In praise of Player X

Dilip Vishwanat

The best season of Marlon Byrd's career is over. His career is nearer to its end than its beginning. He already gave us one of the best, sweetest and strangest years in recent memory.

The first and maybe most important thing to know about Marlon Byrd, probably beyond anything that he's done during his 12 years in Major League Baseball, is that he looks like he stepped out of the early Nintendo game R.B.I. Baseball. This was a baseball-like game defined, mostly, by the weirdly uniform puffy endomorphism of its characters -- every player, from Ozzie Smith to Tom Brunansky, was shaped like a cross between Jack Black and Matt Adams -- if also by the usual accidental, glitched-out whimsy of Nintendo-era sports games.

There was always strange music playing. It made a little farty WAV sound whenever a ball bounced or a player ran. When your pudgy avatar hit a home run, the stands flashed like a disco strobe and the roar of the crowd was a blast of oceanic static. That was how you knew you'd done well: the game itself had a happy, dorky seizure, and the monochrome crowd exulted. It was not, if this even needs mentioning, all that much like baseball, or anything else.

What's strange, given how unlike the game of baseball R.B.I. Baseball was, is how many active players share the blobbily rectangular shape of R.B.I. Baseball's "players." This is and has always been a baseball body type, admittedly -- big oaken Jonathan Broxton legs, the type that turn husky-cut jeans into leggings; robustly oblong torsos and puffy cartoon arms; tiny little Lego Man heads grinning atop it all. Marlon Byrd looks like that, and he is not the first or the last player to look like that. Marlon Byrd is not the first or the last anything, really -- he is, after a longish career in the bigs and for all his individuated complications and quirks, as much Basic Major League Player as anyone presently working. R.B.I. Baseball was the first console game licensed to use big league players, but Marlon Byrd has always had a lot of Player X about him.

Which is also to say that he is also an athletic ubermensch. Byrd was a supremely promising multi-sport athlete in his youth, in Florida, and a college football prospect who opted for a less concussive game. He thickened and generally ran to beef later in life, as one does, and survived a wild run of fluke injuries -- a circulatory problem that nearly cost him his right leg in college, a harrowing moment involving an Alfredo Aceves fastball to the face during his stint with the Cubs. Byrd came back from those, and was superhumanly talented enough to make it to the bigs in the first place, but has somehow -- despite all that incident and baseline miraculousness -- had a very prosaic career.

That is, Byrd struck out a lot and moved around a lot and got hurt and was mostly good but not ever really great once he got to the majors, and then progressively less good as time went by. This is true of most of us in our given lines of work, as it turns out, and in general. But Byrd happens to do a very public and very well-compensated job on television, and further happened to have done some of it in Philadelphia, where he was more or less bound to be hated for various reasons and was, at any rate, actually and inevitably less dazzling than advertised.

Also, Byrd took whatever potentially helpful health supplements he could under the game's rules without apology, and then was busted in 2012 for taking a medication with a forbidden ingredient. At that point, he was slipping down the shoulder of a good but mostly unremarkable career. When he joined the Mets in spring training, it was on a non-guaranteed deal and with the understanding that he'd be battling players like Andrew Brown and Mike Baxter and Collin Cowgill not for an everyday role, but for a roster spot. Byrd's career as Player X was ending, and this is generally how that sort of career ends -- a few desultory at-bats with a strange team, and then some increasingly anonymous decades of golf or coaching or car sales or managing various Applebee's franchises in the Sun Belt. The Mets, over the last decade, have made their roster a sort of baseball hospice for position players at this point in their careers, and have seen the careers of Trot Nixon and Gerald Williams and Michael Tucker and Brian Daubach and, most recently, Gary Matthews Jr. and Rick Ankiel to quiet and not wholly undignified ends.

His rebuilt swing was shorter and quicker, and he started hitting balls into gaps and over fences as he hadn't in years.

That was, at it turned out, not how things worked out for Byrd. He turned 36 during the season, which in turn turned out to be the best of his dozen years in the majors. His rebuilt swing was shorter and quicker, and he started hitting balls into gaps and over fences as he hadn't in years. The Mets flipped him to the Pirates during the stretch run and he played brilliantly in helping the Pirates into the playoffs. The last at-bat of Marlon Byrd's year came in the National League Division Series last week, on an infield single he made out of a grounder behind second base. What looked like a sure out became, due to a minor brain fart by Pete Kozma and Byrd's determined rumbling down the baseline, the last Pirates hit of the season. That season ended several pitches later and the Cardinals dogpiled one another and Byrd disappeared back into his life. He's a free agent, and will be back with some team in some role next year.

It may be that we've seen the whole story of Marlon Byrd, if not yet its end. That story being that Marlon Byrd is a strikingly rectangular human with some notably 8-Bit dimensions and who is also, in the most complicated possible sense, more or less an average big leaguer; that he made a lot of money playing baseball and mostly played it as hard and as well as he could within (and occasionally without) the rules, and so was like anyone else trying to make a life in a pitiless marketplace and hard world. He's had his moments, good and bad, and he'll have a few more. This is what most of us can say for ourselves.

Most of us, too, can hope that, after being hurt and embarrassed and unsuccessful and overhauling ourselves as needed, somehow we will not decline; that an unexpected and late-arriving year will be our most heroic and productive and surprising and nearest to greatness. There is, of course, a great deal of transference that comes with being a fan -- writing ourselves onto the players and teams we watch, absorbing them back into us, shifting these emotional investments back and forth as needed. It can be a way to feel like a winner at its simplest front-running level, but mostly it's just a way to add another layer of feeling to our lives.

We make it about us, and we make it about us by squinting until we see something of ourselves in the players we watch.

We make it about us, and we make it about us by squinting until we see something of ourselves in the players we watch. We make them avatars of ourselves, and they do things we can't on our emotional behalf, and so kick the heady contact high of their transcendence back in our direction. It's not any more virtuous to spend a season building a relationship with Marlon Byrd than it is to bask in the reflected grace of Carlos Beltran -- it's a choice, like anything else, and there's nothing inherently wrong about opting for a victory lap with a flawless genius or choosing to opportunistically/aspirationally align with a Sports Brand That Represents Your Values.

But to watch Marlon Byrd this year was weirdly moving in a way that watching great players mostly isn't -- beyond the surprise of it, there was a sort of humble and relentlessly earned defiance that lit up his every startling moment of excellence. Because he is a professional athlete and has a professional athlete's self-image, Byrd never really betrayed surprise at the fact that he was suddenly hitting home runs as he never previously had and making plays he hadn't in years. There was a sort of happy umbrage to the way he talked about the outfield assists that he piled up with the Mets -- all those startled baserunners, very decidedly out at second or third base, should have known he could throw.

But they did not know when they took their turns what Marlon Byrd knew when he planted and fired. Marlon Byrd was probably the only one who knew it, although he spent the best and strangest season of his career making us know it, and letting us relearn it along with him. And we watched his strange shape move around out there as if he were us, and as if we were the ones who suddenly and so clearly saw our secret self-beliefs crashing lately through into truth. We played the game not like kids but as dreaming adults, with a weird oblong avatar that was, however unlikely looking, also big enough for various weirdly shaped hopes to fit comfortably inside. Byrd, and not just Byrd, was out there in the game, hitting and running with improbable but undeniable grace, and then there were the stands flashing and roaring in bright and foreign-sounding delight.

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