By David Roth
For all the tasteless, pervasive invasiveness of sports media, for all the terrifying ways in which the broader sports discourse is falling into disturbing harmony with pop-eyed leatherette simpleton Skip Bayless, despite the bleak fact that every just-lit-up middle reliever with a Twitter account will get told to commit suicide by a dozen chuckleheads in an @-message next year -- for all that, despite all that, it still seems immeasurably less dehumanizing to be a famous baseball player than it is to be, say, Lindsay Lohan. While David Wright or Jose Bautista or Andrew McCutchen are still subject to the arm's length snarking and doofy thumbnail doctoring -- how long could it possibly take to come back from a sprained ankle, really? -- of local columnists, bloggers and other-affiliated obsessives, this is a different and moderately gentler sort of fame than other celebrities suffer.
There is a rich, mean industry dedicated to ensuring that every surly cigarette Lindsay Lohan smokes and every dead-eyed Kardashian family shopping trip is photographed, and then there's another industry dedicated to putting elbow-in-the-ribs SEO-goosed captions under those photos. That industry does not stake out Cheesecake Factories near the Arizona Diamondbacks Spring Training facility in hopes of getting a shot of Ryan Zimmerman, and then make jokes about the shirt he's wearing. That may or may not be a relief to Justin Upton next year when the local print columnist curmudgeon sidles up to him after a loss and asks him whether he's quit on the team, or when those awful (seriously, why?) kill-yourself Twitter messages appear, but Matt Kemp and his peers might want to spare a grateful prayer of thanks that they are a different sort of commodity than actual celebrities. Some things about them, at least, are deemed off-limits. We don't know whom David Wright is dating, for instance, or what Upton thinks about the Affordable Care Act. There is not, thank goodness, a Jonathan Broxton sex tape.
But there are exceptions to this. Alex Rodriguez, for instance, has his own tag at TMZ, which is because he's rich and increasingly outlandish and so generally good copy, if also mostly because he dates famous people better known than he is. Alex Rodriguez could enjoy a meal in a restaurant in Rome or Copenhagen -- or Portland, Oregon, or parts of Queens -- without being disturbed or noticed for anything but his jarring porelessness and impeccably frosted hair. Alex Rodriguez’s exes, like Madonna, would have a much less enjoyable meal. Rodriguez, for whatever weird inchoate reasons he does anything, may want this sort of fame -- the amount of time he spends being photographed with his shirt off certainly suggests as much. Still, that A-Rod -- a man strange enough to have considered Madonna a soulmate -- wants that sort of ubiquity is reminder enough of how perverse it is, and how exhausting and terrifying and gnawingly unpleasant it must be to spend all that time being observed and assessed. Who would want to be that sort of flesh-and-blood commodity, to be packaged and shipped and poked and prodded? Who in their right mind would want to be Josh Hamilton right now?
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Well, there is the long run. Josh Hamilton, for one thing, is young and handsome and mind-bogglingly good at baseball; he's very rich and is about to become even richer. But he is also the best free agent commodity left on the market, which means that -- besides being the star of one of baseball's wildest and most dramatic personal narratives and an actual human person with problems -- he is also currently enduring a celebrity-style dehumanization/commoditization process.
That part, it's worth mentioning, is not a bad thing. Hamilton's talent is a valuable commodity, after all, and his ability to leverage it to the utmost is a hard-won right that is entirely his. And just as it's Hamilton's right to get the best pay possible for his work, it's his potential employer's responsibility to do everything they can to make the wisest possible investment in him as an employee. So, too, it is the job of people whose job it is to speculate or emote or ruminate about sports to explain what's going on, and why. We participate in all this by choice. If there's inevitably something a little queasy about the central abstraction of it all -- the thing that turns humans into human resources, units of production that cost such-and-such money to purchase and maintain -- it's still preferable to and undeniably better for those commoditized athletes than any other system or process. Still, there's something of a difference where Josh Hamilton is concerned.
Much of this is because, despite his outsized and intermittently superhuman abilities as a player, Hamilton's oft-repeated personal story has so many lapses and horrors and dark reels as to make his humanity inescapable. It is, admittedly, a pretty great story -- addiction and redemption, relapse and more redemption, loss and more loss and then some more, and then finally some relief; a prodigal prodigy's detour through itchy drug-filled trailers and crack houses en route to his rightful place at the top of the game. Grantland's Bryan Curtis has pointed out, quite reasonably, that Hamilton's willingness-unto-eagerness to repeat the story has led him to be subsumed in his own narrative.
That narrative's power, in turn, has conspired to cast even a harsher light on the moments when Hamilton has lost the plot -- his relapses, which are now somehow both everyone's business and cause for disappointment; his periodic lapses in focus on the field. In the same way that celebrities become characters, and in turn the shared property of a not-terribly-affectionate mass, Josh Hamilton now belongs to everyone. He didn't quite give himself up to this fate, but something has been taken from him all the same in that process.
Much will be given to him, too, of course. Possibly by the Mariners, possibly by the Yankees, almost certainly not by the Padres. Baseball is a business, and Josh Hamilton is a part of it, and so we have the conversation about his worth. But in his case, because we know his story so well and because his story is so grounded in his frailties, that conversation sounds off, wrong, a little more crass and cold than usual. A team could give him a certain number of millions of dollars per year, but what if he relapses hard? A team could pay him for five years, but what if he is emotionally not up to it, which again leads back to the drugs and the idle speculations and back-of-envelope calculations about some actual person's life and death stuff. This sort of conversation is always odd and a little guilty -- we might envy their salaries, but most of us wouldn't want to be talked about in the way we talk about baseball players.
And in Hamilton's case, it's especially fraught. When we talk about him as a free agent, we are talking about him as a person; when we assess his value in the first way, we are also making a real and cold assessment of it in the second. We talk about him as if he's not real, when his insistent and recognizable realness -- all those faults and failures and other definitively human things -- is the thing that defines him. We do this all the time, of course; it's part of being a fan. But it's a strange thing to hear your own voice, sometimes, and strange and not altogether pleasant to hear it talking about a human being as if he were a commodity, or a celebrity. If there's even a difference between the last two.
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Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical, the co-author of the Wall Street Journal's “Daily Fix” blog-column, the sole author of Vice's "Mercy Rule" column and a writer of things at GQ, New York Magazine, The Awl and some other places when there's time. He lives in New York, and is on Twitter.