You learn baseball from your dad and you smell leather and other romanticized odors like mowed grass and hot dogs. There’s the click-clack of cleats, the seventh inning stretch, and the Anthem. If you’ve never struck a guy out – looking — with an inside fastball, I recommend trying. Addictive. America’s pastime consumed me.
To pass time when we couldn’t play the pastime, my friends and I developed a basic name game. If a field, bats, and gloves weren’t available, we’d play the Name Game. I was dominant and here’s how that game worked: one person would begin by naming a ball player. The next person would have to cite a player whose first name began with the first letter of the previously named player’s surname. Example: Steve Finley (he of the seven-man 300/300 Club which I bet you wouldn’t guess) would beget Fernando Tatis (he of two grannies in one inning), would lead to Tom Gordon (you might be able to get away with Flash in certain company), prompting George Brett (that home run tho), and so on. If you couldn’t name a player you were eliminated. And if you could work in an Ugueth Urbina reference, you generally won. We would play this game on road trips or during batting practice. Boys celebrating the game we loved and I’m telling you, I was dominant. I was Pujols facing Lidge, Koufax’s final five seasons, the 2001 Mariners (regular season) and Bonds. I was Reggie Jackson in the fall. I was as good as The Kid was fun. I owned the Name Game title. I knew all of baseball.
I used this skill for general good. Primarily I’d say it was to inflate my ego in the face of adolescent awkwardness. If I stood no chance to impress girls, flaunting sports knowledge to teenage boys would have to do. Bus trips to games were my time to shine. This Name Game would commence and by the time we’d arrive at a rival institution, we were deep, dropping names of Pirates’ middle relievers (I see you, Scott Sauerbeck).
And how did I become dominant? By scouring the daily paper for who had thrown well or who got shelled. For who doubled, homered, or took the golden sombrero. Every morning the Sports Section was mine to absorb. I’d sit in adolescent silence, eating whatever food was put in front of me by my thoughtful and doting parents, and pillage the quantification of America’s game, data’s most perfect product, the box score. I’d lose myself – and track of when to leave for the bus – memorizing leader boards and second basemen flirting with the Mendoza Line. I consumed as much of the sport as I could.
Growing up we didn’t have cable television. This was a familial decision my father still pats himself on the back for and only ensured that my brother and I would become television fiends. On vacation we’d watch SportsCenter from 7am until the strong man competitions came on. At home we’d watch whatever network broadcast game there was on our 13-inch TV-VHS combo with rabbit ears that more accurately resembled a coat hanger. I’m convinced mom and dad never knew we got reception. Mom definitely had no idea. And no matter how bad that reception was, I could still hear Tim McCarver. We’ll call it formative. I bought the entire 2001 World Series on recorded VHS tapes off of eBay. I also went to games two and seven of that World Series, the latter of which remains the greatest sporting event I’ve ever live-witnessed.
And I played baseball, too. I loved it and then I got scared of the high school coach but everyone gets a little spooked at 14. I told a friend I didn’t think baseball should be a religion and joined the tennis team. I kept reading those box scores, though. And then the game brought me back. I exchanged forehands for fastballs and I was back on the diamond, my own name and numbers making it into box scores in the Sports section. I’d become a devout believer in the Church of Baseball and everything Crash Davis evangelized. Eventually I’d be offered scholarships and even once filled out something for the Mets. One time, in college, a scout recognized me in front of my teammates. I was awesome.
All of which is to say that I loved baseball more than anything. And now I don’t.
We live in a world of immediacy and baseball is anything but immediate. I’ve grown past box scores and the daily scouring of the paper with the advent and convenience of smartphones, Twitter, and everything else. Hell, the newspaper died. All of this indubitably plays a part in an overarching loss of interest in baseball.
But if I loved the game, I’d make time for it.
Baseball lost me as it cannibalized. It looked deep into its dark corners, sifting through discarded syringes and played dumb to its dirty little secret. Baseball exposed itself as systemically flawed while maintaining an arrogance of historic infallibility. The game raised up in arms against itself and still asked us to love baseball. They served up our favorite representatives and asked us to hate them. All those players I’d won countless Name Games with were vilified.
Senator Mitchell got involved. He crafted up a list of People Who Cheat, mic dropped, and left us all to figure the next steps out. For me it was the beginning of the end as I watched my heroes turn into cowering or lying (both?) subpoenaed witnesses. It was like all those hours sneaking TV had been erased. Like 1998 was a bad dream and it didn’t matter that I was on my way to Hebrew school with mom listening to the radio when 62 snuck over the Busch stadium wall.
