Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Essence of Self-Absorption

I want to start by apologizing to all the people who have been wondering where my blog went, or at least to the handful of friends who have mentioned it to me. I'm fine, but two things have kept me away from the blog for. . .holy crap, nearly three months! First, although a few things have caught my eye, nothing has gotten me excited enough to overcome the second reason:  I've been devoting most of my time to two writing projects and the rest to other freelance jobs. I do mean most of my time, thanks to being in The Void and not having ballgames to distract me. So I've resisted the temptation to write about the WBC, spring training, my latest fantasy team rosters, and the ongoing saga of Bud Selig's effort to convince us that he has dealt successfully with the latest PED glitches. Let's just say that I've been more self-absorbed than usual this winter. I've gotten a lot done, believe me. I just can't prove it by my blog.

It is the notion of self-absorption that has brought me out of hiding today to resume the blog. The other day, my friend Peter Morris posted the following on Facebook:  "Words cannot express how inspired I am by the news that Tiger Woods has overcome both the complete lack of a moral compass and a terminal case of self-absorption to regain the #1 golf ranking." That ticked me off, but not because of how I or anybody else feels about Tiger Woods. If Peter isn't inspired or glad about anything Tiger Woods does, that's fine with me. There are plenty of famous sports figures whose success has left me cold, wishing that they could have failed instead:  Bobby Knight, Roger Clemens, Lebron James, Alex Rodriguez, and Tony LaRussa, to name just a few. I don't like their style, personality, persona, principles, whatever. When we send that first spaceship to Alpha Centauri, I want them on it, and I can fill the rest of the seats, too. That's how Peter feels about Woods. We're all entitled to our tastes, quirks, and standards.

What ticks me off is Peter's sanctimonious, judgmental tone. He appears to be saying that immorality and self-absorption disqualify athletes from any form of admiration. That's a pretty odd stance for a baseball historian to take. I have a ton of admiration for Peter, a superb researcher whose books take unplumbed baseball topics and make them entertaining and enlightening. I don't know anyone besides Peter who could put together a compelling book about baseball groundskeepers. When the Hall of Fame deigned to include a couple of bona fide historians on this year's Veterans Committee, Peter was one of their choices. But if he is correct that we should dismiss athletes who care only about themselves, then he need only look at baseball history to see how tough it will be to find a lineup of diamond immortals to root for.

Let's start with the moral issue Peter raises. He is appalled by Woods' philandering, his wanton failure to consider the feelings and needs of his wife and children when indulging his favorite hobby:  sleeping around. As a baseball historian, Peter can identify the two baseball immortals who stood head and shoulders above all other 20th-century players in popularity. From coast to coast, two men were the most revered not only during their careers but after retirement, the most idolized by far:  Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. Both spent a good deal of their time and energy sleeping around, philandering, and exhibiting a complete lack of a moral compass, while their wives and children waited at home. All of their whoring and drinking didn't diminish their popularity. One got syphilis, and the other got a new liver to replace the one his drinking ravaged, so they did pay a price, but not in popularity or posterity as ballplayers. As I noted in a comment below Peter's Facebook post, I was inspired when Mantle passed Jimmie Foxx on the all-time home run list, and if I had been alive in 1927 I would have felt inspired by Ruth breaking his own one-season home run record. If Peter wants to disregard Tiger Woods' accomplishments because he didn't honor his marriage vows, he has to kiss  off Ruth, Mantle, and a host of other baseball immorals, excuse me, immortals as well. If we're not allowed to be inspired by such athletes, I'll have to abandon my plans to teach my grandson how to take that outside pitch to the opposite field like Wade Boggs, simply because of that regrettable Margo Adams situation.

Many baseball historians have noted that if a pristine character were a prerequisite for election to the Hall of Fame, we would have to start over and would wind up with a small enough group of honorees to fit into the little museum nook that is so often mistaken for the non-existent "writers and broadcasters wing" of the Hall of Fame. Peter is right in the sense that the miscreants do have to overcome their immorality in executing their athletic feats. Ruth and Mantle were hung over for a lot of day games, and there's no doubt that their lifetime statistics were affected. Mantle regretted sticking around long enough to see his lifetime batting average drop below .300, but he still joked about the days when he crushed home runs on pitches he could barely see, or at least joked about them until his liver flat-lined..

We watch sports because we want to witness greatness on display and history being made. It's more exciting if we have a rooting interest--for or against--but I've discovered over the years that great plays and great games speak for themselves when we enjoy the sport and appreciate the work and skill that go into playing them well. I didn't have to know any of the players from the Netherlands team in the WBC to get a kick out of their upset of Cuba. Something about athletic competition compels us to watch, and even though the personal stories of the competitors can add to our appreciation of their feats, they are secondary to the feats themselves. We don't have to know that the guy coming to bat has a hangover or a hangnail or a girlfriend in every port or a secret bank account in the Cayman Islands or a stash of steroids or a case of syphilis.

If I tell you that a significant record was broken by a pitcher who spent three days at the bedside of his seriously ill, newborn son before flying to his next start and flying right back home again, it makes the achievement sound that much more impressive today, but it didn't matter to the people in the stands that night, who didn't know about the pitcher's personal drama. All they wanted to know was:  is he going to get the next guy out? Or will the batter drive in the tying run? That's why we watch. Later on, we can look at the bigger picture and decide how important--or how bogus--the events we watched were. But that didn't stop us from watching and enjoying it at the time. I've lost a good deal of respect for Mickey Mantle the man in the 45 years since he retired, but on Memorial Day in 1968 I saw him go 5-for-5 with two home runs at Yankee Stadium, and nothing will take away the thrill I experienced that day. I doubt that Peter Morris watched the weekend action at Bay Hill when Tiger Woods won the tournament and regained the #1 position. That's fine. As a fan of golf, I did watch, and without saying whether I rooted for or against Woods, I will say that it was exciting to witness history. That's why I watched.

