A few years back I had a good conversation about comedy with a cab driver while we were stuck in midtown traffic. We were talking about the actor-comedian Jay Mohr and why we found him so hard to take. My impression of Mohr was that he was a slick, self-satisified car salesman. He had charisma, but just not the kind I wanted to be anywhere near. The cabbie--himself a struggling stand-up comedian--had Mohr pegged. "The reason he won't take off is because he isn't vulnerable, and every great comedian, or comic character, needs to have some vulnerability in order for people to embrace them."
I think this is right on, and although it was something I knew, I had never heard it expressed in so many words. Of course, it isn't absolute, but it's not far off. Think about it: Archie Bunker, and Ralph Kramden were incorrigible louts, but they were also fraile and sensitive too. That's how the audience can put up with their obnoxious behavior. Some of our greatest comics have been amazingly vulnerable. Lenny Bruce and especially Richard Pryor come to mind.
I think that vulnerability is what attracts us to ballplayers as well. We may not be aware of it consciously, but I think it's there. It makes them more approachable, especially in the modern era of millionaire athletes. They don't need to express it, because we all know that they live with it. (Think about the state of Jose Contreras' pysche.) On any given day they could suffer a career-ending injury.
The sense of uncertainty is particularly actue in the spring when baby-faced youngsters fight to get noticed and old timers hang on, giving baseball one last try, before it discards them and moves along happily ever after.
There have been a few articles of late that have, in one way or another, touched on the vulnerability of ballplayers. Tyler Kepner profiled Kevin Brown in the Sunday Times, and here is a good one about Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez, who was humbled by the Red Sox' efforts to move him over the winter:
“My agent called and told me about the waivers,” said Ramirez, who was available to any team willing to pay the remainder of his contract (five years, $101.5 million). “I was a little bit mad. But I said this is a business. Baseball doesn’t need me. I need baseball.”
Even better, here is what Oakland's third baseman Eric Chavez recently told my label-mate Mark McClusky:
When you struggle, there's nowhere to go. You can't hide, you can't take a couple of days off--you have to jump back in the saddle the next day. I'll go home sometimes and I'll honestly think I'll never get a hit again. That's not the case. I know eventually I'll run into a hit. But there are times when the ballpark is the last place you want to be going.
At this level, the game is much more mental than physical. Sometimes the harder you try, the worse it gets. You want your talent to take over, but everyone else is talented too, so you try and get an edge mentally. You can't get comfortable. I've never been comfortable enough where I can honestly say I'm a good player. I've seen what baseball can do to people. Until the last day I play, I'll never be comfortable in this game.
Chavez is surprisingly candid. Interestingly, McClusky thinks that it helps explain what is keeping Chavez from realizing his full potential. But indivudal players aren't the only vulnerable ones. Witness the so-called fall of the Atlanta Braves. Murray Chass pens what could be his best column since returning from medical leave and suggests that we probably shouldn't count Bobby Cox and company out just yet. GM John Schuerholz tells Chass:
"The greatest winning streak in baseball is our winning 12 consecutive division titles," he said the other day. "The second-longest streak is the number of years people have predicted our demise."
As great as the Yankees and Red Sox appear, they are a string of injuries away from missing the playoffs (remember the 1987 Mets?). It's this uncertainty, this vulnerability that helps make the game so compelling.