“You are in the end—what you are”
—Mephistopheles to Faust, according to Goethe
Super boring confession: A majority of my lived experience amounts to memories of watching something happen on a television screen—of watching small glowing images of people engaged in symbolic living. I am always slightly disappointed with these memories. Memories of watching a screen aren’t as good as memories of actually being alive.
Given a choice between my yesterdays and my tomorrows, I would go with my tomorrows, really anyone’s tomorrows. Too many of my yesterdays involve watching sports on the/a couch. You can’t put your arms around a memory, or something. I’m not bummed about my brain full of living in partial thrall to spectatordom. I’m going outside more these days, seeing what the strenuous life has to offer. Plus there are some pretty rad memories of televised sports already lodged in my skull.
There are your basic “my team won!” memories, and then the non-partisan classic games (probably my personal favorite is Boise State vs. Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl), goosebump incidents (assorted no-hitters, the Kerri Strug Olympics, overtime playoff hockey). There are also morbid curiosities (Armando Galarraga nerfect game, Tyson-Holyfield II, Rick Ankiel in 2000). I have a few dog-eared brain pages containing underlined passages that I just like, for whatever reason: the entire Craig Krenzel filmography, the time Clay Matthews undertook an ill-advised lateral after a fumble recovery in a crucial 1990 Browns-Oilers game, at which moment my dad yelled a PG-13 obscenity so loud that it stopped time.
Maybe my favorite spectator-memory of all is the Bug Game—Game 2 of the 2007 American League Division Series. I got goosebumps, and a cloud of insects put some kind of enduring hex on Joba Chamberlain. It was good drama, it was slightly weird, my team won, and one of my favorite players had a starring role.
Roberto Heredia Hernández, d.b.a. Fausto Carmona, didn’t get the win in the Bug Game, but the then-23-year-old was the hero of it, as far as I was concerned (he has managed the trick of aging eight years in the five years since). The Indians’ understudy ace (backing up C.C. Sabathia) gave up just three hits in nine innings, laboring but unfazed by midges. This cherished spectator-memory is set at a bar in Chicago. A brain fog of Miller Lite is not qualitatively different from the/a couch—my recollection is still one of staring at a glowing tube watching live-action competitive opera.
All of those sports memories are memories of feelings—they have to be, since nothing actually happened but watching, beside the feeling of those feelings. Staring at tubes is a very convenient behavior when navigating a suboptimal emotional life. It can take your mind off that, via stories. The feelings from sports stories are unique, bizarre, and orchestral blends of emotion. Disappointment aborning at overdog Oklahoma storming back against Boise State gave way to mounting glee as Boise State converted increasingly improbable do-or-dies with increasingly brilliant trick plays. Every emotion went into the red for one beat when Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot rimmed out against Duke, and then numbness. Suffocating anxiety broke into uncomprehending staring as Jim Joyce ruled Jason Donald safe at first. I remember J.D. Drew’s back-breaking grand slam off Fausto Carmona in the 2007 ALCS taking about five minutes to happen, and a migraine-y disappointment rolling in like weather.
Now, I’m not trying to do heat-lamped treacle about hard-luck franchises or perennial losers or Cleveland or the time sports hurt my feelings. With very few exceptions, watching your special team, any special team, play a significant game—if you care in that weird way that many of us do—is consistently, surprisingly stressful. We stretch out our own arms in sympathy, so that our tiny glowing effigies might run fast enough to hurry down that one fine day. Sometimes we win. Sometimes our arms get slapped; other times it feels more like a chainsaw. Watching is worth the risk, if only they eventually win the big one once (they never win the big one).
This intense projection of identity is what makes sports as spectacle work—and it’s a complete mystery to me, a literal mystery: not a puzzle to solve but something more like an secular divine truth that can only be carried, never picked up or put down. That’s why (I have decided) all my indoor-kid memories of sports are not wholly pathetic. My relationship with the fourth-best team in the AL Central can—under the right conditions—bring me to the point of redemptive suffering. A pro sports team is laundry, it’s a brand of breakfast cereal, it’s a TV show or a movie director. But I don’t feel this way about my Under Armour Charged Cotton socks, or Peanut Butter Cheerios, or Breaking Bad, or Billy Wilder. Why do I want the Indians to win so much? That’s weird damage and probably a misallocation of humanity, but it’s my weird damage.
The brainfeel of the Bug Game was a very natural fear. If I could have stepped out of my own skull during the Bug Game, I feel confident I would have observed myself making a deeply familiar face—some kind of hybrid wince-grimace that might be mistaken for mild gastric discomfort. I know this face well. Everyone makes it when they watch whoever their Cleveland Indians are, once the game is meaningful enough.
