Friction & Discipline: an Epilogue, Part One

Wool E. Bull with camera

Photo by Ivan Weiss.

Friction and discipline: the two things you need to tell a good story, documentary or otherwise. You need external friction to cause opposition, tension and sparks, otherwise you just get pretty pictures and glorified advertising copy. You need internal discipline as an artist to do something useful with that raw, elemental energy.

It’s all happening, as they say in Almost Famous. That’s sports: sheer competitive clash and collision; the push and pull of opposites; the action and the friction. Documentary discipline, if you can get the hang of it, is like baseball discipline. It gives you quick reflexes and strong arms; compressed, efficient uses of energy; knowing where to look and where to position yourself; and trustworthy, agile hand-eye coordination. Chipper Jones said it well when he came to Durham last month: “As you get more comfortable with the game, you’re three or five years in, the game slows down to almost slow-pitch softball: ninety-five miles an hour looks fat to you. You see it: all of a sudden, you get there.”

Show up every day, watch and listen, and you might start to see things in a way you hadn’t seen them before, and that new vision will come to seem natural. As Alex Chilton put it when he was asked how he came up with the startling yet perfect chord changes in the glorious “Back of A Car,” possibly the greatest power pop recording ever made: “Those are just the chords your hands want to play on the guitar if you’ve been at it for a certain length of time.”

A certain length of time. The Triple-A season officially ended almost a week ago, but the story of Bull City Summer did not. The plot’s strangest twists, brightest breakthroughs, and darkest ironies came after the Durham Bulls formally disbanded. A good deal of the discipline, for the players and for us, came from maintaining focus and readiness well beyond the season’s strict temporal boundaries. It’s fall, and it’s all still happening.

But first, let’s recount how it ended on the field.

Last Tuesday, the Bulls went to Allentown, Pennsylvania and lost the Triple-A National Championship game to the Omaha Storm Chasers. It’s not all that important, a week stales the news anyway (and new friction has arisen since), so it’s unnecessary to go into great detail. In brief, Omaha starter Chris Dwyer somehow took a perfect game into the seventh inning with his soft-tossing, “crafty-lefty” stuff, and the Bulls’ ninth-inning rally fell one hit short. The Storm Chasers won, 2-1, and claimed the title. They had had a losing record in the regular season. They were lucky to be in Allentown, and admirable for prevailing there.

Privately, just about the entire Durham Bulls team would happily concede that they didn’t have much invested in last Tuesday’s game, despite its portentous name. The Triple-A National Championship is mainly a marketing ploy. It isn’t a dishonorable one by any means, but in spirit it’s only a post-post-season exhibition.“For all the marbles,” went the advertising come-on for Tuesday’s game, but exactly whose marbles were they, what were they made of, and how many were there?

In any case, and more to the point, baseball is built around multi-game series, not isolated clashes. “When you play those one-game [series],” Bulls infielder Cole Figueroa said afterward, “if the pitcher’s on, it’s going to be a long one for you … We would like to have won it, but we really feel like we had a great season.” Figueroa showed no signs whatsoever of disappointment as he said this. The clubhouse music was thumping away, the players’ voices pinged around the room, and most of them were happily packing their bags and heading out to the freedom and rest of the off-season. Two lucky Bulls were headed up to the major leagues. It was very clear that the Governors’ Cup championship, which the Bulls had won three days earlier, with gusto, was the one that mattered to them. This game in Allentown was just “fun”: that was the word several of them used to describe it, both before and after, although frankly it wasn’t much fun to watch, not even Dwyer’s perfect game bid.

The final score, 2-1, was the elemental numerology of the entire season. The Bulls played more 2-1 games than any other kind, including a full half of their eight post-season games. They went 8-6 in those fourteen 2-1 games, roughly where you’d expect any team to end up. One-run games are basically a tossup, often decided by coin-flip outcomes, unusual errors, and matchup advantages at a few isolated friction points. Despite their dominant record this season — 87-57 plus a 6-2 post-season mark — only three teams in the International League played more one-run games than the Bulls did in 2013. The Bulls were 25-25 in one-run contests: statistically exact, no  noise in the signal. The secret to their success was in winning nearly three quarters of the rest of the games. If you gave them any breathing room, they charged all the way into it. If you didn’t, they were just like any other team.

But that breathing room was important. This was a calm team, a loose and sanguine one, which is not the same as a noncompetitive one. They were cautious but confident, calculating and patient, if not quite cerebral. Above all, these Bulls had discipline. You could see the discipline in how comfortable and sure-handed they were with a small lead, because they were not prone to committing the kinds of flubs and foolishness that squander leads. They did not walk many batters. They did not have a porous defense. They did not do many thoughtless things on the base paths. They did not allow many home runs or big innings. And they had not one but two excellent closers. During the regular season, the Bulls led after six innings in seventy-four of their games, most in the league. They won sixty-eight of them. Only one team had a better winning percentage when leading with two thirds of the game complete.

More importantly, the Bulls benefited from a comparatively stable roster , and that stability naturally reduced friction. From June to the end of the playoffs, the Bulls were little affected by the spare-parts needs of the parent club in Tampa Bay. The result in Durham was a steady, clean machine that did not require a lot of working parts to manufacture a great season, just a few very strong ones (something we should all aspire to). It was clear from the outset and through to September what the chief assets were: great pitching, savvy contact and gap hitting, and a feel for the strike zone from the mound and at bat.

In fact, all of those assets arise from a single instinct: plate discipline. Understanding the strike zone is the single most important ability in baseball. That’s why it’s so hard to play: the strike zone is small; of unstable, personal, and highly subjective shape and size; and baseballs pass through it in a nanosecond. Yet speed, strength, and all athletic gifts are nearly useless without mastery of the fundamental ability to tell a strike from a ball — and not only to make the distinction, but to help create it.

If you can do it, you have little else to worry about. Note, for example, which two Durham Bulls pitchers did not get to take the mound in the post-season: Frank De Los Santos and Mike Montgomery. Other than young, gifted prospect Enny Romero, who spent virtually the whole year in Double-A and pitched two desperate innings late in the fourteen-inning marathon against Pawtucket,  De Los Santos and Montgomery had the worst strikeout-to-walk-ratios on the post-season staff. (Surprisingly but tellingly, De Los Santos was traded to the White Sox yesterday.) And you can bet that catcher Chris Gimenez, had he not been called up to Tampa Bay, would have reduced the playing time of his backups, Craig Albernaz and Jesus Flores (both of whom struck out far more often than they walked — and Flores was an indifferent pitch framer, too). At the plate, Gimenez compiled nearly as many walks (fifty-seven) as strikeouts (sixty-three), and behind it he called a confident, intelligent game.

Discipline creates an airy, positive space. Think of meditation and yoga, prayer, exercise. We embrace these regular practices in order to detach ourselves from mundane worries, tensions, failings, and ailments — in other words, to reduce friction. Yet sports are inherently about friction. We’ve known at least since the ancient Greeks, Heraclitus and Hesiod, that strife of a certain kind is both necessary and beneficial, the engine of civilization. (Millenniums later, Gordon Gekko reiterated it, pithily and gratingly, in Wall Street: “Greed is good.”)

On a more mundane and mechanical plane, think of a manual transmission car. You learn to work it by slowly letting out the clutch until you feel the “friction point” where the gears meet. When you reach that point, you release the clutch and step on the gas, and the car goes. Friction moves us forward, it gets us places. Perhaps more than any other philosopher, Heraclitus would have appreciated that one team’s win is another’s loss: “Opposites cooperate. The beatifullest harmonies come from opposition. All things repel each other … We do not notice how opposing forces agree. Look at the bow and the lyre.” (And, more basically: “The way up is the way down.”) This, incidentally, is why former Bull Fernando Perez could tell me in a 2010 interview that our adherence to “the orthodoxy of winning … is a great beacon of our cultural idiocy.” The fan only likes half the game, the bow or the lyre, seldom both, and does not hear the music.

In some other universe, a documentary project about the Omaha Storm Chasers would have traced a mediocre 70-74 team’s improbable and deeply rewarding rise to glory, the very improbability somehow reifying the artificial Triple-A championship trophy. Right at the end, Omaha’s story and the Bulls’ collided: friction. But this is a Bull City Summer not, let’s say, Chasing the Storm. The best gesture I can make on the unlikely champions’ behalf is to note that the strip mall near our hotel in Allentown featured a brand new branch of the chain butcher called Omaha Steaks.

So it seemed quite appropriate that the Bulls lost on Tuesday, certainly in light of the always agitated, unfinished nature of Triple-A baseball. There wouldn’t have been enough dramatic truth had they sailed to the regular-season title, the Governor’s Cup trophy, and the Triple-A championship without any significant resistance. Yes, the Bulls gave us a lot of excitingly close games all the way to the end, but if they had all led to victory, and to yet another Bulls celebration in Allentown, the triple triumph could easily have created a false aura of victory — a double falseness, in fact, due both to the dubious character of the Triple-A National Championship and to the broader, sturdier, harder, heavier truth of what was happening above and beyond it. The aftereffects of the season, i.e. the weather in Tampa Bay, continued to be felt for a week, and felt more strongly (by the depth and length of their impact) than nearly anything else that happened all summer.

It’s all happening. This epilogue continues tomorrow.

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