The Search For Personality In Baseball
A Photographer Spends Two Weeks In Spring Training
I’m more of an editorial and documentary photographer, but this spring I headed off to West Palm Beach to help the staff photographer for the Washington Nationals in getting portraits and preseason sports photos of the team as they worked out and got ready for the new season. While the main job was to capture some quintessential images for marketing, I couldn’t help but think of it from a documentary photographer’s perspective; searching for something more relatable.
Interestingly, from the moment I arrived at training camp, the news cycle was already being dominated by the person who wasn’t there. Bryce Harper, who had worn a Nationals cap last year, was still off working out his free agency deal that ultimately landed him at Philadelphia, with the biggest contract in baseball history. And while the press and the general public considered every possible scenario, the Nationals were preparing for only one — a season without him.
This got me thinking. Where does a team find its personality when its most recognizable face is literally being pulled down from the walls. And speaking of personality, why is it that I seem to know so much about NBA and NFL players, even soccer players, but so little about MLB players?
A League Of Its Own
When it comes to the personalities of the game, MLB is the opposite of the NBA and the NFL. In basketball and football, you know everything about the players. Thanks to the media, you know who they’re married to, what clothes they wear, their workout routines, car collections, kids, charities, music preferences and all their celebrity friends. In baseball, most of what you know about a player can be found on a baseball card. Depending on where you sit, that’s either baseball’s shortcoming or its intrigue. And depending on how you view the world, baseball is either way behind or gloriously unconcerned with their major league peers.
Common belief is that this is something baseball has done to itself — that they are protective, insular and doggedly behind-the-times of today’s social media-driven, disintermediated PR machines. Another theory is that it’s just a different kind of game. One that is not predisposed to individual heroism.
Similarity Breeds Contempt
The first thing you notice when photographing baseball practice is just how similar everyone’s moves are. Almost identical, in fact. In basketball and football, it is entirely possible (and probable) for one person’s individual effort to be associated with the most dramatic moments of the sport. The drive, the sack, the interception, the catch — all opportunities for individual glory. And all vastly different kinds of physicality involved. Basketball offers the same, with its last second shots, big rebounds, ankle-breaking moves and steals. In all cases, one person breaks out of the normal physical restraints of the sport, and physics, and does something remarkable, by himself. Baseball, on the other hand, rarely relies on one-person’s heroics for a win. Sure, a player might have a great game hitting, but it is almost always coupled with a good performance by the pitcher and other players. Likewise, a pitcher can throw a one-run game and still get a loss if his surrounding players don’t score 2 or more. The most individualistic achievement in baseball is the home run, yet in the worst version of it, he does it solo.
Media is designed to glorify individuals. Baseball, as a sport, is designed not just to neuter out individual glory, but to reward proportionate statistics and a disciplined sameness among all players. Who wouldn’t want three starting pitchers with a 1.50 ERA and nine players hitting .280? In that best-case-scenario, there would be no need for heroics of any kind — the team would simply quietly and methodically overpower everyone else, with no highlights whatsoever. Indeed, that’s largely how the best teams do it. Consistency and repetition.
“Relax, all right? Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls — it’s more democratic.” — Crash Davis (Bull Durham)
Without the ability to heroize a single player’s physicality game after game, only rarely does a Jeter-esque character emerge from the ranks as a true baseball celebrity and even then only within the context, and as a sort-of spokeshero, of a great team. In basketball and football, individual achievement is so well packaged, even poor teams have glorified individuals.
Perhaps baseball does not live in a media-free bubble — it just doesn’t hold the same values as media does. Is that so bad?
Well-Rounded is Boring
In baseball, it seems that all players are imbued with a sense of the whole and their entire training involves detailed and pinpoint interactions with others. There is no great pitching without great catching. Double plays usually require a third of the team working in exact coordination with each other and with an inherent collective understanding of the best play to make in any given situation. In fact, from a photographer’s perspective — where my usual job is to isolate my subject — it was near-impossible to take a photo that didn’t involve groups and/or interactions between players. And the moments you do think of as individual — the at-bats, base-slides and running fly ball catches — rarely look different from person to person, or even from era to era, so that even great solo efforts somehow become incorporated into a baseball whole.
Also, baseball is just not as physically lopsided as other sports. In baseball, there is no position where it pays off to be more physical than mental. Your best hitter doesn’t simply swing harder — he also swings smarter. Your best glove in the field doesn’t only have fast reaction time, but also great decision-making. And the pitcher is, of course, a notorious complicated web of brawn and brain, working hand-in-glove with his catcher.
Every other major league sport supports the classic “dumb jock” role, whether that’s hockey’s enforcer, soccer’s scoring savant, football’s lineman or basketball’s big center. Not that they’re truly dumb, necessarily, but ratio-wise, the physical needs of the role far outweigh the mental. You don’t have to be dumb, but you can be. Because what the team really needs out of them is more singular in nature. A block, a tackle, a score — someone to rise up and win that game. Baseball demands far more, overall — from everyone. And that tends to keep them all well-rounded. I met more than one player who claimed he could play any position on the field — and had. And would.
