Metaphor Monday: Firefly Edition

The essence of this gig, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is that I get to write about all the weird little things I like, as long as I can find some way to loosely tie them back into baseball. Pretty cool, right?

One of my favorite such weird little things is the very short-lived TV series Firefly (and the follow-up film Serenity), the only thing I’m aware of that can be called a “space western,” with literal accuracy. Actually, it’s such a favorite of mine that I was sure that I had covered Firefly in some way in one of these already (and that if I hadn’t, TCM certainly had), but I searched and couldn’t find anything, so here you go.

If you’re unfamiliar with Firefly, there’s really not much excuse for you anymore (unless the excuse is “things are harder in Canada,” which my ignorance will force me to accept). The tragically incomplete “complete” series fits on three DVDs and can be had for about $20, or you can stream it on services like Netflix or Amazon Prime. It’s great, clever, funny TV that was terribly mishandled by the Fox network and that, ultimately, might’ve just been too great and clever and funny for TV. But the fourteen episodes that did get put together are worth watching over and over and over.

So here’s how four of the top MLB free agents this offseason are like four of Firefly‘s nine wonderful main characters [edit: er, three of those nine and one kind of minor character]: 

Albert Pujols is Malcolm Reynolds.

Mal Reynolds is the captain of the ship Serenity, and the closest thing a show has to a hero. Mal gets the most screen time, leads all the missions, makes all the decisions, and gets most of the best (especially, the funniest) lines. He’s far from perfect — he’s a career criminal, for one thing, and his motives are often kind of questionable, and I think you could argue that aside from his wit he’s not even particularly smart, just knows enough to depend on the smarter people he’s surrounded himself with — but he (like the actor portraying him, Nathan Fillion) is just so undeniably cool, all the rest of that doesn’t matter too much. You find yourself rooting for him, even when you think he might be wrong, even when you think he might be about to do something kind of horrible. And, of course, even when you think he’s about to do something horrible, in some way he’s doing the most honorable thing, and it works out for the best, because he’s Mal, and he’s just better than other men.

It’s a bit too easy so always say “Albert Pujols is [awesome character or thing X],” but we’re talking about 2012 MLB free agents, so there’s nothing to be done. And Pujols is like that. He wasn’t himself this year, not by a long shot, and he was still one of the best in the league. He’s just better than everyone, which — like Mal — isn’t to say he’s perfect. Maybe he makes a terrible misplay in a World Series game and skips out on the  press conference afterward. Maybe he calls his own hit-and-run at just about the worst possible time.

Nonetheless: he’s Albert Pujols. He’s the hero. And even when the Cardinals, or whatever team signs him, gives him too many years and too much money for an at-least-32 year old who’s very likely starting to trend in the wrong direction — whenever that paper gets signed, if that’s your team, you’ve got to be pretty damned excited. You get to watch one of the two or three greatest players of our time, and even if he gets old and deteriorates quickly, you get to watch one of the two or three greatest players of our time getting old and deteriorating. Even if he just signed an objectively awful contract that might eventually be a big problem for your team, you’re 100% behind him anyway. That’s a Mal Reynolds kind of conflict.

Prince Fielder is Jayne Cobb.

Jayne is a cold, tough, mercenary soldier, muscle for hire, who Mal talked into joining the Serenity gang by promising him a bigger share of the bounty than Jayne’s other, opposing gang could offer. That history, and Jayne’s gruff, unsympathetic nature, make him the one character out of the nine that really can’t be trusted. He does, in fact, at least strongly consider selling out other members of the gang, and on more than one occasion. He’s just one of those classic, almost cliched characters: you can never really be sure what side he’s on, because at the end of the day, he seems to only be in it for himself.

Prince Fielder is muscle for hire right now, apparently ready to jump to the highest bidder (not that there’s anything at all wrong with that). More, though: whatever team it is that ends up with him should know that he can’t be trusted. Fielder is entering his age 28 season, which is fabulously, enticingly young for a marquee free agent. But there are quite a few examples of very heavy, hit-only players in baseball history, and very, very few who make it out of their early thirties as premium players. Whoever takes Fielder on gets the immense, immediate benefit of adding a premium offensive player, but has to deal with the fact that, very suddenly, at any point during the six or seven years he’ll be theirs, he might turn on them.

