Coping with the unthinkable would take the extraordinary. Giancarlo Stanton delivered.
Sports have complex relationships with tragedy. When something irreversibly bad happens, sports become “just a game” in a way that’s sometimes positive, often pejorative.
Sometimes, “just a game” frames sports’ unimportance against “real-world” catastrophe. Other times, sports are the first hint at normalcy on the other side of the horrible.
After Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident last year, sports did both. Wins and losses, contracts and championships, a little piece of sewn hide rubbed down in mud and the shaped wood used to send it around multi-million-dollar cathedrals were inconsequential when untimely death presented itself.
But dragged chalk in arbitrary angles and clean-cut low grass were necessary when life persisted afterwards. Time measured in innings and outs was both inappropriate and welcome after time—for three young men, at least—stopped.
Jose Fernandez’s death, even in light of subsequent revelations, was heavy. Loss is a part of baseball: your best teams will do two months worth of it. Winning is the ointment for standings losses.
But Fernandez’ loss—the kind of loss for front and back pages, not just box scores—was a different thing entirely. The kind of thing that was so unthinkable and unseen, it would take a lot of winning to treat. And more likely, time would and will be the only cure.
In lieu of time, that kind of loss carries an enormity that needed something of equal scale to at least start the healing process. Little successes bring little scabs, a patch-up job, at best.
Giancarlo Stanton’s extraordinary 2017 started the job.
In a year of explosive power league-wide, Stanton has been the pace-setter. With a week left in the season, he leads the league in home runs by nearly double-digits. His 57 so far is the highest total since Ryan Howard in 2006, and he has a shot at breaking the 60 home run mark for the first time since Barry Bonds in 2001. He outpaced other power hitters by so much this season, his company has been mostly historical; as in, if he gets to 61, what theoretical record might he hold?
Stanton has always carried the promise of a historically significant year, to both the Marlins and baseball alike, but his career hasn’t found flow to date. He has appeared in 150 or more games for only the second time in eight seasons. Mostly, he was held up by injuries: knee, abdomen, shoulder, wrist and a fastball to the face have all cost him varying chunks of nearly every season. The years he was healthy enough to play 140 or more games (2011, 2014—the same year he took a fastball to the jaw), he was roughly a 36 home run, 100 RBI player with a strong .275/.546/.922 slash line. As pre-prime statistics, those numbers bode well for a top player’s coming years.
In 2017, health and promise coalesced in a big way.
Stanton finally matched the expectation of a franchise all-timer. This year, he set Marlins single-season records for home runs (previously held by Gary Sheffield), RBI (Preston Wilson), extra base hits (Hanley Ramirez/Dan Uggla), is on track to set the slugging percentage mark (Sheffield) and become the single-season WAR leader by baseball-reference WAR (Ramirez), easily positioning him as a top candidate for National League MVP.
Stanton’s performance brought positive attention to an otherwise abysmal Marlins season in which they’re headed to their eighth straight losing record and their 12th consecutive year as the worst-attended team in the NL. For fans, Stanton’s singular year distracts from a bleak recent sports history.
Surrounded by shortcomings, Stanton’s performance warrants appreciation in its moment.
There’s no guarantee the moment will pan out.
Jose Fernandez had parts of four abbreviated seasons in his Major League career. In the two seasons where he pitched over 170 innings, he produced at all-star levels: his age 20 and 23 seasons were 350+ innings of 2.53 ERA pitching, almost 450 strikeouts, a 1.05 WHIP, 11 strikeouts per-9 innings, and two top-10 Cy Young finishes. As pre-prime statistics, those numbers were supposed to bode well.
Of course, his age 23 season was also his last. The promise of his rookie campaign, partially delayed by Tommy John surgery, just started to solidify last year. After one bad decision, aged 24, the fruition of his potential became mythical fare.
Giancarlo Stanton’s career was on a similar path: so much promise short only of its due time. And time—though maybe we should know better—has always appeared to be on his talent’s side.
For Stanton to have an amazing 2017, he needed to get through 2016. That reads like a given: his legs are redwoods and his arms were built for either headlocks or homers. He looks cut from the same granite that made Frank Thomas. He is athleticism en masse and, coupled with his cool demeanor, his appearance doesn’t make you ponder on ends. He’s 27 like Jimi Hendrix was 27, a young demigod in his prime.
The eventuality of success is an inference, not a guarantee, and though the reason behind Fernandez’ “what could have been” is nearly unprecedented, he was another reminder of how one can take sure-things for granted. Who knows, for a myriad of less-serious reasons, we may look back at Stanton’s career and think of “what could have been” as well. But in the moment, the mind settles down with what is.
Stanton found the importance of the moment over the winter. He took a world tour and discovered an appreciation of life that we ignore when living is all we know. Like Paul Theroux once wrote, “Travel is flight and pursuit in equal parts.” It was a getaway, but it was mostly the start of his own healing process. He had to get right, just like everyone else.
What Stanton found, in his own words, was a drive to “[A]ppreciate every single day I’m out there.”
Appreciation for the intangible—what we have with Jose Fernandez—is solemn. Appreciation for the tangible—what we’re getting with Giancarlo Stanton—is celebratory. That’s what appreciating “every single day” means. Stanton brought back with him a love for the day-of, not the days-ahead or the days-curtailed.
In grief and loss, cutting time down to digestible parts makes the time passed easier to swallow. The “what could have been” becomes less influential, bit by bit. It’s easier to cope when you lose count of how long you’ve been coping.
For fans, it’s easier to cope when the space between majestic home runs is a few at-bats.
When he shows it, Stanton has a glittering smile that evokes his lost teammate, whether intentional or not. It’s wide, unbridled, and untroubled. Untethered from his past. His struggles haven’t stuck to him, but his smile reminds us he hasn’t forgotten. He’s just leading by appreciation, like Fernandez before him.
I don’t know what, person-to-person, one expects to do after something as unimaginable as Jose Fernandez’s death happens. In any tragedy’s aftermath, a return to normal isn’t what you think the people closest to the epicenter will do.
And Stanton didn’t. He didn’t return to career average numbers or career average injuries. He not only propelled his game to a level he had never before reached, but one the Marlins haven’t seen from a hitter since Hanley Ramirez’s prime. Stanton didn’t return to normal. It would take more than normal to start the recovery from the extremely abnormal, anyway.
Sports really is just a game, but sports on a high-level is a game that can make deep, profound impressions and changes. It can alter the sociopolitical landscape. It can give a city an identity. It can take a kid who escaped Cuba as a teenager and make him an American star. It can make his death reverberate with a rippling echo that won’t stop anytime soon. It can break very many things.
It can heal very many things. With a bat in Giancarlo Stanton’s hands, it’s doing just that, a day at a time.
Khurram Kalim is a contributing writer with Bronx to Bushville.