|A little known fact about Captain Ahab |
is that his last name was Lewis.
Allusions to Moby Dick are nothing new. Chad Harbach used a whaling motif throughout The Art of Fielding that folds America’s love for baseball into America’s legacy of whaling, a legacy that has been preserved in American lore primarily through Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. What’s interesting about both these books and the times of their publication is that Moby Dick, while about the ships and the whales of the open sea, reached the American public after the whaling industry had already begun to buckle at the discovery of oil underneath the earth’s crust rather than underneath the leviathan’s blubber. In essence, just as his protagonist Ishmael turned to face the sea, all other Americans were turning their backs on the world’s oceans. Harbach’s book then uses the aquatic attributes of the whaling metaphor not as something either present or all-encompassing but as something of the past that is not overbearing but ephemeral and haunting. Baseball is a landlocked, American game and so are Harbach’s characters. And just like the time for whaling had passed when Melville published his opus on it, so, too, had baseball’s time come and gone when Harbach’s book was published a year and a half ago. The lessons of both these past times, however, are still very much alive, for Americans are still chasing after things that have come and gone.
Somewhere in Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, he writes about his protagonist, “He had to be a genius and a monster” (96). What exactly Harbach means by the terms “genius” and “monster” is probably debatable. The terms could mean that Henry Skrimshander must be one part enlightened monk and one part romantic beast. Or they could mean that he must be as profound at destroying a pitch as he is at creating a play. These semantics do not really matter right now, not when it’s twenty degrees outside and snow is falling. However, it is important to note that Skrimshander’s success as an athlete depends on his abilities to be a living, breathing paradox--to be a centaur composed of two antithetical halves. If he can do that--if he can achieve that sort of precarious balance--then he will make it to the major leagues. I bring this up because we are in the dead of winter--the baseball diamonds are all covered--and next week is the Super Bowl, and while Henry Skrimshander will not be there, the Baltimore Ravens will be.
As ESPN has surely made all of us aware, the 2012-13 Baltimore Ravens are no ordinary football team, and while I am not a Ravens insider in any way, shape, or form, I can recognize that the theater and gravity of their locker room, whether genuine or suspect, is indeed the unique stuff that powers a team deep into the playoffs and can only be described in cliche terms such as momentum, hot, and streaking. Take a look at those three words. Then, picture the Ravens’ locker room after the AFC Championship Game--yes, the hugging and the tears--and you should be able to prescribe to it the same homoerotic undertones that exist in the chemistry of Harbach’s Westish Harpooners. This team, like Skrimshander and Schwartz, is in love with itself; a fact that is supported by the former offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, hailing his own dismissal at midseason as being beneficial to the team. Strangely, even when individuals part ways with the Ravens they somehow feel more connected to the team and its players than even a good teammate such as Alex Smith does while still wearing a San Francisco jersey. Westish College and its enigmatic hold on the individuals who work, live, and play there has come to life in Baltimore, only the statue of Herman Melville, that overlooks everything in Harbach’s novel, has been altered in order to reflect the working class city of Baltimore.
This vision of a purple and black football team as the Pequod’s microcosm began a few weeks ago when my wife and I drove through Baltimore on our way back from Jersey to Virginia. The city is not one of high rises or domineering skylines, which is perhaps why its urban mythos is so hard to identify: is this the land of Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth or the city of David Simon’s The Wire and Ray Lewis? The dichotomy is both understated and exaggerated, and while the opinions of the city and neighboring counties’ may differ, the interstate passing through does not hesitate in claiming who the city’s current figurehead is.
When driving south into the city, I believe my wife’s exact words were, “My God! What the hell is that!” followed by, “He looks so scary!?!” These exclamations were in response to a billboard featuring a three dimensional Ray Lewis, who with gleaming red eyes--like those of a demon on Supernatural-- leaned out from the billboard striking the pose of a mermaid on the bow of a ship. This intimidating mile marker, along with the Ray Lewis laser show that lit up the city’s harbor as if it were a trident of mastheads set aglow by St. Elmo’s fire, signify that Baltimore is very much alive in the present and not thinking about its past. In other words, the city, for now, has chosen under whose masthead to sail, and his face and his body and his words are carved not by reality but by gridiron fantasies. The way Baltimore has embraced Ray Lewis as a football captain parallels its own efforts to resurrect its image by refurbishing the inner harbor and building new sports stadiums while neglecting the harsh truths of crime, poverty, and violence. For both the city and its linebacker, these games are American escapism in its finest and most marketable forms.
Like his billboard, everything about Ray Lewis’ words and actions lends itself to pathos. His retirement announcement just before the Playoffs, which was really of no surprise to anyone, was the equivalent of Ahab’s placing a gold doubloon on the mast of the Pequod, and from that announcement, as if it were “the ship’s navel” (366), has sprung every Ravens story on the local news, the radio, in print, or on the internet. But Lewis’ sermonizing began long before he ever delivered a tearful National Anthem. His raspy quoting of scripture began long ago when, like a prophet, he predicted that to win their first Super Bowl his Baltimore Ravens need only score three points--as if field goals were as deadly as steel tridents--which would have been true if not for a touchdown by the Giants’ special teams. Of course, Ray Lewis' association with the Super Bowl has always been twofold: it is the moment of Lewis’ greatest triumph but also the source of his greatest wound. The year before Baltimore defeated New York, he was pelted with a storm of violence, unanswered questions, and tied forever to the words "murder," "murderer," "testimony," and "suspicion," and these words have forever changed the connotation of Ray Lewis and his legacy.
|Motivating the crew of the Pequod.|
The gyrating, fraternity dance that he unleashed in the smoky haze of the 2000 Super Bowl (and used to begin these Playoffs) is akin to when “Ahab would burst from his stateroom, as though escaping from a bed that was on fire” (170). While his dance has always served the dual purpose of intimidating his opponents and pumping up his teammates, it has also drawn out of fans and media both praise and ridicule. As much as it is a celebratory and awe-inspiring thing, it is also sinister and violent and carries with it the crude suggestion that Ray Lewis is not just another linebacker who harpoons quarterbacks. No, the suggestiveness of Lewis’ dance goes beyond the taboos of ego and sex and speaks of how Ray Lewis’ Super Bowl hunt began with blood that was anything but figurative.
