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Similes: Failed Heroes

He is summoned…by a committee of nervous citizens expressly to be a hero, but finds that he cannot, at last, live up to his image; that there is a flaw not only in him, but also, we feel, in the entire set of assumptions that have allowed the image to exist. – Thomas Pynchon, “A Review of Oakley Hall’s Warlock”


Joe Paterno left in disgrace last November after 46 years from his position as head coach of the Penn State football team when allegations surfaced that he had knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual involvement with multiple children. Mike McQueary, one of Paterno’s assistants, went to Paterno in 2002 after witnessing Sandusky in the shower with a child. Recently, Paterno recounted that conversation he had with McQueary:

You know, he didn’t want to get specific,” Paterno said. “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it.

Francesco Schettino, captain of the now-sunk Costa Concordia, has been criticized for leaving his sinking cruise ship before all passengers had been evacuated. When asked why he left early Schettino said:

I was helping some passengers put the life boat to sea. At a certain point the mechanism for lowering it, blocked. We had to force it. Suddenly the system unblocked itself and I tripped and I found myself inside the life boat with a number of passengers.

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A Hero is Born

How much do these legends, as they outstrip and supersede their originals, rest upon Truth, and how much upon some dark and impenetrable design within Man himself – Oakley Hall, Warlock

Baseball is without a doubt the only sport in America with a deep connection to its own history. Baseball’s history is carefully maintained through myths filled with heroes, villains, ghosts, and curses. It’s impossible to be a baseball fan and not be painfully aware of the joy and suffering that has befallen your team in years past.

(For example: by virtue of me being a Cubs fan, I must bear the burden of infamous moments such as: Merkle’s Boner (1908), Babe Ruth’s Called Shot (1932), Homer in the Gloamin’ (1938), The Curse of the Billy Goat (1945), and The Bartman Incident (2003).)

And that’s just moments involving the Cubs.

Suffice it to say that there are times while watching a baseball game that I find myself juggling the weight of the present moment with the weight of the past. Last Wednesday night, the final day of the baseball regular season, I found myself smack dab in the middle of one of those moments. As the night progressed it was clear that something was going to happen–that something had to happen.

To understand why I felt this way, it’s important to be familiar with some of the dominant narratives leading up to baseball’s final night. Two teams, the Atlanta Braves and the Boston Red Sox were on the verge of two of the greatest collapses in baseball history. Both teams held commanding leads for the final two playoff spots entering September: the Boston Red Sox led the Tampa Bay Rays by nine games and the the Atlanta Braves led the St. Louis Cardinals by eight and a half games. By the final day of the season, the Red Sox and Rays were tied and so were the Braves and Cardinals. As the New York Times explains it:

Since 1903, when the World Series began, 362 teams have made the playoffs, and none of those playoff teams have played as poorly as the Red Sox have in September.

Would the Braves and Red Sox redeem themselves? Or would they complete their respective epic collapses?

Approaching midnight on the east coast, things began to come into focus. The Braves went out with a wimper, losing in extra innings.  Meanwhile, the Red Sox had just blown a two run lead in the ninth inning and were on their way to losing yet again. The Rays were deep into extra innings with the Yankees and needed a win to guarantee a trip to the playoffs. And then this happened:

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Evan Longoria hit a walk-off homerun to clinch a trip to the playoffs. No one had hit a homerun to clinch the playoffs since the 1951 Bobby Thomson “Shot Heard ‘Round The World”:

In baseball, everything is connected. One need not look far to find connections: Both Thomson and Longoria hit their homeruns on a 2-2 count; both Tropicana Field (where the Rays play) and the Polo Grounds (where the NY Baseball Giants played) were far from sold out; the Baseball Hall of Fame collected both Thomson’s and Longoria’s bats to put on display. But these details are relatively minor compared to descriptions of each event itself as people witnessed–and participated in–the creation of a hero.

Here are some choice quotes from after the Longoria homerun:

“He owned that moment,” Rays reliever J.P. Howell said. “That’s not being clutch. It’s different stuff. That there is a miracle. A miracle, man. That’s one of the most important home runs in baseball. Ever. It was just magical.”

“When I hit it, I was like, ‘No way this just happened,’” Longoria said.

“The bigger the moment,” teammate Dan Johnson said, “the more something can slow down.”

“Evan Longoria was staring at destiny. Little did he know it was looking right back at him” – Jeff Passan, Yahoo! Sports

Compare that with the following lede from New York Herald Tribune writer, Red Smith after Bobby Thomson’s 1951 homerun:

Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.

In other words, not even fiction could deliver a moment as magical and unexpected as Bobby Thomson’s homerun. But what I find most striking is that the Longoria and Thomson descriptions both express an impossible moment: “That there is a miracle”; “No way that just happened”; “Only the utterly impossible…” However in expressing that moment, it becomes clear that there are difficulties in describing that moment. And really there is no way to describe it beyond the normal sports cliches of “magical,” “unbelievable,” and “can you believe it?!”

