How can you not be romantic about baseball?

This essay was originally published in the September 7th 2021 issue of Trinity News.

Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In school, I didn’t enjoy PE class. I was a weedy, asthmatic, bookish kid lacking the stamina and co-ordination that those two hours a week demanded of me. The problem only got worse once I reached second level, when I began to feel self-conscious and insecure in the hyper-masculine environment the likes of which only teenage boys can cultivate.

I wasn’t one for spectator sports either. I was mostly lost in discussions of football and rugby throughout my youth, despite a theoretical allegiance to Manchester United and Leinster, which I had really just inherited from my older brother and my county of birth respectively. It seemed like a fun thing to be interested in, and would doubtless have been a useful social shibboleth to have, but just didn’t do it for me.

But I always loved rounders. The most oft-forgotten GAA sport held, and continues to hold a special place in my heart. It was fast, exciting, and just manly enough without requiring me to throw or kick anything. The thud of a pitched tennis ball ricocheting off your racket and tracing a high arc across the park was enough to make anyone feel like Babe Ruth.

Perhaps it was nostalgia for moments like that which drove me towards baseball, years later, at the age of 20. What actually first caught my attention, though, was sabermetrics – the field of statistics as they relate to baseball. It’s a very unsexy and not at all romantic thing to be drawn to, but I like numbers. Numbers make sense. And baseball is full of numbers.

Like so many people, I saw Moneyball, and unlike many of those people, I was really very much drawn to the idea of winning a professional sporting title because you can write better Excel formulas than anyone else. I didn’t know anything about the sport, save that which I’d picked up on the rounders field, but I was of course familiar with its mythos and its place in US pop culture. And now I had an in.

So, I started reading through Wikipedia’s “Glossary of baseball terms” and watching old games on YouTube, and something strange started to happen. I started to get really into it. The team I’d arbitrarily picked to follow (on the basis that they’re sort of associated with NASA and space exploration, and I’ve always been a space nerd) went from an object of interest to one of pride and finally to one of almost religious importance.

I found myself staying up into the small hours of the morning to watch games taking place six time zones away (instead of staying up because I’ve always had a terrible sleep schedule). I bought a hat. I learned to yell “are you blind? There’s no f***ing way that was a strike!” at the TV. I became a sports person.

Baseball is not, on the surface, a very interesting sport. The average length of a major league game in 2021 is, according to Baseball Reference, three hours and eight minutes. The longest game of this season so far was a bit over five and a half hours, two weeks ago. Most of that time the game isn’t even being played. Hitters are adjusting their bat grip and taking practice swings, or pitchers are kicking at the dirt on the mound and spitting. The fans in the stadium spend a lot of the game talking to each other, drinking beer, and eating hot dogs rather than being enraptured by the action.

So what’s the appeal? Maybe we love baseball because of its emotional heights. When Tom Hanks’ character in A League of Their Own shouted “there’s no crying in baseball!”, he could scarcely have been more wrong. I watched my beloved team lose (deservedly, unfortunately) in the final game of the 2019 World Series, at 4am, alone in my darkened kitchen. I’ve watched millionaire athletes sob or punch each other over the outcome of just one of each season’s 162 games. I know there is, in fact, a lot of crying in baseball, and every other kind of emotional outburst besides.

Because though baseball is slow, it makes up for this by concentrating all the excitement, tension, and pressure into one or two crucial moments a game. You can physically feel it, that tightness in your chest, as the hitter steps up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning. There are two outs, his side is down by a couple runs, the bases are loaded, and it’s the last game of a postseason series. You could be a hundred metres away in the stands or a thousand kilometres away watching a livestream, but when the batter and the pitcher lock eyes across 60 feet and six inches of grass and dirt and the whole stadium goes quiet, you might as well be standing behind home plate. And in just a moment, one team will explode into expressions of ecstasy, and the other will feel the bottoms of their stomachs drop. 

Hanks’ Jimmy Dugan was getting at something, though. So often the game is struggling with questions like whether grown men are allowed to cry. It speaks to something that all of the baseball stories in popular culture are partially about masculinity in crisis. Dugan (while not the star of the movie) angry and wretched, trying to get to grips with having his meteoric career shattered by alcoholism. Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane in Moneyball has never really recovered from his career never really taking off, and can’t figure out who he is if not a baseball player. The entire plot of Field of Dreams, supposedly the only film it’s popularly permissible for men to cry at, is about a guy who just wanted to play a game of catch with his now-deceased father.

Baseball, and by extension baseball movies, is the stage on which American men play out the drama of their inner lives, because they don’t know how or where else they could. Not only is there crying in baseball, perhaps baseball is the only place you get to cry.

But often-times, baseball doesn’t need us to write our personal stories in the margins. It has plenty of drama of its own. On 24 August 1919, Ray Caldwell, in his first game pitching for Cleveland, was getting ready to throw the final out of the game when he was struck by lightning. The bolt knocked off the catcher’s mask and the third base coach’s hat, and drove Caldwell to the ground. Many onlookers reported feeling a tingling sensation and their hair standing on end for several minutes after. After a moment, Caldwell got back up, dusted himself off, pitched, and forced a groundout to win the game.

Caldwell survived mostly unscathed, but a year later his teammate Ray Chapman would become the only person to date to be killed during a major league game, when he was struck in the head by a pitch.

But in terms of single pivotal moments that reinforce Billy Beane’s rhetorical question in the title of this article, perhaps nothing compares to game seven of the 2016 World Series. The Chicago Cubs were facing Cleveland, both teams had won three of the first six games, and the game was tied at six runs each after nine innings. The Cubs hadn’t won a national title in 108 years. When they won their 1908 World Series, the Ottoman Empire still existed.

With the game tied after nine, it would have to go on to extra innings. But then it started raining. Ohio’s Progressive Field isn’t a ballpark with a roof, so play had to be stopped.

It was just a comparatively short, 17-minute rain delay, but no doubt a tense one as the Cubs retreated to the visitors’ locker room. The players may have been thinking about the last time their team had reached the World Series but failed to win, in 1945. Or maybe the time before that, in 1938, or any of the other five times in 1935, 1932, 1929, 1919, and 1910. They may have been feeling a certain amount of pressure not to add an eighth entry to that list of almosts.

So Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward gathered his teammates together. He told them he loved them and that he was proud of them. He told them they were brothers, and that they had to look inside and remember all that each of them had done during the season to get to that moment. He said: “We’re the best team in baseball, and we’re the best team in baseball for a reason. Now we’re going to show it.”

“I don’t know how it’s going to happen, how we’re going to do it, but let’s go out and get a win.”

And they went out and got it. Once the game restarted, the Cubs immediately batted in two runs and won their first World Series in 108 years.

I never thought I’d become a sports fan. Ray Caldwell never thought he’d be struck by lightning. Jason Heyward probably never thought he’d almost single-handedly break his club’s century-long curse. But in baseball as in life, everything can change in a single moment.

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