There is an episode late in the excellent FX series The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, entitled “An Imperfect Vessel”, that grapples with the actual humans who become symbols of an idea. One of Johnnie Cochran’s driving motivations behind defending Simpson was his continued crusade against brutality and racial bias in the LAPD.
Problem was, O.J. Simpson’s case was most likely not the result of any of the (very real) systemic racism in the LAPD, and Simpson himself was one of the least likely African American citizens of Los Angeles to become subjected to it. He was a beloved sports star in his upscale Brentwood neighborhood, and was widely felt to have abandoned the African American community he came from. Cochran had a noble cause, but an imperfect vessel with which to fight it.
Two years ago, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy began a standoff with the federal government over fees the Bureau of Land Management charged Bundy to graze his cattle on public land. Conservatives rallied around Bundy, envisioning his situation as a symbol of government overreach, and how it can strong-arm private citizens into paying exorbitant and unfair taxes.
Problem was, ol’ Cliven had very little justification for his actions, even if the BLM did perhaps have an unfair monopoly over land out west. While he claimed his family owned grazing and water rights dating all the way back to 1877, his ancestors in fact didn’t move to the state from their native Utah until after 1900, and no Bundy grazed any cattle in Nevada until 1954. Moreover, the fee he was asked to pay is no problem for thousands of ranchers across the country, and is actually a really great deal, at about 7% of market value. He also displayed deeply troubling personal beliefs, including that black people would be better off as slaves than dependent on the government. Conservatives shook their heads and abandoned their imperfect vessel.
Which brings us to Rougned Odor. As you’ve no doubt seen, read, or heard, Odor recently got into a very famous fight with Jose Bautista. His incredibly telegenic punch from that fight is almost certain to become an iconic moment for Texas Rangers fans, one that pops up every year on its anniversary, or any time the Rangers play the Blue Jays, or any other excuse there is to be found. They’ve done it already with Nolan Ryan and Robin Ventura, so it only stands to reason they’ll give the more impressive shot equal treatment.
The problem is, Nolan Ryan’s fight came toward the end of a legendary and beloved career, and in a way that was informed by Ryan’s personality. Nolan Ryan was the scariest, most intimidating pitcher since Bob Gibson and until Randy Johnson. He was a country boy, Texas’ most beloved son, and a tough sumbitch. The image of him with Ventura in a headlock landing punch after punch is amplified by how it fits Nolan Ryan’s personality, and is why we all love Nolan Ryan.
With Odor, on the other hand, Rangers fans have an imperfect vessel for their self-image as tough, no-nonsense cowboys. While the picture of Odor’s fist connecting with Bautista’s face does match Odor’s personality, it’s not necessarily a side of his personality that’s very lovable.
The unfortunate fact is that Rougned has a reputation, and not a good one. He has been getting into fights since before he joined the league. He’s executed a number of dirty, dangerous takeout slides. He gets chirpy with opposing players at the slightest provocation. A baseball player needs to be a superstar in order to make this kind of behavior endearing, and Odor is not quite that. If he is going to bear the weight of Ranger fan mythologizing, he will need to either become more likable – his actions more justifiable – or he’ll have to be the kind of perennial All Star that can turn that character defect into a signature style.
The process of turning The Punch into an icon of Rangers fandom has already begun. This was fine for Nolan Ryan, who was at the tail end of a career full of good will. Odor is still very young, but has built up more ill will in 2 years than Ryan did in 20. It will be interesting to see if Odor will become a beloved symbol of Texas Tough, or if he will implode, and embarrass Rangers fans into abandoning their imperfect vessel.