Saturday, April 26, 2014

Emptiness: A Word Doodle

Emptiness is something I have experienced all my life though I only attributed the word to the experience after my initial exposure to Buddhism in college.  Emptiness, as I mean it here, is a particularly Buddhist project and it is the single most important aspect of Buddhism infused into my personal spirituality.

Appreciating and incorporating Emptiness is tricky because it is so easily misunderstood.  My own understanding of it has shifted and evolved through the years.  The connotation of the word "empty" is more negative than positive in our western way of appreciation.  For that reason it is best to begin with what emptiness is not before proceeding to what it is and how it can positively affect the Lifeworld.


Emptiness is not nothingness.  That Emptiness is a fundamental part of human Being does not mean things are illusions or pointless or even less inspiring.  Zen master Shunryu Suzuki clarifies: "I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form."  The way human beings experience things is essentially empty.  This true insight is incredibly sobering but it need not be bleak.  An article by Buddhist writer and teacher Louis Richmond explains: "The Heart Sutra says, 'all phenomena in their own-being are empty.' It doesn't say 'all phenomena are empty.' This distinction is vital."  With this I completely agree. Life can be a rich experience fully incorporating Emptiness, if human beings understand and accept the fundamental empty nature of tangible things.


Dainin Katagiri explains the positive practical side of this basic human possibility: "Emptiness is that which enables us to open our eyes to see directly what being is.  If after careful consideration we decide to do something that we believe is the best way, from the beginning to the end we should do our best. We must respect our capability, our knowledge, without comparing ourselves to others, and then use our knowledge and capability and think about how to act.  Very naturally a result will occur.  We should take responsibility for the results of what we have done, but the final goal is that we shouldn't be obsessed with the result, whether good or evil or neutral.  This is called emptiness.  This is the most important meaning of emptiness." (page 49)


There are no essences, that is, no thing of essential nature. Quantum physics has no inward molecular limit.  If you break down any thing into its components, into why you desire it or why you are repelled by it or why you try to possess it or why you want to dominate or submit to whatever it might be, human, animal, intellectual, chemical, biological, emotional, you will find no thing at its core.  The core of every thing is, indeed, empty, even if the thing itself has validity and force in the world.


Mircea Eliade contextualizes it this way: "Everything is 'empty,' without any 'nature of its own'; yet it must not be inferred from this that there is an 'absolute essence' to which sunyata (or nirvana) refers.  When it is said the 'emptiness,' sunyata, is inexpressible, inconceivable, and indescribable, there is no implication that there is in existence a 'transcendent reality' characterized by these attributes. Ultimate truth does not unveil an 'absolute' of the Vedanta type; it is the mode of existence discovered by the adept when he obtains complete indifference toward 'things' and their cessation.  The 'realization,' by thought, of universal emptiness is, in fact, equivalent to deliverance." (page 225)


Far from being a nihilistic way of looking at human experience, Emptiness is, in fact, a key to liberation.  Because things are empty there is no need to grasp, to cling, to want. Because things are empty you can remain present from thing to thing, you do not have to be affected by any thing, yet you are free to explore any thing, to appreciate it, take joy or sadness in it, without lingering upon joy or sadness.  There is no "handle" in any joy or sadness (or any other human experience) for you to carry it along with you.  In this sense you discover the boundless nature of human experience and human freedom because things are empty.


As with most of my word doodle posts, I think the best way to look at this project is to remain in the mundane, everyday realm.  There is a residue of Emptiness in our mundane life that is fairly evident.


Let's take boredom.  Of course you can be bored because you have nothing appealing to do, no inspiring course of action, no challenge of any kind. That is a common boredom, boredom in inactivity. But you can also be bored in activity. Many people find the routine of life boring.  Their job is boring. Their entertainment becomes boring.  The person they are with becomes boring. This form of boredom is the surest proof of Emptiness that I know.  Why should repeat exposure to activities and persons that we once found so appealing and inspiring suddenly become routine and without force in our lives?


