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ALCS Coverage: Proust Probably Wasn’t a Baseball Nerd

Were you to comb the annals of world literature in search of little nancy boys, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find anyone nancier than the very nancy Marcel Proust. In the first part of his Swann’s Way (itself only the first of the seven volume Remembrance of Things Past), we see little Prousty: crying at length for his mommy, describing breathlessly the winding paths about his family’s summer home, and (if memory serves) sending away for any number of American Girl dolls. Nancy, indeed.

Having said that, it’s in the same text that Proust also provides us with one of the more important moments of literature. Sitting down to tea one afternoon, Proust (or the character who resembles him in almost every way) dips one of his madeleine cookies in the aforementioned beverage. Then this happens:

And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

The passage has become famous for a lot of reasons, probably, but most notably as an early illustration of modern psychology in literature. Much is made of Proust’s description/exploration of the “involuntary memory” — the manner in which the senses are able to prompt a strong and, yes, involuntary reaction in the brain. [For info on this and more, see Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist.]

Well, during the first inning of Thursday night’s Angels-Yankees game, I had a bit of a madeleine cookie moment — not with Proust’s attendant “shudders,” but the same experience of involuntary memory.

I don’t know that you’d agree with me, but, watching the bottom of the first inning of last night’s Angels-Yankees game, I couldn’t help but notice how hard the Angels were hitting the ball off New York starter A.J. Burnett. Like, real hard. Like, superhero hard.

To refresh your memory, here’s what that inning looked like:

Chone Figgins walked.
Bobby Abreu doubled to center (Liner). Chone Figgins advanced to 3B.
Torii Hunter singled to center (Grounder). Chone Figgins scored. Bobby Abreu scored.
Vladimir Guerrero doubled to center (Fliner (Liner)). Torii Hunter scored.
Kendry Morales singled to left (Liner). Vladimir Guerrero scored.
Maicer Izturis flied out to right (Fliner (Fly)).
Juan Rivera grounded into a double play to third (Grounder). Kendry Morales out at second.

Obviously, I’m not talking about Figgins; he walked. Nor was Rivera’s grounder to third particularly well-struck. Ditto for Hunter’s single (although it wasn’t some sort of nancy BS, either). But the other four batters in the inning — Abreu, Guerrero, Morales, even Izturis — all appeared to hit the ball as hard as each of them is respectively able to.

Hit f/x data isn’t available yet for public consumption. Were it, I’d include it so hard right [here]. In any case, our play-by-play data bears out the Angels’ onslaught: Abreu’s double is classified as a liner; Vlad’s double as a fliner; Morales’s single, a liner; Izturis’s fly-out, a fliner. That’s four out of five consecutive batters squaring up offerings from an above-average pitcher. Not impossible, sure; but unlikely. And probably more striking as it was the first inning of an important playoff game.

And just like that, having said to myself the word “line drive,” I was immediately brought back to the following. Remember this? [Thanks to Awful Announcing for the transcript.]

Joe Morgan: Jon, I gotta ask you a trivia question. I was fishing with Matt Franco, used to play for the Mets. I was fishing with him on a boat, and Matt Franco asked me this trivia question. He said he had talked to players past and present. He asked me, Which guy hit the hardest line drives most consistently of all I’d ever seen. Hardest line drives.

Jon Miller: That’s a trivia question?

Joe: Well, it was for me and him. We were playing trivia on the fishing boat.

Jon: Where would I look up the answer to that?

Joe: Well, you should know the answer!

Jon: Give me the question one more time.

Joe: All right. Who hits the hardest line drives of any player you ever saw on a consistent basis?

Jon: Dave Winfield.

Joe: All right, keep going. That’s one. That’s “A”. “A” wasn’t right.

Jon: [Loud Laughs] “Yes it was right! I beg to differ!

Joe: I’m gonna give you, uhh … I’m gonna give … I’m gonna give you a hint. You even broadcast games for him.

Jon: [Long Pause] “I broadcast Dave Winfield’s games.

Joe: No … for the answer, I’m talking about. I’m telling you, he asked all the other players. I’m not saying—

Jon: Well, I’m saying, this is a question for which there is no correct answer.

Joe: Yeah, there’s a correct answer.

Jon: Well, what did you say? What was your answer? Did you get it right?

Joe: Yes. [pause] Al Oliver.

Jon: Oh, Al Oliver. He was—

Joe: See!

Jon: He was a very good line drive hitter.

Joe: I knew you would say that. See, I knew that you’d eventually come up with the answer.

You’ll probably remember that little dialogue between Morgan and Miller. A lot of sites picked it up. And for good reason: it’s like Ionesco-level absurd.

But wait, there’s more!

It wasn’t long after Joe Morgan’s little trivia fest that, poring through the excellent Troubadour Books in Hatfield, MA, I found and purchased some of the old Bill James Baseball Books. They’re awesome, in case you haven’t read them. But what made buying them even awesomer — and relevant to the present discussion — is James’s capsule review of Rafael Palmeiro in the Player Ratings section of The Baseball Book 1992 (p 238, for those following along at home).

According to James, Frank Thomas is tops among AL first basemen. Palmeiro is second. Here’re the first two sentences about him:

An awesome hitter, too, Al Oliver-type hitter. Hard line drives three times a game.

Bizam! Line drives! Al Oliver! Madeleine cookies!

The irony of all this, obviously, is that Bill James and Joe Morgan both consider the name Al Oliver synonymous with the words “line drive” — even though Morgan hates-slash-hasn’t-read James’s famous book Moneyball.