Bull City Summer

Tattoos help Bulls players maintain an identity

Posted June 28, 2013

Kirby Yates and Jeff Beliveau. Photo by Leah Sobsey (Bull City Summer)

It was nice and sunny in mid afternoon yesterday while I interviewed Lehigh Valley IronPigs manager Dave Brundage. Brundage is familiar to Bulls fans over the last four years as the manager of the Gwinnett Braves, the Bulls' most constant South Division rival. Prior to that, he managed the Braves' Triple-A affiliate in Richmond, Virginia for two seasons. This year, he has changed affiliations.

I'll have more on that some other time. Not long after the interview, the rains came suddenly and washed last night's game away. That pushed the reset button on my thinking. What's on my mind today is something that's been lurking at the back of it for much of the season and was brought forward by the current road trip. I've been staying in the same hotels where the team stays, and so I run across the players in the halls and lobbies. Out of uniform, and out of their element, they just look like guys—really big guys, in some cases—but just guys, nonetheless. It is quite easy to forget that ballplayers are real people, while they're playing. They're just there to entertain us, and sometimes to be heroes for us. Idealization and idolization dehumanize, though.

Going around the clubhouse doing interviews this season, I noticed for the first time that several Bulls have their own last names tattooed on their backs, roughly where their names are located on their jerseys. The tattoos are in large, jersey-name-size font, and in the intimidating gothic font of the sort you find on those Affliction brand shirts and their ilk that players have been fond of in recent years. (I've noticed a change to more modest sartorial habits this season: plain polos and jeans.)

I found the tattoos utterly confounding at first. The thought of tattooing my own last name on my back? Unthinkable, especially right where my name would be on my uniform. I know who I am. It struck me as something like taking off a mask and finding, underneath it, another mask. Or perhaps it just seemed monumentally vain.

As I thought about it, though, it began to make more sense. Ballplayers, especially minor-leaguers, have complicated identities that are bound up in teams they have little choice but to play for. When you're drafted by a major-league club, they control your rights for six years and can send you to any level of the minors (or the majors). At every stop on the minor-league route, your identity is subsumed into a team and its logo (and its fan base), which is always subject to change. You're a Bowling Green Hot Rod, a Montgomery Biscuit, a Durham Bull. Or you get traded: overnight, you're not only with a new team but also an entirely new organization and its accompanying culture. Dane De La Rosa was a Tampa Bay Ray; suddenly, right before the season started, he was an Anaheim Angel (and now pitching quite well for them, by the way).

It becomes necessary, then, for a ballplayer to insist that he's a unique person: not just property, a removable name stitched onto a used uniform, removable to another team, another city, another employer. There are many ways to individuate, of course, but tattooing your name on your back, right underneath the name on your jersey, is a profound one, far more than skin-deep. Don't forget that I'm me, the tattoos seem to say. In giant letters, they forcefully remind anyone who happens to see the ink that after the name on your costume is stripped away, you're still you, permanently you, no matter what team you play for. It's not another mask there under the mask; it's the real thing.

To complicate this further: most players like belonging to teams, and many of them develop deep, permanent allegiances to their franchises, as Cal Ripken did with Baltimore and as former Durham Bull Evan Longoria seems to have done with Tampa Bay. Players love to win as members of teams, and their investment in the greater good is authentic. They're not just about their stats and their salaries: that stuff doesn't constitute winning the way being part of a World Series champion does. Team spirit, for lack of a less hackneyed term, is a real matter.

We want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, but we also want to be ourselves. From a recent New York Review of Books piece about a new study of the work of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin: "[A]ttempts to define Berlin's legacy [...] are 'missing a key point' by ignoring the unresolved tension in his thought between his defense of individual freedom and his recognition of humans' need to belong to a larger whole."

They say "there's no 'I' in team," but that's always struck me as unfair. There doesn't necessarily have to be a team in "I," either. Isaiah Berlin reminds us that all lives partake of both. Ballplayers live that double life more emphatically, for all the world to see, on and off the field.

Doubleheader tonight in Allentown starting 5:30, if it doesn't get rained out again. More thunderstorms are expected. Regardless, the Bulls will be back home, yet another long bus ride later, to play for you in Durham on Saturday night.


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