Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Game Above All

(Posted this on Purple Row and Athletics Nation, two SBNation blogs that I participate in, but figured it could use its own post on my blog too. ;) Check back - and scroll down - for my start on the NL Preseason Previews, which no longer will be Preseason unless I get going).

It's 6:35 on Sunday morning and I'm sitting in the Denver airport on the heels of maybe four hours of sleep, awaiting an early-morning flight back to New York and the second half of the college semester. This isn't exactly an hour when most people are compos mentis, and I'm no exception; it's still dark outside and I'm morally objected to morning people in general. But one of the reasons that I stayed awake for so long last night was an idea that had occurred to me earlier, but only in passing. Of course, in the way that your brain does when it's 1 AM, you need to get up at 4, and you can't sleep, I thought it was great. If it's not profound, moving, or even coherent, please don't blame me. Blame the hour. However, it'll need to wait until I have an Internet connection to post, so maybe I can get it to make sense before then.

Opening Day is quickly approaching and I, for one, am thrilled. It's an occasion as American as apple pie or stars and stripes, the renewal and the clean slate, when hopes fly as high as the flag on the clean spring breeze. Everyone has an equal chance again to come out of the gate and make themselves heard, to sail or fall, and the sound of that first pitch on April 1st is beauty itself. This is something it shares with the game in general. The deep grooves of green in a newly mowed field, the smooth chocolate dirt combed and raked, the stark white of the basepaths and the bases, and the feeling of beginning again. Baseball is a precise, geometric, entirely number-oriented game. It's smart, it's sharp, it's stayed almost the same with a few rule tweaks here and there from the days when men played it in baggy wool uniforms in rickety little one-level stadiums. It's enduring. It's constant, it's dependable, and I for one believe that love for it should be a part of your soul.

You may have guessed by now that I like baseball... clearly. More than that, I'm passionate about it. It's my life, which may or may not be healthy and may require psychiatric medicine at some later point. I was introduced to the game when I was seven and I've been an addict since then. My team allegiances have shifted with age, but they're fairly set now and one thing I've never done is hate it, ignore it, or be indifferent about it. I've watched the World Series, or listened to it on the radio, or tracked it on the Internet, for every year since 1995, when I was seven and when I was attending minor-league baseball games sixteen or twenty times a year.

Baseball is simplicity in itself. There isn't a time limit and people complain that it can drag. I've never found that to be the case. I can watch Spring Training games that don't mean a thing and be happy, just because it's the game. I like to watch for a clean dive by the second baseman, a snap to the shortstop, a nifty double play, a catch at the wall, a long homer, a sizzling strikeout. Baseball does things to me in a way I can't precisely explain. I suppose that it's love in the most uncomplicated sense.

We, as fans, spend a lot of time obsessing over statistics, performance, and press, and we should - usually. When they're on that field, men become gods and remain up there for the summer (or come crashing down and turn into toads). They become almost idol-like for us, and that's not really much of a surprise. If we're watching them every day, we begin to take an obsessive interest in them. Our mood for the day can be entirely determined by whether our team wins or loses, and these men are responsible for it.

We give them so much of ourselves and we expect a lot in return for all the emotional investment, late nights, "not now, I'm watching the game"-s and money that we give them, in tickets, caps, shirts, jerseys - everything to show that yeah, we love this team, and we're proud to. But sometimes, we as baseball fans need to step back and peel back that skin of distractions and irritations, and get back to the basics.

When the pitcher toes the rubber and delivers a little white sphere sixty feet, six inches, at speeds ranging from seventy to a hundred miles an hour while another man stands waiting to whack it with a thin little stick, it sounds almost ludicrous. But it's beautiful. On a cold spring night you're at the park in your windbreaker and your scarf, shivering with your hot dog and scorecard clutched in your hand. You're cold, but you're not going anywhere. It's early-season baseball and maybe pennants aren't won in April, but it's the game again and you've missed it so very much during the offseason that you've resorted to badgering your sister to quiz you.

Spring goes onto summer and the days lengthen into long, lazy evenings that you can spend sitting at the park, watching the sun go down in a blaze of glory and enjoying the breeze cooling the hot air. When the sunset etches those tiger stripes of gold and shadow into the green-groomed field, it may be the most beautiful thing on earth. The racks of lights come on and the forty thousand faces peer down and it's become something a little more important by now. You can cheer (you always do) but you're getting more involved. You've been giving this team everything, every day, for two or three months now and you're still ready to go. You're hooked. You may disappoint your family since you just have to catch one more pitch, one more inning, on the events that you can't make it to the park and have to watch on TV.

Then comes autumn, and the chill in the air comes back, but there's more pressure than ever. Your team is in a breakneck race - may make it, may not, your social life is severely suffering, and you just have to know. A thrill and an adrenaline has hold of every pitch the deeper you move into October. You love it more than ever, but boy, are you tired. You resort to all sorts of superstitions that you honestly believe affect the outcome of the game. You need your hat, socks, beard, and you need to be sitting in the same place, at the same angle, with the same drink... but as long as it's working, you're not about to call anyone else for what they're doing.

Then it comes to a glorious, climactic finish (or terrible defeat, depending on your allegiance) and you need the winter to recover, either gloating happily or mumbling about next year. You watch your team's transactions. You write previews, projections. Your long-wearing heart has regenerated itself and it's ready to open up again.

This is baseball: playing catch so late that it's dark, making throws only with the porch light or the moon to judge, then going to the ballpark and marveling at how beautiful just pitch-and-catch can be when it's done by major leaguers. The field, the lights, the applause, the way that you can be shaking your head and cringing in despair and then jumping up and screaming in euphoria, loving the hell out of every single stranger around you despite having never talked to them in your life, exchanging fist bumps, high fives, hoarse shouts. The spring chill, the summer evenings, the autumn thrill, the winter waiting and resting. Talking about it, dissecting it, sometimes wondering how you can keep loving it when it's just killing you. Wishing you could stop caring so much - but you do, you always do, and you go back. After all, you need to see just one more pitch, honey, just one more pitch, before you come up for dinner.

Baseball gets a lot of bad press sometime. There's steroids, scandals, prima donnas, Bud Selig, teams demanding ballparks, teams demanding moves, contraction threats, expansion flops, low TV ratings, snide columnists, angry fans, jaded players, detached executives, and generally a number of other things that overshadow it. But as the great renewal draws closer, Spring Training winds to an end, and everyone gets their pen and pencils (or Internet connections) ready to watch and record and love and hope and die all over again, I thought I'd remind us of what's really important underneath all that: just the pure, simple, real, wonderful game that is baseball.

Bring on the first pitch of 2007. I'm ready.

(Well, I found an Internet connection in my dorm - back to New York safe and sound after a full day of traveling involving a car, two planes, a bus, a train, and a walk. I have to say, it's just a little bit odd how much baseball I kept hearing about today. Somebody asking another passenger when Opening Day was, a kid playing an MLB game on his PlayStation, a guy talking about which teams he liked (the White Sox, Cubs, Padres, and Indians.... and when he asked a little boy, "Do you know why I like the Indians?" the boy answered, "Grady Sizemore?" Priceless. But no, the answer was Major League. A guy reading the baseball section on the train, a mother riffling through her son's baseball cards... it's everywhere, I tell ya).

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