Tagg, You’re It: A Conversation with Eric Nusbaum

I don’t know how it happened, exactly. One minute I was minding my own business, wandering aimlessly around the internet like I always do; the next, I was discussing — with Eric Nusbaum of Pitchers and Poets fame — the role of chance in baseball, the unfortunate career path of Tagg Bozied, and the Book of Job all at once.

What follows is the fruit of that conversation.

* * *

Carson: Eric, I know some things about you that the reader probably doesn’t — namely, that (a) until yesterday, the first baseman on your fantasy baseball team was Luke Scott, that (b) Scott is no longer your first baseman because he injured himself during a home trot last night, and that (c) the only reason you had Luke Scott in the first place was as a replacement for Kendry Morales, who also hurt himself after hitting a home run.

So, my hard-hitting question is: what the H, dude?

Eric: You could say I have the luck of Job, or maybe of Tagg Bozied. If not that, then perhaps I am the one causing these injuries. Perhaps there is something haunted about my team — Chase Utley went down this week, too.

Carson: I want to address the possibility of your superpowers momentarily, but first let’s discuss Tagg Bozied. Bozied, in the event that the reader isn’t familiar, is the outfielder who, in 2004, after hitting a walk-off grand slam to beat the Tacoma Rainiers, ruptured the patella tendon in his left knee while landing on home plate. In other words, it was a pretty similar injury to Morales’s. The difference is that Bozied was only — what? — 23 or 24 at the time, was raking in Triple-A, and has never made it to the majors despite still being around.

Do you think that’s the worst case scenario for a prospect? And also: what is it that’s so — I don’t know — tragic-seeming about Bozied’s case?

Eric: I don’t know if it’s the worst, but it has to be close. Bozied will always have the benefit of wondering what could have been. That has to be slightly better than never getting hurt, but also never being good enough. Or maybe it’s not better — maybe knowing you had the ability to play in the majors but were denied the opportunity by chance, or Fortuna, or whatever causes these things to happen is more painful.

Carson: There’s a scene in Shutter Island where Leonardo DiWhatshisbutt’s character is in a lake, and something bad has just happened. I won’t say what, exactly, but let’s just say it’s bad. And when this bad thing happens, we get a cut to a shot of DiCaprio from above. DiCaprio leans back, looks into the heavens, and yells, “Why God?!?” just like has happened in hundreds of other films. My wife and I looked at each other, like, “For real? Martin Scorsese thinks this is a good idea, this shot?”

Eric: There are a pair of expressions in Yiddish: Shchlemiel and Schlemazel. The Schlemiel, the saying goes, is the man who spills his soup. The Schlemazel is the man in whose lap the soup lands.

I think Scorsese was just using the only real cinematic method for communicating the exact emotion that goes through the schlemazel’s mind when the soup lands in his lap, or the poor slugger’s mind when he tears his ACL by tripping over Brandon Wood’s ankle at home plate. (This may not have happened, but would make a strong case for Wood’s schlemieldom).

Carson: Well, at the risk of this convo spinning out of control, I’d like to make a distinction between how this sort of thing actually occurs and how it ought to occur in a film by an acclaimed director. If a person is the victim of some extraordinarily terrible occurrence, I think “Why God?!?” is pretty reasonable. In a film, I suppose I demand better — especially as, like I say, we’ve seen it in a films before. For the actual person to whom it’s happening, it’s very likely happening for the first time. I can excuse the cliche under those circumstances.

Eric: We do tend to demand that our fictional characters be more eloquent than real-life humans. This applies for unfortunate characters from Leo DiCaprio to George Costanza to the original “Why God?!?!” declararer, Job (from the Book of Job). That said, thanks to internet technology, we know exactly what Tagg Bozied thought to himself at the exact moment he jumped on home plate and derailed his knee: “It was real scary. I saw my kneecap pushed up into my quadriceps. I thought my career was over.”

Carson: So as for Bozied, a little more background and then a question. After he (i.e. Bozied) hurt his knee that day, he was unable to play for rest of the season. Mind you, this was on July 19, so he probably had about another month and half to play in Triple-A and then, were he lucky, September call-ups. Would he have gotten called up? We don’t know, of course, but he was batting .315/.374/.629. Even in the PCL, that’s pretty sweet for a 24-year-old.

