The Beautiful Game of Baseball
For some strange reason, I get the Major League Baseball Network. I also get the National Football League Network—I'm beginning to think my flatmate and I pay for these things since, you know, neither entity is in the habit of giving away broadcasts/content for free.
But, if we're paying for it, it's included in some standard package because our DirecTV deal is no frills.
Anyway, since I abhor reality television and neither Friends nor Seinfeld is making new episodes, the tube is either on a baseball or basketball game, or it's on the MLB Network.
As such, the television is on MLB Network quite frequently since silence frightens me and I generally can't concentrate easily with music on. One day, while it was chattering away in the background, I heard a promo for some conversation with Ken Burns (documentarian extraordinaire) in which he said baseball will always be America's Pastime.
Furthermore, Burns said it's the only sport that can ever wear such a mantle because it's the only sport that has accompanied our country through its infancy to its maturation (and, apparently, beyond).
I don't know if he's right or wrong—it's certainly one way to define "America's Pastime" and I think an appropriate one. By that definition, Burns is right.
Of course, his is not the exclusive way to define such an ethereal phrase.
Regardless, as Burns said it, I found myself trying to find a way to agree with him (obviously, I found one). That was odd since effort would indicate desire i.e. I wanted baseball to be America's Pastime.
That's weird—for desire to manifest itself before I'm aware of it. Nonetheless, I clearly want everyone to appreciate baseball.
I want every sports fan (but I'll be realistic and aim at Americans) to love baseball like I do—above and to the exclusion of all others. Not that there's anything inherently inferior about the other major sports in the United States.
The best all-around athletes in the world can be found in the National Basketball Association. The most physically impressive athletes on the globe probably call the NFL home. The toughest dudes arguably populate the rinks of the National Hockey League.
And, sooner or later, the mixed martial artists might knock everyone down a peg.
But none of the above can touch baseball for its beauty, its artistry, and its delicate suspense. The rub, of course, is that it must be played correctly by gifted athletes for its true colors to shine through.
Part of the problem is gifted athleticism is not a prerequisite for entry to MLB.
With the drawing power of the NBA and NFL at an all-time high, many of our best athletes are opting for the shorter, but more glamorous glory to be had in the other pro leagues (odd since the longer money and safer career is in baseball). I doubt a guy like LeBron James or Adrian Peterson ever seriously considered the Show.
Who wants to waste those dynamic wares on a game favoring sedentary sluggers who plod from bag to bag in excruciating 90 foot increments?
No doubt, there are incredible freaks of nature in the Bigs. But there are also many John Daly types and others who probably wouldn't be out of place in a bowling league.
And that's the bigger part of the problem.
As much as I love Barry Lamar Bonds, his latter version was not the game in its pure form (and I'm not talking about performance-enhancers). Baseball, played correctly, was Barry Bonds pre-1999 and such play is not currently in vogue.
Played well and true to its soul, baseball is a poetic mix of practice, lust, attention to detail, mental fortitude, intelligence, hand-eye coordination, power, speed, defense, and sheer freakin' luck.
It is a guy like Hanley Ramirez or Albert Pujols (I didn't say you had to have a ton of every element). David Wright, Jose Reyes, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Bay, Dustin Pedroia, Mark Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez—watch these guys play every facet of the game and do it hard to staggering results.
You'll see what I mean.
Forget about the mashers who hit 40 bombs and whiff 200 times or ignore the other areas of the game.
That's weak nonsense from a baseball perspective. From a business perspective, it's wonderful and I don't mean to be dismissive—a guy like Mark Reynolds or Adam Dunn or Manny Ramirez is a necessary evil.
But the grace of small ball is not found underneath Manny's dreadlocks. Instead, try peeping the second baseman for the San Diego Padres–Diminutive David Eckstein.
I bet I could beat Eckstein in a foot race and I'm 6'3". I promise you I could destroy him on a basketball court. Yet, he is a Big Leaguer and I am writing about him.
Or two of my favorite ballplayers of all-time—Will Clark and Ozzie Smith.
The Thrill was all business and intensity on the diamond. His left-handed swing was a melodious tutorial and, although he lacked the speed of better athletes, his leather at first base was golden every year (although he was only recognized once).
The Wizard will be my favorite shortstop until I die. You will simply never convince me there has ever been or will ever be a more astonishing defender at the hardest position in baseball. True, he lacked power...unless you really, really needed it (ask a Dodger fan).
And that brings me to the real secret to understanding and appreciating baseball—what goes on beneath the surface, the undercurrents. What happens when you tune out and wait for a crowd reaction to bring you back.
The other sports are action movies where the victor is decided in a blur of collisions, stutter steps, and blinding quickness. They are games where the practitioners at their highest levels barely have time to breath in the heat of the moment—forget about thinking.
Instincts are paramount.
Mistakes are recorded, but devoured by the subsequent action and may or may not require minute dissection. After all, a turnover in basketball can easily be reversed by a steal and basket—at least in the player's mind. The fumbler or quarterback can find shelter on the sidelines while he reconstitutes his confidence for the next drive.
The cinematography moves so quickly, errors may even go unnoticed. In any event, they are expected and incorporated into the action—erased as quickly by the next series in a more fluid game.
There are no such magic erasers in baseball, no such safe havens.
Baseball is the slow suspense-thriller where the audience has plenty of time to pour over ever twist and turn. Every error is dissected over and over until the next, unpromised chance to atone comes down the pike.
Next pitch...next inning...next game...next lifetime? Who knows?
To survive, you must make your peace with such fate. You must be able to suffer a Bill Buckner moment and bounce back. You must endure an 0-30 slump without succumbing to the knowledge you may never hit again. Ever.
You must be able to make two errors in an inning. You must then decide whether you are hoping for another chance to prove yourself or to be delivered to the sanctuary of the dugout by the third out. You must do all of this every second of every pitch of every at-bat.
And you have to make the next play. Regardless.
Some say baseball is slow, and it is slow in terms of superficial action. But the game is a constant assault on your psyche and on your nerves.
There are no minute-long respites of tension through back-and-forth action that makes you forget what the hell is even going on and just revel in the athletic display (or the ability to put it on display).
In baseball, there are eternities of tension separated by nanoseconds of utter terror.
A 3-2 fastball to a No. 4 hitter in a tie game. The moment you realize the ball is coming your way with two outs and the winning run scampering towards the plate. The final instant before the pitcher releases what may be the deciding pitch of an entire season.
Or a meaningless foul ball that will force a repeat of every emotion experienced by every player on the field, fan in the stands, listener on the radio, or viewer at home.
It is a game where the most elite of the elite must absolutely and without a doubt make intimate bedfellows with failure. Aces will have entire years where they can't find their good stuff. Even the chemically-enhanced Bonds failed to achieve his goal at the plate in 65 percent of his attempts.
If you are mentally weak, baseball will change you.
Something that powerful must be respected and, hopefully, appreciated.
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