Meta-Commentary

Intangibles

Posted in culture, media, politics, sports by Adrian Arroyo on June 26, 2012

Sally Quinn wrote a much-panned essay about the “End of Power” in Washington D.C., which John Chait summed up as follows:

Once Washington was a happy place where a girl and her mother could be groped simultaneously in good fun by a white supremacist. Sadly, it has all been ruined by Kim Kardashian and Ezra Klein.

Granted, Sally Quinn is to politics as Murray Chass is to sportswriting, but she’s not alone. When Elliott Suthers says geeks are ruining politics, he’s just recycling Jason Whitlock’s argument about sports from 2011; there’s no shortage of articulate professionals mourning the decline of the intangible in their profession. Quinn’s requiem for the D.C. dinner party is different only in that American politics depends on norms and traditions in a way that the Great American Pastime does not.

The metaphor is seductive. In baseball as in politics, our affiliations are deeply felt though largely the product of location and upbringing. Common to both are the endless public pieties and back room deals, the demand for prediction over analysis, speculation about the farm team, and the retroactive imposition of grand narratives on unrelated events. To many folks, both of them seem rather boring.

But in baseball the lines of accountability are easier to draw and the border between rule and tradition better defined. Players don’t get tossed for talking to the pitcher about his no-hitter while it’s in progress. Tongues will wag, but the game will go on. When Chuck Knoblauch hits Keith Olbermann’s mom with an errant throw, nobody blames Tino Martinez. Not so for the United States Senate, which relies on shared norms in order to function. By embracing the filibuster as a one-size-fits-all tool of obstruction, the Republican Senate Caucus not only wounded those norms, they damaged the institution’s ability to carry out even the most routine functions. And with the same ineffable logic that’s often used to defend Pitcher Wins, these failures were laid on the White House lawn.

The fracturing of these Senatorial understandings isn’t due to a lack of well-attended parties at the Bradlee residence, but in recounting the long twilight of her own importance Quinn manages to brush up against something serious: nobody has any real idea what to replace them with. The result isn’t the end of power, but it may well be the end of governance.

Eighty-Six

Posted in sports by Adrian Arroyo on June 19, 2012

The Celtics are out. The Bruins are done. The Patriots lost to the Giants–again!–and the Red Sox languish in last place.

Boston fans may not enjoy this heartbreak, but they do seem comfortable with it. From column to barstool to webpage the arrogance of victory has given way to a kind of learned helplessness: “as bad as it is, it ain’t ’86.” In truth, that arrogance was always an uncomfortable fit for a city accustomed to near misses. The pink hats and popped collars hanging on Boylston Street after a Red Sox win were strangers to a fanbase that had spent decades waiting for everything these newcomers considered their due. And the Yastrzemskis-in-Abercrombie aped the underdog pose along with everything else, to the annoyance of salty oldtimers and Yankees fans alike.

Underdog status is imitated, manufactured and coveted because it’s the closest thing professional sports has to moral appeal. 2008 and 2012 were for Giants fans what 2004 and 2007 were for Sox fans. Against the “Evil Empire” or the mechanical perfection of Brady and Belichick, the score became a symbol. The victors could indulge the belief that there was some justice expressed by the outcome, reflecting the triumph of can-do spirit over imbalances in either talent or money. That prepackaged narrative–peddled to those ignorant of the scouting, preparation, merchandising and marketing that created it–allowed the stepsisters their own Cinderella story.

But in the absence of such mass-market mythmaking, fans in both cities turn to artisanal production. In New York, we debate whether someone is a “True Yankee,” whether Eli is Elite, whether the Mets will ever get it together. In Boston, they watch and rewatch Welker’s missed grab, bemoan the bullpen, and thank God that Lackey’s out for the season. Win or lose, right or wrong, we still find our way back to the familiar and the comfortable. In the Bronx, the Yankees reel off 9 straight and fans say “it could be better.” At Fenway the Sox hover around .500 and they say, “at least it ain’t ’86.”