Friday, February 3, 2012

Jeff Passan Cares About Judgment and Caring

Josh Hamilton is a very good baseball player, and he is very good at drinking and taking drugs. Drafted first overall by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he proceeded to flush himself almost entirely out of baseball on waves of booze and coke. After being chastised by family and realizing how far he'd fallen, he straightened out his life and became the amazing player everyone expected him to be. Still, as is the case with many addicts, he's had relapses. He had one again Monday.

As of now, no one is sure what really happened. That didn't hinder Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan (who readers last met being defended by Bill Plaschke) from telling you what it meant. He said so in plain terms: "The particulars... don't matter as much as the act."

As of now, no one can be sure of the particulars of Jeff Passan's column. After printing it, he was immediately engaged, criticized or taken to task by baseball writers and personalities Kevin Goldstein, Old Hoss Radbourn and Jay Jaffe. He then announced that he was "updating column to suss [sic] out the point." (I'm sure Passan didn't intend to use "suss" correctly — as in "to figure out" — although God knows that he might as well have, if his aim was to contrive an opinion different from the one he'd plainly voiced.) He added that he "[wanted] to make sure for the majority of those who read in the morning, my feelings on the subject are clearer. Do not want greater point lost."

Here's the problem: the greater point wasn't lost. The greater point begins his column:
The worst part about Josh Hamilton's relapse is that he didn’t care.
And then it ends it:
A sober Josh Hamilton is a role model, a paragon of perseverance, a pillar for addicts trapped in dark tunnels.

Sober, he is great.

On Monday, when he wasn't, he was just another guy who didn't care.
These are powerful words, and powerful words are what you need to make a point that transcends not only the particulars that don't matter but also the particulars of which you are totally ignorant. Judgment needs power; it needs gavel strikes so thunderous that it drives from the brain the faint realization that evidence was not provided and that the court sits in judgment of matters not legal but vague and values-driven. Jeff Passan says things emphatically because, like turning a screw in the wrong part of a structure, anything can fit if you force it.

Between his opening and closing statement there are words. It's useless to deny that. Some are about Hamilton's contract, and some are about Hamilton's previous relapses. There are words like "weakness" and "failure." There is also the good-sounding dismay that precedes adamantine judgment — the guesswork sighing that precedes a summons to declare what is wrong.

Passan errs unforgivably when he makes addiction and the process of succumbing to it a matter of caring. And while, yes, many addicts simply don't care — peeling back the tab on the first can of High Life out of the case with an I don't give a fuuuuuuck thrill at the hiss of the top — there are the untold millions for whom the slipping return to ugliness is a self-reproaching, miserable process. There are people voluntarily and desperately benumbed by a surfeit of caring or an indomitable press of agonies. Passan writes about a man's knuckling under to his own humbling and destruction like it's a blithe afterthought. In this formulation — and absent all those particulars that don't even matter — Josh Hamilton evidently whatevered himself into the worst aspect of his own life. Again.


Passan spent some time on Twitter trying to walk back this antipodal conception of addict/caring, and he may even be doing it now with his column, shaping it into whatever form it will take for the more significant morning rush of pageloads. But clarifications appended to the text or inserted in it can't disguise the intent of its opening and closing. The first and last statements are virtually mirrors, and this tells you something very elemental to journalism: this attitude and this opinion were not a mistake. Journalists lead with their punchiest line, and they spend the meat of editorials trying to seduce you enough with various points that the final comment finally and decisively owns you.

When the first and last comment in an editorial are the same, there isn't room for other people to misunderstand, and suggesting that they have merely tries people's patience and tests their credulity. Passan opened by saying, "The worst part about Josh Hamilton’s relapse is that he didn't care." He ended by saying, "On Monday... he was just another guy who didn't care." The words that fell in between didn't modify these statements or explore a conception of addiction and self-regard or environmental concern. They followed the lead and drove toward the conclusion.

Passan made his point. His point was bad. Suggesting anything else is a meaningless thought experiment in how a thesis can be incidental to an argument.