Although I think Peter's moralizing was ill-advised, I find his comment about Woods' "terminal case of self-absorption" totally perplexing. "Self-absorption" can be applied to many aspects of human behavior and psychology, and Peter is defining it along the lines of "doesn't give a shit about anybody but himself." In the case of athletes, whose sense of self-worth is largely defined by statistics--the demonstrable product of talent times performance--this means a willingness to sacrifice everything, or damn near everything, for winning and/or compiling big numbers. It means investing the bulk of your time and energy to become the best athlete you can be, and if that means shortchanging other people and other interests, that's the price these people are willing to pay.

I take it that Peter is bothered by Woods' obsession with being regarded as the best golfer in history. My question is:  how does that make Woods different from every other athlete who has reached the pinnacle of his sport? I would maintain that self-absorption, far from being a detriment or an obstacle to athletic greatness, is a necessary component of being the best. More than that, it is essential for being the best at any form of competition, whether it's team sport, Olympic events, poker, chess, or even Scrabble, at which Peter happens to be a former world champion (the first one, in fact, in 1991). All those hours after hours, day after day, spent practicing, practicing, practicing. All the competitions, the travel, the training and preparation--it doesn't matter what your arena of competition is, being world-class is not for dilettantes. You don't do it in your spare time. It's a self-perpetuating kind of obsession, as the Woods case demonstrates:  you sacrifice something of your personal life to become the best, and then, if your personal life falls apart, you redouble your efforts to salvage your self-worth by remaining the best competitor in your field. Golf is particularly ripe for this pattern for two reasons:  it is an utterly solitary endeavor, and you can compete at it into old age (George Foreman and George Blanda notwithstanding).

I was going to put in a paragraph here about various best-in-their-sports athletes who have manifested self-absorption in their careers, starting with Muhammad Ali, but I think I'll just stick to baseball. Let's see. All-time hits leader: Pete Rose. Utterly self-absorbed. All-time home run leader: Barry Bonds. Disgustingly self-absorbed. Highest batting average: Ty Cobb. Infamously self-absorbed. Self-proclaimed "best hitter" ever: Ted Williams. So self-absorbed that he wouldn't even tip his cap to adoring hometown fans. Best right-handed hitter ever: Rogers Hornsby. So obsessed with hitting that he wouldn't read a newspaper or go to the movies lest his eyesight be harmed (ironically, he died of a heart attack following cataract surgery). Best baserunner and record-holder for runs scored: Rickey Henderson. The embodiment of self-absorption. Is it a coincidence that most of the players mentioned in this paragraph shed spouses like slumps along their path to breaking records? (And I haven't even mentioned Babe Ruth here.)

Of course there are exceptions, and all-time RBI leader Hank Aaron might appear to be one. Without putting too fine a point on it, however, I think there is a sub-group of world-class athletes who manifested self-absorption in a different way. I'm thinking of the African American athletes who rose to the top during the 1950s and 1960s, coming of age in the heart of the civil rights movement, and experienced racism in its most direct and virulent forms. Aaron is one example, Ali another, and I'd add Bill Russell and Jim Brown to the top of the list. Because mainstream (i.e. white) society rejected them personally and relegated them to second-class status, it multiplied their drive for athletic excellence. Winning was the best revenge; being the best accorded them a place in history, a permanent identity and status that could not be denied. Wary of the media, distanced from their fans, they drove themselves in competition. All four have acknowledged the power of this factor in their athletic psyches. Aaron has written about the pain and loneliness of his quest for Ruth's record in the face of death threats. Just because it didn't drive him to erratic behavior or wreck his marriage, doesn't make him an exception to the rule of self-absorption.

The importance of self-absorption in achieving great feats isn't limited to athletics or competition. It is even more essential in creative fields like writing and art, which are solitary disciplines. I'll just throw a few familiar names at you: Tolstoy, Hemingway, O'Neill, Joyce, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Michelangelo. They were among the most heartless, self-serving geniuses you'll ever find, but even if I know that the model for that Picasso painting was his mistress, or that Van Gogh's thick daubs of paint were paid for by his  brother's willingness to short-change his own family's welfare to subsidize Vincent's art, it does not and should not affect my appreciation of the work of art when I look at it, any more than I should've thought about how hung over Mickey Mantle might have been the day I saw him go 5-for-5, or even how juiced-up Barry Bonds might have been the day I witnessed his 715th home run. They still had to put the paint on the canvas or the baseball in the grandstand, just like the saintly souls who continue to inspire Peter Morris.

The person and the performance are two different things. Yes, we're entitled to judge the performer as a person, but that is ultimately a futile exercise. Mantle, Ruth, and Woods hit the ball solidly, and we can't possibly know everything about what went into their performance. The quest to be the best--to be your best--is a tightrope walk, a delicate balance between the effort needed to get the job done and the basic human needs that so often gum up the works. The lure of fame and fortune is only part of it. It is just as much about an individual's sense of his/her own destiny. That destiny is manifested in the performance, which is the only thing we spectators can truly know in its entirety.

So I think I understand what leaves Peter cold about Tiger Woods. Woods became so obsessed with emulating and surpassing the golfing records of Jack Nicklaus that he forgot to emulate Jack Nicklaus the man, who is the most relevant exception to the natural force I have tried to describe here. If Woods had devoted the time and energy to his family that he found to devote to infidelity, everybody would be happier. If he could find the time to be so rampantly unfaithful, he could have found plenty of ways to use that free time nobly. I agree.  But nobody should be surprised, outraged, or personally offended, to discover that a particular high achiever is a deeply flawed human being. It is, as Tiger Woods has proved, simply par for the course.