18 September 2007

The Soul of the Team

by Joshua Worley

In my fifth grade reading class they taught that conflict was at the heart of every story. A struggle between one thing and another. Man against nature; Man against man; Man against himself. The last is a favorite of educators and critics, because it goes straight into the soul of a character. Conflict creates plot: the duration of conflict is tension; the end of conflict is resolution. But sometimes the tension never leaves, especially when the conflict is internal. There is no resolution in the character's mind and soul, only a continuing struggle.

Consider the Los Angeles Dodgers of 2007. They are many stories, many conflicts. Team against team. It has been a summer full of little conflicts. Dodgers versus Padres; Dodgers versus Snakes; Dodgers versus Rockies. Each game has tension, and then resolution, even if it's rain.

Consider them again. The Dodgers of 2007 are also a single story. They are one conflict without resolution. Team against itself. It has been a summer for seeing what the team is. It has been a summer for seeing the character of the team, the soul of the team. What is the team? --- The team are those who play. What is the character of a team? --- The character of a team is in the quality of its play. What is the soul of the team? ---

This question is a diversion, but it is also at the heart of why any of us are here. Here, reading or writing about the Dodgers. It is a question that cannot be answered in the way the others can. This is because the question of soul cannot be answered by one person for another. Soul is passion; soul is in what we remember. Consider the Los Angeles Dodgers of 2007. What is memorable? What kindles a fan's passion? In the beginning, the passion is formless, a spark in the void, just a faith. It is blue letters and numbers on clean white uniforms. The voice of Vin Scully. The names of players we remember from stories before, some old friends, some old enemies. Some names we've never heard before. Then the games begin. The games give form to the passion. Many games are played; some few become memories. What is the soul of this team, these Dodgers? ---

My own answer will have to wait, because first it matters what the team is. The tension of the greater story is in this is. Is the team Gonzalez or Kemp? Is it Garciaparra or Loney? Is is young or old? Is is past performance, or present performance?

Consider the team against itself, in all the non-pitcher positions, save for catcher, where Russell Martin transcends all, belongs to all, is both young and veteran.

The Young Team

1B -- Loney
2B -- Abreu
SS -- Hu
3B -- LaRoche
OF -- Ethier
OF -- Kemp
OF -- Young

The Veteran Team

1B -- Garcia
2B -- Kent
SS -- Furcal
3B -- Parra
OF -- Pierre
OF -- Gonzalez
OF -- Pierre on his rest days

The tension is neverending because the conflict is not evenly decided. The standards the youth team members have to meet to play are so much higher than the standards the veteran team members have to meet. Absent overwhelming production it is unlikely any youth team member will last long.

If one evaluates the two teams on their merits only there is no true contest between the two. The youth team wins easily. The veteran team can't even field a full complement of the seven men required here. And yet they are allowed a curious flexibility: when Nomar was finally shoved off of first base he shuffled over to become a roadblock at third base instead. In any case the youth team is superior offensively at 5 of 7 positions, at all but the middle infield positions, and superior defensively everywhere but center field, with perhaps a push at shortstop.

And yet even with obvious superiority nearly everywhere it has been such a struggle for the youth team to get on the field! None of them started the year as true regulars; only Ethier has been with the team all year. Of course there was no reason for Hu, LaRoche, Abreu, or Young to be up at the start of the year, but Kemp and Loney were ready from day one, and between them they had less than a quarter of a chance before both were toiling in AAA, blocked by lesser veterans. By the midpoint of the year, it was clear that LaRoche deserved a fair chance with the big league team, with consideration also due for upstarts Young and Hu, the latter only because of Furcal's lingering injury.

Progress has been made, but how slow, how grudging, how incomplate, how exasperating to see how much the youngers have to claw and scrape just to get to this point! Even now only Loney is a true regular, and one suspects that he still might be sitting twice a week for the likes of Saenz and Sweeney and Hillenbrand if not for his Everest high production this month. Kemp and Ethier have made advances against Gonzalez, but His Veteranship is still entitled to a third of each of those youngster's starts. LaRoche appears to be getting his chance at third, as long as his back cooperates and he takes care of himself. Kent certainly belongs in the linuep, and Furcal even with his persistent injury probably does as well, though mightn't an occasional Hu start be a benefit for everyone? And then there is Pierre, the Pierre of every day, including his proper rightful rest days. Is it too much to ask that some few of his starts be yielded to give Kemp, Ethier, even Young a few more chances? Yes, it is too much to ask.

I am weary of it. I am sick of the tension. I am not weary of the conflict itself --- I am weary of how the conflict is decided, of how it is allowed to drag out long past the point when it should have been resolved, usually in the young player's favor. I have found the playing time given to Nomar and Gonzo and Pierre often more demoralizing than a tough loss. And Hillenbrand. Hillenbrand, I mutter. He sits on the throne of mediocrity. Attitude without aptitude. The motto for unworthy starters. They know how to win; they've been there before. That's great, and also useless. You win by being better, not by having special knowledge. You don't get extra runs or added talent for having been there before. Let the coaches tell them what they need to know!

The soul of the season is far removed from the tension. My rant over, I am ready to answer now. My answer, my memories, my passion. The story of the season is not a neverending conflict, but a series of revelations. A sense of wonder in the moment. Small conflicts, soon decided, small battles anticipated, more tomorrow, a rhythm for summer. Anticipation of Martin at the bat, Loney at the plate, Kemp in the box. The voice of my childhood, my adulthood, lifting up the poetry of the game for all to see. Kemp and the footprints of a triple. The line drive of Loney, sweet off the bat, a coherent blur. The impossible movement on Billingsley's pitches, the stuff of Cy Young dreams. Martin, so wise at the plate, like watching a patient craftsman, discarding poor specimens until he finds the one he likes, and then creation, a thing of beauty, a double to the gap. The arm of Ethier, the arm of Kemp, the fear of the runner rounding third, the upheld arms of the old man coaching at third. They throw as hard as they hit!

And I imagine next year, and the year after that, and know that it all began here, in this season. What wonders there are. And today, they play two.

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