John Updike, a prolific American novelist, essayist and writer of short stories who you might also recognize as the author of a memorable account of Ted Williams’ final game, is one of my two or three favorite authors, and it’s kind of amazing that I haven’t (as far as I can tell) managed to work him in to one of these posts yet. Now is a good time, for contrast: where Tim Allen was easy, because basically all the characters he’s ever played are big black-and-white near-caricatures, making it easy to make these sorts of superficial connections to baseball players, Updike’s characters are just the opposite, muted and complex and real, not typically defined by one or two somewhat generic traits. These are hard.
Delmon Young is Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.
Rabbit is Updike’s most famous character, and the Rabbit Books his most famous and well-read books. About once every ten years from 1960 to 1990, Updike revisited Angstrom with a novel set in the present day, so what he ended up with is a kind of catalog of (a) the life of a pretty typical guy from age 26 through 66, and (b) what life was like in (roughly) 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1990. He was always careful to include details like movie theater marquees.
Anyway, Rabbit himself. The defining fact of his history is that he was a big basketball star in high school (which is where he got the nickname “Rabbit”), the toast of the town and all that. Rabbit, Run opens with Rabbit as a 26 year old with an unfulfilling sales job and marriage. Rabbit hasn’t adapted well to mediocrity, and in a way, much of the rest of the four-book series is about that same struggle. He runs away, he has affairs, he changes jobs, he gets rich. Every now and then, something very exciting or disastrous happens. There’s a fire, there’s a death, there’s an illegitimate daughter, and so on. But nothing can ever really fill that hole. Angstrom remains very much a mediocre, deeply flawed, tragic-mistake-prone guy, always running, never satisfied with what he’s stuck being.
I have no idea how Delmon Young perceives himself, of course; the similarities lie in how others perceive him. Delmon was a first overall draft pick in 2003, and was a Baseball America top-three prospect four years running (2004-07). Just as Angstrom’s basketball-star history makes all the more mundane things that occupy the rest of his life seem wholly underwhelming, Delmon’s top-prospect status and apparent natural ability serve to magnify his many serious failings as a baseball player. And make no mistake, Delmon is a terrible baseball player. He swings at everything, with pretty limited success, and plays hilariously terrible defense. Oh, Delmon will have brilliant, exciting moments here and there, just as Rabbit did — a huge month or so in 2010, a .316/.381/.789 Divisional Series, a two-homer LCS game. But he’s not a good player, and at this point, there’s little chance he ever will be. People will keep giving him chances for at least a few more years, tantalized by that brilliant past and his athletic build and raw skills. But there’s no fulfillment coming for those people, any more than there ever was for Rabbit.
Tony La Russa is Darryl Van Horne.
The Witches of Eastwick was a big departure for Updike in almost any way. He tended to favor male protagonists and sort of mundane suburban realism, whereas Eastwick has three very strong female leads and a great deal of magic and curses and such. Darryl Van Horne (who was played by Jack Nicholson in the 1987 movie, for whatever that tells you, opposite Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pheiffer and Cher) is kind of a classic devil analogue. He’s physically pretty unassuming and offensively egotistical, yet he has strange powers of his own, and finds a way to completely enthrall the three women, to the point where they convince themselves and each other to do crazy, wicked, stupid things, and threaten to destroy their own lives and tear apart the town they live in.
You kind of have to read the book to get a real feel for this character (one of the most unpleasant I’ve ever come across, somehow), but TLR is Van Horne to me. As an outside observer, it’s really very easy to dislike the guy. He’s kind of smarmy and big-headed, and does things with his lineups and (especially) bullpen that really shouldn’t work. Yet, he manages to be consistently, bewilderingly successful. A lot of it has to be luck, or other forces outside his control (good players, namely), but I don’t think that can explain all of it. It’s a strange magic TLR has; he does things that are objectively kind of dumb, on a regular basis, things that would get other managers ridiculed and fired, and somehow, for him, they work.
Ron Roenicke is Sammy.
“A&P” is a classic short story, one there’s a good chance you read in a college or late high school English class (refresh your memory here). The story is told from the perspective of Sammy, a rather simple-minded convenience store clerk. In the end, Sammy finds himself compelled to make a choice. What he chooses has dire consequences for himself — he realizes, in the end, that life is going to be a lot harder for him from here on out — and yet he has to know that making it isn’t going to do anyone else much good, if any. It’s just the principle of the thing (although even the principle is kind of a hard one to pin down); he chooses as he does because he has to, in that moment, because he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t.
That’s a bit like how the narrative-makers will portray Ron Roenicke’s decision to start Shaun Marcum in NLCS Game Six on Sunday night. You could see it coming a mile away, people will say — despite a very solid 2011 season overall, Marcum had a 5.17 ERA in five starts during the last month of the regular season, and his two starts this postseason, including one against the Cardinals, had been total disasters, with twelve runs allowed in just under nine innings of work. It was a recipe for disaster, but Roenicke did it anyway, based on his principles, ideas like loyalty and “go with the guys who got you here.” So he did it, and Marcum predictably imploded, giving up four runs in the first. Roenicke recognized his mistake and yanked Marcum for Narveson after that, but the damage had been done.
I don’t buy that, of course. Unless there was a marked difference in his velocity or some other mechanical issue (and we can probably safely assume there wasn’t), Marcum’s season-long success was more predictive of how he was likely to perform last night than his short-term struggles. Narveson, who would’ve started in Marcum’s place (I don’t know why they wouldn’t go with Gallardo on short rest, but that’s neither here nor there now), was just as ineffective as Marcum was. As apprehensive as it might’ve made me, at least as between Marcum and Narveson, I would’ve made the same choice. And it’s not as though the choice cost the Brewers their season, since if you take away that first inning they still lose 8-5. But when you’re using hindsight, what actually happened always seems inevitable, so if you’re looking for a narrative or a scapegoat, it looks like Roenicke sealed his team’s fate by making a decision that was doomed to fail, a lot like Sammy’s. In reality, I think Roenicke helped lose this series for the Brewers in all sorts of other ways (starting “the hot hand” over the best player, silly bunts, etc.), just not by starting Marcum.
That’s it, a bit shorter than normal today. But as I said above, this is pretty hard. Next week I’ll do Pauly Shore movies or something and bring you five or six of them…