Mother died today.
-Opening line of Albert Camus’ The Stranger
The Phillies re-signed backup catcher Brian Schneider yesterday. I get worked up about a lot of baseball-related things that don’t matter, as you may know by now, and the Phillies overpaying for Jonathan Papelbon and sending Jonathan Singleton packing for Hunter Pence sent me into a blind homicidal rage that could only be sated by drinking the tears of a thousand Mets fans and the blood of a hundred innocent fawns. But when the Phillies re-signed their backup catcher to a one-year, $800,000 contract, I felt no greater emotional response to the transaction than Meursault did to his mother’s death in Camus’ 1942 masterwork.
Brian Schneider was a patently terrible offensive player last season. In 1962, the Mets acquired catcher Harry Chiti from Detroit for a player to be named later. In 15 games with New York, Chiti posted an OPS of .452 and, six weeks after the trade, was returned to the Tigers, making him, at the time, the only player in major league history to be traded for himself. Schneider was only marginally better than Chiti: a .502 OPS and, taken in concert with his defense (though an defensive rating based on 300 innings in the field is next to worthless, particularly for catchers) was nearly a full win below replacement.
But since $800,000 on a catcher to the Phillies is, proportionally, about what I’d spend on lunch, bringing Schneider back isn’t really an unwise expenditure of capital so much as it represents the inexorable march of time and the ultimate triumph of the absurd over humanity’s desire to find higher meaning in life.
I’ve always been a Schneider fan. He was one of those players in MVP 2005 for GameCube who would cost you next to nothing but could poke a fastball into the right field seats if you timed it right, and while he was with the Nationals, he had elevated the snap throw to third to an art form. There was really no reason to like him–he’s never been a *good* player, and has only seldom been a useful one, but Schneider on the Phillies has always been, to me, like the scar on the beautiful girl’s forehead: empirically ugly, but in the right context an intriguing artifact that brings a human character to a facade that, while beautiful, can often be otherwise distant and cold.
The Phillies were 27-8 when Schneider started, which sounds good until you realize that they were also 75-52 when he didn’t start. Apparently he throws well and handles pitchers well, but so does Carlos Ruiz, brings 300 more points of OPS to the table along with those hard-to-quantify defensive and intangible skills.
I would have preferred the Phillies signed Ryan Doumit, late of the Pittsburgh Pirates, as Ruiz’s caddy instead of Schneider, for two reasons: first, close the door to the room you’re in and shout: “DOUMIT!” It’s more fun that you’d think. Second, Doumit, a switch hitter, hit .303/.353/.477 last year in 236 plate appearances, while taking part in a Pirates catching situation so convoluted as to make identifying a starter as such next to impossible. The knock on Doumit is that he can’t catch. If he were going to be the starter, this would worry me more than it would if he were going to play, say, 50 games at catcher, 15 at first base, and 10 in the outfield. The Rangers proved that such an arrangement can work, with Mike Napoli last year, and the Red Sox appear determined to give Ryan Lavarnway a shot behind the plate rather than shipping him straight off to DH.
So when the Phillies, without even taking a second glance at a higher-upside candidate to be Chooch’s surrogate, settle on the same old guy, piling disappointment on thoughtlessness, it really ought to test the patience of even the most ardent optimist. In some alternate universe, sure, not only have the Phillies signed Doumit over Schnieder, they passed on Papelbon and held off on re-signing Howard in favor of making a run at Albert Pujols. But in our timeline, we’re left in a sort of bemused depressive funk that recalls Camus’ Meursault.
The position of backup catcher itself is absurd. Imagine not only devoting your career to the most intellectually stressful, physically demanding position on the diamond, but taking years off your career and points off your OPS (and, by extension, dollars off your paycheck) in order to do so. Now imagine being not only the catcher, but the catcher’s lady-in-waiting, a position less glamorous than the least glamorous position in the game. It’s a daunting task, a situation exemplary of the refrain in Ecclesiastes: “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” To do what Schneider does, and has done for more than a decade, requires not only the physical and emotional fortitude required to become a major league ballplayer, but the intellectual capacity to block oneself off from the thankless and Sisyphean task to which he devotes himself. It’s hard not to admire Brian Schneider, even as we question his sanity and mock his offensive production.
His position aside, the commitment to Schnieder is certainly not the kind of move that generates much press, but through the right lens it can shed a light on the absurdity, in the sense of Camus, of our relationship with sports. We look for meaning in everything from the length and monetary value of player contracts, because they are signaling devices. Because players and teams expose relatively little about their thought processes to the public, contract details are often the only objective measure we have to judge players’ value–not in the sense of what they are actually worth, but in the sense of what teams believe they are worth.
But the more I think about Schneider, his job, and his contract, the more I wonder if we can really look at sports this way. The Phillies made a clearly suboptimal move in re-signing Schneider, as much as Vance Worley may like him and as much as he may be alienated from his species-being by the menial nature of his work. But it’s the kind of suboptimal move that isn’t what James Joyce would have called didactic–instilling fear or loathing–as the Papelbon contract might have. Neither is it kinetic–moving the viewer to some sort of response–in any sense. I am not moved to frustration, or rage, or even more than a token disappointment by the prospect of having Schneider on the team again. Instead, I’m overcome with the kind of dispassionate irritability that led Meursault to shoot the Arab because the sun was in his eyes.
How can we search for meaning in moves like this, born out of risk aversion and path dependence? What possible good can come from viewing this or really any other player personnel move as anything other than an abstracted thing, a codified rejection of the assertion that any of what we gripe about on the internet really has any significance whatsoever. Personnel moves sort of float in the ether and often as not serve only to exemplify the disturbing divorce between the quality of process and the quality of results. I, for one, intend to embrace the absurdity of Brian Schneider going forward. I hope he hits .400 and the Phillies sign him to a five-year extension.
One last note: if you couldn’t get all the way through this post, that’s okay. I’m not really sure there was much of a point to it anyway.