Well-rounded athletes who are more geared toward the team than the individual? Where’s the story in that?
“You’re gonna have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends. Write this down: ‘We gotta play it one day at a time.’” — Crash Davis (Bull Durham)
The Search For Personality
With all this as a backdrop, the real challenge is finding a way to photograph baseball in a way that captures the player more than the game. The camera is drawn toward history. Baseball’s visual encyclopedia exists in everyone’s mind the same. There is an exact frame where a big swing looks best, where the bat rests most naturally on a shoulder and where a pitcher’s throw appears most dramatic. You already know all these shots — they are imprinted in your brain at the DNA level. Your body tells you to snap at the appropriate time and from the correct angle, regardless of the personality of who’s doing it.
But as a sign of the times, both younger and older players are aware of this and yearn for individual distinction, and feel (and are) deserving of it. The role of social media and the request for imagery to fill the feeds is an ongoing topic. And, in fact, some players are taking matters into their own hands. I saw at least one social media expert hired by a player to be around and capture the day for him. Players want images for their feeds, but what if they get them? Would they really look all that different than the same beautiful shot taken a hundred years ago? It’s not that management doesn’t want them to have personalities, but that the game doesn’t. Baseball is an institutionalized system of consistency that pumps out thousands of like-images of like-players across all teams and all ballparks, year after year after year. The players don’t just need images, they need an entirely new angle.
In advertising, all briefs start with a key insight. This insight is usually something you didn’t know before, but it gets uncovered during your investigation. This never-before-capitalized-on insight becomes the thing you use to push new ideas forward. I found my insight quickly — baseball players are funny people. Not a little funny — very very funny. Comedian level funny.
It seems to be a source of pride for them to be able to make you laugh, or to make an entire team laugh. The morning huddles I experienced before training consisted of essentially a thirty-minute comedy routine. Information was delivered, but only a fraction of it was baseball related. The topics ran the gamut from warning the new guys about the local steakhouse (it’s also a gentlemen’s club, as if they didn’t already know), long descriptions of how to avoid getting killed by older drivers in Florida, a word-for-word recitation by one of the players of the old “first baseball game” routine, complete with Harry Caray wig and glasses and an organized cabbage race on National Cabbage Day.
These shenanigans happen in a tight little spot in the center of the practice field known as the circle of trust. Media is not allowed there, the players do not have their phones. What happens in the circle of trust stays in the circle of trust and I cannot repeat all that I experienced in there. Suffice to say, it is a riot. The kind of thing I imagine you might see at a writer’s table for The Simpsons.
But this is not simply for entertainment, it has a tangible affect on the players’ attitudes. It’s a difficult sport requiring control of both body and mind. Humor, in this context, is a performance enhancer, keeping the guys quick, alert and in a positive head space. It’s an advanced technique that bonds the young guys and the veterans, the mid-westerners and the Dominicans, but if you weren’t paying attention, you could easily pass it off as just a few off-color jokes.
“Makin’ love is like hitting a baseball, you just gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250, unless he had a lot of RBIs or was a great glove man up the middle.” — Annie Savoy (Bull Durham)
Once I keyed in on the insight of humor, I started to see it at work everywhere. One afternoon during a simple pop fly drill I walked out to get a closer look and overheard one of the coaches riffing as a player cycled back for a grab:
“There he is, folks, number 22 on his jersey, number one in your hearts… Juan SOTO!!!”
No media around to catch the moment, no cell phones making Instagram stories — just the guys perfecting their techniques and keeping their heads on straight by staying in the right mind frame.
Baseball had a personality after all; a ton of them. And they are hilarious.
Still, the question remained for me, how would I catch it? It’s the kind of thing you experience more than capture.
There’s a day during spring training, called Photo Day. The media outlets all come and set up their backdrops and lights and get ready for a lightning round of photos of the entire team that they can use during games, recaps and articles. After weeks of shooting standard portraits, I again found myself in a luxury position of being able to set up my own spot with a green light to do it my own way. I decided to shoot baseball players as they appeared to me — as these funny personalities with quirks and jokes that nobody seems to know about. I cashed in on my two weeks of being in the circle of trust, asking them to drop the formalities and simply spend 60 seconds being themselves. I asked them to growl, hold the bat wrong, dribble a baseball — anything to drop the veil of baseball as we’ve always known it and let their true nature come through. And no surprise, it was hilarious.
A good portion of the images I took have stories behind them. Inside jokes I’m hesitant to write about, but would make for a fun conversation at a ballgame. And I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. Maybe not everything needs to be packaged for public consumption.
A lot of people have chided baseball for not evolving with today’s media landscape. There’s some good ideas that baseball could easily embrace — put mics in the dugout, find new audiences to market to, and new angles on the field that heroize individual efforts. Maybe. Maybe that would work.
Or maybe baseball is fine the way it is. A true team sport that celebrates group effort and instills a deeper, more interesting, and funnier humanity in its players. That wouldn’t be the worst institution in the world.
“I’ve tried them all, I really have. And the only church that truly feeds the soul day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.” — Annie Savoy (Bull Durham)