Under Lockdown and Missing Baseball
My first football memory was a Sunday night game in 2002 between the hometown Seattle Seahawks and the Minnesota Vikings. It was a historic game where Shaun Alexander had five touchdowns in the first half, but I was confused. My six-year old self thought, “What is this? This isn’t baseball.” My parents had to explain to me that there are sports other than baseball.
Since then, the Seahawks have been one of the best teams in the NFL. They’ve constantly made the playoffs, played in three Super Bowls, winning one (we don’t need to talk about the other two).
The Seattle Mariners on the other hand, have not made the playoffs since I was five. That was 2001, which I do not remember, when they won a regular season record 116 games, but were beat in five games by the Yankees in ALCS, because it seemed at times as if God was a Yankee fan that postseason after September 11. They have not made back since, giving them the dubious distinction of having the longest playoff drought in all of North American sports. Even the freaking Marlins managed to accidentally win a World Series in that span. Even worse, with the Washington Nationals winning it all last year, they are now the only team to never play in the World Series.
This year was not supposed to be year that streak ended. This year was supposed to be a rebuilding year where the youth gained big league experience. It would probably have ended with another painful 90-something loss season. Yet, despite the fact that my 2020 fandom would pretty much be reduced to hating on the Houston Astros, I want to get on I-5 and head south to catch a game. But I can’t. It’s not safe and it’s not legal.
Baseball has healed and brought back a sense of normalcy before. Mike Piazza, Tino Martinez and Derek Jeter, and Scott Brosius after September 11. Daniel Nava after the Boston Marathon bombing. It will be called upon to do it again.
What is it about baseball? Why is it different than the other major team sports? Why, despite our modern five second attention spans, do we still like the game that is built around deliberation and slowing things down?
Why would I rather talk about the future of one of MLB’s worst franchises than the same for one of the NFL’s best?
Baseball is timeless. Literally. What makes baseball unique is you do not know when it will end. Hypothetically, a team down 20 runs in the ninth inning can still win. In other sports, at a certain point it becomes impossible to score a certain amount of points in a certain amount of time. In more competitive games and more meaningful games, the tension comes on every pitch and the spectator does not know when the moment of decision will come.
Say there are two outs in the bottom of the ninth in a one run game with two runners on base. The viewer does not know when the game will end because the batter can hypothetically foul off pitches from now until the end of time. Each pitch is incredibly tense and if the deciding moment does not happen on that pitch, the process repeats itself. In other sports there is tension no doubt, but you know the game is over when the clock hits zero. You know there is no such thing as fifth down (unless of course, you are the University of Colorado).
Then there is the game itself. It is the simplest of games. There are relatively few rules, especially compared to football. On offense the objective is simple: hit a ball with a stick and run to a base. On defense: catch the ball, throw the ball. But is also the hardest. It has been said that quarterback is the most important position in sports, but as Ted Williams once said the most difficult task is hitting a round ball with a round bat, squarely. And that ball is moving a tremendous rates of speed and with seemingly-physics defying movement. A 90 MPH fastball takes less than half a second to reach home plate.
Baseball is also a perfect encapsulation of America: families and individuals coming together to form organizations and communities. It is a great game for parents to bond with their children by playing catch or elementary soft toss.
Baseball is also very individualistic. At any given moment it is the pitcher versus the hitter. Yes, the defense, especially in 2020, can shift, but the pitcher still has to hit his spot and the batter still has to make contact.
But it is also arguably the sport where the individual matters least. In football, a good quarterback can carry a team. In basketball, having one star player can be the difference between a championship and downright terrible. In baseball, a good hitter has to wait until eight other guys have a turn before he gets another and if the guys in front of him don’t get on base, he’s less valuable. If the guys behind him aren’t very threatening, the opposing pitcher can pitch around him. A good pitcher only throws once every five days.
And we’re missing it all. It is possible that this year may see America’s birthday celebrated without America’s game. From April to October, baseball is played every day with the exception of a few days in July for the All-Star Game and in October during the playoffs. An NFL team plays once a week, NBA and NHL teams a couple of times a week. MLB teams play six sometimes seven times times a week. For seven months, it is our nightly entertainment. It’s absence tells us something is wrong and abnormal.
We’re missing part of our culture. The question of what your favorite baseball movie is, is more of a conversation starter and cause for debate than any other sport. Personally, I think The Rookie is underrated and I’ve always had a desire to throw a ball past one of those roadside radar speed limit signs to see if that actually works, although it seems highly unlikely.
Away from the silver screen, baseball stats carry more cultural significance than others. Home run records, both career and in a season, are more culturally significant than touchdowns, points, or goals. Babe Ruth, the original home run king, was a larger than life cultural icon and still is. To add to the allure of home runs, the records are subject to debate. Is Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds the all time home run champion? Is Roger Maris still the single season leader or is he fourth on that list?
Baseball has its own culture wars. Should steroid users be in the Hall of Fame? New school sabermetrics with their alphabet soup of new stats versus the old school. These are almost as fascinating as the political culture wars. I could easily write an article with my problems with the Moneyball thesis as I could on the Trump presidency and politics is usually my shtick.
Losing baseball is like losing part of America. It defines summer, where after all long months of dark and cold, we venture outside to enjoy ourselves. Baseball is a summer game, it is meant to be played outside. Yet, despite the weather improving, we’re still shut in. When the all-American words of “play ball” are uttered again, it will be a sign that things are starting to return to normal. Until then, we’ll have to settle for relays of classic games and John Fogerty singing Centerfield from his home.