It is because we have uncovered their essential nature.  They are empty.  We always find inspiration initially without seeing the Emptiness already present in the inspiration and when this Emptiness becomes more recognizable with continuous exposure through time we experience boredom because we grasp the inspiration as if it were not empty.  How much wiser it is to appreciate the original experience of inspiration or contentment or whatever with persons and things and sensations and yet know it is empty to begin with.  Then boredom can be seen to be a wasteful experience, a truly pointless experience, something we have invented that is actually harmful to our intimate lives.


Boredom, the desire of something new, improved, more intense, the drive to retool, redesign, upgrade are all fundamentally motivated by humanity's tendency to feel euphoric, better than ever, amazed.  And yet, without exception, every moment of amazement and euphoria eventually leads to human beings seeking a new threshold of amazement, a greater inspiration, otherwise we come to feel as if we are in a rut, out of sorts, apathetic, etc. The desire for excitement always seeks to grasp it, to hold it, to fashion it according to the needs and expectations of the individual.


Consumer culture is driven by this fundamental fact. Advertising helps fuel consumer demand for newness, ever-unfolding goods and services of novelty and attraction. Marketing uncovers new sources of desire and directs prospective customers toward specific newness and surprise. Both marketing and advertising, without realizing it specifically, leverage the fundamental empty nature of things to create demand for new goods and services.  Just as Jean-Paul Sartre proclaimed that human beings bring nothingness into the world (page 59), so too does the twin Being of marketing and advertising maximize Emptiness in order the create demand for new goods and services.  Most of American society is based upon this fundamental karmic reality. Fashion, gadgets, and sports are among many market spaces where consumerism generates money by promoting newness as the cure for empty needs and desires.


The motion picture industry is another mundane example. Let's look at special effects.  When the original King Kong movie (1933) came out, movie goers were wowed by what now seems completely mundane and dull to us.  The special effects of 2001 and Star Wars blew our minds but are not so incredible today.  The Matrix raised a new threshold that thrilled us.  Now we expect it as standard.  Avatar took special effects to a new level.  But even now we seek more, more, more, because the experience of special effects in films is empty.  Kong Kong looks shallow and stupid today. It is empty.  It always was.  Emptiness is evidenced by our inability to remain inspired by memories of past experience or to discover it within the present moment.  Our fullness was (and is) temporary. Inevitably we wonder why we ever were that excited about any thing and seek new fullness.


Sure the special effects of the 1933 King Kong are rudimentary, but they were not originally seen that way. Similarly, the Merry-Go-Round is not exactly a thrill ride these days, though it was exciting when it was first introduced. Today's amusement parks have to go high tech, 360 degree turns, faster, faster, massive fireworks, just to draw a crowd. Modern consumer amusement is symptomatic of Emptiness. That does not mean it is not truly thrilling and fun. It just means...so what?  What's the big deal about thrilling and fun? It will fade with time so why grasp it so passionately?   I should take pleasure in each moment (a ride, cotton candy, throwing darts at balloons to win a prize, whatever) as it happens. Just enjoy it without grasping.


There is nothing significant to any of this to begin with.  Sure there is a definable karmic effect.  But by grasping the novelty of it, by holding on to the euphoria itself and by assigning our inner joy to a person, place, or any thing, we are committing a fundamental mistake.  Things can be wonderful but when we cling to them their wonder will fade, we lose the appreciation of context and we experience the actual natural state of things, which we wish to flee from into a new, likewise ultimately inadequate wonder when in fact all of it is empty.  The irony is that only by understanding Emptiness can we attempt to avoid the urge to grasp, to repeat, to possess the moment.  Then we are able to see the moment for what it truly is and find contentment.


