Dr. Strangeglove: Albert Camus and the Backup Catcher

Posted by Michael Baumann, Fri, November 18, 2011 07:00 AM | Comments: 18
Dr. Strangeglove, Opinion, Posts

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.

Michael Baumann writes the weekly Dr. Strangeglove column, which appears every Friday on Phillies Nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @atomicruckus

Avatar of Michael Baumann

About Michael Baumann

Michael Baumann has written 229 articles on Phillies Nation.

Michael is a graduate student at Temple University who lost his childlike innocence when, at the age of 6, his dad let him stay up for the end of Game 6 of the 1993 World Series. Unsettled by the Phillies' recent success, he has threatened over the years to leave the team he loves if they don't start losing again, but has so far been unable to follow through. Michael spent 4 years as an undercover agent in Braves territory at the University of South Carolina, where he covered football and soccer for The Daily Gamecock before moving back up north. He began writing for The Phrontiersman in June 2009 before moving to Phillies Nation in January 2010.

  • Posts: 0 TheDipsy

    The Camus bit is funny. Hoi polloi and overdone…..but funny. To me. Schneider got signed because: A) He’s cheap and they may need the money for something else; B) He is Worley’s personal catcher it seems; C) He’s already a Phiilie.

    Complaining about Schneider is about going complaining about parsley. But the Camus bit was funny. Please write an article about Mike Kafka and “The Metamorphosis”.

    The Dipsy

  • Posts: 2896 Chuck A.

    Avatar of Chuck A.

    I BARELY got through this post all the way and you are right….there is not much of a point to it. But then, that’s the way a lot of your posts are. I applaud you for fine writing skills and the ability to impress us with all linds of analogies and the like. But quoting the Bible is a bit over the top.

    Oh and the teams’s winning pct with Brian Schneider as the catcher is .771. Without him it’s .591. Smaller sample size for sure and I’m certainly not suggesting that he becomes the regular starting catcher. But I thought you would like to know since you tried to make some point about it in your attempts to minimize his significance to this team.

    • Posts: 0 Phylan

      I’m really not up in arms about the Schneider thing, aside from some idle bitching I did on Twitter, mostly for the reasons Mike articulated above. I just want to say, though, that a team’s win percentage when [x] player is in the game is totally meaningless, in every instance.

  • Posts: 0 TheDipsy

    I would very much like to see a bit more outrage over the Houston Astros moving to the AL. I don’t know the NL without the Astros. My baseball card team for 1974 was………the Astros. So many great memories for a team that has been around for fifty years. Great players. The Dome. Everybody harps about baseball being so much about “tradition”. That’s because they’re right to a large degree. Stop moing the effin’ teams! It just pulls another string from the sweater and next thing you know you gotta ball a yarn instead of a sweater. I hate interleague play. the whole intrigue of the All Star game is for the two leagues to meet for once in a season. Well, that means nothing, now. I don’t care about the All Star game, now. Its stupid. I used to think it was cool. Now its an afterthought.

    Anything for a buck.

    In a world that is is constantly changing and stressful, I want my baseball pure – without transience and mutation. You wanna improve the game? Go ahead. I have yet to see an improvement. In an article that takes its premise from a pillar of existentialism – I vent my dissatisfaction about a game that is losing its “specialness” and just fading into the slick, fast food baloney that is the world in 2011. Dissapointing.

    The Dipsy

    • Posts: 0 George

      “I vent my dissatisfaction about a game that is losing its “specialness” and just fading into the slick, fast food baloney that is the world in 2011.”

      That is a well-put statement, and didn’t require any of the Camus, Joyce, and Ecclesiastes references to give it impact.

      Bauman’s writing always reminds me of critique I once read (but don’t recall the source), something like this:

      “It is both good and original. The trouble is that the parts that are good aren’t original, and the parts that are original aren’t good.”

      I, too, would like to see more outrage about the new CBA, and less literary references that basically add up to “Meh.”

  • Posts: 0 Frank Riccard

    There was at least one point in this post–signing Schneider is treading water, and you would have preferred Doumit. The only problem (which you somehow failed to mention) is that Doumit doesn’t seem to want to back anyone up. Or at least he certainly doesn’t want to be paid like a backup. He turned down 3mm from the Dodgers. Schneider may be treading water, but he just makes the most sense.

    • Posts: 0 Chris

      Exactly Frank. Who knows how much money Doumit wants and what role he wants. It’s very unlikely that the Phillies can provide him with he wants so they have to make other moves. This was a cheap signing that doesn’t prevent them from making another signing they want to and while there are other cheap catchers that could be preferred Doumit should not be the comparison here. Either way the savings will allow them to make a run at Rollins or Cuddyer if they so wish.

  • Posts: 443 Ian Riccaboni

    Avatar of Ian Riccaboni

    @Frank Riccard – absolutely fair points but I too wonder at what point at fans we realize that we are attached to a “thing”. The Phillies are absolutely a concept marked by the name on the front rather than the name on the back. I guess that is the abstract parallels Mike was looking at.

  • Posts: 0 Geoff

    Its the backup catcher, who cares, they’re paying him 800K a year plus incentives. Also, Houston moving to the AL West is good, because the new balance leads to more interleague play every time things cycle through. That can only be good for baseball. The play-in game..eh its a good way to keep interest for teams in the wild card race.

    • Posts: 0 George

      Agree about the backup catcher. Disagree violently about moving the Astros or that generating more interleague play is good.

      Interleague is only good for baseball because it supposedly generates more revenue. My own interest in the sport diminishes to nothing when NL meets AL in mid-season. It’s killed the meaning of the All-Star game and is now beginning to undermine the World Series.

      As far as generating revenue, MLB won’t be getting more of mine, and may lose others as well.

  • Posts: 0 BART SHART

    Did Albert Camus play fourth base for the Existentialists? All glove no bat, from what I understand. Cute article, but rather lightweight and esoteric, to a degree.

  • Posts: 0 Ajay

    It should really be “Maman died today” which is the way it is translated in newer publications. Maman means mother but it doesn’t get at the particularities of Merseult’s relationship with his.

  • Posts: 5392 Lefty

    Avatar of Lefty

    I would imagine that if Brian Schneider read PN, he would be splendidly honored to know that he just had the longest article of his 12 year career written about him. Whether there is a point to it or not is moot. As they say, all publicity is good publicity.

    • Posts: 2896 Chuck A.

      Avatar of Chuck A.

      If he read PN and actually responded to his article would he be considered part of the “commentariat”…or something else since he’s a major league baseball player??

      • Posts: 5392 Lefty

        Avatar of Lefty

        He’d be considered a special VIP Commentariat, however that does not prohibit him from full membership rights in the regular “a- – hole” club like all the rest of us!

  • Posts: 0 Bob D

    I doubt Doumit would have signed with Phils since his playing time would be cut compared with other teams

  • Posts: 0 davehist

    I understand Doumit just signed with Minnesota for something like the same # million he turned down from the Dodgers. I guess he figures he can DH more there and catch less, which he doesn’t do very well anyway.
    I think signing Schneider was a good thing for Amaro – get that detail out of the way and work on the real issues – shortstop, third base, Cuddyer, Rollins, etc.

  • Posts: 0 davehist

    That’s $3 million. Sorry.

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