A lot of people don’t give a shit about sports. Somehow, I’m friends with some of them, related to a few even. “A bunch of millionaires throwing a ball around,” they say dismissively. Worse, they point out the prima donnas are often egged on by crowds of drunken assholes who throw objects at one another, stab each other in parking lots, and most astonishingly – when their teams actually fucking win – go out and riot and loot like it’s the end of the world. Sports to them appear uncivilized, inside and out.
Baseball, I think, presents the biggest and easiest target. After all, the significance of the Olympics and the World Cup are obvious; meanwhile, the purity and chaos of collegiate athletics elevates events on that level. The artistry of basketball, the violence of football – made bare for all the world to see, if not understand. But baseball doesn’t quite fit; it’s a sport that often remains defined by its romanticism. The game itself is marked by inaction rather than action, through not only the course of the season, but the course of the game: inning breaks and pitching changes, steps off the mound and foul balls, sunflower seed spitting and cup adjustments.
Baseball, people invariably say, reveling in the simplicity if not the originality of the sentiment, is boring. And they’re not necessarily wrong. I’ve been a fan for over 20 years and have never once tried to keep score at a game. I lose track of innings and outs and balls and strikes, even lose consciousness with some degree of regularity while watching the national pastime. I’m the first to complain that games are way too long, and I’ve arrived late to and left early from the stadium more times than I care to admit – in a quintessentially Southern California move. An individual baseball game can in fact be a grind, a slog, yes, a bore. But that’s beside the point.
What sets baseball apart after all, is that the game cannot be taken on its own; indeed, it does not exist on its own. The sport derives meaning from its interconnectedness, from its very ubiquity. From April until October, earlier if spring training is included and later if winter ball is included, baseball is there: every day for hours on end. It doesn’t demand constant attention for every pitch of every inning of every game – only true psychopaths would consider the proposition. But it’s nonetheless comforting to know that the game goes on, on television, on the internet, in newspaper box scores. It’s there, and it will always be there.
Life is unremarkable a lot of the time. There might be a nice meal, a productive few hours at work, a solid conversation, a connection. Most days bleed together though. And they need to. Because the triumphs achieved are earned through these seemingly indistinguishable hours and days. The big moments in life would mean nothing without the grind, the slog, yes, the bore. Baseball, in a manner unmatched by any other sport, replicates that process naturally. The game never needs to impose a narrative: it creates its own by sheer duration, building history. Nothing memorable happens most games. Yes, there’s a frozen rope of a throw, a mammoth home run, a sharp breaking ball – they are world-class athletes, after all. But most games come and go.
What makes baseball remarkable is what that endurance builds up to. It is the pause, the inaction, yet also the constant presence that offer meaning to the bigger moments when they do come. This is true not only of the individual game but of the entire season, the former a microcosm of the latter. It is because even the greatest players fail seven out of ten times that it feels monumental when they don’t with the game on the line. It is because there are 162 games on the schedule that a must-win game in October looms inconceivably larger than life. It is precisely because baseball is so often boring that it is anything but.
Earlier today, I watched my team come back from a four run deficit in the top of the ninth inning to win a game they absolutely had to in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. It was nothing short of a miracle: teams had lost the last 1,761 games in that same situation on the road, dating back to June 2012. But the thing is, none of that will matter in less than eight hours. They’ll have to win again, against a guy whose team hasn’t lost a game he’s started the past two months. And even if they do win, they would have to get some outside help to force a tie-breaker for the right to play another elimination game on the road. See, that’s the amazing thing about baseball. There’s always tomorrow – until there’s not.