Having said all this, I do not subscribe to how far Buddhism takes Emptiness.  Buddhist teachers seem to want to make Being subservient to Emptiness as is evidenced by the Dainin Katagiri quote above.  I do not understand this leap of faith. Just as with Karma I do not see the need to believe in reincarnation, so too I do not see the need to turn Emptiness into a religious tenet as Buddhism does.  Emptiness is a human experience.  That things are actually empty is beyond our ability to connect with in our spectrum of experience.  It assumes human beings can plug into the mainline of experimental reality and I am personally skeptical of this.  The human brain can invent all kinds of "realities" in all kinds of experiential techniques from meditation and prayer to psychotropics and sex.  Even in meditation a person cannot escape their humanity, their limitations.  The highfalutin talk of touching the boundless nature of reality is unnecessary in my opinion to understanding and applying Emptiness to our intimate lives.


The other side of the coin is so what if everything is empty? That does not have to be such a big deal anyway, except that it can be helpful.  Emptiness is not independent of (nor more fundamental than) Being and is, in fact, one unique expression of Being (Eliade calls it a "mode of existence" in the quote above).  I think it is more accurate to view Emptiness as another base ingredient of the Lifeworld, in addition to language and culture and other things.   When the Lifeworld experiences Flow, for example, that is not empty - it is another mode of existence.  Emptiness is different from (but related to) Flow in that Flow can be practiced and nurtured in life.  Emptiness cannot be experienced in this way.  You must discover Emptiness as a priori and incorporate it into your Lifeworld but there are no techniques for "developing" Emptiness, only methods for becoming more aware of its Being.


Emptiness is there whether you experience it or not, Flow is a proactive, intentional project, in some ways equal to Emptiness.  The natural wisdom that comes from seeing Emptiness in your life is proof of its possible benefit to human experience only if we learn to stop grasping things, because the passage of time is like gigantic ocean breakers pounding tall, angular cliffs of stone. Things erode and the Emptiness of them becomes more apparent.  The cliffs are nevertheless there and that is wonderful to behold.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Mostly a Bull Story

My parents live in the house I was raised in - about 4 miles from my present property as the crow flies. The house was built in 1957 next to my dad's parents' house which was built in the 1880's. My dad grew up in that old house with a well for water, no indoor plumbing, and no electricity.  All that came to the old house as my dad grew into his teens.  He grew up on the small family farm of about 60 acres.

Dad always wanted to be a farmer. But he married my mother in a world where 60 acres was inadequate to generate enough money to feed and cloth an early-consumerist family, though it generated tremendous garden vegetables of all kinds that could be canned or frozen, cows for milk and butter, beef and pork for slaughtering. Farm families ate very well around here in the late 1950's. The main groceries you needed were grain related, bread and flour.

That was when I was born. My dad worked for a manufacturing company.  He was there when that company unionized.  Like my granddad, who was a union worker for Lockheed, my dad was a union man though he remained a conservative, agriculturally minded man.  All my life I heard my dad express his desire to just be a farmer.  He jumped from job to job for better money until he worked for more than two decades with the local electricity company.

Upon his retirement he became the farmer he always wanted to be.  He had had a small number of breeding cattle for most of his life.  This gradually multiplied to a medium sized herd by the time my dad's cousin died and willed dad another 60 acres which happened to adjoin his original farm.  He busied himself with 120 acres until selling the part willed to him in the past year. At his age he wanted to cut back.  And he was thankful that he had had about 15 good years of being a small-time farmer, his life's desire.

But, with age, he decided he did not need all those cattle, he did not need all that land to mow, all those fences to maintain. The recent tornado took away my grand dad's birth house and messed up more property than my dad wanted to repair.  So he sold it to another, bigger, farmer.  He is now back to his original acreage.  His herd is small again.  It is time to take things slower and have less responsibility while still keeping a foot in the enjoyment of farming as a lifestyle.

Which means that sometimes things can be ridiculous.

My mom and dad play Rook at monthly parties of rotating hosts with their closest lifelong friends. Mom calls it "the Rook crowd".  Coming home about 10:30 one recent Saturday night my parents topped a hill near their house which is on the closest major road.  From the top of this hill you can look out on a good chunk of our family farm, largely unchanged since my childhood from this perspective.  Pastures, trees, hedge rows near fence lines.  Scattered odd rusting equipment or tools here and there.

