Wednesday, May 02, 2007

On Tragedy, Death, and the Difference

Two days ago I began a post about the sports media's response to Josh Hancock's death -- ESPN's, particularly, although the response seemed uniform across the major outlets. I started it -- for me, that means like 1000 words -- and then put it away because I didn't have time to finish. The gist of my argument was that prominent members of the baseball media, particularly Gammons, Wojo, and Stark, were abusing the word "tragedy" and needlessly deifying a relatively insignificant person simply because he was dead and used to play baseball. I find that treatment nauseating, mostly because I think it actually trivializes the life of the person in question; in other words, I was not arguing that Josh Hancock's death was insignificant, or underestimating its effect on those close to him -- merely pointing out the hypocrisy of how the sports media treats its dead.

Well, now things are a bit more complicated. It turns out Hancock had a bit of a history of driving around late at night and getting into accidents, and also that he had a few drinks that night (some with ESPN's own Dave Campbell), and may have been drunk. It's worth noting that nobody knows for sure whether he was drunk; the only evidence I've seen is a statement by a couple that saw him hours before the crash, and toxicology reports have yet to be released. And then, in a typical bit of megalomania, Tony LaRussa threatened to go ballistic on the media for having the gall to report that a dead man might have been to blame for his own death.

I began my previous post with a link to a Phils/Braves gamer that didn't focus on the game itself nearly so much as Tim Hudson's performance in the wake of his grandmother's and Hancock's deaths. Hancock was his teammate at Auburn, and apparently was still a friend, although I have to wonder whether they were truly still good friends, or whether a reporter asked him if he was close to the dead guy and Hudson didn't want to say "not really." It makes a much better story if they were close. But that's idle speculation: the point is that the story clearly made Hudson out to be courageous for doing his job so soon after a pair of losses.

I don't think that's so courageous at all. I'm not saying it's easy to pitch eight good innings -- not under any circumstances, much less while thinking, at least occasionally, about a dead grandmother and a dead former college teammate -- but I don't think it took courage. (Note: the story didn't use the word courageous. I'm just trying to make a distinction here.)

And here's why: Tim Hudson is a 31-year-old man. It's never easy to lose a family member, but let's face it: by 31, most people have lost at least a grandparent. It's an unfortunate probability at that point. She had apparently been sick for some time. Again, I'm not saying her death is any less traumatic, but it's not so remarkable for a 31-year-old man to go to work and do his job shortly after his ailing grandmother has died. It happens every day in offices across America. And it happens because losing one's grandmother to a long illness at the age of 31 is not a tragedy. It's just life.

Which brings us to Josh Hancock and the matter of his untimely death. Presumably -- if you read the article, it's fairly obvious -- that was the main focus of the article's tragedy/courage angle. His grandmother might have merited a mention, but Hancock got the first line, as well as more page space. The implication is that Josh Hancock's death was tragic, and there's more of an argument for that: he had just turned 29, had finally established himself with a team after a career lived on the margins (he was a Phillie three years ago and I can't remember ever hearing of him, so that should tell you something about his early career).

But I don't think Josh Hancock's death was a tragedy. And I didn't think it was before the news broke about his respective driving and drinking habits.

Before I proceed with this, a disclaimer. I often bristle at human behavior in the wake of death. And I am rarely able to make myself understood when that happens. So before I elucidate this tragedy vs. death argument, let me first assure you that I would attribute a whole lot of adjectives to Josh Hancock's death: sad, premature, devastating for those who knew him well, lamentable, etc. Although I know almost nothing of him, it's also safe to say that he was a remarkable person, simply because the he was good enough at what he did to reach the most elite level of competition. He wasn't a great major leaguer, nor even a good one, but let's not forget how hard it is to make the majors. And, really, the death of anybody is a terrible event in many ways, especially for those who have to live on without them.

However, his death was not a tragedy, as Gammons and Wojo and Stark all proclaimed it.

Dictionary definitions typically make a convenient refuge for equivocating assholes whose argument cannot support itself on logic. However, since I'm arguing once again against the media's sensationalist abuse of language, it's worth investigating the linguistic definition of tragedy. (All ensuing material taken from the Oxford English Dictionary Online.) The word comes from ancient Greek, and every modern English usage stems from the type of play:

1. A play or other literary work of a serious or sorrowful character, with a fatal or disastrous conclusion: opp. to COMEDY1 1. {dag}a. In mediƦval use: A tale or narrative poem of this character.

Including the definition which applies to Stark & co.'s usage, which is figurative:

3. fig. An unhappy or fatal event or series of events in real life; a dreadful calamity or disaster. (Cf. COMEDY1 4.)

The scribes in question could fall back on the dictionary and say that Hancock's death was, definitively, a tragedy: a fatal event or series of events in real life.