Thing is, Bozied never got his promotion — not in 2004, not in 2005, not ever. And yet he’s still playing, as almost a 31-year-old now, in the Philly organization.

Eric: His career might not have been over, but his chances of making the big leagues — and not just making it, but arriving as a highly touted prospect– took a huge hit that day in 2004. Now here he is just hanging on in Double-A. He’s hitting the ball (.295/.377/.563), but he’s not on anybody’s radar.

Carson: One thing that statistical analysis teaches us is the power of chance, or luck. We learn from things like BABIP or HR/FB rates that luck is much more pervasive than we might imagine — than we might’ve imagined before we converted to the Gospel of Sabermetrics. Bozied’s injury — and all that came after it — is the product of chance, we can say. Personally, I’ve seen a hundred or so other players hit home runs, round the bases, and jump onto the plate without incident. For Bozied (and for your original first baseman Kendry Morales), this happened not to be the case.

My question is: if you’re Bozied, are you able to understand that you’re merely the victim of chance? Or is it a different business altogether when it’s happening to you?

Eric: I think you are simultaneously aware of the fact that what happened happened by chance, and completely frustrated (in the schlemazel sense) by your luck. It is one thing to intellectually understand that you had bad luck and that there was nothing you could have done, but something entirely different to accept it without wondering what could have been if maybe your foot landed a half-inch over to the left.

Carson: Are you a fan of Bozied because of his circumstances? Are you maybe secretly cheering for him now — moreso than for Journeyman Player X, for example?

Eric: Oh god, absolutely. But not just these circumstances — we haven’t even gotten to the stuff that happened with his wife. She was hit by a car a few years after Bozied’s unfortunate home run and doctors said she would never breathe again without assistance. But then she did! And he’s still perservering! With all that, rooting for Bozied has become almost reflexive for me.

How about you? What do you think makes these human interest stories so captivating? How is it that they turn us so sentimental?

Carson: I do, I suppose, but I don’t know why. Here’s a theory, though: that it’s pleasant to think of anyone overcoming long odds, whether it’s a young person, born and raised in an American ghetto, rising out of poverty to become a successful businessman, or whether it’s, you know, New Zealand playing Italy in the World Cup. If you’d permit me to wax poetic for a moment, I’d suggest that it’s because we’re all — all of us — underdogs relative to the Imposing Spectre of Life. Or maybe I mean the Imposing Spectre of Death.

I’ll say both.

Eric: Another Yiddishism: Oy. But I totally see where you are coming from. When an underdog wins — at life, at sports, at anything — we are encouraged by what appears to be a person overcoming the circumstances Life and Death have imposed upon them. They are mastering the un-masterable domain.

But really we are supposed to be talking about the other side of the coin: the specter of never mastering anything, of being beaten down by luck like this troika of unfortunate home run hitters. George Costanza, after all, never gets his redemption. Why should Tagg Bozied?

Carson: I guess, from a cosmic perspective, it doesn’t matter either way. But the thing is, Tagg Bozied is a person we can actually see and talk to and imagine living in Reading (if you can call that living). When it comes down to Tagg Bozied vs. Fate, I’m going with Tagg Bozied. Fate is way less friendly.

Okay, one thing before we close: you’ve now had two first basemen on your fantasy team and and both of them have injured themselves while running the bases after hitting a home run. My question is, who’re planning to pick up for first base now? I think said player ought to be contacted for his safety.

Eric: As Spiderman’s Uncle once said, with great power comes great responsibility. I am considering contacting all 30 Major League clubs and offering my services for a hefty fee. If that fails, I will probably just pick up Aubrey Huff. He plays for the Giant and I’m a Dodger fan — so if he were to suffer a tragic leg injury, I really wouldn’t mind.

Carson: That’s responsible of you, in a way: Aubrey Huff already kinda runs like his leg is broken. I don’t see him being affected greatly by any further injury.

“Facts” from Tagg Bozied’s Wikipedia entry.

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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13 years ago

Aubrey Huff has an inside the park home run this year; try doing that with a broken leg.