Monday, April 7, 2014


There is one type of cultural personification that indicates the serial presence of historically-mandated social needs. It falls under the rubric of the following: "if a, b, c, etc. did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him."

That is most arguably the case with Jimmy Piersall.

Baseball needed Piersall in order to connect with an issue that otherwise might never have come to the fore--the question of emotional stress in the public eye. Consider it to be an issue related but not quite identical to the vagaries of displacement and dislocation in societies.

Just because someone is successful in a high-functioning context (such as playing center field for a major league baseball team) does not mean that there are not forces at work that can potentially undercut that success.

We think of displacement more in terms of the masses of people left homeless due to events beyond their control. In those situations, we tend to check what is otherwise a kind of kneejerk Social Darwinism at the door.

But we seldom do this for those who've achieved some success but have managed to lose their way.

There is a cold wind that blows through those formulations. The response to failure after success is not laced with compassion.

This paradox of human nature is embodied neatly in Ben Sakoguchi's rendering of Jimmy Piersall's "acting out" moment in 1962 while the by-then veteran outfielder was playing for the lowly Washington Senators (the expansion team plunked down in the nation's capital as part of crude business  deal, one that informed what would become an increasingly predatory expansion process).

Ben chooses to render this moment as a mirrored image between Piersall and his public, in what we can term a "dialectic of disdain."

It's a mutual moment, one of visceral ideology, of spontaneously emitted emotion. Rude as it is, it is a honest, unvarnished moment of "cultural exchange."

Amazingly, the voting members of the Baseball Reliquary, in only their third year of work selecting individuals for induction into the Shrine of the Eternals, embraced this "exchange of extremities" as an event singular enough to ensure the inclusion of Jimmy Piersall among their most exalted.

Did Piersall raise his anger and animosity to an art form? Did he find a way to create an unvarnished spontaneity that skirted the margins of mental instability? Did fans respond to him in a manner that was significantly more visceral and direct than virtually any other player of his time? Sakoguchi, in depicting the crowd giving back just as much as they are getting, seems to suggest that this moment of engagement is beyond the usual strictures of simplistic moral codes.

Piersall's internal adversity became public knowledge, and as a result of that, the "extremity" he embodied was transformed from something negative and threatening into a force that could create greater understanding--even if there were negative elements within the back-and-forth of the exchange.

Ben draws that moment of exchange with a vortex of movement, complete with a jagged fault line. Oddly, though, the image conjured by that line is more akin to that of a jigsaw puzzle piece--something that fits together rather than cleaving apart. Messages are transmitted and equal measure.

Few players have ever manifested such a relationship with the fans over the course of a playing career. By showing what he felt--warts and all--Jimmy Piersall was more than just a colorful commodity. He was a link to the human dimension of high achievement that is all-too-often ignored and left to languish.