But you cannot see any of that at night.  You are just driving home from the Rook crowd and you suddenly see three sets of county sheriff patrol cars flashing in the night on the road ahead just before you turn to go to mom and dad's house. Dad slowed down and saw his neighbor, a farmer on a full-time scale managing hundreds of acres of property, parked in his truck on the side of the road.

Dad asked this farmer, Reagan, what was happening.  Like my dad, Reagan has lived all his life on his land and his family goes back to the late 1800's here.  Reagan replied that there was a call into the county that someone's bull was loose in the main road.  The deputies had the bull spotted in their flashlights further up the road.  So dad left Reagan and drove a bit further, very slowly, a blue and white dance of light all around the trees and fields in the darkness.  The sound of sheriff radio traffic piping in now and then in the background. Dad stopped the car, walked across the road, as the very light traffic was slowly working through all this, a car or truck now and again. Headed someplace else.

"That's my bull," my dad proclaimed in the darkness, my mom waiting in their still-running Lincoln.  Dad was not surprised it was his bull, he figured it had to be given where the bull was. There are nearby farms but none the size of Reagan's. Another bull would have to run far to get to where this one was.  The sheriff's deputies helped run the bull back across the road with their flashlights. Dad, not expecting any trouble, was just coming home from playing cards and having dinner with old friends.  He did not have a flashlight and was dressed in house slippers and dressy khaki pants.

The bull is a 2000 pound Charolais and he was fenced-up by himself that night. Ordinarily this was no big deal.  The bull is very docile.  But, as I said, Reagan had bought half of Dad's land recently and that Charolais had actually bred cattle on that land last year. Reagan, for the first time since he bought the place, had about 40 heifers and not one but three bulls breeding, screaming and bellowing ("bawling" as my dad says) in the night.  So my dad's bull decided he should get part of this action. No one told the bull the land was not his any more. He apparently ran the fence line until he found a weakness in that corner and tore out into the main road.

Instead of running the fence on the outside over to where the three bulls were, dad's bull crossed the main road and starting bellowing at the six, yes six - nine all total, bulls who were "servicing" (as my grandfather used to say) 80 more heifers over on Reagan's original property.  Dad said that when he walked up his bull was bawling into the dark pasture before him as several of the six other bulls had approached the fence line.  All the bulls were excited and stomping and roaring at each other.

The deputies finally helped dad get the bull back into his property.  But it wasn't that easy.  Dad plowed through the brush and the darkness from the road to his fence and opened a gate for the bull to enter the property again.  But by the time he got it open the bull had taken off along the fence line away from the open gate.  The deputies stayed on it to keep the bull out of the road but the bull refused to come back toward the gate.  Dad hollered about another gate close to where the bull was standing and a sheriff's deputy found it, opened it, and the bull went in without any resistance.

Dad walked down to where Reagan sat in his truck and inspected where the bull had torn out in a fence corner near the road.  By this time my mom had driven on home.  She went to bed immediately. In the meantime, Reagan had a flashlight as well as the lights on his truck so he pulled down and found where dad's bull broke through.  He left his truck on the side of the road and kept it running while keeping an eye on the fence to make sure dad's bull didn't come right back through again.

Dad checked the gate that the deputy had used, making sure it was properly closed before walking behind his bull, driving it toward another fenced zone where he would be separated from the area where he broke out.  The normally tame bull was not cooperative.  So there dad stood in the darkness wearing his slippers walking through the pasture along a trail he knew trying to drive his bull.  After so long the bull decided this was not the direction he wanted to be going.  He stopped and shook himself.  My dad got vocal with him wanting to make the bull go on by the force of his voice.

The bull turned and walked toward my dad a pace or two, stomping and snorting and bellowing at Reagan's chorus of bulls who were all pretty pissed off and still bawling at dad's bull.  Dad briefly thought his bull might charge him.  But finally he went on through the other gate further within dad's land. Dad, still without a flashlight, worked his way back over to his house, slipped on some cowboy boots, got in his truck, and went over into the pasture to where he used to have a catch lot shoot for cattle.  He took a panel that had broken off years ago, tossed it in the back of his truck and drove back to where the fence was broken through.