Part of the reason Fausto Carmona was my favorite baseball player for a while—it wasn’t because he was reliably good at playing baseball—was that he makes the same face when pitching that I make when I watch the Indians. Ben Tausig has already written something way more succinct and legible for The Classical about the Fausto Carmona tragedy-cum-farce. On the particular matter of Roberto Hernández’s face, he aired “The suspicion that [Roberto/Fausto] does not love, or perhaps even like, his work is hard to escape.” I found Fausto’s permanent, squirmy unease really endearing. It reminded me of real life.
Roberto/Fausto’s worried-puppy face, his goofy sideburns, his great unwashed sinker, his isotopic inability to be consistently good or bad, the knowledge he would stay an Indian much longer than C.C. Sabathia—all of that made me like the dude. But what made me love him, what gave him a whiff of sacredness, was his name: Fausto.
“Fausto” means lucky, fortunate, favored. It’s a pretty great name, and in the case of Carmona, ironically appropriate—but the real greatness of the name is the built-in literary reference. In the words of philosopher Marshall Berman: “For as long as there has been a modern culture, the figure of Faust has been one of its culture heroes.” The story of Faust is an inescapable modern myth: You can’t always get what you want, and if you try sometimes, you might just find, your deal with the Devil caused you to destroy everything you love, etc. But the Faust legend is way more than just a simple morality tale—between Christopher Marlowe, Goethe, Thomas Mann, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mary Shelley, and a million other artists, the story of Faust is indispensable to our self-understanding—a constantly updated portrait of our species-wide hamartia. Fausto Carmona, and my relationship to him, made me think about Faust, particularly my favorite Faust, before he met the devil, when he was just a worried guy alone in his room, living vicariously through the stories on glowing tubes. How could you not love a pitcher who is a proxy for yourself?
Another of my inane sports media-consumption memories doesn’t even involve a television or a dramatic outcome, just a brick of paper and the first time I read the name “Fausto Carmona.” I was in my friend Nate’s kitchen in Logan Square. He had gotten his 2005 Baseball Prospectus book before me, or perhaps I was too broke or cheap to buy one, so I stopped by his place to greedily ingest the write-up of the Tribe’s current team and farm system. This is what BP had to say about Fausto Carmona:
Listed at 6’4″, 170 lbs., Carmona would probably have had a cool nickname like “Beanstalk,” “Daddy Long Legs,” or “The Cuyahoga Letter Opener” if this were the 1940s. The holder of strong K/BB ratios, he jumped all the way from A-ball to Triple-A Buffalo in ’04, where he had a run of 16 scoreless innings during the postseason. An Indian since he was 16, Carmona struggled to miss bats during his turn at Akron, allowing nearly 12 hits per nine innings. He’s going to Triple-A anyway, where he’ll be one of the youngest starters in the league.
Carmona/Hernández wasn’t actually one of the youngest starters in the 2005 International League, of course, and none of those nicknames are nearly as cool as his assumed name, Fausto Carmona. It’s an operatic name, slightly magical, even before it was revealed that Roberto Hernández, born 1980—or a buscone who owned a percentage of Hernández—paid a compatriot, born 1983, for the use of his identity to get himself signed.
2005 in Nate’s kitchen was the first time I heard the name Fausto Carmona. I’m not sure when Roberto Hernández heard “Fausto Carmona” for the first time, but it was probably just a few years before I did.
When Carmona reverted to Hernández after an arrest for visa fraud in January 2012, the name “Fausto,” already lightly haunted, seemed like a shell cartridge left behind by fate. It’s really easy—and tempting, in fact—to project a silly sentimentality onto the misadventures of Roberto Hernández. He made an unsavory deal to get a shot in the bigs, and briefly danced in the limelight before thudding back into wretchedness.
Except the comparison to Faust doesn’t make sense. Yes, the idea of a Johnsonian skill swap—your magic for my soul—holds up. Fausto’s radioactive sinking fastball certainly was a successful act of socioeconomic alchemy, transmuting a skinny Dominican rube into $18 million (and counting) before taxes and hush money, but it wasn’t satanic. The sinker was briefly unhittable, and then mostly unthrowable. Carmona’s fastball was by far the least valuable pitch in baseball just two years after his magic 2007—even allowing for the fact that he didn’t even manage enough innings to qualify as a starter in 2009.
But to belabor my point that echo of the Fausto legend being bunk: Fausto wasn’t even Fausto. He was just Roberto Hernández. Fausto was the other guy’s name. In all likelihood, somebody else made the figurative dark bargain on Hernández’s behalf, without any meaningful consultation. I don’t even blame Roberto Hernández if he did the deal himself. I would probably commit non-violent, consensual identity fraud for a few million dollars if I had the option, especially if I was poor and 20 years old [If you have a legitimate business proposition you’d like to discuss with me, I’m pete at theclassical dot org]. Poor old Roberto Hernández has not exactly been abandoned by fate, either. Just the other day he signed a one-year, $3.25m deal with Tampa. They’ll probably turn him into a good situational reliever.
