Ahead on Differential

baseball

Jaylen Hotdogfingers's blaseball card, with art by the homie M. Lee Lunsford art by M. Lee Lunsford

When I created my account on blaseball.com six weeks ago, the words “Jaylen Hotdogfingers” didn't mean anything. It was a silly placeholder name given to a collection of numerical attributes who, like all the players in Internet League Blaseball, were the little LED lights a gussied-up version of that handheld baseball game Mattel made in the late 70s. Hotdogfingers's team, the team I chose to root for, was the Seattle Garages. I chose them in part because I was still high off the brilliant Jon Bois/Alex Rubenstein documentary about the Seattle Mariners that came out this year.

Now, Blaseball is at its core a weighed RNG that the bored, baseball-starved developers of the Game Band could bet virtual funny money on; a clicker game you didn't click, but watched. It's a modern Playograph, broadcasting baseball from a parallel universe using only the most rudimentary baseball signifiers to tell the story. The players, the score, the runners, the count; the rest is details.

But then, at the end of the first season, the Blaseball faithful opened the Forbidden Book. This is, after all, a game, and the devs are de facto GMs. They know full well that if you dangle a carrot like “Open the Forbidden Book” in front of your players, they will bite. And so, to the consternation of many, the Book was opened and its pages incinerated Jaylen Hotdogfingers. The seeds of a legend were thus sowed.

A culture grew among the Garages fan base, steeped in the time-honoured Seattle baseball tradition of diminished expectations and hard luck. The grief of Hotdogfingers's teammates was made manifest through fan works, including zines and songs. Player personalities were fleshed out. In the macro fiction of the sport, the laws of time and physics were increasingly disposed of. Bugs and outages were incorporated into the game's mechanics. The newly opened Book spoke of ascension and atonement. This is precisely why this lo-fi eldritch spin on Out of the Park Baseball is such a vital and vibrant game: the Game Band recognized that baseball is the most mythopoetic of the team sports, and thus the most susceptible to be mutated into strange and wonderful shapes by the forces of collaborative fiction. I saw someone in the Blaseball Discord refer to the game as the most important development in emergent storytelling since Twitch Plays Pokémon, and I'm inclined to agree.

Case in point: through a little bit of vote manipulation and digital necromancy, Jaylen Hotdogfingers, the first victim of the so-called Discipline Era, was brought back from the other side to lead the Garages to victory once again. Mike Townsend, a mediocre Garages pitcher who went from team pariah to folk hero over the course of six seasons, ceded his place in the rotation to his revived friend, and now slinks in the shadows until the mechanics of the game catch up to the story the Garages faithful have woven. As for Hotdogfingers, she has to pay an ill-defined debt, as all Faustian bargains incur, and her time in the Void has apparently made her develop taste for beanballs (6 HB in her first two starts back, introducing a new stat and a new player status, “unstable,” in the process).

Now, Jaylen Hotdogfingers is not just a name. She's an entity. She has a cascade of wavy black hair, or has Terminator eyes, or throws Randy Johnson's cutter, or has actual literal hot dogs for fingers, depending on whom you ask. And this is just Jaylen. There are 280 players active in Blaseball at any given time, plus all those who have been lost to incineration, and each of them is a Cubist portrait of their respective fan bases. We celebrate in these players what we want to celebrate in ourselves, the uniqueness of our personalities and the strength of our characters. They are avatars for our joys and sorrows. Each and every one of them is someone's protagonist.

#sports #baseball #blaseball

I don't say this lightly the man, the myth, the legend

Steve Dalkowski, a man who threw baseballs fast enough to scare Ted Williams and wildly enough to never make it to the majors, has passed away at the age of 80. He wasn't a stud athlete or a Hall of Famer, but the myth of his laser-like fastball made him a cult figure to people like me, people who are enamoured with the mythopoetic aura of baseball. And for my money, Dalko is the most mythopoetic figure in a sport teeming with them. The raw talent, the demons, the tall tales that may very well be true. Hell, I even wrote a poem about him back in October.

His stat lines boggle the mind: over nine seasons bouncing around the minors, we went 46-80, struck out 1,324 batters (that's an absurd 12.5 K/9 for those playing the home game) and walked 1,236 (an even more absurd 11.6 BB/9). He would routinely throw 200-plus pitches in a game and, people swear, still threw harder than Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, anybody. Writer/director Ron Shelton, who wrote about Dalko in 2009 for the Los Angeles Times, partially modelled Bull Durham's Nuke LaLoosh on the legendarily wild lefty.

He was a tragic figure. The magical arm that got him the nickname “White Lightning” went limp as he was about to make the jump to the Baltimore Orioles in 1963. Tommy John surgery was still a decade away at this point, so he never got his form back, hit the bottle, and more or less drifted for 30 years after he hung up his cleats in 1966. He couldn't remember most of that time because of alcohol-induced dementia.

The tale of Steve Dalkowski is mighty and sad, and I suggest you read every word written on him. There's a 1970 Sports Illustrated article by Pat Jordan that I recommend you start with, and this part near the end cuts right to why Dalko is an enduring figure in baseball lore:

Steve Dalkowski's real fame lies not in any list of statistics or legends but in all those low minor league towns like Wellsville and Leesburgand Yakima and Stockton, where young players still struggle toward the major leagues. To these minor-leaguers Dalkowski always symbolized every frustration and elation they had ever felt. His successes and failures were theirs and, though he failed, they looked with pride on that, too. Because his failure was not one of deficiency, but rather of excess. He was too fast. His ball moved too much. His talent was too superhuman. In a way, Dalkowski's failure softened the grimness of their own possible failure. [x]

#obit #baseball