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Madding lineups, and the limits of grace

Sports means accepting failure. It shouldn’t mean accepting willful idiocy

Andy Kaufman
Performance vs Performance

Being a sports fan — or, at least, being a sports fan who isn’t driven into gibbering, incoherent rage at every janky half-hearted swing — requires a constant invocation of the Serenity Prayer: The grace to accept that which cannot be changed.

After all, that’s the implicit bargain we make with athletes. They’re doing things which we absolutely cannot do. That they can’t do it most of the time makes the moments when they make it happen all the more thrilling. Even when we get frustrated that they strike out or leave one middle-middle when the catcher was clearly calling for it inside dammit, we know that’s the deal. If sports, especially baseball, were easy or automatic, it wouldn’t be fun.

Now, all of us, myself included, can froth and rage at bad plays. I can’t believe the White Sox approach at the plate this season. The hacking is driving me crazy. The uncanny ability to leave runners on base is sucking the season into a black hole. It’s maddening. But only the most past-their-prime ex-jock hooplehead thinks any of this is easy.

But you know what is easy? Not batting your absolute worst hitter leadoff.

That brings us to the part where we tell Reinhold Neihbur to go pound sand. The consistently maddening lineups created by Tony La Russa make serenity impossible. Granted, his options for a “good lineup,” given the team’s inability to hit, are a challenge.

It doesn’t need to be said that a quality lineup would find a way to avoid having Gavin Sheets, Yasmani Grandal, Yoán Moncada, and Leury García batting ahead of a quality hitter like Andrew Vaughn. It doesn’t need to be said that maximizing ABs for Leury is madness.

It doesn’t need to be said, because we all see the results. In the first inning on Thursday, the Sox made a push against Alek Manoah (started, to be fair, with García getting on base). It ended with Grandal striking out and Vaughn holding his bat. An eighth-inning burst of fun wasn’t enough to get back in it, even without another bullpen implosion.

That none of it needs to be said, except by the one person who can do anything about it, is where being a sports fan is a rejection of serenity.

TLR’s lineups have almost reached the level of performance art: worse and worse every day, with Kaufman-esque indifference to the reaction of the fans, and seemingly just as little concern for the performance on the field. And there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about it.

I depart, with some trepidation, from smarter baseball people in my admiration for La Russa’s willingness to lose a game to experiment. Every game counts the same, but none of them really count for too much, so losing one here or there to give a fellow a chance to prove himself or bust a slump could have good long-term impacts. TLR has done that his whole career, which is risky and not by-the-book, but success breeds stubbornness.

That’s where we are right now. A stubborn, mostly-checked-out manager who can only do things his way throwing game after game away for a middling team slouching toward the break. It’s up to the players to play better, but the easiest possible change to make is to give the team a chance to succeed due to some players and despite some others.

The White Sox refusal to change the things they can might not be due to lack of courage, but for us fans, it is still the furthest possible thing from grace.