(republished from my old blog, the Weekly Fritter)
The story begins...
He steps up to the plate, bat in hand, taking practice swings as he moves along at a stern gait. This is his moment, his chance to set the tone for the entire game. The practice swings, two...three...four...tell the pitcher, "don't mess with me, dude."
The man on the mound senses the same tension as he winds up for the virgin pitch of the game. STRIKE! 98 miles per hour! The fans in the stand roar with approval as the commentators in the press box weigh in with a flurry of stats and stories and prognostications. Meanwhile, the man at bat, a redheaded kid fresh from the minor leagues, shakes out the stress from his tattooed arms, refocusing himself, continually telling himself "get on base. Just get on base."
Second pitch...a 99 mile an hour fastball, blazing through the strike zone. The batter cringes as he hears the umpire behind him, "STEEEE-RIKE TWOOOOO!!!!!" OK. Focus. Come on. That's right, wipe that new boy sweat from the brow, give a menacing sneer to the pitcher, take two or three more practice swings. Ready.
Third pitch...CRACK!!! The kid thrills at the sensation of connecting with the ball, this time a tricky little curve ball. No time to watch the ball fly, he makes a mad dash with all his strength toward first base, only to get thrown out. Damn. Still, he hit something. Not bad for the new boy in the dugout.
The next guy up, by contrast, is a veteran, a cagey, stocky Cubano who spent the better part of last season on the DL. He's got a swagger in his step as he approaches the plate, taking a brief moment to kiss the rosary around his neck and make a quick en el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espiritu Santo. He only takes one practice swing, looking directly into the pitcher's eyes as he does. His stance says, "bring it on, kid," but by the eighth pitch, he finds himself in a 3-2 situation. Come on now. Refocus. That's right. You can do this.
Looking briefly into the crowd, he spies a huge banner in team colors, reading "VIVA VASQUEZ!" They still remember him. They still love him. His palms sweat inside his batting gloves as he renews his grip. It still feels strange being back like this, and the roar of the crowd only makes Vasquez even more eager to prove his worth...to them, to his team, to himself. A knuckleball sizzles past him..."STEEEE-RIKE THREEEE!!!!!" Vasquez' heart skips a beat as he realizes he failed. Naturally, he'll have more at-bats, but he wanted this one. He frowns, resisting the urge to thrown down his bat in frustration.
Such is the romance of baseball. I love football and hockey and cricket and other team sports, but there's something special about baseball. I love the brute strength of football and the fast action of hockey, but for me, baseball is all about romance and the struggle of the individual human person. Baseball has narrative, a beginning, climax and denouement. It has mystery and gross stupidity and kinesthetic wisdom and perseverance.
I think that's my favorite aspect of the game, that it's a pitch-by-pitch slugfest, one man at a time, one pitch at a time. It's the individual batter making split-second decisions about whether to swing or to stand back, and it's the individual fielder who slams himself against the wall to prevent a home run, then finding the strength and presence of mind to throw someone out at home plate in the very next second. Baseball players aren't just jersey numbers or names, but faces. You can tell when Clayton Kershaw is having bad day from his facial expression, and you can see Yasiel Puig's frustration with his own impulsivity in his body language.
Baseball is about the constant surprise, like a Russian nesting doll. Open one layer and the team is losing bitterly. Open the next and they're wiping the floor with their opponents, only to open the next layer to find themselves losing again, until at the very last second, an Andre Ethier or A-Gon saves the day with a magnificent, totally unexpected home run. If Shakespeare were alive today, he would have opened Twelfth Night with the line, "If baseball be the food of love, play on."
I think that's magic.
That's story. It's opera and ballet and the Keystone Cops and Kabuki. One minute the crowd is crying over an impending loss 8-2, but suddenly like a great Puccini aria, a magnificent home run sails over a high wall, bringing home the two men on base. Suddenly it's 8-5. The mood of the crowd changes, and the energy seeps into the players. Next man up gets a double, and the following man bashes out a sacrifice fly to far right field. The man on second base now runs for his life, his only goal to cross home plate before the two-time Gold Glove winning fielder can throw him out. The runner's heart pounds and the crowd holds their breath in astonishment as he scores. 8-6. Now the game is winnable, even it is the bottom of the eighth inning.
Even when your team goes down in flames, it's YOUR team. I realize that football fans are just as territorial as baseball fans are regarding their team--I get the same way about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Sports fans are like that, regardless of the game. They get as intensely involved as the players, perhaps even more so at times, so a loss becomes a personal thing, like a little death in the family. Serious sports fans go through mourning periods after a heart rending loss, and if that loss is followed by another loss, the grief deepens. I have to admire fans of consistently losing teams...to quote politics, I "feel their pain," especially as the Dodgers endured so many tragic seasons for so long.
The players are your family, in a very real sense. Think of how many evenings or dinnertimes you spend with Mark Ellis and Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez (if you're a Dodger fan), cheering them on, telling them off, praying for them, cursing them, throwing things at them, Tweeting about them, declaring your undying love for them when they do something right, cringing when they get hurt. Isn't that family?
In the end, baseball is all romance. It's the beauty of personal connection and nail-biting anticipation. It's the mystery of the unknown and the fear of heartbreak. It is, as George Will points out, as much "just another game" as the Grand Canyon is "just another hole in the ground." It is as much a war as football is, with the same passion to win and defend, to conquer and prove ones might. Baseball is the human story, for better and for worse.
Play on, boys!
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