Monday, October 14, 2019

A confederacy of dunces

To me, part of the beauty of collecting baseball cards is the escape it offers, an escape almost paradoxically rooted in the reflections and images of real-life players in a real-life sport.

But as of late I've been forced to consider some of the more unpleasant questions that arise when that fourth wall breaks. Specifically: what happens when a player you once admired turns out to be a total dunce? What happens to the cards you've accumulated of that player, and how do you reconcile the lost time, spent money, and dead joy spent chasing said cards?

These questions, while uncomfortable, definitely aren't anything new. But they really came to the forefront during a Twitter exchange that recently took place between former teammates Seth McClung and Aubrey Huff, one that saw McClung label Huff as the worst teammate he ever had. Huff has come off as a bit of a bonehead in the past, and his response here didn't do him any favors. And if Huff wasn't a player I once admired I honestly wouldn't care -- he was one of my top five player collections at one point, and I currently own about 300 cards of his. To say I don't have much enthusiasm for my Aubrey Huff collection these days would be an understatement.

As the slightly updated version of a popular axiom goes: never follow your heroes on Twitter.

I could live with some of my one-time heroes becoming dunces -- it happens.

But unfortunately the question doesn't end there: the longer you stretch it out, the more serious it gets. Like, what happens when one of your favorite players, like Robinson Cano, gets busted for PEDs? Or, in the case of Marlon Byrd, what happens when one of your favorite players gets busted for PEDs...twice? It's even more painful with the latter since I gave Byrd somewhat of a pass after his first PED bust and kept collecting him, only to wind up with the egg on my face after his second suspension (which he retired before serving).

I used to be a big fan of both of these dudes (especially Byrd), but ever since I've been led to question what was real about them and what was all just a drug-made illusion.

Here's one that has sadly become somewhat of a regular occurrence: what happens when a player you like reveals himself to be a domestic abuser?

As a rule, I don't remove guys from my binders. Once they're in, they're in for good -- it's one of those collectors' OCD things for me. But I no longer accumulate their cards, and if I could go back in time and just never start collecting wife-beaters like Addison Russell and Steven Wright in the first place, I definitely would. (Wright also has a PED suspension under his belt now, which makes him a double dunce.)

Aroldis Chapman's trade to the Cubs brought up all kinds of uncomfortable questions for me when the Cubs traded for him in 2016 -- it's obvious they wouldn't have won the long-awaited World Series that year without him. As a baseball fan, I'm eternally grateful to have seen the Cubs win it all, but as a sheer feeling human being, it's hard for me to reconcile. I have no doubt that people can change for the better, and Chapman seems to have done that, but I mean the dude fired a gun in the same room as his girlfriend. That's pretty darn close to unforgivable.

And speaking of the Cubs...

...what happens when the team you love is run by a hateful, money-crazed dingbat?

It's no secret that the Ricketts family supports a lot of the horrible things going on in the country right now. And somehow they had the bright idea to give Addison Russell a job last year. No? Not bad enough? How about their grand scheme to take Cubs off public television and move them to a subscription-only channel starting next year?

What I once said with sarcasm is starting to skew more and more to reality, but...sometimes I wonder why I'm even a Cubs fan in the first place.

The sad part is that none of what I've talked about so far has even scratched the surface of baseball's long and often tainted history.

And by no means am I trying to say that I'm above any of this with my collection and general fandom. For example, I've long been a fan of Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle, and I'm still a huge collector of both to this day. I hoard as many of their cards as I can. But despite their stardom, both were also heavy alcoholics and general deadbeats for much of their lives.

My collection isn't perfect, and neither am I.

And what of people like Ty Cobb?

What of Cobb, a racist and generally incorrigible human being? What of Cap Anson, who refused to play any team that fielded a black player? What of baseball's long and embarrassing history of segregation? It's easy to ask these questions, but as a collector, it's so much more difficult to answer them with anything resembling correctness. Of course Cobb was an asshole, and Anson a dickhead. But the unfortunate fact is that I remain fascinated by them, and I thus collect them both, along with the numerous other dead-ball stars who froze major league baseball into a white man's game for nearly a century. You'll sadly find the Josh Gibsons and Oscar Charlestons and Cool Papa Bells in my binders along with the very same people who kept them from ever playing big-league ball.

It's admittedly one of the darker corners of collecting, bridging that disconnect between being (or trying to be) a compassionate human being, yet at the same time owning cards of idiots, 'roiders, wife-beaters, drinkers, racists, etc., etc. At the very least and most simplistic, it's uncomfortable. And as a white man observing what has been and still is largely a white man's game -- and devoted to what is overwhelmingly a white man's hobby -- I have no answers for any of the questions I've asked in this post, nor am I equipped to answer them in the first place.

I may love baseball, and the cards that go along with it, but there's no changing the damaging and sometimes sad history of the game reflected in the very cards I choose to collect.


Mike said...

It's a tough thing,and music,films,writers,etc all have these dilemmas...

I would say,though,guys like Mantle and Martin only hurt themselves,Billy's brawling notwithstanding...quite different than shooting a gun with your girlfriend in the room...

Agree 100% about the cubs,too...we'll see what happens when all the fair-weather "Cubbie" fans cant watch the games on their beloved WGN next year...

Oh yeah...and lighten up,Francis! Haha!

shoeboxlegends said...

Fascinating post Nick!

Along the same lines, I used to really struggle with having any Barry Bonds cards after reading Game of Shadows many years back. Over time, and with age, I softened, and now I just think of my collection as a history of the game. Like it or not, Barry was a big part of the game for a long time. Sure, it turns out he's a cheater, but we can't ignore what happened and I choose not to ignore it in my collection either. I don't actively seek out his cards at all, but I don't feel the need to purge the ones I have or act like he didn't exist any longer.

