spreadsheets, call dissenters a bunch of nerdy number-crunchers, and bellow that they have lost touch with being a “real fan”. Like being smitten by a perfect first date, we are walking on sunshine and don’t want to hear that it will ever rain on our parade.
But of course, it happens.
Fortunately, most of our mythification occurs on the field. For all the hope we have that Sam Fuld will fly across the outfield from foul line to foul line and gobble up fly balls like Pac-Man in a cape, we know his Superman abilities do not extend beyond the field of play. We do not expect him to save kittens from trees, stop burglars in their tracks, or take on baddies from the planet Krypton.
There are some cases however where the narratives and the glorification thereof seeps past the ball field and into reality. Sometimes the stories we create about our idols become so strong they cloud our reality of the person playing the game. Greg Prince of the spectacular Mets blog Fear and Faith in Flushing found himself square in the middle of this dilemma recently when he came face-to-face with Mets legend Dwight Gooden. In his blog post, Prince writes how he idolized Gooden in the mid-1980s, when a blazing fastball and an unhittable curveball made New York Dr. K’s town. Gooden was the King of New York and could do no wrong, both in the eyes of the public and in Prince’s clouded baseball fan vision. Of course, we know that was not the case, as Gooden succumbed to his own personal demons more than almost any modern athlete.
As Gooden walked away from Prince, Prince writes about the temptation to applaud Gooden for all he did as a Met, but thinks twice as he doesn’t want Gooden to misinterpret Prince’s cheer for affirmation of his entire life, which Prince admits he doesn’t think too highly of. Prince doesn’t want to be guilty of the phenomenon of misinterpreted glorification. So he stayed quiet and watches a man who was once one of his baseball heroes walk by.
Although we all might understand the power of mythification fueled by narrative on players, the most egregious of all sins is not when the player is convinced he is someone else – again, that’s quite easy given our propensity for narratives – but it is when we fully convince ourselves that the athlete is someone he is not. Here we are the ones who cannot separate the real from our fantasy.
Fortunately, this doesn’t happen often, especially in today’s modern reality/information-based society. Back in the day, when verbose sportswriters would sedate us with tales of majestic feats, we honestly and naively believed Bob Feller walked off the cornfields with a 100-mile an hour fastball, Babe Ruth’s diet of hot dogs and beer fueled his prolific power hitting ability, and Mickey Mantle was more than a man but less than a god.
Thank goodness that type of fan worship is all but dead. We know Feller actually had to work to bring his heat, the Ruth was nothing more than Prince Fielder, and the Mick was a boozer who drank away his ability and his life.
Although most of the legend-building narratives died in the 1970s, it was fans of the Devil Rays who were victims of the biggest example in the last 20 years of a myth blinding us to a dark reality. Back in 2000, Devil Rays scout Benny Latino found a strapping young lad in a rural region of Louisiana. The boy had wicked power and a great arm. Latino gushed over him to the Devil Rays front office convincing them to sign this relative unknown. It was called a major coup for the Devil Rays and the sports media drooled over the story. No less of a legitimate medium than Hall of Fame writer Peter Gammons celebrated his abilities and his story, comparing him to The Natural and Babe Ruth.
That boy was Gregory “Toe” Nash.
Toe Nash played one year in the Devil Rays minor league system, hitting .240 and striking out in 36% of his plate appearances. It was his only year as a professional.
Today, Gregory Nash sits in the Richmond Correctional Center in Tallulah, Louisiana. He is 29 years old and his chances at baseball long since past. He is a sixth grade drop-out, a convict with a rap sheet a mile long, and a convicted sex offender. He has been arrested for assault, marijuana possession, and rape of a minor. And worst of all, people have stopped writing about him.
We believed the hype. We believed in Toe Nash. We were sold a myth. But that myth wasn’t reality. That myth wasn’t Gregory Nash.
Narratives are great things. They make baseball and sports fun. But proceed with caution. Realize the narrative for what it is. It is reflection of our own need for a hero.
And in the words of Tina Turner:
“We Don’t Need Another Hero/ We Don’t Need to Know the Way Home/ All We Want/ Is Life Beyond Thunderdome”
A life beyond Thunderdome.