A while back, a certain “Carson” “Cistulli” wrote a short piece about wit as it is reflected in sport, employing both Zinedine Zidane and Brandon Phillips as examples of the satisfaction we feel when a player uses creativity to succeed where he might otherwise fail. Having established the phenomenon, he refuses to elaborate further, his need for sandwiches mightier than his need for truth. I face no such obstacle.
I would refine Cistulli’s definition of wit by adding necessity and result. It is not enough that Brandon Phillips makes his spectacular toss to first; it must be the only necessary means of achieving the desired result. If Phillips makes this play and beats the runner by three steps, he would be called flashy at best and perhaps far worse. At the same time, if his throw arrives a half-second too late, we quietly applaud his efforts and then forget them an inning later. This last aspect is troubling; we want to believe, I think, that our virtues are inherent and not tied to our success or failure.
No, the more narrow the out, the more we feel satisfaction in its completion. This is what drives us to the paradoxical conclusion that it is the athletes with the least physical prowess that we find most endearing, those who must rely most heavily on their creative powers to compensate for their natural ability. Talent, after all, is arbitrary. Talent is fascist. And though this admiration for the unfortunate can admittedly reach fetishization, and the exploits of the appointed Ecksteinian heroes can become exaggerated to the point of lore, there is an undeniable pleasure in the success of the little guy. Few people, after all, identify themselves with Goliath.
But wit isn’t only the domain of the Viquels and the Skrimshanders; great players can display wit as well, but this comes with higher expectations. The ultimate display of wit in recent memory, in terms of prowess and timing, would be Derek Jeter’s majestic flip in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS.
Carson states that there are “many” examples of this wit, and perhaps this is true, though it’s hard to feel this way in the cold of December. To me, it’s the tragedy of baseball that so much of this wit is immeasurable, not only by statistics but even by the naked eye. This is especially true at the plate, where batter and pitcher are locked in a heated battle of mixed strategies. The batter interprets the pitch, reads the spin, and swings at the exact correct location and instant, all within .45 seconds of it leaving the pitcher’s hand. There is wit in this, but it is so instantaneous that it becomes semiconscious, a knowledge lodged within the muscles rather than the brain.
Can wit become so quick that it loses its effect on us? Robin Yount, as portrayed by Dan Okrent, was a brilliant hitter in one sense, and a far less brilliant one in another; he could hit better than almost anyone, but if asked to explain his hitting, he was helpless. The pitcher can be far more creative; after all, his act is premeditated. The batter can make his own guess, but when the time comes, his act is more or less reflexive. How much is hitting a creative act? Could it be when he lays off a high fastball, or takes a changeup the other way? Is this instinct? Or is it an instinct carefully honed and fashioned?
There’s a point on the horizon here somewhere, and I think it’s in all our interests to find it. It’s the very edge of what we can appreciate, in terms of beauty and style, that brings us the most pleasure. And that’s why baseball, whenever possible, should attempt to approximate this: