I came to this spot with honest intentions of writing solely about a 21-year-old baseball phenom, but it’s clear I’m instead in one of those dangerous places — fueled by pleasure reading, that rarest of things these days — where larger thoughts are intersecting with smaller ones.
If you came here looking for a dissection of a swing, a pleasant talk about OPS or even just a fawning hero’s welcome … sorry, this is not that place.
And so: I’m reading “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” a scathing critique of the current elite university education system and the perfect (but perfectly bereft of true direction or soul) students it is churning out these days. It is written by William Deresiewicz, a former Yale professor. I am not done with it, but I can already tell it is excellent.
One particular passage early on struck me:
“A former student sent me an essay he wrote, a few years after college, called ‘The Paradox of Potential.’ Yale students, he said, are like stem cells. They can be anything in the world, so they try to delay for as long as possible the moment when they have to become just one thing in particular. Possibility, paradoxically, becomes limitation.”
In the larger context of life, I see this paralysis of possibility playing out on a daily basis — even with myself. The world has become so large and so small at once that there exist limitless choices. But within those limitless choices comes the infinite chance that you might pick the wrong thing. So we have become a nation (and I imagine it extends beyond our borders) of dabblers, poking our toes into the water long enough to get wet but not long enough to go for a swim. And we have become a nation that covets a herd even at a time when we’ve never had more freedom.
It is felt in something as mundane as deciding where to have dinner or what to do on a particular evening. We are afraid to fail, and we are afraid to appear anything less than perfect. We constantly compare ourselves to others because Twitter, Instagram and Facebook give us that kind of instant feedback and comparative one-upping space. Sure, you had a nice weekend. But did you have a nice enough weekend? Because a lot of people ate well, drank well and traveled well. Are you really that cool? Are you afraid to admit you might not be?
And so we sit, sometimes, frozen — grabbing onto whatever we can hold, going all-in only on sure things, trying not to get left behind — and surely terrified. For students — who have been prepping for big things their whole lives by working themselves to the nub without understanding at all what they’re working toward — Deresiewicz finds this manifests itself in passionless careers that check all the right boxes for a middle-to-upper-middle-class existence. Because school hasn’t been providing knowledge; it has merely been providing a track.
This fear of failure has nothing to do with Byron Buxton, and it has everything to do with Byron Buxton — or more specifically, the modern Minnesota sports fan and how he or she sees Byron Buxton.
This is a type of fandom that explains the meteoric rise in all things off-field, to the point now that I’m not even sure sometimes why they play the games. Surely the ESPN hype machine has helped sell the NFL Draft, but they’re not exactly peddling ice cubes at the North Pole. They’ve tapped into the seduction of possibilities that drives the modern 20-somethings and 30-somethings (yes, I’m still a part of this), and there’s no greater fodder for this than an event where every team gets better, every team can be compared against the other, and everybody is 0-0. It’s a safe place where you might get angry, but you won’t have your heart broken. Free agency and trade speculation are more of the same — events that allow our imaginations to run wild without any real danger.
Even advanced statistics, which are wonderful, crazy and terrible all at once, are a concerted effort to find order in the chaos and absolute truth regardless of what happens on the field — to find the highest probabilities in the best of times, to have a scapegoat in the math in the worst of times.
Me? No. I was not wrong. I did not fail. The numbers said …
And now Byron Buxton. For three years now, all we’ve known is this young prospect who will someday be so very, very good for the Twins. He is part of a new wave that will save everything and make life better. He’ll be Kirby Puckett and Mike Trout rolled into one, only faster. And all this losing? Wait. Just wait.
We expect Buxton to be so many great things and are excited to find out if he can be so many great things. But now that he is here, it is clear that we are also so terrified to find out.
It is clear from the tension on Twitter, broken only by ironic jokes that also show a level of terror. It is clear when Bert Blyleven awkwardly blurts out “send him down!” as a joke after Buxton strikes out in his first at-bat.
Because not knowing, and simply believing in the track record, the numbers, the high draft position — that was a sure thing. This is real life now. These are real major league pitches. This is the harsh reality of a player who goes 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in his debut, mixed with the breathtaking speed that so easily scores the winning run.
We’re past potential now, into the dirty world of reality. If Buxton is as great as we all believe he will be, he will fail thousands of times. If he’s less than great, he won’t get the chance to fail as much. If that’s not a lesson that failing doesn’t make you a failure, I don’t know what is.
The only failure is being too scared to try. I just hope we can try to push aside the fear and enjoy watching Buxton become whatever he is.