You Obsess Over Every Word. And You Should.

This post is primarily for my writer friends (God bless them and make their books sell like ice on the 4th of July), but anyone, in any endeavor, will hear a familiar echo, I suspect. For the sports-phobic, hang in there. I think you’ll find the payoff is worth it.

Last month my wife and second son Nicholas and I went to Detroit. My son spent two years there serving the people in the name of Jesus Christ, a lot of it in the downtown area around Crack Alley and other, even less savory places. It was brilliant material for novels, let me tell you, but that’s not what this post is about.

One night we went to see the Tigers play at Comerica Park, the first time I’d been to a major league park since Fenway a few years ago. It’s the first of the new parks I’ve been to, the ones built this century. If you’ve not gone to a game at one of these, people, April will come again. Go. It’s amazing.

Comerica has a theme park INSIDE THE STADIUM. The food options rival downtown eating districts. It’s bright and spacious and seats a ridiculous number of humans in excellent comfort with a terrific view of the downtown city. The Tigers won, coming from four runs down to win late. All in all, we couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

But as I sat there, gazing out over the emerald green of the outfield grass to where it meets the deep brown of the warning track, the wall and the scoreboards and block-sized video screens, and the tens of thousands of screaming fans–even though the Tigers had been eliminated from the playoffs weeks before–I was struck by the contrast between that park and the ones I know much better, back home in Utah.

We have baseball here. Two pro teams in easy driving distance, actually: the Orem Owlz (A ball) and the Salt Lake Bees (AAA). I’ve been to both teams’ games recently. They have lovely ballparks, spacious and well-appointed. Taking in a game there, even with a family as large as mine, is a wonderful (and relatively inexpensive) way to spend a summer evening. But the contrast with Comerica was…unreal. It was, almost literally, impossible to believe.

What made it so is my knowledge about baseball. I know what the quality difference is between A ball and AAA ball, and the difference between AAA and the Show. And it’s not very big.

Consider this: the MLB batting average this season was .258. For those not up on the lingo, that means that in a thousand trips to the plate (purists, shut your mouths) a batter will hit safely 258 times, and make an out 742 times. If you’re thinking that isn’t a very good success rate, you’re right, but keep going.

To hit .300 (three hundred hits and seven hundred outs) is to make oneself an all-star. Only 32 guys did it this season (min 200 PA, purists). To hit .250 is to get benched. That’s a difference of 50 hits per THOUSAND plate appearances. A decent number of at-bats in a season is 500, so that means the difference between an all-star and a borderline player is 25 hits a year.

Twenty-five hits a year.

The major league season runs from the first week in April to the last week of September. Count this with me, now: that’s 27 weeks. So the difference between being an all-star and possibly being sent to AAA is less than one hit a week. It’s a difference so small that if you weren’t keeping careful written track, you wouldn’t be able to see it.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the difference between playing in Comerica Park for a median salary of $1.1 million and playing at Spring Mobile Ballpark in Salt Lake City for $2500/mo, between playing before six million fans a year and 250,000.

If you don’t already see where I’m going with this, let me make it explicit: this isn’t restricted to baseball. The NBA has even starker differences in arenas, crowds, and pay, to say nothing of football, which essentially doesn’t have minor leagues. Either make an NFL team, or don’t play pro ball.

Is it just professional sports? Good heavens no. Music, theater, art, teaching, tech startups, you name the arena, and you see the same kind of division between the very top of the table and everyone else, and very often that’s because of things so small that you and I can’t even see them.

What’s the difference between JK Rowling and Brandon Mull and Shallee McArthur and me? It’s a hit a week. Rowling gets one more hit than Mull. Mull gets one more than McArthur. McArthur gets one more than I do. At best, that is. The pool of people I’m swimming with is vast and contains a large number of people that don’t hit at all. I’ve published the same number of novels as my six-year-old. [Ed. Note: My wife points out to me that he turned seven today. We regret the error.]

Shallee has published one (and you should buy it, because it’s very, very good). Brandon has published twenty, which is far too few, sir, and JK has published some indeterminate number because we probably still don’t know all her pen names, but just one of those, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, has sold seventeen quadrillion copies over three galaxies (actually, 450 million for the series, so far. Those numbers are pretty close, from where I’m standing).

JK has an island of gold. I have three jobs. She isn’t that much better than I am, but that doesn’t matter. She is at least one hit better, and a little better on the page is a lot better in the wallet.

And that, my friends, is why we agonize over every single word of our pitch when we enter #pitchslam and #pitmad and #NoQS and #SFFpit and all the hundred others. Winning one of those contests means we get an invitation to camp in the spring, where good coaches can see us and help us and we get to work with people that are for sure going to be playing pro ball this summer. Most of us will then fail to make the roster and we’ll be back with my six-year-old. But some of us will stick. Some, a few of us, will make it to every-day player in the minors. And one in a hundred thousand will make the Show.

This isn’t to be depressing–all of us know these numbers and believe, like every high school player, that we will beat the odds–it’s meant to be precisely the opposite. All the work we do on our craft, every sharpened metaphor and deleted adverb, every corrected comma splice and fresh image, gives us just one more at-bat. One more chance to get the one hit we need to stay in the game. Working like we do on just a 35-word pitch and the first paperback page isn’t insane. It’s precisely what we must do. The difference is just. one. hit.

Keep showing up. Put the time in. Keep writing. Do the conferences. Do the work. Because the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is really there, and it’s really worth it, even if for just one day, to walk out onto the field of dreams and have 40,000 fans come to their feet to see if you can get that one hit that means victory.

You will never get too old to make it. You will never blow out your arm. You can keep trying forever.

So why wouldn’t you?

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One Response to You Obsess Over Every Word. And You Should.

  1. One of your best. You need a collection of philosophical prose. I can remember several off the top of my head/heart. Thank-you for obsessing over every word of this essay and reminding me to get out there and play.
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