Pre-scriptum: Jessica and I signed a lease on our new place last night, and couldn’t be more excited if we tried. Well, that’s not true. We could put on a SHOW for you guys. An excitement show. Dancing and the like. But we’re very excited, and our new landlords – a great couple who live upstairs with their kitty ‘Monstro’ and two kids – also seem thrilled, evidenced by Liz exclaiming “Yesssss!” when we told her we were taking it. We’ll be moving in mid-August. Perhaps the best thing about the place? I mean, besides the washer/dryer and dishwasher? They accept dogs. Also, the upstairs used to be a brothel and the downstairs was a dry goods store.
As humans, we fail all the time. We’re failure machines. Depending on how narrow your definition of failure is, I failed several times today before I even got to work. I overslept, so there’s one; I missed a spot shaving, that’s two; I stumbled on my way up the hill to work and nearly fell, that’s three; I missed the compost while throwing strawberry stems towards it, that’s four. And I’m sure there were more.
Those are, of course, pretty minor. I’ve failed in much more substantial ways. I’ve failed tests; I’ve missed important meetings; I’ve let people down. As I’ve gotten older I’ve attempted more and more to learn from those failures, but I don’t always. I still leave half avocados out, I still crumple Jessica’s clothes after drying them, and I still am bad about calling people back sometimes.
Now I’m going to talk a little about baseball. For those of you who don’t like baseball – bear with me a little. I’m gonna get to my point eventually. It will be circuitous but you’ll come out a better person in the end.
This is Jack Cust of the Oakland A’s, my current favorite baseball player and among my top 5 of all-time:
I mean, come on. Look at that smile. How can you not like the guy? Give it a try. You’ll fail. Get it? Failure?
I wrote a post on Cust on my now-essentially-defunct baseball blog last year that focused on his near-absurd commitment to what are known as the Three True Outcomes of baseball. The Three True Outcomes represent the three things a batter can do that take the defense – beside the pitcher – entirely out of the equation: walk, strike out, or hit a home run. It distills the game down to its essence, its single most nuclear and vital component, the duel between pitcher and batter, between Good & Evil.
Cust is a fascinating player. He languished in the minor leagues for years, accumulating a staggering 200 career home runs down there before being given a legitimate shot by the A’s in 2007. Over his brief major league career he’s been one of the most pronounced, exaggerated Three True Outcome players in the game – from 2007-2009, when he racked up the vast majority of his playing time and was a regular, he led the majors with a 54.4 TTO percentage. Over half the time he stepped to the plate, he either walked, struck out, or hit a dinger.
So what’s this got to with anything? Well, I’ll tell you: Cust, like any TTO player with what baseball stat nerds call “Old Player Skills,” strikes out a lot. He strikes out before he eats breakfast and then again on his way to the ballpark. He strikes out twice before he strikes out twice, and then he strikes out twice more.
Strikeouts in baseball are pretty much the definition of failure, if you go by conventional wisdom. You failed at your most basic task as a batter, the sentiment goes, which is to make the bat hit the ball and then run to first base and possibly further. When I was in my first year or two of little league, starting at age 9, it was the norm for kids to cry after they struck out. You strike out, you sit down on the bench, and you cry. You failed. I probably shed more tears over strikeouts than I did over anything else.
But as with all forms of failure, there’s much more to it than that. Hidden within a strikeout is some secret success, or at least evidence of something more complex. For one thing, it’s been established through all sorts of dorky-ass research that strikeouts are, generally speaking, no ‘worse’ than other outs. A strikeout = a flyout = a groundout. Without getting too basebally on you, generations of conventional baseball wisdom have convinced the average fan that a strikeout is Pure Evil and that You Suck if you strike out a lot.
But you know who struck out a lot? Babe Ruth. Reggie Jackson. ARod. Mickey Mantle. Rickey Henderson. Barry Bonds. Willie McCovey. In short, many of the best players in baseball history.
And why is that? Simply put, their “failures” actually masked the seeds of success, planted deep within them like the strong trees they once were.* As with Cust, high strikeout rates often correspond to high walk rates, an indication that the batter is very patient and simply will refuse to swing at a pitch they don’t like. This leads to a lot of strikeouts; it also leads to a lot of walks, and can lead to a lot of home runs.
At the root of all this lies the true purpose of the batter: to get on base. Or, to put it another way, to avoid making an out. It’s NOT to hit the ball – that’s just one way of accomplishing the task of getting on base. A walk is an unmitigated success, just like a hit is. Sometimes, when looking for a walk, a strikeout will happen. But over the long haul, patient batters are by-and-large successful. Because they shake off their short-term failures.
So when we fail, we have to analyze what happened. Did we learn something? Are we better for it? Were we trying something new? Were we being selective and patient and just got fooled? Did we get screwed by an umpire? Was it actually a failure? Was it a small failure in a sea of success?
Anyhow, I don’t mean to get preachy. I’m writing about failure for reasons I won’t get into, and partly just as a reminder to myself. It’s far easier said than done to learn from failure, I know that as well as anyone. But as long as we come out the other side having learned a thing or two, I feel like it’s worth it.
And that’s part of why I love Cust so much. He refuses to see strikeouts as failures, despite the pressure to cut them down. Because that’s his game. Because he knows that really, they’re not failures – they’re just a consequence of his approach. And his approach has made him into a viable major league baseball player.
And he’s just got such a damn cute smile.