By now everyone was gone.  The deputies left fairly quickly. Reagan hung around until dad finally got the bull through the second gate then he went to his nearby home.  The bulls finally settled down. The bawling became mere skirmishing, a loud occasional echoing blow, then it was silent until the heifers started in again much later.  Dad plopped the panel up and nailed it securely to either side of the break. He could fix it better in the morning. That would do for now.  At least he had boots on now and a flashlight.

In reciting this story to me my dad concluded by reflecting back to his boyhood on this very land: "Well I've had the training for it."  Laughing at the years of bizarre farm experiences involving repair or immediate action.  It was about 12:30 when dad finally got in and took off the khaki pants and shirt he had been playing cards in two and half hours earlier. "I thought I was getting in early but I got in late," he chuckled as he finished telling me the story.

Part of connecting with a sense of place is experiencing (and creating) the folk lore about that place. It gives depth and character through time. You become invested in not just the mundane and forgotten, though that is collectively important too. You become invested in exceptional moments of excitement having to do with the place.  That is the essence of farm life really.  The simplicity of it punctuated sometimes by ridiculous moments. Like when nine bulls are having a love fest and one bull is left out.  It almost caused a big problem but luckily, as usual, it turned out alright.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Nude in Western Art: Part Four

Note:  This completes my recent four-part tour of the nude as an art form in western culture.

After Renoir and Rodin the artistic nude continued to evolve. The nature of symmetry became a multitude of tastes. With the advent of modernity there was no longer a roughly consistent symmetry for either the feminine or the masculine form. The classic nude remained potentially erotic but the nude as art was also transformed by cubism and other modern influences which objectified the human form in ways often competing with Eros. The nude was fragmented, dissected, abstracted beyond the presentation of a beautiful or sexual physique. 

The representation of the human nude form became far more varied than ever before. In this sense the history of the nude in western art represents an expansion of human expression, freedom, and experience with the physical human form. That it can be so completely abstracted is a reflection of human experience that is as genuine as anything else humanity expresses. 

I do not know if technology has its own Karma but I suspect it does, it definitely has Being, beyond the values that a human "mind" creates as a Lifeworld. The abstracted nude is a representation of something more than mere creative invention. It reflects the "colonization of Lifeworld" (as Art in this specific case) by the culture of technology among other independent and dominating spheres of influence (money, marketing, science, ethics, religion, television, etc.) But that is another post entirely.
Nude by Edvard Munch.  1896.  Munch, of course, is the famous painter of The Scream.  Here we see a shapely nude set against very passionate shades of red.
Georges Braque.  Big Nude. 1907-1908.  This is one of the largest canvased paintings featured in this four-part series on nudes.  Obviously, this is a nude from the perspective of cubism.
Detail from Clyties of the Mist.  Herbert James Draper. 1912. A fine example of a late neo-classicism depiction of the nude inspired by ancient Greek mythology.
Nude Descending a Staircase, a famous modern work by Marcel Duchamp. Also from 1912.  This makes a nice contrast to the previous work.  A total abstraction of the human form.  This work was actually rejected by cubists as being "too futuristic."
Amedeo Modigliani painted many nudes.  Reclining Nude with Folded Arms Behind Her Head is one of my favorites.  Painted in 1917.  Modern yet sensual.
Tamara de Lempicka.  Four Nudes. 1925.  The nude as Art Deco. She was bi-sexual and had a preference for painting lesbian nudes.
The Fascist nude.  Woman Kneeling by Arno Breker. 1942.  A wonderful nude sculpture despite its Nazi origins.  This piece has classical symmetry, rejecting all modernism.  I find it alluring.  
This is anti-Breker.  Nude in an Armchair. 1959. Pablo Picasso. Forging his own innovative way.  Interesting but far from alluring.  Multiple, conflicting symmetries in this work. Picasso painted several nudes in "armchairs".  Click here to see one painted in 1932.
Ema.  1966.  This is Gerhard Richter's version of Duchamp's staircase subject.  It is an excellent example of his "diffused photo-realism" painting style.  Oil on canvas.
Frank Frazetta was a pioneer in fantasy art.  He painted Nude in 1985.  A realistic and erotic pose with wonderful sensitivity to symmetry, shading, and tone.
Roy Lichtenstein.  Two Nudes.  1994.  The nude as Pop Art. Total objectification of the nude form into an advertising type format.
Study for Reclining Nude with Picasso.  2003.  Tom Wesselman. Crayon and paper. Here we have the suggestion of a blond nude laying down and admiring another nude in the style of Picasso.  In this sense it is a rather unique nude.  A nude study depicting a nude in the style of another artist.  Objectification of Art itself, which concludes this brief, four-part tour, and brings us full circle to the point where art is looking at itself.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

