Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Midwestern Modesty and a Minnesota Handshake

The Minnesota Twins opened a brand-new stadium this season and the pièce de résistance of the $522 million structure is a giant cartoon image of two baseball players shaking hands. The two smiling men represent each of the Twin Cities and their hands extend across the Mississippi river. Every time a Twins player hits a home run, their hands embrace in a vigorous neon shake.

Ray Barton, the man that drew the original image of the Twins handshake, died this week. He was able to witness the construction of the stadium but his illness kept him from attending opening day. He may not have minded, though.

On the set of an internet talk show last weekend, I had a conversation with sportswriter Will Leitch about the new Twins stadium. The fellow midwesterner commented that the handshake was "the most polite home run celebration in baseball." It is fitting that Minnesota, a state known for its niceness, would have such a modest celebration for sports success. Barton was originally paid only $15 for his illustration and it seems that he never embraced its prominence in the state's culture. Maybe it was his Minnesota politeness that kept him from commemorating his work's success. Or maybe it was something more than that.

"He told me he never really liked it. It wasn't one of his crowning achievements," Tony Barton, one of the illustrator's six children, told the Pioneer Press recently. "He was a cartoonist, a writer, a creative director, but he never really thought it was that great. And if you look at it close, it really isn't. Anyone out of art school could have done it. He just happened to be the one who did it."

I haven't visited Minnesota in almost a year now and there was something about the bluntness of this quote that made me oddly homesick. I moved away to a place where success is more prominent, searching for some of my own. Midwestern modesty is cliche but true--my conversation with Will, who's from small town, Illinois, was full of earnest smiles and sincere listening. Reading this quote, though, made me realize that there's something underneath all that Minnesota Nice.

Barton politely deflected praise of his iconic illustration because he felt that it was undeserved. Deep down he knew that it was a crap drawing and this knowledge kept him from enjoying its success. He died of cancer at the age of 80 and he likely spent his whole career striving for an artistic accomplishment that he could be unequivocally proud of. When I think of this, I think of my dad, a humble, hard-working artist, and I think of myself, a tinkerer striving for success. Modesty, it seems, is oftentimes the manifestation of knowing that one can do better. One can always do better. But, in struggling for artistic achievement, if one does not stop and enjoy the high-fives and backslaps and handshakes, this achievement will always remain out of reach.

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