Some who look at my profile – political science academic, classic movie buff, walker of the fine line between cat person and cat lady, music junkie, and all-around proud intellectual nerd and politico – may find surprising my almost unmatched affection, nay, deep passion and conviction, for this sport on which I grew up and have continued to watch vociferously. It is true that it will never measure up to music in my book. Nothing can. There are never words so quickly loneliness-inducing as “I’m sitting in a railway station, got a ticket for my destination…” as wistful and dreamy as “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves…” as romantic as “These arms of mine,” as rage-inducing as “London Calling,” as quick to leap to my feet and dance (badly) as “Start me up.” And there is something about the opening guitar chord to “A Hard Day’s Night,” the opening harmonica chord of “Thunder Road,” and the opening drumbeat of “Graceland” that fills me with unmatched joy, knowing that even in a world seemingly intent on breaking my heart six ways to Sunday, at least for the next three or so minutes, all is right with the world.
But there is also a similar sound that is comforting in a way less accessible to those not as well-acquainted with the sport, and lost entirely by those watching baseball on muted televisions in bars. The sound to which I am referring is the meeting of the ball and the bat when you can hear just from the sound that it is a home run. Second only to my cats’ purring, I do believe it is my favorite sound in the world, and yet it is not easy to explain to those whose knowledge of baseball does not extend beyond discussions of steroid usage and the magical and romantic (though not in the traditional sense of the word) film Field of Dreams.
But you see, baseball is in my view (and I say this with the caveat that Cal Berkeley football (go bears) is the only other sport that I follow) the most magical and most romantic sport, for while we are unlikely to ourselves witness the return of Shoeless Joe Jackson, at the bottom of the ninth inning with runners in scoring position, virtually anything is possible. The right swing of the bat, the right sound echoing through the stadium as the bat meets the ball, and you’re looking at extra innings (and it’s still early April, so potentially coldly so). And that is just with regular season.
Postseason baseball is its own peculiar set of triumphs and trials, with some of the statistics with which we evaluate players (batting average, home runs, RBI’s, ERA’s, strikeouts, etc.) seemingly conditional upon playing in regular versus postseason, with some large treatment effects among the players. Some psych themselves out of the games. Bonds, for example, was a phenomenal players who was far more valuable during the regular season and seemingly choked postseason. Others look October in the face and say “bring it on.” Those are my favorites. Buster Posey’s grand slam in a 2012 playoff game against the Reds, and Madison Bumgarner’s flawless pitching against the Royals in 2014 will be forever burned into my brain. And yet even without a personal stake (to the extent that one is personally invested absent stocks or financial bets), I still find myself biting my nails when a friend posts a clip from a 1990s game involving the Chicago White Sox (a team for which I have rooted when dating a White Sox fan but am other otherwise unaffiliated). The White Sox were losing by a couple of runs going into the bottom of the ninth inning, but had loaded the bases. (Conversations as to the proper conditions under which to take out pitchers in such conditions can go on and on – for every story of a pitcher collecting himself and squeaking by with runners stranded, others can recall the first pitch by a new pitcher yielding an RBI or worse, though there appears to be consensus in St. Louis that Mike Matheny is too slow to change pitchers). Ventura, now the team’s manager, stepped to the plate. Even on this older footage, one can here the CRACK! of Ventura’s grand slam that won this game that had previously seemed a lost cause. How can one not be romantic about baseball?
It is not without at least some measure of reservation that I profess my profound love for baseball, not least of them being the notoriously conservative nature of the game, standing in stark contrast with my left-of-center preferences. Polls have shown a Democrat-Republican divide between football and baseball, with my political and sport preferences misaligned, and there are countless accounts of the baseball management funds contributed largely to the Republican Party (the Chicago Cubs are the leader in this regard). My home team of the San Francisco Giants has been fairly apolitical, and the New York Mets (I lived in New York City during graduate school) took a stand against gun violence in New York, though my current local team of the St. Louis Cardinals unfortunately allowed its mascot Fredbird to be photographed at a police rally while holding the sign “police lives matter” after the riots over the Ferguson shooting of Mike Brown and the acquittal of the (white) officer involved. I felt betrayed by this sport that has given so much joy, though also anxiety over the many years (I feel as though I’m writing about a relationship).
And yet for all my deep-rooted animosity toward the establishment for which the New York Yankees stand, sitting in the upper deck with a close friend at the new Yankee Stadium (where I committed to rooting for the Yankees only because they were playing the Bush-affiliated Texas Rangers) during a two-hour rain delay and watching the pinstriped footage of the greats, so many of whom had been on the Yankees, it was in fact quite difficult not to develop at least some measure of admiration for this team that had fostered such talents as Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and Babe Ruth.
One of my favorite screenwriters is the oh-so-delightfully-cynical David Mamet, who in his film State and Main has a cheeky exchange between Alec Baldwin’s character and a child getting his autograph:
Baldwin: Chuckie, what’s your favorite sport?
Chuckie: (yelling) Baseball!
Baldwin: Baseball… Well, that’s the national sport.
Silly and contrived though this exchange is, and intentionally so mind you, there is some truth to it. Baseball is distinctly an American pastime, and has historically been associated with patriotic wartime efforts such as the introduction of a women’s league while the able-bodied men were overseas fighting in World War II (see A League of Their Own if you haven’t yet). And it is dominated by another great love of mine, statistics, over which modelers and followers alike obsess in aspiration of better predicting in this moneyball game that in many ways is special because it is dominated by the intangible hope and spirit. Though of course, statistics are fun to mull over, e.g., pr(Cardinals win| playing Cubs), which is for reasons inexplicable to those out of the loop, different than the probability of success against a comparably ranked team. Statistics seem to defy games involving arch rivals. Bit if I left my heart in San Francisco, my heart likewise will forever remain with the San Francisco Giants (Gigantes!), win or lose, October season or not.
And so as a non-romantic in life, I find myself romantically drawn in to baseball every April to October (and my whiskey consumption increasing correspondingly). The season is young and full of possibilities, and I for one am eagerly awaiting what it will bring as these players – strangers in most ways but old friends in some strange sense – continue to “go the distance.”