The outcomes were immaterial, as if on TV shows that nobody watches. The numbers, on uniforms and on scoreboards, were insignificant, even irrelevant, except, of course, to the men who literally and figuratively wore those numbers.
The names often were uninteresting–or, against the odds, unknown–even to a group of professional seamheads who had traveled to Arizona for spring training, each game a tangle of imperatives for the men on the field but just an amusement for the fans in the stands
Indeed, during the annual FanGraphs/THT trip in March, the on-field action often ranked as peripheral entertainment, not quite trivial but certainly not essential, especially in contrast to the more-vital concerns like sipping suds and issuing judgments on the state of the parking lot.
Still we watched. Free of the burdens that bind the writer to his craft, we watched as Francisco Lindor booted an easy ground ball. Free of the passion that yokes a fan to his team, we watched as Mike Trout stroked a 440-foot bomb.
We watched baseball, in sun and shade. Tension? None. Note-taking? Not a chance. And what about this? What about the secret wish that Trout misses first base … or that he stumbles over second base and stubs his toe just a weeeeeeeeeeee little bit?
What a difference an Opening Day makes.
What a difference a month has made to the baseball psyche, the baseball soul.
It is always astounding, at least to my mind, how readily our fandom can yield to the distinctions that both elevate and corrupt the passion. Back in March, we absolutely basked in the freedom that spring had conferred, the freedom from neutral analysis or partisan fire, the liberty to enjoy the game so much that we could ignore a few of its details.
We could ignore a batter, or even an inning, in favor of a thoughtful dissection of The Simpsons, Episode Eight. We could ignore a nameless No. 97 pitching to a nameless No. 96, our apathy forgiven by the spirit of a moment that the game itself had given us. We could neglect a double in favor of a hot dog, our sin absolved by the devotion that would soon replace the indifference.
At the same time, we could watch the sublime Mr. Trout as we might have watched Mantle or Mays, delighting in his dominance without needing to express it in language. Better, we could cheer his epic blast without considering, with a sizable tax on our pleasure, the harm it might do to our favorite teams.
But here we are now, a quarter of the way into the season, and everything has changed. Those easy feelings have bowed to the partisan loyalties that can turn each game a into very grim vigil, and bowed, too, to the cool neutrality that can turn that same game into bloodless information, pushed into graphs and charts and detached exposition.
Baseball, perhaps like all sports but probably more than most, has a way of becoming Cubist, poised at many angles and open to a zillion views. Some are valves to emotion, itself the fruit of geographic allegiance or some idiopathic devotion to a team beyond borders or a player beyond imagining, except that he is real and his name is Trout or Harper or Cabrera or Stanton or Fernandez or Darvish or Kershaw.
Others lean on nostalgia, the palpable link to one’s own past and the feelings, from the sensation of hitting a dinger to the joy of winning a game, that rose from old moments to become a lasting part of a life that runs through time. Others trace to some innate intellectual interest, a desire to dissect the game as if it were a complicated machine and to piece it back together with numbers and words. And some, of course, are a medley of these perspectives.
The fan is open to every muse and angle as he contemplates the game. You’ve got your FIP, your Fathead, your big foam finger. You’ve got your verbs, your Votto and a voice you deploy in Seat 8, even if you have to heckle your intradivisional favorite.
“Votto, you’re terrible!” you scream in the top of ninth.
“Votto, you’re still my guy,” you whisper to yourself, even on a 3-2 count.
We ask ourselves: What is it to be a baseball fan? The answers are everywhere, all over the place. Yes, we do root for laundry; players arrive in a staggered parade, one by one and two by two to wear the old team colors, souls reincarnate on the wheel of penalty and reward, to Chicago or Boston. And in the stands or on our couches, we hate Pierzynski in the enemy cap but love him, somehow, in ours.
Yet, still we marvel at the rival players, the Miggys and the Canos, whose Picasso-like skills can make our home stadium a place where two minds and twin wishes attend each of their at-bats. Can you hope for a rope that’s caught at the wall?
And yes, we adore a game so simple that it yields to yearly tropes about sunshine and fresh-cut grass, about the sound of wood on cowhide and the smell of peanuts and Cracker Jack, about the joy of a cold beer in the warm breeze and then another beer after that, and yet a game so complex that trillions of words and numbers have yet to explain its mysteries.
The season is moving through its second month now, and, like the players we watch, we as followers have settled into roles. The sabermetrician is testing the law of averages against the Colabello spike. The sabermetric scribe, meanwhile, is using shrewd language to splash the same cold water on another player’s streak, a heresy to the rabid fan’s faith. And that same fan is still cheering for color-dyed clothing in ways that yet another writer-–guilty as charged-–must reconcile for himself.
The pulse finds its beat in so many reasons, from the 3-2 count in the home half of the ninth to a channel-surfed single in top of the fifth. The mind spins through so many sojourns, from the 10-game skid to the 20-game hit streak, one a prod to amygdalae blues and the other a boost to cerebral jazz.
The soul, assuming there is one–and when it comes to baseball there probably is–moves through so many breaths and skins. You are the guy with the unbiased laptop, the guy with the biased cap. Sometimes the personality splits; sometimes it holds as one. And sometimes, as a baseball fan, you just want to return to spring.