Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Brien's Song

I was reading Chuck Klosterman writing on the essential weirdness of nostalgia, and what exactly we remember when we look at something from our past that we have no immediate personal connection to, like a song or a movie, and then I looked at this card of Brien Taylor and was struck with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia – not nostalgia precisely, but a memory of how people viewed baseball's No. 1 draft pick at the time that that was the only way people identified Brien Taylor. Thousands of collectors knew nothing about Brien Taylor other than he was baseball's No. 1 draft pick (by the Yankees): knew nothing about his high-school career or the speed of his fastball or even which hand he threw with. They knew he was baseball's No. 1 draft pick and if they were able to acquire something of him, most commonly a trading card – maybe this card -- Brien Taylor would return 200 percent minimum. He was more than an instant celebrity; he was an instant investment -- in Google stock, not Facebook.

I remember editing an interview with Ken Griffey Jr. where his greatest astonishment was saved for the notion that people were making hundreds or thousands off of his image without any involvement from him. Someone took his picture and made it available at random, and the people who found it sold it again for 50 times what they paid for it. And it was completely legal, and sanctioned by everyone involved. And just like M&M Enterprises in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, everyone had a piece.

It didn't happen that way with Taylor – didn't really happen with any of the No. 1 picks beyond Griffey, just a little with Darryl Strawberry and Alex Rodriguez – but there was always the thought that it could happen with this one, even if this one was Matt Anderson or Phil Nevin.

The thought process reminds me of boy bands. There's a new one of those every year or so, and the thought is always that this one is so different. One Direction is different from Take That because Take That won the Eurovision contest as a group while One Direction was made up of individual singers who appeared on X Factor. Big Time Rush was different from Justin Bieber because their song "Boyfriend" was nothing like his song "Boyfriend."

This is totally untrue, of course, because everyone who's grown up in the rock-'n'-roll age has had a moment when a boy band makes all the sense in the world. The moment happens at a different time for everyone, so they think it's a different moment, but it's actually the same semi-sweet moment, on a tape loop.

So I took all the No. 1 draft picks from 1980 to 2000 – from Strawberry to Adrian Gonzalez, pre-Bryan Bullington and post-Al Chambers – and came up with an equivalent boy band. Here's how it looks:

I never realized the connection between Darryl Strawberry and the Jackson 5. One-fifth of the Jackson 5 – Michael – was transcendent. One of Strawberry's five tools – hitting for power, generated by that incredibly fast, whippy swing – was the Michael Jackson of hitting tools, simultaneously locked into a moment in time and transcendent, and utterly irreplaceable.

(One of the reasons I don't enjoy baseball as much as I used to is that everyone has been coached into near-sameness. The best swing in the game belongs to Josh Hamilton, and it's James Loney's swing, only the middle of the bat finds the middle of the ball more often. There's one knuckleball pitcher in the big leagues, and while every team seems to have a submariner, no one has a pitcher who slings it like Dennis Eckersley, no one whips the bat like Straw, and no one hits from the Walt Hriniak stance that allowed Cecil Cooper to post a .352-25-122 line with the '80 Brewers. Were Hriniak and Charley Lau wrong because no one employs their theories anymore, or were they right because many of the hitters who used their theories put up great numbers ... or were the hitters who followed Hriniak and Lau just great hitters who would have hit .300 standing on one toe? I have a hard time believing that Cecil Cooper would have been a better hitter if he swung like Josh Hamilton, but I also have a hard time believing Josh Hamilton would be a better hitter if he swung like Cecil Cooper. For all the attention giving to batting stances -- there's even a "Batting Stance Guy," who presumably makes a living imitating famous batting stances -- how you stand is just preparatory to setting the bat in motion. Better hitters move the bat faster to the ball, and strike the ball more squarely more often. Judging a hitter on his batting stance is like judging Stevie Ray Vaughn by the way he tuned up.)

I do know this: Ted Williams loved watching Strawberry hit, and it wasn't because Strawberry swung just like Williams. Williams loved the excitement in Strawberry's swing, and I get that. It's why I would still pay to watch Ichiro hit. It's something like nothing else. It's Graceland.

It’s easy to take this too far – was Strawberry’s speed Jermaine or Tito? – but when Michael Jackson released Bad Strawberry was in the midst of a .284-39-114 season. Their careers were frontloaded, and their career arcs were not without parallels.

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