Man’s Search for Meaning in Spring Training

This is Kate Preusser’s second piece as part of her month-long residency.

It’s no secret that there’s considerable overlap between bookish types and baseball fans, all tucked cozily in the center of that particular Venn diagram. Distance readers have an inborn patience for the nine-inning drama of a baseball game. These are a people who understand the three-act structure, exposition leading to rising action leading to the climactic moment; this past World Series, in fact, felt a little like the baseball gods had taken a Khan Academy class on Aristotle’s Poetics.

But there’s a narrative that most serious baseball fans have come to reject, and that’s the one of spring training. Every year there seem to be pieces poking fun at the cliches of spring training — Best shape of his life! Swing mechanics change! Learning a new pitch/grip/arcane religious philosophy! LASIK! — and those pieces exist because these cliches persist, so much so that poking fun at spring-training cliches is now itself a form of cliche.

To wrestle with the cliches of spring training is, in a way, to wrestle with our unfortunate position in time, inheritors of a chronicle that not only sifts more dust onto the ash heap of history every year, but keeps detailed records of it. In The Sacred Wood, the collection on criticism containing the famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot notes that “the vast accumulations of knowledge — or at least of information — deposited by the nineteenth century have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance. When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when every one knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.” Knowledge vs. information: spring training tests us on what we know versus what we think we know — and even being conscious of that fact doesn’t keep us out of the trap of cliche.

As today’s fans, we are inheritors of this vast accumulation of knowledge, year round. Gone are the times of players disappearing, Field of Dreams-style, into the ether of the offseason to work their old-timey, impossibly quirky jobs like gravedigger or vaudeville star or steering-wheel-maker. Now, thanks to social media, we know exactly where our players are over the cold months and what they’re doing — or, at least, where they want us to think they’re doing. Instead of a necessity, these days having an offseason job is seen as a shot to one’s pride, an indication that your club doesn’t value you enough to pay you to not use your precious arm laying tile or endanger your precious body by being a bouncer at a club or working at a Papa John’s.

There are exceptions. Nick Franklin will happily talk about being an Uber driver. Michael Fulmer likes to discuss his work as a plumber. But both of them make it clear that training takes precedence. The preferred method, though, is to post Instagrams of one’s offseason training sessions or tweet about the #grind or #comebackseason — hashtags, those little premanufactured capsules of narrative for those of us, hungry for images of baseball in the lean winter months, to gobble up.

Even if you’ve fortified your mental walls against the empty promise of March baseball, spring-training narratives find you at your weakest. After shoveling snow for the umpteenth time, so you can drive your stupid car to your stupid job over stupid icy roads, you hear on the radio that a portly player is down 20 bad pounds, or up 20 good pounds (I wonder if there are special calipers to measure this, weight’s moral fiber), and your ears perk up a little.

Or you’re stuck in the house with the kids because it’s raining again, watching Zootopia again, which was charming the first 100 times but now you’re fantasizing about the Jurassic Park dinosaurs showing up in it, and while checking Twitter you scroll past a beat writer’s report on a pitcher you’ve always said just needs to develop one more pitch to be an ace, talking about developing that exact pitch and you stop fantasizing about T. Rex eating the singing gazelle and instead start mentally composing your cover letter to Theo Epstein.

It’s difficult to resist spring-training narratives because we are, as humans, creatures of narrative. Traditionally, humans have told stories to instruct and model behavior; to create and sustain group culture; to negotiate for themselves a safe space in a complex and uncontrollable world from which they can make meaning. Meaning-making is, I would argue, what drives the core of our impulse towards narrative. We want things to mean something. This is problematic, then, when no spring-training stat or game or moment goes unaccompanied by the giant, invisible asterisk. Your favorite team played a great game, but it doesn’t matter. The pitcher you really like had a strong outing, but it doesn’t matter. That fringy fourth outfielder candidate to whom you’ve silently pledged your heart without realizing it is having a hot spring, and none of it matters.

The position into which this train of thought forces us, then, is one of deep cynicism. Postmodernism rose in the 50s partly as a response to modernism’s claim that reason and science could lead to one true and impartial foundation of knowledge, a foundation that was shelled into irrelevance during WWII. There is no such thing as objective truth, argued postmodernists, and certainly no master narrative that guides human existence, an idea that was pushed forward by poststructuralist texts by writers like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. Poststructuralist literature distrusted narrative so much that, at its extreme, it fragmented the language itself, producing texts with intentional lacunae, erasures, and other visual representations of the shattered mirror postmodernists believed language to be. “Poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” wrote Theodor Adorno, in perhaps the most forceful (and debated) critique of language’s inability to accurately reflect the story of the world.

Although writers have questioned traditional structure over the years — Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is often considered a pre-modern-era post-modern-text — part of what inspired the growth of postmodernism as an artistic movement was the sheer breadth of knowledge available to people living in a post-Industrial Revolution age. Beginning with the telegraph and telephone system, news was able to travel further and faster than ever before, an exponential increase in humans knowing more — but perhaps not necessarily being more knowledgeable, as Eliot observed.

Baseball analysis has undergone a similar revolution with the age of advanced stats; we know more than ever before, have access to information players on the mud-crusted fields of the early century could have never imagined. (Imagine Statcast data-collectors running route-efficiency algorithms on the outfielders at the University of Texas’s Clark Field, who had to scale the limestone cliff in center field.) It’s cliche — that word again — to dwell on the wonders of the Information Age and the amount of information available to us, which comes at us faster every day. But how much more do we know? And what is the difference, as Eliot observed, between surface knowledge and deep-level knowledge, the kind of knowledge mythologic structure writes on our bones?

In Harold Bloom’s taxonomical hierarchy of teaching, the lowest-level skills are those that are purely receptive: memorizing, defining, repeating. The highest level is creation: producing original work that is informed by what we have learned, but makes something new. Beyond interpretation (that belongs to “apply,” a mid-tier skillset), the creation level is characterized by a personal connection to the work that inspires one to make a new thing — a theory, a product, a new piece of meaning — in the world. The human desire to create is an imperative that is psychological, biological, and even spiritual, this impulse visible in everything from a child’s block tower to the Colossus of Rhodes. We want to create something that says, “I’ve been here.” We want to tell a story.

As fans today, we know we must be suspicious of the meta-narrative of spring training. We know so much now: we know that there is only a weak relationship between spring-training results and the talent level of a team; we know that the clear, warm, windy skies in Arizona or the sultry weather in Florida can produce batted-ball results that aren’t consistent with regular-season play. We understand that spring training is a series of fragments and that piecing them together is a fool’s errand. But perhaps, in holding too tightly to stats and sample size, we are moving back towards a modernist worldview, that illusion of perfect objectivity. We are depriving ourselves of the human desire towards narrative and meaning-making, and penning ourselves in at the lowest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.

So we are faced with a choice. We can dismiss spring training as a whole and declare it meaningless, choosing to ignore baseball entirely until the games start counting; or, we can make the uneasy peace of the post-post-modernists, who recognized that the impulse towards narrative is not one that can be crushed out of our nature (and also, reading books that don’t use the letter e, for example, becomes tiresome quickly), or we can work to negotiate ourselves a liminal space, an in-betweening, where we can enjoy even the most cliche spring-training storylines without expecting them to mean anything later on, to write them in sand at the water’s edge.

“Give yourself up to the allure of Catcher in the Rye,” sing Belle and Sebastian in their frothy, Gainsbourg-inspired song “Le Pastie de la Bourgouisie”. (Giving yourself up to the allure of Belle and Sebastian is a different conversation). Outside, buds are budding and birds are birding and life is better with the windows open. Moneyball, even as it signaled the arrival of a new kind of knowing about baseball, acknowledged that it’s difficult not to be romantic about baseball, and it is: almost as hard as it is to not be romantic about springtime, that time of new beginnings. But perhaps conceiving of spring training as a liminal space, a kind of statistical Rumspringa, gives the analytical fan an opportunity to make the guilty pleasure of spring training less guilt, more pleasure.





Kate Preusser lives in Seattle, where she manages Lookout Landing and spends too much time thinking and writing about Mariners baseball. Follow her on Twitter @1nceagain2zelda.

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jgaztambide
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Member
jgaztambide

Is there a movement to keep Kate on as a full-time writer at FG? Because if not, I’d like to start it.

Richie
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Richie

Bear in mind that, this being a business by which the Daves and everyone else is earning a living, you are calling for someone else to be let go thereby. Unless Kate all by her lonesome drives revenue upward such to cover an additional position. In which event the Daves won’t need our advice to keep her on.

StannisBaratheon
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StannisBaratheon

Ignoring the oddity that you’re speaking like a high school student pretending to be a lawyer, it’s probably a little more complicated than that, right? You can expect that as people begin to recognize her name, more people will read her articles. So it matters less that she “drives revenue upward” during her month on the site, and it matters more that she shows ability to attract views in the future. And the baseball community could always use more diversity and the varying perspectives that it brings. I’d guess that the readership on this site is 90% men; making some inroads with women baseball fans would be smart.

njpozner
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njpozner

We need Kate to keep running Lookout Landing!