20-Game Losers

Major League Baseball started up this week. Baseball is my favorite professional sport.  More specifically, I am a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan, as my baseball posts reflect.  This post has a slight Braves ingredient to it but it has a broader focus in honor of the start of the 2014 season.  It deals with one aspect of the game that has changed through the years.

There is a list in the "frivolities" category at baseball-reference.com of 20-game losers.  The fact that such a list is today considered "frivolous" says a great deal about Major League Baseball and how it has changed over the many decades of its history. What is frivolous today didn't used to be. In the 19th century it was commonplace for starting pitchers to lose 20 games or more in a season. That is because back then each team only had 2-3 regular starters; there were no regular relief pitchers or closers.  You took the dirty, tobacco-juiced ball and you threw 8 or 9 innings. You did that 2-3 games a week.  No one does that today.  In fact no one has done that for many decades.

But I don't want to get ahead of myself.  According to baseball-reference.com, 499 major league pitchers have lost 20 or more games in a single season going back to 1872.  298 of these pitchers lost 20 or more games in the 19th century, when home runs were rare, the hit and run was the most common offensive strategy, errors were often epidemic, most players did not use fielding gloves, most games were played in their entirety with one or two baseballs (if a ball was lost you found it and threw it back in the game), and no one substituted players much.  Almost every starter played almost every game; players were rarely rested.  Many stadiums did not have outfield walls.  The ball could theoretically roll forever.  Spitting on the ball was legal and expected.  Pitchers initially threw underhanded to the batter.  Gradually they discovered they could throw with more velocity if they sidearmed the delivery.  It was later that today's overhand delivery became commonplace.

The winningest pitcher on the 20-game loser list was Guy Hecker.  He went 52-20 with a 1.80 ERA in 1884 for the Louisville Eclipse, something that seems unbelievable today. The dubious distinction of the all-time biggest loser goes to John Coleman who went a dismal 12-48 with a 4.87 ERA in 1883 for the Philadelphia Quakers.  The most innings pitched by a 20-game loser was iron man Will White who threw an astonishing 680 innings and 75 complete games in 1879 for the Cincinnati Red Stockings.  White's record was 43-31 with sparkling 1.99 ERA.  In other words, White pitched 75 complete games and got 74 decisions. If you are a true baseball fan, think about that.

But let's get back to losing.  You can get some measure of how much the game of baseball has changed when you break down the 201 20-game losers since 1900.  Between 1901-1910 a total of 74 pitchers lost at least 20 games in a season.  35 pitchers did it between 1911-1920.  35 more did it between 1921-1940. From 1941 to 1970 another 37 pitchers did it.  See the pattern? As time passes, fewer pitchers lose 20 games.  This is due to a variety of reasons.  Pitching staffs were beefed up with more pitchers, teams had 4 or 5 starters now which resulted in fewer decisions for any given pitcher overall, relief pitching became more prominent which made for a drastic reduction in innings pitched and decisions by starters, and - obviously - there was less tolerance to allow any player to lose that many games.

