Tulips wilting in summer

Kevin C. Cox

The seasons of a year each have their rituals, their characters. In spring, I drive through the fields of Skagit County, where I grew up, and listen to baseball on the radio. Much of the Pacific Northwest is set against forests and  mountains, but the Skagit River basin is primarily flat road and farmland. Eleven months out of the year these fields are dirt and turf, idyllic and unnoticeable. The other month they blaze with unnatural reds, yellows and pinks. People come from all over to visit the tulip fields, endless rows of delicate flowers, a natural wonder entirely created by man, their only use to be seen. When I pass these fields, I think, occasionally, of guys like Jack Armstrong.

Jack Armstrong had it all: youth, good looks, a golden arm, and that perfect name. He was a college standout, a first-round draft pick, a future star. After cutting his teeth for a season in long relief, in 1990 Armstrong earned a spot in the back of the Cincinnati rotation. His task: Learn, and keep his team in games. He kept them in those games by winning eleven of his first fourteen starts and earning the starting nod for the All-Star team. It was to be the first of many.

Jack Armstrong had it all. All except the talent everyone assumed he had.

The strong start proved to be a mirage. Rather than shining, Armstrong merely shimmered. As fans rubbed their eyes he transformed back into a different Jack Armstrong, losing six of his next seven, getting hurt, and losing his starting spot. He wandered through baseball for a few more years, frayed in spirit and in shoulder.

Soon, he was a name in an almanac.

Looking back on it now, it's easy to see the cracks in the veneer of Jack Armstrong's stardom. In 1990, baseball overvalued the things he did well, like win ballgames and post a shiny, reliever-aided ERA. His peripherals, as yet undiscovered, reveal the extent of his fleeting fame. Jack Armstrong proved to be a coin that came up heads for a while.

Coins do this sometimes; so do baseball players. When they do, it's a natural human reaction to bestow some of that fortune onto the artifact itself. We understand the mathematics, but we still want to believe in something that transcends our own knowledge, something that is beautiful because it doesn't make sense. Like the tulips, a person can be frozen in equal parts by its beauty and the incongruity.

Stories like Jack Armstrong's don't happen quite as often as they used to. We've learned to be patient. The phrase "small sample size" has embedded itself even into our cable sports debate programs, and we're constantly warned against the threat of rogue narratives that confuse and beguile. We're confounded by a language that fails to distinguish between the statement of fact and the insinuation of future repercussion. When Giancarlo Stanton steps to the plate and a friend remarks, "He's struck out his last six times up," one can't help but read into the factual statement that he's more likely to strike out again, whether or not they intend it. We struggle against that nature inside us to build patterns, and to apply them to what we see.

But even more than that, we want to see. Odds fly at us millions of times a second. Each moment, each blade of grass comprises a million different coincidences, branches of probability that caused them to be what they were at that instant, and yet most of these aren't that interesting. One of the attractions of baseball is to watch something special happen. No-hitters and cycles draw us in because we know that they take place, theoretically, but never when we're looking. They break the system we thought we understood.

The temptation is to believe in the things we can't prove. But we can't simply surrender to the exuberance; that leads to disappointment and terrible decisions, like the Dutch Tulip Mania and Ryan Howard's contract. In Holland in the early seventeenth century, a nation newly independent and increasingly wealthy sought a symbol for its fortune. Uselessness has always been a powerful declaration of wealth. The tulip made a perfect symbol: the bulbs were practical from a merchant standpoint and the flowers were colorful and novel. By early 1637, tulips became so fashionable and desirable that a single bulb could sell for more than a skilled tradesman could earn in a year. Tulips were bought and sold up to ten times a day, even as the bulbs themselves never left the ground.

Blind optimism led to ruin, though the dot com bubble is still too recent for any of us to smirk. But at the same time, we can't shield ourselves from any commitment, any celebration of the strange and wonderful, by cloaking it in various levels of uncertainty. The future always holds a clearer picture, but at some point we can no longer afford to wait for it. By the strictest terms we never have proof of anything; the sun has risen in the east billions of times, but that's no proof that it will tomorrow. Still, at some point we have to take it as a given and get up to go to work.

It's difficult to find the balance between the rational and irrational, serenity and excitement. My wife, after balancing our checking account, often audibly wishes that we could win the lottery. I have, on numerous occasions, declared my distaste for the lottery as a poor tax and as a disturbing redistribution of wealth. And yet when she says this, I always feel a little bad that we don't make a little more money, just enough for her to waste it on lottery tickets and be happy. This is stupid. She doesn't actually want to play the lottery; she's as smart as I am, and fully aware of the odds. She's also plenty capable of pulling a twenty out of the ATM and driving to the grocery store. Pretending to play the lottery is her way of reconciling her wistful and pragmatic halves, in a way that is far healthier than my depressing fiscal outlook.

Twenty-three years after Jack Armstrong, a third baseman named Chris Johnson was thrown into the Justin Upton trade last winter. Johnson had proved to be a serviceable, if mostly anonymous, starter for two of his three full seasons with Houston and Arizona. He was given the starting job for the Braves for lack of competition, an obvious stopgap on a talented team. In April, he hit .369. Batting average no longer holds the prestige it once did, but for a career .257 hitter leading into the year, it was certainly surprising.

Of course, it was unsustainable. Detractors pointed to his career norms, and the absurd .460 batting average of balls in play. They were correct. He followed the first month by hitting a mere .312 the rest of the way, finishing second in the National League.

Twenty years ago, Johnson would already have adorned the cover of Sports Illustrated, beaming over his good fortune. Analysts would have dug into his past, complimented his parents on their domestic acumen, attributed to him all sorts of virtues to justify his success. The team, perhaps, and its hitting coaches and chemistry would be responsible for his new skills. It would have been rather silly. It would perhaps have even been regrettable, in 2014, when he became Chris Johnson again.

Will he continue his offensive success next season? Almost certainly not. Batting average, for all of its past glory (the man with the highest average is said to "lead the league in hitting", after all), is a rather poor indicator of future, or even current, success. It doesn't even make Johnson a particularly good player, with his relative lack of power and his subpar defense.

But it seems a shame that we as fans can't believe in Chris Johnson, or at least revel in the one thing he did remarkably well this year, at least for a little while. Moments in the sun, however variance-driven they might be, give us a chance to appreciate the lesser stars, and to weave detail into the background of baseball's tapestry.

Chris Johnson deserves his party, even if we all wake up hung over the next morning. But we've grown up, stopped drinking, grown sensible. Jack Armstrong started the All-Star Game; Johnson didn't make the team at all.

In the era of fantasy baseball, I realize that it's fun to play the general manager, and to have an eye on the big picture. But it's also sometimes fun to leave it, to leave the dullness and the responsibility for a while, and just hope for the meaningless and unlikely. It's okay to spend some time enjoying the tulips before they wilt in the summer heat. Just don't invest your life savings in them.

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