Pick up any comic with Matt Fraction's name on the cover—his career-making work writing the Downey-ized version of Iron Man, his creator-owned psychedelic sci-fi spy epic Casanova, or even an earlier book like the Mark Twain/Nikola Tesla versus Thomas Edison throwdown The Five Fists of Science—and there's no mistaking his love of the medium. What has made him one of Marvel Comics' leading idea men, though, is his ability to both spin the sort of yarns that'd put a smile on Stan Lee's face, and season them with the sort of details or ideas that are the stuff of books decidedly less spandex-bound. And with this great power comes the great opportunity for Fraction to pay tribute to another passion: sports.
As he told me via email when I asked him about trying to sneak sports stuff into his work: "We got Colossus to a Raiders game... I wanted someone to have a Vin Scully bobble head on her desk but there were legal issues... We had the X-Men trying to teach Namor how to play a pickup game and he just whips the ball through the backboard and it goes flying off into the ocean... I had Tony Stark catching a Red Sox game where Beckett was like seven or eight innings into a no-hitter. Clearly I got a problem here, man."
DAVID RAPOSA: I saw on Twitter that you were excited (to say the least) about the newest edition of Baseball Prospectus. Would you classify yourself as a practicing sabermatrician, or an interested bystander, or somewhere in between?
MATT FRACTION: Oh, god. I'm a practicing MORON, man. I seriously need to have some tests done for why my head and math are so direly opposed to one another. Every year I TRY SO HARD and it just... I can't. I think, like, it's a manifestation of some sort of Hot Stove Anemia where spring is ALMOST here, opening day is ALMOST upon us, and stuff starts trickling out and I think THIS YEAR IS THE YEAR but... but I'm just useless. I think part of it too is that growing up I was never a stats guy, my dad wasn't. Those parts of my brains are, like, full of Walter Simonson's THOR issue numbers or how many panels were on a Frank Miller Dark Knight page versus a Frank Miller Sin City page or something sad-in-a-different-direction like that.
So... I am a mentally-challenged bystander. That said, I loved the job King Kaufman and Cecila Tan did this year under really sub-optimal hot stove circumstances.
RAPOSA: I guess that answers this question, but: When you were first getting into baseball, was it the stories and myths that interested you, or the numbers? Or simply just the game itself?
FRACTION: The stories, of course, and the game itself—the pacing, the miracle that any one of these 160-whatever games might just be the greatest game you've ever seen. The poetry of it all, the perfect summer-ness of it. The joys of listening to a game on the radio. There's a reason writers are drawn to baseball like flies—it's the pastoral writ large. The pastoral with helmets and hot dogs.
RAPOSA: Did becoming aware of the statistical work that SABR-leaning folks were doing, or just the "stat world" in general, demystify the game for you at all?
FRACTION: In a way, absolutely. The more I bash my head against it the more it starts to sink in. Just, even the simple things, like "A walk's as good as a run... EXCEPT..." or whatever; little nuggets like that and, honestly, just diving into fantasy ball and SUCKING AS BAD AS I SUCK, you sort of just learn the hard way. It was kind of how I got going in my writing career, too. Just have to give yourself permission to suck.
I really find myself enjoying "Clubhouse Confidential" on MLB Network if for no other reason than Brian Kenny's a gifted host and Explainer of Things. I've always needed to be taught how to do something by seeing; book learnin' never quite sat right by me and that, plus Kenny's gift for speaking to the whole of the issue, rather than the actual math (which is what murders me), has started to crack it open a little bit.
My head is mush for numbers but the theory and explanation I can get. Like, in school, the only math class I ever excelled in was Geometry, as it was more narrative to me than something that required any actual intelligence or patience, two things I am woefully lacking.
RAPOSA: Are you in a fantasy league with fellow comic pros?
FRACTION: I prefer the phrase "fiasco league," and I'm in one with an editor and a couple guys. I definitely live on the waiver wire at least a little bit every night.
I'm an addict in recovery so I was really cautious about trying as I could see myself just losing my life to it. Ultimately I figured, I was such a stats-dummy, and have so much work to do I'd not go as full-bore gonzo bonkers as some folks do. So last year was my first year and I was AWFUL. Just TERRIBLE. Like, in my draft, I would panic—PANIC—and just pick the first Cub I saw. I ended up with something like 2/3rds the Cubs starting line-up... and Brian Wilson.
This year, though, I'm feeling better. Feeling different about it. I've had a long, cold, winter to think about the scope and scale of the things I don't know and, if nothing else, with a few basic tenets—hey, maybe don't draft all Cubs, or, hey, you know who hits well? Pretty much everyone in the AL, and even, "What if I made a list, before hand, and figured out my position players IN ADVANCE OF DRAFT DAY?" I feel pretty optimistic that the Tron Santos will claw their way out of the basement this year.
Also thank GOD Pujols left. I'll be dead and buried in the cold cold ground before a St. Louis Cardinal steps foot in my clubhouse.
RAPOSA: Wise-assery aside, given that recent Cubs history has seen them getting put down by other non-Cardinal teams or their own chicanery, do you think the "juice" in Cubs/Cardinals tilts is still there?
FRACTION: They've not been serious rivals for a long time now. And I've despised them my entire life—and then Tony LaRussa gave me the single greatest home-stretch season finale and post-season of my life. One of my editors is a Cards guy, and I sent him a LaRussa-autographed ball for... Christmas I think, which was about as close to kindness regarding the Cards as I can get. It'll be a glorious rivalry to revisit when we get back in fighting trim.
RAPOSA: How long have you been a Cubs fan?
