I was sitting in the northeast nosebleed section at KeyArena a few weeks back when a jumpy kid directly behind me flung a yodeling neo-insult at Vin Baker as the Sonics' embattled forward loped his way down the floor. The outburst, both mildly creative and ambiguously nasty, made me wince, then giggle. It was funny in that spontaneous, tragi-comic sort of way--a snickering eyeball-roller with a sting of queasy, clumsy pathos folded inside. And for some reason, I've been thinking a bunch about it; it's wedged in my head. Only now, in retrospect, do I see that what that kid hollered perfectly captures the nervous, discomfiting, and sometimes hysterical energy that snaps and crackles between Baker and the preponderance of Seattle fans. Like a valentine smeared with sarcasm and disappointed desire, this kid's quip gets right at the palpitating heart of our painful relationship with Vin.Here's what the kid yelled: "HEY! HEY! VINNIE-THE-POOH!"

The immediate connotations of these words are obvious, pointing as they do to Baker's well-documented poor conditioning as well as the perception that he's become both lethargic and unfocused on the court. What I find far more interesting, though, is how temperate the criticism is. Vinnie-the-Pooh? It's almost puckish in its overweening empathy with its target, and ticklish where most jock-bashing is just downright foul.

In fact, I suggest there's a Charlie Brown-like, or Homer Simpsonesque, or even a Billy Buddish aspect to this Pooh-bear catcall--an aspect that points to an abiding fondness that must perpetually cloak itself in grumbling frustration. It's not so much that fans feel sorry for Vinnie; it's more that we feel bad for his existential dilemma. We identify with his quixotic struggles to get out of his own way, to un-addle himself and succeed despite the dictates of unconfidence. Fate always seems to conspire with a little extra pizzazz against the angel with the broken wing, and slapstick hurdles botch every effort of the fallen star. Vin might just be our tragic hero.

Baker, who came to Seattle with high expectations all around, is in a double bind; every time he steps onto the floor, we're waiting for him as he waits for himself to screw up. This fact is made extravagantly and ironically clear when Vin plays well--which, really, he's been doing a lot of lately. His best efforts this season have met with silence or only the most tentative form of approbation, as though, in overcoming his faults, he can do no more than relieve everyone of the excruciating probability of failure. For Baker, no news is good news.

Good grief! As long as Baker stays in Seattle, he will be judged outside the context of the team as a whole. It will always be Vin against Vin, and the best he can hope for is a draw. Were this not the case--were we to look at Baker's efforts over the last 15 games as integrated into the framework of the Sonics in toto--things might not appear so out of whack. Despite his habitual flubs, Baker has had some strong games lately, especially in the all-important fourth quarter. He's averaging nearly 13 points a game, and he's slowly learning to finish stronger on his low-post moves. With Ruben Patterson's superstar explosion, Baker might have found a suitable niche playing second fiddle. Coach McMillan certainly made a wise decision removing Baker from the starting lineup. It lightened his psychosomatic load. Baker looks almost threatening coming off the bench now, out of the unrelenting glare of the limelight.