The original, semi-real Faust was a crazy person and itinerant liar who lived in Germany in the late 15th century. In various, dim source materials, he has been described as a sorcerer, an alchemist, a confidence man, a respected astrologer, a necromancer, and a serial pederast. In the words of a crusty old history, “his contemporaries had a great contempt for him not unmixed with fear.” Dr. Faustus was a moderately successful white-collar professional, but desired more from life. So he made a deal with the Devil or one of his subcontractors, receiving unlimited wisdom and special treats, and agreeing to enter into eternal torment after a set period of time. The roots of the non-specific Faust legend trail off into prehistory, disappearing into the great originary jumble of myths.
Germans began to write down their version of the Faust story in the late 1500s, and Christopher Marlowe wrote his Doctor Faustus not long after. There are a few prominent references in Jacobean English history to performances of Marlowe’s Faustus being disrupted by the appearance of actual devils on stage, causing grievous consternation. Roberto Hernández doesn’t work as the cartoonish, simple Faust, as a straightforward morality tale about the perils of worldliness. But the Faust legend is vital enough to allow for some weird variations. My favorite Faust—the Faust that Roberto Hernández does work as—comes from Goethe, by way of Marxist literary criticism (hear me out).
This is Marshall Berman’s Faust. In All That Is Solid Melts into Air (a slightly sententious but galactically brilliant book), Berman repositions the tragedy of Faust as the tragedy of capitalism: Faust can’t undertake immense work via his new powers without destroying the world that created him—be it in the form of his beloved Gretchen, or in the more complex and representative events of the second half of Goethe’s play.
Berman sees in this Faust the tragedy of development, how the forces of the market by definition must destroy in order to create anew, and how that destruction inevitably creates tragedy on a human scale. Faust is become Robert Moses, and in fact one of the later chapters of the book is about Moses, the legendarily effective and imperious rebuilder of New York. Faust, in seeking to profit from the development of his world, lays waste to it. There’s great value in Berman’s criticism, powered by his application of Marx to Goethe, to Baudelaire, to the big Russians, to urbanity itself. If any of this sounds interesting, go read Marshall Berman. He’s great. But my interest in his Faust—at least as far as it applies to Roberto Hernández, and it does apply—is purely on that human scale.
Goethe sketches Faust as something like an early-modern Timothy Ferriss—our hero remakes himself as a loverman with the riches delivered by Mephisto, sarges the beautiful, naive Gretchen, and parties a lot. In part 2, things get weird: Faust invents paper money, rescues Helen of Troy from Hades and romances her, parties more, and gentrifies a neighborhood by evicting a sweet old couple from their seaside cottage. Then he drops dead after realizing he has achieved, if only fleetingly, the happiness he so desired that it drove him to make a bargain with Mephistopheles.
The epic dimensions of Goethe’s Faust are wondrous, and Berman’s reading of Goethe is rewarding and profound. But it’s the very beginning of the story—Faust in his lonely room—that explains sports, memories, and identification to me. Faust is stuck in his room, with only his books (read: glowing tubes) for company. Quoth Berman: “The powers of his mind, in turning inward, have turned against him and turned into his prison. He is straining to find a way for the abundance of his inner life to overflow, to express itself through action in the world outside.” Faust is so extremely bummed that he’s about to off himself—he raises a vial of poison to his lips. But memory saves him, in the form of church bells. It’s Easter Sunday, but it’s not the Resurrection of Christ that restores Faust’s will to live.
Then, those notes
Spoke of youth’s cheerful sports, of spring’s glad hours.
Memory holds back my hand; around my heart
She steals her light soft spells.
The bells cause an eruption of memories for Faust—his younger days, vivid feelings, a forgotten life. “Floodgates of memory are thrown open in his mind,” says Berman, “waves of lost feeling rush in on him—love, desire, tenderness, unity—and he is engulfed by the depts of a childhood world that his whole adulthood has forced him to forget.”
Your version of the Bug Game, whatever it is, brings forth a flood of memories, of what being alive felt like right then. Those memories, those passions, those shared humanities can power the same way they powered Faust—to change your world. But our version of church bells—being yoked to the glowing tube—can be both redeemer and ruin.
Fausto Carmona is nothing now, a Wikipedia disambiguation. Roberto Hernández will be a low-leverage-situation guy for the Rays, then for someone else, then he’ll sign memorabilia for forty years, and then he’ll become a memory. His whole queasy-faced journey into symbol-hood might plug into the big mystery of why we care so much, but he’ll always be just Roberto Hernández, too. But Fausto Carmona can never be anything but a memory.