Anyway, great thoughts, and like you I don't have the answers either!

P-town Tom said...

For the first time I found an AL team to follow this past year... The Cubs are their owner's actions are starting to wear thing on me.
(FYI, there's room on the Mariners bandwagon.)

Zippy Zappy said...

I've started to become numb to problems that players/teams cause sort've on the field like taking PEDs because they, in the very grand scheme of everything, do not matter. If they want to wreck their bodies with drugs, I won't stop them nor do I care enough to judge them.

Now domestic abuse, racism, bigotry, homophobia, these are real world issues that don't just exist in a baseball context and actually do matter. I'm finding that MLB's response is akin to what most sports leagues do, make vague attempts at saying that they consider it a serious problem but then proceed to do nothing significant.

You questioning your Cubs fandom is something similar to a future blogpost of mine where I basically take a big dump on the Yankees (who you can imagine are just worse as the Cubs). But then I realized that all 30 teams are pretty bad in their own unique and awful ways and that in the end there's no ethical consumption in late stage capitalism. Not that I'm accepting of/okay with real problems persisting (I'm not that much of a nihilist and part of me wants good change to happen), but the system is clearly not designed to rectify it and the powers at be don't want to change the status quo. What else can you do except continue to eat Baseball Arby's and consume what you know is garbage but it's not like you're going to consume anything better.

The Bucs Stop Here said...

Very thought-provoking. Baseball can be really tough. It’s an old-fashioned game with old-fashioned owners and old-fashioned schools of thought.

Trust your gut. I can forgive Starling Marte’s one PED infraction and I still collect him. Felipe Vasquez makes me sick and I’ve contemplated burning the few cards of his that I have. These decisions are to be made by each collector individually. There’s a place for forgiveness.

Ultimately we want to think of our favorite players as just athletes... the reality of their personalities off the field can be sobering.

night owl said...

I've talked about this time after time. One of the very main reasons why I do not collect cards of specific players and focus instead on my team. Idolizing players beyond the age of 10 will almost always let you down.

Huff has always been a goof with me.

Laurens said...

Rationally one player’s bad actions isn’t an indictment on an organization or a culture within an pro baseball playing organization - but it does make me question the reality of not truly knowing the dudes aside from their on field success or failures.

Fuji said...

I separate the athlete from the person... and my collection tends to focus on what the player did on the field rather than off. I'm not saying I'd recommend that for anyone else. We all have to figure out what we'll tolerate and what we won't.

I remember how bummed I was when I heard about Gooden and his drug problems back in the day. Then there was Jordan and his gambling issues. Favre and pain killers. Kobe and rape charges. I'm sure if I thought about it some more, I could come up with more examples. But after awhile, I decided I'm not collecting these guys because they're my role models. They're guys I enjoyed cheering for on the field and on the court.

Doc Samson said...

Fantastic post, Nick. This is quite the slippery slope. But lets all consider this: the cards of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Pete Rose are all still quite popular. It's almost as if our treasured memories of them have perfumed the stench of thier sins.

bbcardz said...

I agree, this is a very thought-provoking post. I guess many of us naively want to believe our beloved athletes (and owners) are the best of the human race when some are rather far from it. We just tend to hold them to a higher standard (or at least be more like the best of us). The posted observations can also be used to ask how well do you know your fellow employees, first-responders, government leaders/appointees/workers, card manufacturer personnel, neighbors or just people you interact with at your local grocery store, post office, card shop, etc.?

Here's to naively hoping that the human race keeps progressing to at least a semi-perfect world one day. As the saying goes, no one's perfect. But changing for the better benefits everyone.

Billy Kingsley said...

I collect because I want to document history. That includes greatness and it also includes horrible things, and it means, on occasion, truly evil people appear in my collection. You can't be a true historian if you only pick and choose what parts of history you acknowledge.

Adam Kaningher said...

Excellent post. Thanks for making us all think. The way I see it, if you want to keep cards in your collection, there's really nothing wrong with that. It's not like these players get royalties every time you buy a card. And if not, well, we all know these cards make great firestarters.

Celebrities are still human, and I think the much more interesting story is what happens afterwards. Does everything get swept under the rug and existing fans double down on the player, like with Tom Brady? Does a team simply cut ties, like the Rockies did with Jose Reyes? Is it an ongoing story like the latest saga with the NBA, LeBron, and China?

And even more interestingly, what leads us to conflate Deflategate and PEDs with rape and domestic violence?

GCA said...

Great post. I can't decide if just collecting to acknowledge what someone does on the playing field to the exclusion of everything else is simply the way to go about it or putting the blinders on to the reality. I think it falls somewhere in between. Even among collectors there is a moral scale on which we all fall on our particular spot. We aren't collecting to make a social statement, we're collecting because it's about the sports we like to watch.

acrackedbat said...

Thought provoking. I'm having mixed emotions with the Astros scandal. It's quite disillusioning. While I collect my Tigers, I'm not a full-out team collector. I've always been drawn to the individual player. Altuve makes me happy when he's on the field. Ty Cobb evokes a sense of empathy in me, I've overlooked his faults. At the same time, abusers get booted from my collections. I don't even like to trade these guys. The Deadball era is by far my favorite but yes, the time is replete with racism. My blood-pressure just notched up a bit knowing I can't turn on the Cubs this year! WTH is going on with this game? Greed is ruining it for me. Makes me truly sad. Thank you for this post Nick. It hit home!