FRACTION: As long as I can remember. I was born on the South Side, though, but nobody's really held that against me yet. I'm not sure why the Cubs over the Sox—Harry Caray, maybe, or the volume of games on WGN, or maybe I just like the Bears, too, and wanted to keep it in the genus and species. 1984, '85, '86 were the first years I really snapped into attentive fandom. Ryno, Dunston, Dawson. Matthews, Moreland, Sutcliffe. Hey hey Ron Cey! Y'know? And, man, '84? Forget about it. I was nine, the Cubs were great, and then that summer my mom got sick, everything went to hell, but the Cubs kept winning. Also: fuck the Padres.
(Funny: I was just reading up some on the team and forgot that this was the summer we traded Buckner to the Red Sox... Bill Buckner! Of COURSE he was a Cub first...)
RAPOSA: Who was your favorite player, or favorite kind of player, growing up?
FRACTION: Ron Santo. Talk about bleeding Cubbie blue, man. I have too much magical thinking about me to be a serious student of sport. Give me an underdog, a slob, a fucking hopeless brawler any day. The first time I went to the racetrack I bet on horses with names that spoke to me for whatever reason—suck it, Beyer! I think, in other words... I'm a fan of the Chicago Cubs.
RAPOSA: Are you exclusive with the Cubs, or do you allow yourself to fall for other organizations (or players)?
FRACTION: Oh, God, I think you have to if you're a Cubs fan. And to tell you the truth I never really felt the White Sox rivalry as a kid. To me, the we-of-Chicago were just covering the spread. I remember having a Cubs cap and a Sox cap I'd alternate each day. Later I found a distaste for the Sox that had nothing to do with the fact they weren't the Cubs but that's not really here nor there.
Half my family rises and falls by how the Indians do; I married into Yankees fandom. So I'm a big intraleague slutbag when you get right down to it.
Also: fuck the Cardinals. All respect to the Captain First Rank Marko Raimus of MLB Tony LaRussa, who gave us what, until the Cubs win it all in five, will stand as the greatest season and postseason of our lifetimes. But fuck the Cardinals. Forever.
RAPOSA: Which Cubs scapegoat most deserves redemption? (Bonus points if your answer isn't Steve Bartman.)
FRACTION: Santo would've been my go-to as NOT being in the Hall of Fame was... well, insulting to man's numbers and his unbreakable—or repeatedly breakable—heart, let alone that whole black cat thing. (Though really I suppose it's the black cat that was the problem and not rockin' Ronnie per se) But then they at least gave him HoF status.
But, um, Chicago is a CITY of scapegoats. Cows, black cats, Jim Belushi, Bartman—you name it. Chicago's got a long and storied tradition of that noise. Every Chicagoan deserves redemption. You think that city rocked and rioted when the Bulls ruled? When the Cubs win in it all in five, even Skokie'll be on fire by daybreak.
RAPOSA: What're your thoughts on what the Epstein/Hoyer front office has done so far, and looks to be doing for the Cubs' future?
FRACTION: It looks like they've managed to convince everyone it's a long slog we're on, rather than to spin a typically bad season. We've got some largesse to burn off before real movement starts to happen, maybe. But here's where my magical thinking comes in. Y'know what if it really IS our year with THESE GUYS nobody believes in. I'll be satisfied enough with a season near .500...
That said? I absolutely believe these are the guys to do it. Can you imagine? Can you FUCKING IMAGINE?
Here's what I mean about MAGICAL THINKING. I have a version of... I dunno, THE SHOW or some MLB game of some sort. And I played the Cubs, of course, and have an undefeated season, up to the fourth game of the World Series. Where I STOPPED PLAYING. Because right now we have an undefeated perfect season. And I dare not fuck that up. I just stopped playing the game.
RAPOSA: Do you (or did you ever) subscribe to the notion of there being some sort of nobility in rooting for a long-suffering franchise?
FRACTION: I don't know if it's noble, but I admire sticking. Especially after I moved to Kansas City, and got to look at the imploded decimation that is Royals fandom. And to see how many people in K.C. could transfer their love NOT to St. Louis—which I could at least understand on a geographic and state-wide governmental level but rather to the South Side, to the White Sox. LOTS of White Sox fans in Kansas City. S'like... like they just moved their love to the nearest-better team in the league.
Anyway. STICKING. The last time the Cubs made a real run at things, what, 2008? I had my son, so it was 2008—a Cubs buddy of mine ignored the season until the All-Star break. So he comes in at the end of July or whenever and only has, what, seven weeks of ball left and just gets crushed again at the end and throws the hat on the ground and wails and gnashes his teeth and all that. I guess I was more sanguine about it. I had a great April, May, June, half of July, all of August, and most of September when our boys were winning and playing well and all that. I had a winning team all season! It felt great!
That said I look at my wife, who is the Yankees fan, and I just marvel. What's it like to be almost BORED by the number of World Series rings you have?
Gotta say, though, K.C. looks like they've made some moves this off-season. I would genuinely love nothing more for that team than to find some greatness again. That town and its fans deserve it.
Hey! Anyone reading this going to K.C. for the All-Star Game this summer: the greatest burger in the world is a five-minute drive from the K. It's at the Hi-Boy. Google it. And get a birthday cake shake, too. You can thank me later.
RAPOSA: In a video you recorded for MLB in 2009, you mentioned that you were working on making your son a Cubs fan. Has that taken hold yet? Have you had to ground him for wearing Cardinals paraphernalia?
FRACTION: Y'know, it's funny, he's a self-proclaimed Giants fan. He just decided one day. I think because of Brian Wilson's beard and because he thinks, on some level, that they are actual giants.
No Cards gear yet. Tell you what, though, watching them this past postseason was so thrilling I might have been persuaded to only ground him for 15 or 16 years rather than the mandatory 20-to-life. But watch. This will be how my daughter breaks my heart. A great big Ozzie Smith tramp stamp. FUCK YOU DAD! ** does perfect backflip **