Since 1970, pitchers have lost 20 games only 16 times.  This short list of players makes for an interesting study.  In 1971, Denny McLain (who won 31 games for the 1968 Detroit Tigers, the last pitcher to win that many games in a season) went 10-22 with a 4.28 ERA for the Washington Senators.  Three pitchers lost 20 games in 1973 and five did it in 1974.  Then it became a true rarity. Since 1975 it has only happened six times. Most recently, it was achieved by Mike Maroth, also with the Detroit Tigers, in 2003.  Since then, Maroth's 9-21 record with a sky-high 5.73 ERA has not been matched in terms of losses.  He is the only pitcher to lose 20 games in the 21st century and that happened 11 seasons ago now.

Two pitchers make an appearance twice on the list of 16 since 1970.  So really only 14 players lost 20 games in the past 40-plus seasons.  One was Chicago White Sox pitcher Wilbur Wood who is the winningest 20-game loser in recent history. In 1973 Wood went  24-20 with a 3.47 ERA.  The interesting thing is that the White Sox had two 20-game losers in 1973; Stan Bahnsen went 18-21 with a 3.57 ERA also for the Sox that season.  Wood made this list again in 1975, going 16-20 for the Sox with a 4.11 ERA.

The other pitcher to make the recent list twice was the great Phil Niekro of the Atlanta Braves. Niekro (a 300-game winner, Hall-of-Famer, and the player who won the most games in baseball history after age 40) pitched for some really crappy Braves teams while in Atlanta.  He was rewarded with making the playoffs in 1969 and in 1982 but, otherwise, he somehow won a lot of games for very mediocre or outright bad Braves teams.  In 1977, the knuckleballer went 16-20 with a 4.04 ERA and 20 complete games. This means that the Braves lost at least four games where Niekro threw every pitch for them in the game. Unheard of today.  In 1979 he became the last major league pitcher to win 20 games and lose 20 in the same season.  His 21-20 record with a decent 3.39 ERA and 23 complete games was accomplished as part a horrible Braves team that went 66-94 that season.

Niekro's manager in 1979 was a young Bobby Cox. Cox had a terrible bullpen that was nevertheless used heavily because he managed an even worse starting pitching staff except for Niekro.  So, whenever Niekro's spot came up on the rotation, Cox counted on Knucksie to give his bullpen a rest. Win or lose, Niekro was expected to pitch deep into or all the way through every start.  And that's what he did.  Winning 21 games that year for that team was an outstanding achievement.  Still, when comparing Niekro with baseball's past, he pitched 342 innings, which is more than almost anyone by today's standards but not as much as the pitchers from the 19th century and early 20th century mentioned above.

After Brian Kingman went 8-20 with a 3.83 ERA for the Oakland Athletics in 1980 another 23 seasons passed before Maroth lost 20 games.  So only one pitcher has lost 20 games in a season in the past three and a half decades.  That reflects the changing nature of Major League Baseball.  But the game's fundamentals remain pretty much intact. Pitching largely remains the key to victory in baseball so I maintain a special interest in that position as a fan of the game.  19 pitchers have won 20 or more games in a season so far in the 21st century. But even the number of 20-game winners is fading compared with the past.  No one won 20 games last season, for example. Overall, fewer starting pitchers receive decisions in games due to the specialization of the the game. Relief pitchers today get more decisions than ever before.

We have been in an era of specialists for some time now.  It reflects how baseball continues to evolve, along with the introduction of artificial turf, free agency, the designated hitter, the lowering of the pitching mound after 1968, the emergence of wild card teams, and so on.  I don't care for most of these changes.  The game was great to start with and these changes only make me nostalgic.  I am more conservative about baseball than I am about almost any other interest in my life.  Most of these changes are symptomatic of adaptations to the demands of the marketplace. They are intended to bring in more fans and drive revenue.  Thankfully, a lot of tradition remains built in to the game. Enough to where you can still make interesting comparisons through time - like looking back through the past at all those 20-game losers that just are not around anymore.  Maybe I am more nostalgic about that than I care to admit. They are gone with the wind sure enough.