However, that's not the sum of the definition -- which indicates that the event must be of a scale that constitutes a "dreadful calamity or disaster," neither of which Hancock's car wreck was. And it certainly doesn't fit the contemporary connotation -- that oft-forgotten other half of a word's meaning -- which, I think, necessitates a larger scale of significance. A tragedy is a fatal event that kills a lot of people -- a bus crash, a ship sinking -- or one that's significant to a large number of people -- Princess Di's death -- or one whose significance is inflated by exacerbating circumstances: the death of a child, deaths which the person could not possibly have anticipated or prevented, deaths in ways we consider odd: baseballs to the temple, murder, congenital defects.

Josh Hancock's death fits none of those conditions. And that certainly is not his fault -- he's beyond caring how people categorize his death -- which is something I never said and don't want to imply. This is not about Josh Hancock. This is about how we treat death. And what I'm trying to say is exactly this:

Death is not tragic, in and of itself.

Tragedy is defined by circumstances. We just like to think that death is tragic, and like to say it too, because it helps us think of death as remote and odd instead of as something that's coming to all of us, likely sooner than we think. It helps us "other" the dead. I could go on about this forever: I've written 25-page grad-level term papers on this very tendency in literature, specifically as committed by two pen-wielding luminaries of the last half-century, Truman Capote and Haruki Murakami. So I'm not blaming the media specifically for doing something I consider it human nature to do.

What I am blaming them for is the reason I think they're calling it a tragedy in the first place: because Josh Hancock was a baseball player.

As I previously said, Hancock was not a remarkable person in any other way obvious to objective observation. That's not a criticism: by definition, not many people are remarkable. He may have been a wonderful human being, kind and humble and good to his family (although, again, it's worth nothing that the fact of his death makes that possibility no more likely). But the only reason we've heard of him, or of his death, is because he played major league baseball.

Gammons and Wojo both fail to acknowledge that elephant in the corner, preferring instead to make tepid Daryl Kile comparisons, despite the obvious and unavoidable (and legion) differences between the two situations; really, the only similarities are that they both pitched and they both played for the Cardinals. They call it a tragedy without ever considering that it might not be a tragedy for a baseball player to die in the manner of thousands of average Americans every year.

Jayson Stark, on the other hand, takes a more interesting tack. He acknowledges that Hancock was not that significant in baseball terms, and yet he's the only one of the three who really focuses on the dead man, in particular his work during the Cards' Series season last year. And he only invokes the word "tragedy" once, as an adjective, in the second paragraph.

I suppose it's obvious I think Stark handles the story best. He shows a perspective and aversion to breathlessness rare in times like this, and, I would argue, even rarer among sportswriters at large. Every time an athlete dies, a litany of scribes effuse over his grit and heart and specialness, especially when it's during a slow stretch of news such as this one, as April ends and baseball writers are forced to move on from hackneyed features about hope and popping gloves. (In a week, of course, they will have forgotten Hancock completely -- on to newer news.) Stark, on the other hand, tones down the "tragic" aspect: as he says, "But in baseball, life happens, and death happens."

The only trouble is that baseball has nothing to do with it. Or, perhaps, that baseball should have nothing to do with it. Just because a person is on an active professional roster (and make no mistake, if Hancock had been demoted two weeks before his death, we wouldn't be having this discussion) doesn't mean his death is necessarily tragic. It's just one more example of ESPN writers pouncing on an event and inflating its significance beyond any reasonable frame. And why? Because inflating its significance inflates their significance. It disgusts me more when the event they're exploiting is a person's death. As Ryan quite trenchantly said in an earlier comment, why should we care about Josh Hancock? I'd like to hear anyone answer that without bringing up baseball or the fact that ESPN wrote a lot about him.

At the very least, let's not pretend they did it for his sake. I sincerely doubt all of their attention to the issue has helped anybody involved, especially not his family, and definitely not his teammates. So perhaps these smug glory-whoring pricks should can their smarmy bleating and go cover some baseball.


Diesel said...

Oooohhh ... that's good, thought-provoking stuff.

I'll try and think of something worthwhile to add, but I doubt it will be anywhere close to as trenchant as that.

p.s. -- Fuck Tony LaRussa, for real. I'm getting angrier by the hour just thinking of that asshole.

Brett said...

Just a thought that goes right along with your post...

They cancelled the game. Again... Tragedy? Or unfortunate event?

They cancelled the game that night, one that presumably 43,000 people bought tickets too because it's St. Loo and THAT many people apparently love them some baseball.

But because -- it's been confirmed that he was both drunk and on a cell phone -- hancock was an idiot (not to make light of a 'sad' (not tragic) situation, still) and got himself into that wreck, 43,000 people's days are affected.

No way am I saying baseball is more important than life, but you better believe if the head of the grounds crew, or the head of the club's media relations department, or the old guy who sits down third base to get foul balls died, 43,000 people wouldn't be getting rainchecks and the Cards and Cubs would've played that night...