When it comes to relief pitching, and life, athletes and writers offer contrasting interpretations.
Ever notice how writers, columnists and academics embrace the mental part of baseball, while players and coaches gravitate toward the physical side of the game?
Today’s column by Phil Sheridan of the Philadelphia Inquirer is a stunning example of this process at work. Writing today about Flash Gordon’s insertion into the closer role, Sheridan draws this conclusion:
"At this point in his career, Gordon still can bring some heat. But his success or failure this year will have more to do with his mental toughness and his ability to focus when the game is on the line."
Sheridan interviews Gordon, Charlie Manuel and center fielder Aaron Rowand for his piece. Rowand offered this take of Flash.
"I played with him in Chicago and against him when he was in New York," new Phillies centerfielder Aaron Rowand said. "He's still got electric stuff. Other than maybe Bobby Jenks, who throws 100 m.p.h., he's hands-down the most effective closer I've ever been around."
Sheridan must have been keenly aware of the dynamic between author and subject when assembling the parts for this piece, an excellent study of how to draw contrasting interpretations from your quotes.
Columnists, and probably some bloggers, too, are speculative, theoretical and hyper-analytical. As a reader, whether one believes mental toughness or electric stuff is priority one for the closer position (a little of both probably), there is a preordained staging that puts Flash in a wooden maze chasing cheese, and Sheridan in a white lab coat holding the clipboard. He is the scientist; Flash is his subject.
As writers, we love to assign players with labels like "student of the game," as if we are dressing them up for private school. We say "There. Isn't that better? You don't want to stand of the sideline in a dirty uniform with the rest of the lowlifes, scraping by on physical gifts alone. It's positively awful! Have fun at school, Peyton."
Ever notice how self-aware columnists get on shows like Daily News Live whenever they venture too far into the playing field? For example, Dick Jerardi may talk about Donovan McNabb's leadership only to a certain point before sheepishly giving way to guest commentator Jon Runyan.
Strangely, Runyan's take goes unwanted, though his information is coming directly from the horse’s mouth. Perhaps it's all a matter of context. Other ex-athletes, like Ron Jaworski, have made a smooth transition to punditry, while others, like Runyan and Post-Game Live's Vaughn Hebron, are still years away from full nerdification. Not Jaws. Jaws is one of us.
Lines are carved into the sand in sports writing, too, and heaven forbid a player physically crosses that line. Then we really get pissed.
In writing, tough, foreign-sounding phrases, like "lights-out" or "slam-the-door closer" must always give way to a softer cushion, which was sort of the premise behind today's Sheridan column: It takes more than just lights-out stuff to win the mental battle of baseball.
Here’s another line from Sheridan piece that must have felt awkward to write. Notice how it sucks the fun out of baseball:
"Wagner's radar gunplay is gone, transplanted up to Shea Stadium. Although there was entertainment value in watching for that magic 100 m.p.h. to appear on the scoreboard, there is more to success in this role than sheer velocity."
Sometimes there’s not. Bobby Jenks, who Rowand previously considered one of the best closers he'd ever been around, spent half of the season in Double-A before arriving with the White Sox in July to unleash his cannon. Gordon has always had one of the best curveballs in baseball.
It's an age-old debate that transcends sports: What's more important, to be physically or mentally tough.
Perhaps it goes back to the dawn of time. Long ago, a caveman created fire. He "brought the heat." Ever since then, man has studied it and harnessed it, but it will never be as pure as it was to that caveman.