I believe David Foster Wallace’s theory about great sports — it’s buried somewhere in an essay about Michael Joyce, a tennis player, where Wallace writes that an intersection of play and competition is what makes a sport great. For a sport to be great, he writes, the rules of the game need to be somewhat arbitrary so that there’s something beautiful in the physics of the play, but there also needs to be a sense that two sides are trying to defeat each other.
I think he’s right: Great sports live at the intersection of play and competition. Boxing is a better sport than ultimate fighting, because boxing has more limitations, in that you can only strike with fists as opposed to just about everything. Ultimate Fighting is too close to being pure competition to be a great sport — basically it’s too close to being just war. Figure skating and diving, while requiring great athletic ability, are too close to being pure play, or art, to be a great sport. Baseball, basketball, soccer, and tennis come closest to hitting the play/competition intersection mark.
The corollary to this theory of sports is that players who best embody the play/competition intersection are the most compelling players.
Originally Published June 8, 2011
Ruben Tejada is my new favorite baseball player. It’s not because Tejada is the Mets’ best player, or their most exciting, or because he has a great back story. It’s not because I think he’s on the verge of stardom (or even major league average-ness) — it’s not a sure bet Tejada will ever be anything other than a decent-fielding, light-hitting middle infielder, destined to be more of a deep cut than a hit single. Something closer to “Factory Girl” than “Sympathy for the Devil,” if you will. So this is not me trying to jump on the bandwagon early. I don’t find Ruben Tejada compelling because I think he’s all that great.
But I do pay more attention to Tejada than any other player on the field. There are two reasons why. The first is that he seems to have fun playing the game at the major league level (though he tries to play it cool). Sunday night, in the top of the 7th inning, the Braves’ Freddie Freeman floated a soft line drive to the right of second base. Tejada took two steps to his left, jumped off his right foot and snagged the ball at full extension, then tumbled into an accidental somersault, checking to make sure the ball was in his glove somewhere in the middle of the roll, and landed seated on the outfield grass. Still on the ground, he tossed the ball to Jose Reyes and flashed a sheepish, I-can’t-believe-I-just-did-that-in-the-majors grin. Tejada normally wears a serious face on the field, eyes narrowed, unsmiling, much like a little brother playing with the big boy and trying to act like he belongs. But that grin will peek out on occasion.
I saw another Tejada grin in the Mets’ clubhouse before Sunday’s game. We were talking by his locker when I mentioned that he was just 21 and playing in the majors. His face lit up into that grin for a moment: It was as if he realized how cool that sounded when someone else said it. I was in the process of asking him about “knowing how to play the game,” as the cliché goes. If you ask anyone – Terry Collins, Jose Reyes, Mr. A. Scout — about Ruben Tejada, they’ll mention something about knowing how to play the game. So I asked him about it.
“For me, it’s knowing what you need to do every single play,” says Tejada. “Knowing the situations in the game, who’s hitting, who’s running, everything like that. Sometimes you have to think about what the pitcher is thinking about.”
That last sentence is the second reason is why Ruben Tejada is my new favorite player: I find thinkers more compelling than the physically superior.
Let me better explain with a confession: My favorite pitcher to watch in baseball right now is Livan Hernandez. I’m serious about this. I realize that he’s fat, his fastball peaks in the mid-80s on generous radar guns, and always has that “dead fish chewing bubble gum” look on his face. But the wheels are always turning. He’s thinking right along with the hitter, setting him up to take a two-seamer on the inside corner or swing at a ridiculously slow curve. He gets it done with junk and I find that interesting. A pitcher dominating with a 97 mph fastball is like a geologic event: fearsome but somehow uninspiring, easily explained away by the laws of physics. I like that Hernandez survives with (relatively) no physical talent. It makes him more relatable — and interesting — in the same way Odysseus is more relatable than Achillies and Keith Richards is more relatable than Eddie Van Halen.
I’m not saying I would want a pitching staff of five Livan Hernandi. That would be a terrible. But I do like watching him pitch.
I like watching Ruben Tejada play for similar reasons. He can look overmatched at times, especially last season, but it’s almost always a physical domination. He’s rarely appears fooled or unsure. He’s thinking right along with everyone else: A few weeks ago in Chicago, Tejada came to the plate with no outs and runners on first and second. Thinking the bunt might be on, the Cubs’ pitcher threw to second base to see if Tejada would give it away. Ruben waited for the pitcher to throw the ball to second, then squared around as if to bunt. A deke. He dumped the first pitch into left field to load the bases, and the next batter brought in a run on a sacrifice fly. It was a little move – it forced the defense to guard against the bunt, increasing Tejada’s chances of getting a hit by maybe 1% – but it was a smart move. That’s what I like. Tejada is always looking for that little edge. Those wheels are always turning.
“He’s only 21, but he knows how to play the game,” Jose Reyes says about his double play-partner. “He looks comfortable out there, especially for a young player.”
It’s worth noting exactly how young Tejada is in comparison to his competition. Born October 27, 1989, he is the fifth-youngest to play in the National League this season. He was the third-youngest player in the International League playing with Triple-A Buffalo earlier in the year. And if Tejada were playing with Double-A Binghamton in the Eastern League, he would be the eighth-youngest player there. He really is a kid playing with the big boys. He’s filled out a bit since last season, but remains the smallest player on the Mets. His spoken English is slow and consists mostly of clichés — one or two times his sentences trailed off and ended with a noun that was a close but incorrect synonym for the word he was looking for — but he understood everything I said. Even with all that, Tejada is hitting .317/.364/.350 in 18 games this season.
“For a couple of years it’s kind of hard. It’s a different country and stuff like that,” says Reyes, who debuted as a 19-year-old in 2003, about being a foreign-born player in the major leagues at such a young age. “I don’t want to say it’s hard, because this is baseball. But it’s not easy, too. Tejada is only 21 and not a lot of ballplayers have a chance to come to the majors at such a young age. He came to the big leagues at 20. Not a lot of people have that opportunity.”
“But after one year, two years, everything is normal. You know everybody well. You just focus and play baseball and try to do your job. I think he’s trying to do that.”
“I have to keep working,” says Tejada. “You have to learn a lot about this game at this level.”
I like that Ruben Tejada has an awareness of everything. He knows the score, the situation, the pitcher, the runners. He can think about faking a bunt when many hitters his age would be worried about getting the signs right, and he realizes how much fun it is to play in the major leagues at such a young age (even if he tries not to show it). He’s not the most talented or the most exciting player on the Mets. But he is the most engaged with the game, and that’s why he’s my favorite. He’s a thinker, and that’s more interesting.