So Smith, having witnessed an ineffable event that has rendered fiction unnecessary, does his best to describe the Bobby Thomson homerun (he is, after all, a sportswriter):

Maybe this is the way to tell it: Bobby Thomson, a young Scot from Staten Island, delivered a timely hit yesterday in the ninth inning of an enjoyable game of baseball before 34,320 witnesses in the Polo Grounds

What do we do when something impossible happens? We sink into the comfort of knowable facts (name, place of birth, numbers, setting) and easy cliches. The space between the event itself and its description is where the work of mythopoesis begins to take hold. The hero emerges out of our struggle to describe what happened. Put simply: if what we saw was impossible and only a hero can do the impossible, then we must have witnessed a hero.

That struggle is precisely the subject of the Prologue to Don DeLillo’s Underworld. While Red Smith might have declared fiction as being not up to the task of inventing such an unfathomable event, fiction is certainly up to the task of describing and organizing that event. In Underworld, DeLillo writes an entire book around the Bobby Thomson homerun and weaves a narrative following the homerun ball through history up to the present day (a ball that has never been officially found). Here’s DeLillo on the homerun:

This is the nature of the Thomson homer. It makes people want to be in the streets, joined with others, telling others what has happened, those few who haven’t heard–comparing faces and states of mind.

He continues:

All the fragments of the afternoon collect around his airborne form. Shouts, bat-cracks, full bladders and stray yawns, the sand-grain manyness of things that can’t be counted.
It is all falling indelibly into the past.

DeLillo articulates the struggle to find meaning–people running out into the streets to compare faces. They compare faces so as to better understand their own. They panic as they try to take in the “sand-grain manyness” even as it is already dissipating.

But as the sand-grain manyness dissipates into broad-stroked legend, the true power of baseball is revealed. The people who were there will always have two things. The first is the personal memory, “the surge sensation, the leap of people already standing, that bolt of noise and joy when the ball went in.” The second is the sharing of that memory: “the gassy old men leaning into the next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen, pressing in with medicine breath, that they were here when it happened.”

The best you can do is say you were there. The rest is ineffable.

And maybe that’s enough:

Your grandchildren will see the images. His, too.

Years from now, when Evan Longoria’s hair is white and his grandchildren are in his living room, they will gather to watch the Shot Heard Across Tampa Bay once more. They will delight in the way he turned on the fastball, driving it to the leftfield corner.

They will grin at how fast he sprinted out of the batter’s box. They will tease him about the way his hands shot into the air in exultation of the moment.

The pictures will never change.
– Gary Shelton, Times Sports Columnist 

Lebron James in Video

I must face the fact, of course that Public Opinion is not so unanimous as I would like to think. There are issues at stake, but as too often happens, we are apt to look to men as symbols rather than to the issues themselves. – Oakley Hall, Warlock

There are a variety of reasons we watch sports. The spectacle. The athleticism. The pleasure of having your expectations met, or not. But mostly we watch because of the stories. The stories bring us together allowing us to speculate about what will happen and reminisce about what did happen. We love heroes. And we love villains.

We also love figuring out which one Lebron James might be. As we watch him excite, surprise, disappoint and frustrate us, each of us alone–including Lebron, himself–must decide.

2010 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals Game 5:

In the 2010 playoffs, Lebron James was still in Cleveland and finished the NBA regular season with the best record at 61-21. Lebron was the MVP, was on the best team, and seemed destined to finally win his first championship. Then, inexplicably, he didn’t show up for one of the biggest games of his life. For more on this game, check out Bill Simmons’ running diary of the game, which gives a great sense of the weird mixture of emotions Lebron produces in fans. He also describes Lebron at one point as looking like “he just caught a whiff of a decomposing body.”

The Decision:

One of the possible explanations for Lebron seeming distracted in his game 5 performance is, well, that he was distracted. He was set to be the most sought after free agent in the history of the NBA. Would he stay in his hometown, or would he flee to the larger media markets of New York, LA, or Chicago? Instead he chose to put on one of the most narcissistic spectacles ever produced.

Miami Heat Welcome Party:

The Decision let us know that winning was not as important to Lebron as playing with his friends. Granted, Lebron’s friends are 2 of the best players in the NBA, but it still didn’t feel right. Less than a week after The Decision, Lebron James, Chris Bosh, and Dywane Wade were introduced to fans in Miami in a ceremony complete with forklifts, smoke machines, and a guarantee of “not one…not two…not three…not four…not five…not six…not seven” championships.

What Should I Do:

When the season finally began, Lebron and Nike released a commercial directed at both his fans and his haters. The message: What should I do? The implication: No matter what I choose, someone will be pissed. So he asks: “should I accept my role as the villain?”; “should I be a championship chaser?”; “Should I really believe I ruined my legacy?”

However, this catalog of roles he runs through is as much for his benefit as it is for us. We didn’t know who we wanted him to be. And he didn’t know either.

NBA Finals Postgame:

As it turned out, Lebron made it to the NBA Finals, but, for the second time in his career, he lost. We wanted to hate him. We wanted to see him lose. And he did.

We wanted him to be the villain, but he refused the role. Finally, we realized we hated Lebron not for leaving Cleveland, but we hated him for his refusal to choose a role and be the symbol we are so desperate for him to be.