This is probably going to be the last Bill James excerpt for a while, because it’s playoff time. I have balsamic vinegar and cocoa powder in my kitchen right now, two things I have never had in my kitchen before, because I am preparing for Operation Duplicate Chili, in which Levi and I both eat chili made from the same recipe while watching the baseball playoffs, even though we’re several thousand miles apart. This can only help the Cardinals. Why, I might even take my stuffed animals into the living room and set them up facing the TV!
The Houston Astros, I have decided, must be an acquired taste. You know what an acquired taste is, something like French cooking, modern sculpture, jazz, fat women, ballet, Scotch, Russian films…it’s hard to define. An acquired taste is a fondness for something the advantages of which are not immediately apparent. An acquired taste in my part of the country is painted saw blades. Do they have those where you are? You go to somebody’s house and you discover that above their fireplace they’ve got a bunch of old, rusty saw blades with farm scenes painted on them, look like a hybrid of Currier and Ives and Norman Rockwell. I don’t really understand what the advantages are of having them around, but I figure that they must be an acquired taste. Or like Charlie Chaplin. I mean, W.C. Fields is funny. The Marx Brothers are funny. Charlie Chaplin is an acquired taste.
We all acquire a certain number of inexplicable attachments; mine include Bob Newhart, Jethro Tull albums, sabermetrics, and Pringles potato chips. I am assured by other people in my life that all of these can be hard to get into if you have no history with them. If taken literally, everything in life is an acquired taste with the exception of a few basic staples like salt, sugar, sex, and slapstick comedy, which we all share an enjoyment of; however, the term is not usually applied to things which make an obvious display of their attractions — in the case of a baseball team, by doing things like winning lots of games, playing interesting baseball, or developing exciting young players. One would never describe the New York Mets, for example, as an acquired taste. Acquired tastes have very subtle advantages. The expression “this must be an acquired taste” is quite useful, inasmuch as it can be adapted to hundreds of situations, meaning something a little different each time.
If you hear the expression “Must be an acquired taste,” on leaving a French restaurant or any other restaurant in which the food costs more than $20 a pound and tastes as if the oregano was left out, what it means is “I suppose you’d rather have stopped at Kentucky Fried Chicken, wouldn’t you?”
On a date, if you hear the expression “Must be an acquired taste,” what it means is “This is the last time I’m going out with this bozo.”
In an art gallery, if you hear the expression “I guess it’s an acquired taste,” what it probably means is “What the hell are we doing here?”
If you’re discussing a fondness for some particular poet, painter, playwright, or breed of dog with someone you are close to, and he or she says “I guess it’s just an acquired taste,” what that means is “I don’t want to talk about it right now.”
“It’s an acquired taste” means either that I’m in the know and you’re not, or that this is a particular type of sophistication to which the speaker does not aspire. I do not aspire to be an Astros fan. The Astros are to baseball what jazz is to music. Think about it:
1) Jazz is improvisational. Jazz musicians, uniquely among musicians I hope, sometimes string the elements of their music together as they go, with no particular plan or outline. Do you think the Astros know where they’re going? Do you think there’s a score for this?
2) Jazz ambles along without crescendos or refrains, going neither andante or allegro and without reaching either fortissimo or pianissimo. A good piece of jazz only uses about half an octave. The ultimate jazz tune is a saxophone player undulating slowly between D flat and middle C.
Similarly, the Houston Astros amble along at 80, 82 wins a year; the last four years they’ve been 77-85, 85-77, 80-82, and 83-79. Since 1969 the Oakland A’s have finished a total of 216 games over .500 in their good seasons, and 169 games under .500 in their bad seasons. The Houston Astros have finished 70 games over .500 in their good seasons, and 67 under in their bad seasons. The ultimate Houston Astros season is one in which they lose on opening day, then win, lose, win, lose, win, etc. until they reach 81-81.
3) Jazz is usually played indoors.
4) Jazz uses comparatively few instruments. Jazz ensembles are rarely enlivened with sousaphones, steel guitars, oboes, bassoons, or any other instrument which might tend to break up the monotony. Similarly, the Houston Astros use comparatively few weapons, relying heavily on the stolen base and the starting pitcher, but with no power hitters, no batting champions, no Ozzie Smiths or Jack Clarks. Both jazz and the Houston Astros, in short, are boring.
5) All jazz music sounds pretty much alike to the uninitiated, that 99.97% of us who haven’t acquired the taste; it’s repetitious, depressing, ugly, and inclined to bestow a headache upon the recipient. Much the same can be said of the Houston Astros, well known for wearing baseball’s ugliest home and road uniforms. Similarly, one Houston Astros season, one Astros game, and one Astros player looks pretty much like the next one.
No, I’m kidding of course; the Astros have been a little boring in recent years, but they’ll get over it, and I’m sure jazz is as beautiful, varied, and enjoyable as real music if you happen to have a taste for it. It’s just that…well, I’m a night person. During the Abstract crunch (a fifth season, unique to Winchester, Kansas) I start to work around 4:00 P.M. and I work until daybreak. About ten years ago we went through a period where the only thing on the radio between one and four A.M. was country music. I’ve never understood this…I mean, if you don’t like C&W in the middle of the afternoon, why do radio executives think you’re suddenly going to be struck with a yen to hear some Merle Haggard at 12:59 A.M.? Now it’s jazz; I listen to a mixture of classical music, rock music, and talk shows as I work, and at seven o’clock every evening, they all decide that I’d like to hear Count Basie. Public radio stations, usually a reliable port in a storm, have for some unfathomable reason decided that jazz is socially and morally uplifting, and that they have a responsibility to impose it on us. But if I want to listen to Mozart in the afternoon, why does anybody think I’d want to listen to Miles Davis all night?
Ah well, I’ve got my Jethro Tull and a stereo, and baseball season’s coming…what I should do is get a VCR and record a couple hundred baseball games, and play them back while I’m working. I might even acquire a taste for the Astros.
This time around, Bill James lost me in calling Bob Newhart an acquired taste. This was written in late 1985, when he was starring in a very popular sitcom on the CBS Monday night lineup. The modern-day equivalent: would anyone call Ray Romano an acquired taste? No, everybody loves him.
Also, “…undulating slowly between D flat and middle C…” — I think Bill James may have confused jazz with new age here. I haven’t gotten around to reading the 1987 Abstract yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s mention of a myriad of fans of both baseball and jazz having written him angry letters in response to this piece. “Jazz is usually played indoors” is very, very funny, however.