Grantland is Bill Simmons' new website for long-form sports journalism. The articles and essays aim to connect sports stories to larger cultural trends and ideas. They aspire to make sense of sports stories. I've enjoyed the site but a reader sent in a recent story with a huge religion ghost. And considering what Grantland is all about, it's a disappointing miss.
The article is about left-handed pitcher Barry Zito and how his latest visit to the disabled list has sparked whispers that the Giants might release him. Esquire's Chris Jones tells the sad tale that begins quite nicely by showing how Zito got his amazing seven-year, $126 million contract. His agent had put together a binder with statistical analysis making the case for that kind of money:
Barry Zito is a believer in totems. In those days, he had a replica of Reggie White's Green Bay Packers jersey draped over the back of his couch for inspiration. He had a shrine built to Sandy Koufax in his bedroom, near his own Cy Young Award from 2002. A portrait of Carlos Santana was on the wall nearby. And now there was this blue binder sitting on his kitchen counter.
That binder destroyed Barry Zito.
We learn about Barry's father Joe, a musician and composer who gifted his son with "belief." Here's a quote from his father:
"Baseball is not a game of chance. Nothing is left to chance. If you create the psychological state, it will become a physical fact. Whatever you see in the visible world, it started in the invisible world, in the mind. The universe took care of the rest."
We learn about "mystical moments of inspiration" and how baseball was the same sort of creative mystery or "Spiritual Art" as music. Take this section:
Barry was at his best when he was blank, less a man and more a vessel. He had written a reminder inside his cap: LET IT DO THE WORK THROUGH ME. Those words were pressed against his forehead every time he took the mound. Barry could make himself better than he might have been given the power of his own belief, but ultimately he was just an instrument to be played. So long as he remembered that much about himself — so long as he felt his way through his life rather than plotting it, rather than thinking his way through it — he could be transcendent.
Only once had Barry's faith in himself and the planets and the stars been tested: He began the 2001 season badly, managing a record of only 6-7 through late July. "He forgot who he was and how the universe operates," was Joe's explanation. Father and son locked themselves away for four days. They read to each other; they talked to each other; they listened to music; and they marveled again at those nights when the songs came pouring out.
"It's really hard to be consciously unconscious," Barry said. "But that's what you have to be."
Gosh, it's almost like there's some kind of system of belief that they're talking about there, right?
The reader who submitted this story comments:
"Let it [what is "it"?] do the work.."? "Consciously unconscious"? "How the universe operates"? These seemed like more than just quirky slogans to me, so I looked up Zito on Wikipedia:
"He plays guitar, surfs, practices yoga, and follows Zen. He has done yoga poses in the outfield, and meditates before games. In 2001, Zito espoused a universal life force that he credited with his midseason turnaround. His mother Roberta named him after her brother Barry, a beatnik “freethinker” and acolyte of Zen who mysteriously vanished in 1964 at the age of 22 near Big Sur, California."
Jones seems to miss this huge influence in Zito's life: not his "faith in himself," but Zen Buddhism and other religious influences. As a result, he also misses a key question directly relevant to his article. Zito has become famous in baseball for his career struggles and his enormous salary - do his religious beliefs have anything to say about that?
I couldn't have said it better. It's disappointing enough when a typical sports stories misses the religion angle to an intriguing sports story. That it would happen at Grantland is somehow worse.