Why I love baseball

Baseball is, at its core, a conversation. Something happens on the field. We consider it and wonder what might come next. Then another thing happens and we contemplate further. The process iterates for as long as the game provides outs with which to play at immortality.

In the course of these discussions, tales are revealed. I may tell you about the time I saw Ron Jones hit two home runs for the Maine Guides, Pedro Astacio spin a shutout in his big-league debut at Dodger Stadium just after the ’92 riots, or Stephen Strasburg toss a no-hitter in his final regular-season collegiate start. You may tell me stories of your own. In this manner, we share our knowledge and understanding, passing it along to others.

We can look at a career and learn something about the player that produced its numbers. We can see that Jose Guillen might have benefited from additional minor-league instruction, or that Steve Carlton should have retired before he did. We can wonder what type of career Cliff Floyd might have had if he’d stayed healthy, or how much better Jose Cruz Sr. would be remembered had he not spent so much time in the Astrodome.

We can marvel at Eric Davisremarkable return from cancer in ’98, or the late-career emergences of guys like Lee Lacy and John VanderWal. We can wonder why Sean Burroughs and Bobby Hill never made it, and why Ryan Howard and Brandon Webb did.

We can find a story in almost anything. The beauty isn’t so much in the numbers themselves, but rather in what they allow us to do—evaulate, predict, compare, speculate, dream, and the like.

This perhaps helps explain my obsession with players that succeed despite anomalous skill sets. How do these men continue to survive in an environment that normally punishes their weaknesses?

Stories become history

Where once my primary interest lay in quantifying things for the purpose of—well, as long as we’re being honest—smacking other people around in debates, now it is more in big picture stuff. I still love statistics, probably always will, but I’m largely content to leave discussions of which metric extracts the most blood from a stone to others.

These are important issues to consider, of course, but ones that require more energy than I’m willing to spend. I prefer to watch for emerging patterns, connect dots, weave individual strands into a greater whole.

I’m a hopeless romantic for saying such things, but as a species, we are undeniably linked to our ancestors. The history of baseball doesn’t go back as far as that of humanity (Blasphemy! How do you explain the PITCHf/x data in those cave dwellings?), but the recording of it serves a similar purpose: to remind us of where we have been and possibly provide some guidance in where we are headed.

Plus, it’s interesting. If you don’t find the reality of your own existence fascinating, then you must at least take some pleasure in knowing that before there was Sean Casey, there was Hal Morris. Before Morris, there was Chris Chambliss; before Chambliss, Wes Parker; before Parker, Joe Collins; before Collins, George McQuinn; before McQuinn, George Kelly; before Kelly, Fred Merkle.

Useful? Maybe, maybe not. Fun? Depends on whom you ask. I think so, but I’m biased; I love baseball.

In the beginning

In 1978 (May 9 or July 28, don’t remember which; I just know that Gene Tenace homered twice), I witnessed my first baseball game and it was good. The usual father-and-son cliches apply, although I don’t know that it “brought us together” so much as put us physically in the same space at the same time. Still, there is something to be said for that, especially when you are 9 years old and prone to worshiping people you don’t really know.

What struck me about that first game is that it was literally timeless. My father had taken me to football games before, so I knew how those worked, and at some point I asked him what quarter it was. What I meant was, “When is this thing going to end?” (I had the attention span of a 9-year-old, which was more appropriate then than it is now).

My father explained to me that there weren’t quarters in baseball, but innings. I had never heard this term and I could find no clocks along the stadium walls. It was terrifying.

Even if I didn’t appreciate the timelessness of baseball back then, I at least understood it on some level. The fact that I enjoyed an activity in which the primary distinction is a blatant disregard for clocks and the time they keep didn’t sink in until much later, when my life became regulated by those diabolical instruments.

To be at a baseball game is to be outside the confines of time—at least for a while. Yes, time is always present, inescapable in the long run. But in the short run, there is only green grass and the false promise of eternal youth.

You may say I paint an overly romantic picture (we’ve established my tendency toward romanticism—adjusted for era and park, of course). Look at history, you may say. What about steroids, or before that collusion, or institutionalized racism and gambling scandals?

True, the game is not without its flaws. The history of anything is littered with items we’d rather not see. That is as inescapable as time itself.