In Melville’s Moby Dick, the encounter with the white whale that transformed him from a man into something else is a dark and sinister tale wrought with myth and implication, and all the savagery and recklessness of the Ravens defense (one of the most penalized teams in the NFL the last few years) has been an act of transference. Every helmet to helmet, late hit, or unnecessary roughness penalty has carried with it the sound of a whalebone leg riveting holes into the deck of a wooden ship. Because of his questionable past, the intensity that surrounds his Fedallah’s crew of harpooners has always taken on a savagery that the other stalwart defenses of his era--Warren Sapp’s Tampa Bay Bucs, Brian Urlacher’s Chicago Bears, or the current 49ers--could only imitate, like children using sticks in the place of knives.
And yet, the sinister nature of his berserker face mask has failed to fully eclipse the holiness of the Psalm 91 shirt he wears underneath his shoulder pads. The man is perceived as both angel and devil--preacher and killer--and in his ability to manipulate both of these identities lies both his genius and his insanity: “God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart forever; that vulture the very creature he creates” (170). At times, his ability to function appears to rely on either being completely divorced from reality or a control over his emotions so precise it could only be rooted in a very manipulative sense of logos.
As with the characters of Melville and Harbach, greatness in sports is often driven by the fragile balance to be found in paradoxes. While Ray Lewis imbibes these contradictions, he represents only one side of the ball. The relationship that both holds together and threatens the Pequod is the power struggle between Ahab and Starbuck, just as the relationship between Schwartz and Skrimshander holds together the Westish baseball team. The natural Starbuck on the Baltimore Ravens would appear to be Joe Flacco. His on the field celebrations are understated as is his presence as a leader. When all the other captains and leaders of the Ravens were embracing each other on the podium after defeating Tom Brady’s Patriots, Flacco was just kind of there, appearing both cold and businesslike in comparison to the always emotional Ray Lewis. However, casting Flacco as strictly the voice of reason on the Ravens is all too simple and somewhat misleading.
|Starbuck talks mutiny with Ray Rice, saying, "Man, our job is to light|
light the world, not to kill Moby Dick."
If Starbuck played quarterback, he would throw nothing but screen passes and short slants. Joe Flacco throws bombs, on target and wayward. He goes big, or he goes nowhere; so while he may be equal to Starbuck in terms of volume and disgruntled whispers, he is much more the risk taker. And it is Joe Flacco and not Ray Lewis who is the Baltimore Raven driven most by the idea of revenge, which in many ways makes Flacco more like Ahab than the first mate of the Pequod.
For his entire career, Flacco has heard that his arm, and his head, and his heart, have held back the Baltimore Ravens in their quest for a second Super Bowl. And we also know that this suggestion irks him, for we have seen how he rankles under the suggestion that he is not elite; how he insists that he is elite; how everything about him boils down to one word, and now one game.
What’s interesting about the dynamic between Lewis and Flacco is that if either played for any other team, they would be sworn enemies, each trying to gouge the other, and yet even on the same team they still appear entangled in a battle over the meaning of redemption.
Ray Lewis’ return to the Super Bowl in many ways is a desperate act. He has played with a torn triceps--sacrificing himself so to speak--and yet his theatrics have trivialized his actions on the field, or perhaps his actions have been trivialized by the fact that he can no longer predict winning scores of 3-0 with the same confidence that he once did and is surrounded by Lance Armstrong-like rumors of using deer-antler spray. Then again, as the tweets of Wes Welker’s wife have reminded us that’s not it at all. The trivialness of Ray Lewis is that both we and him have made football a source of salvation. This whole Playoff hunt for Lewis is not about building a legacy but erasing one that swells up like a wave in the dark recesses of his and our memories. Captain Ahab may be a famous captain whose monologues reach out centuries after they were written, but he is not a good captain--his ship and crew were lost.
Ray Lewis’ desperation is a result of the impossible hope that he can find his white whale of a suit wherever it was lost and hold it up unstained by the blood of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar. His return to the NFL’s biggest game does mean something; and ESPN has been right in following his every move; but they have been wrong in not calling this voyage for what it is: an impossible one. Melville observes in his chapter “The Try-Works” that, “There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness” (358). Ray Lewis cannot be redeemed because we know not what he did, and it is madness for us to try and do so. However, this Super Bowl can serve as validation for all of Joe Flacco’s grievances against the media, the fans, and whoever else has doubted him. Football faults, after all, can be mended by football plays. Of course, such acts appear every year like waves upon the sea and are so very small and insignificant when another human being is chasing his very soul on top of them and towards the horizon. As it always has and forever shall, the balance struck by the Baltimore Ravens boils down to the hopeless efficacy of their defensive leader and the insignificance of everyone else.
Bryan Harvey can be followed on Twitter @LawnChairBoys.
Bryan Harvey can be followed on Twitter @LawnChairBoys.