Saturday, October 22, 2005

Fearful symmetry: the Frank Thomas-Jeff Bagwell nexus

One of the best parts about sports is the story within the story. The little connections, coincidences, symmetries, etc., that make the games more interesting. While the big news for Saturday is Game 1 of the World Series between the White Sox and Astros, it's worth noting the individual odysseys of (apologies to Craig Biggio) two faces that represent the souls of these tortured franchises.

The career parallels between Chicago's Frank Thomas and Houston's Jeff Bagwell are positively eerie. Both players are slugging right-handed first basemen. Each won his league's MVP award in 1994. According to the indispensable, Frank Thomas's most similar career comparison is Jeff Bagwell; Bagwell's most similar comparison is Gary Sheffield, but Thomas is a close second (their similarity score is 884). Each missed much of 2005 with assorted injuries and, in a ruefully ironic twist, failed to contribute in any meaningful way to their teams' most magical seasons in recent memory. But here's my favorite bit of symmetry: these two men were born on the exact same day (May 27, 1968).

Imagine that! Coming into the 2005 season, most serious baseball fans would be aware of the parallels and connections that Thomas and Bagwell shared. But if it isn't fate that their long suffering teams should meet in the World Series, doesn't it at least feel oddly scripted? It seems like their parallel trajectories have been planned down to the minutest details, and as if in a giant funnel, they've been shunted in every moment toward this inevitable showdown. Ironically, neither is expected to do much this series (Thomas is done for the year and Bagwell will be limited to DH and pinch-hitting duties), but it's a shame that one of these men must go home empty-handed.

These are the details that color and enrich the experience of sports! Yes, we're talking about athletic competition, and the sports-as-life metaphor has been beaten senseless, but the parallel stories of Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell hint that something bigger is clearly afoot. Coincidence, fate, irony, triumph, and yes, ultimately tragedy -- since one of them has to lose -- are all at work here. You don't have to be a sports fan to appreciate the literary themes.

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