And maybe they were villains? Breaking the rules shouldn’t be celebrated. It should be punished. But at the expense of the sport itself? There’s an air of cynicism that now surrounds every success, every star making moment. Mike Trout is…Subway?
It made sense that offenders be found and punished, but what of root cause analysis? A beautiful game was still being played, my favorite game, and we got away from that. Celebrating the intermittent validations of presumed guilt across a game that cast a shadow over itself. And that’s my problem. Not needles or pills.
I don’t love baseball anymore because it hasn’t given me a reason to love it.
Terrence Mann once told us that “[baseball] reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.” But what happens when baseball itself has rolled by like an army of steamrollers? When baseball has been erased like a blackboard and the very keepers of the game are the ones standing in a cloud of chalk?
What happens is that I fall out of love. I don’t read the box scores and I don’t know Anthony Rendon from Anthony Buordain. And when I say ‘baseball’ I mean the collective. From commissioner Selig and his office; to the purveyors of prose refusing to put even perceived users into what now amounts to their Hall of Fame; to the players for their disturbing combination of arrogance and ignorance to the point of creating fake websites as cover up.
Baseball players, coaches, owners, writers, commissioners don’t owe me anything. I didn’t need anyone to fall on the sword. But they might’ve owed it to themselves to try. Alex Rodriguez may be a complete weirdo, A-Fraud, but he was suspended 211 games and never once failed a drug test. Nary a positive. Yet there was an all hands man hunt to bring down the face of the sport, a retroactive finger pointing and smear campaign that – if you read between the lines – perhaps only highlight’s the sports own arrogance and naivety. No one fell on the sword because they were too busy wielding it around, beheading everyone they could. Along the way they forgot about baseball. There’s nothing to celebrate in wrecking all that once was good.
It should, however, be noted that baseball has done a good job of implementing improved-if-not-quality drug detecting measures. For a change adverse sport, they’ve been on the cutting edge. Sure comprehensive nature of this program has been lauded by Selig — no stranger to self-congratulations — but it has no doubt improved. For example, there were 3,747 tests administered in 2010. In 2013, that number increased 44% with 5,391 blood and urine tests. Furthermore, and this is the real juice of the juice tests, there were ten fewer positive test results (18 vs. 8) between 2012 and 2013. I applaud what appears to be progress and root cause analysis. A view through the windshield, not the rearview mirror.
I don’t mean this as a long-winded referendum on steroids and baseball. It’s a known issue, a flawed game. But just as we’re a time crunched lot, we also love our heroes to have a few blemishes. A Phoenix has to rise from the ashes. Baseball can be messed up from the mound to Moneyball and we can be OK with it. All we need is a reason to cheer.
So give me a star.
Let Yasiel be Yasiel and Bryce be Bryce the way we let Manny be himself. Let Alex Rodriguez demonize his own legacy. Celebrate Mike Trout putting a bad two-strike changeup off the wall. Marvel at Clayton Kershaw. We’re getting emo? Fine. RE2PECT, he’s the remaining bastion of an adored era. Baseball’s stars have dimmed because it no longer allows itself to have them.
Do you realize how much more than synthetic testosterone it takes to save 84 consecutive games? You walk 232 times in a single season and the circumference of your bicep means little to me in comparison to your plate approach. It’s the single most difficult thing in sport – to hit a round ball with a round bat – you’re either good at it or you’re not. I’m not condoning steroid use but I also can’t condone ignoring amazing.
Because I can’t name their names anymore.
If we played the Name Game today, I wouldn’t stand a Kruk-versus-Randy’s chance. You’d kick my ass and I’d un-lamentingly hand the title over. Wouldn’t flinch. And maybe that’s supposed to make me sad, it is just a silly road trip game after all. If baseball is to have marked the time (still quoting you, Terrence Mann) then relenting this title, in some regards, is just recognizing change.
Yet I find myself tuning in. It was important that I turn on Tuesday night’s Giants-Dodgers game and to know whether or not the Pirates won. I’ve found myself wanting to know how Kershaw’s season stacks up. I’m flabbergasted that today will be Derek Jeter’s first and only home game in which he is not in playoff contention. I find myself moved by the Jeter ads and articles and praise. Deserving or otherwise, he’s leaving. And I’m tuning in.
Because I’m finding that while I maybe don’t love baseball anymore, I do love what it represents for me. The TV in the back bedroom, any teammate I ever had, that time Sam threw the kid out at home, my dad throwing tennis balls at me so I could learn to catch like Charles Johnson.
Jeter isn’t baseball. He just represents the baseball I once loved, that worked hard to capture my attention. Baseball doesn’t do that anymore.
But it once did and I appreciate that.
So I still tune in.