But for brief periods—blinks of an eye, really—there is the singular pleasure of stepping outside of our mundane confines and indulging the fantasy that we are immune to the effects of time. Immortality doesn’t last forever, but if you’re lucky, you might borrow a few hours to pretend otherwise. It’s a wonderful feeling, and baseball delivers it for less of a cost than many other things that have a similar short-term effect.

Parting thoughts

When asked why I love baseball, I usually shrug my shoulders and say, “I dunno, I just do.” It’s easier than spouting off ridiculous analogies and metaphors without ever really getting to the point. If you don’t love baseball, you certainly won’t love my explanation of why I do (and if you do love baseball, you don’t need it), which is equally unbound by time constraints and seemingly pointless from the outside.

Still, for as much as I enjoy considering possibilities, I do like to quantify things, to give them some order. In that vein, if I had to distill my reasons for loving baseball (recognizing that any such distillation will be imperfect and incomplete—in the same way that the stories we can glean from statistics are), it would go something like this:

I love baseball because it affords me the opportunity to forget about the mundane concerns of everyday life for a while and to spend an unpredictable amount of time with others who take pleasure in enjoying a similar respite.

Baseball is, in the truest sense, a pastime, i.e., “something that amuses and serves to make time pass agreeably.” In a world that demands much of us and our limited time here, there’s something to be said for passing it agreeably.

That’s my excuse, anyway.

References & Resources
This article is brought to you by the twisted inner workings of my mind. Remarkably, no chemical enhancers were involved in its creation.

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Comments

  1. Northern Rebel said...

    Geoff:

    You’re preachin’ to the choir, brother! Those not singing along with us are mystified as to our love affair.

    My wife marvels (maybe not the right word) at my ability to pick up my 1989 version of the baseball encyclopedia, open it to any page, and become engrossed for hours, at the contents within.

    I feel like I know Dummy Hoy, Ray Chapman (RIP), and Tony Oliva personally, and I’m comforted that my childhood Idol, Carl Yastrzemski, will live forever.

    In Hamilton NY, I once met, and worked for a short period of time, a gentleman named Bill Ehmke. After asking him, he told me Howard Ehmke was his great uncle, then stood by, suprised and pleased, as I described his uncle’s career with my favorite team the Red Sox, and his record breaking strikeout performance in the World Series for Connie Mack’s A’s, after pleading with him, telling him, “I’ve got one more good one in me!”

    Bill Ehmke and I recited that quote at the same time, like it was synchronized. Only baseball fans do that.

    I don’t know what kinda man Howie was, but his great nephew turned out to be a rotten bastard. Oh well……..
    At least he loved baseball!

  2. Steve said...

    Wonderful post, and a great argument for why baseball is such a great sport. In fact, it might just be a great argument for sport in general.

    Baseball is a great escape and means of rising above the everyday, if just for a few hours. It might be ‘only’ a sport, but is something worth cherishing.

  3. Lindell A.C. said...

    Great article…the game rolls on as our nation’s true pastime in its purest form. Here in Michigan we were blessed to have the voice of Hall of Famer Ernie Harwell provide us with both the ambiance and the guidance for our love affair with baseball and the Detroit Tigers. Ernie has terminal cancer, but will never die as long as an umpire somewhere on the planet is growling “Play Ball!”

  4. Geoff Young said...

    Thanks, all, for the kind words. I am glad you enjoyed the article.

    @Northern Rebel: This is truly one of the amazing things about baseball to me. No matter how much I experience and learn, it never ceases to fascinate.

    @Gary: I had forgotten about Astacio’s encounter with Kruk. Thanks for sharing that memory.

  5. ThreeFingersBrown said...

    Beautiful. May the conversation never end.

    Your mention of the Astacio game, brought back the memory of what Piazza’s homer meant to myself and a lot of other NYers after 9/11.

    I always marvel at how my mind ties so many life major events, both personal and public to the game of baseball.

  6. Gary said...

    I remember that Astacio game as well.  Around the 5th inning he threw a pitch that nearly hit John Kruk in the head.  At the time Kruk was destroying the league, hitting .340 or so, and I knew Kruk would jump on Astacio’s next pitch to him.  Instead, Astacio walked him.  It showed me that Astacio had the brains to be a successful pitcher.

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