Jose Reyes is Saffron.

Another sad thing for you, if you’re not familiar with Firefly, is that you probably didn’t get to experience the wonder that is Christina Hendricks until Mad Men came along. Hendricks played the character first named Saffron, then Bridget, then Yolanda, all aliases — a brilliantly talented con artist who seduces (and often marries) her victims before fleecing them. No one knows who she really is or where she came from. But she’s fascinating, a near-perfect villain…and the clearest single casualty of the show’s way-way-too-early cancellation. She appeared in only two of the show’s fourteen episodes, and — I still think this was a huge mistake — didn’t return for the film. She’s fantastic when she’s on the screen, but that’s for a total of maybe thirty minutes or so — mere moments, by TV standards.

So that’s where Jose Reyes is like Hendricks’ character (not just because he, too, has a physique most men can only dream of). Reyes had probably the best year of his career in 2011…but still missed thirty-six games. The year before that, he missed twenty-nine, and the year before that, a hundred and twenty-six. That’s not enough to place an “injury-prone” label on him, but then, he’s had long stretches of ineffectiveness, too: he pretty consistently alternated between good offensive years and mediocre ones until his suddenly brilliant 2011. Whoever shells out for the next five or six years of Reyes’ services is likely to be blinded to some extent by the vision of Reyes when he was on the field in 2011 — fantastic, dangerous, easily the most exciting player in baseball. And you’ll certainly get some of that for your money. But how much? Whether from those nagging hamstring injuries, a return to ineffectiveness, or some of both, it’s entirely possible — maybe even likely — that those moments you’re paying for, precious and wonderful as they are, are far too rare and fleeting. Just like Saffron’s appearances on my TV screen.

Michael Cuddyer is Kaylee.

From the most exciting player to…well…Kaylee. More formerly Kaywinnit Lee Frye (played by the excellent Jewel Staite, who I believe is now doing something or other on the SyFy Channel), the ship’s self-taught mechanic. While the rest of the crew tends toward the cultured and glamorous (especially the females), Kaylee’s something of a bumpkin and a tomboy, and the show gets quite a bit of mileage out of that. But the beauty of Kaylee’s character is that it’s so tempting — for the other characters and the audience — to focus on the kind of simple and, frankly, dull things about her that she routinely surprises you by being a complex and thoroughly realized person, with this great compassion and genuineness (and, most weirdly, this semi-secret desire for really frilly, girly things). She typically seems like kind of the weakest (and most boring) character, but she’s given sudden and unexpected chances to show her strength.

Michael Cuddyer is kind of a popular target for the stat-savvy community, and in many ways, that’s totally justified. He’s a weak defensive player, no matter where you put him, and his bat probably gets overrated too, and he’s one of those guys who is endlessly praised for his leadership and heart and sacrifice, which drives us crazy. He looks like the least interesting of free agency targets, the middling corner player some team will seriously overpay for when they’d be better off giving some free young talent a chance.

I’m not so sure, though. Cuddyer strikes me (as a Twins fan who’s been watching him almost daily for years) as a legitimately very smart player, and the metrics universally agree that since 2009, his defense has gone from awful, to merely bad, to adequate (more or less). I don’t think he’s nearly the liability in the outfield that he’s rumored to be (and maybe he even keeps improving!). He’s also acceptable at first and possibly even third, and he’s not a total embarrassment in an emergency at second — the kind of versatility has real value that isn’t measured by things like WAR. And the fact that he’s not a great hitter shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that he’s most definitely a good hitter, with OPS+es in his last five healthy years (skipping the partial 2008) of 124, 112, 124, 107, 121.

Like me, Cuddyer will be 33 for the 2012 season. Jim Bowden sees him getting three years and $30 million — one of the few among Bowden’s guesses that don’t seem ludicrously high to me — and I think there’s a very good chance he’ll be more than worth that (maybe not to the Phillies, if he’s pushing out Dom Brown, but that’s hardly Cuddy’s fault). Like Kaylee among the eight other great Firefly characters, Cuddyer among this year’s crop of free agents can seem kind of boring and easy to ignore. Like Kaylee, I think he’s going to be a very pleasant surprise for somebody.

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