People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh…people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”
We missed you baseball. Sunday night, we welcomed you back in to our lives. As the Cubs and Cardinals began their six-month odyssey of sacrifice bunts, missed cutoff men and infuriating mound visits by managers and pitching coaches alike, millions of us across the country (indeed the world) settled in to our couches and bar stools to watch.
As a child, and continuing in to adulthood, I have always been a creature of routine. I have my TV shows, my mealtimes and my habits. Perhaps this is why I have always felt such a natural connection with baseball. More than any other sport, baseball is one of quiet rhythm, of repeated actions and precise movements. No other sport is quite like it.
Basketball is a game of godly athleticism, while football lets us marvel at insanely large humans throwing their bodies against each other violently. Hockey is similar to football, except on ice and every player has a lengthy stick and sharp blades attached to their feet. Running is a purely solitary task; runners often competing more against their own minds and bodies than their fellow competitors.
Football and soccer are once-a-week spectacles, the athletes’ bodies needing days of rest to recuperate from the physical toll of their endeavors. Basketball and hockey play about every other day, with incidences of back-to-back games mixed in with lazy spells of two or three days off. Driven by TV schedules and travel times, it feels haphazard and random.
Only baseball even attempts to take the field every day; most of the players enter the ballpark ready to play. Off days are more a treasured privilege to rest and less a right to expect. The grind of working out, practicing, warming up and playing mirrors the daily struggle of the rest of us, the cab drivers, businessmen and farmers. (Though the benefits are better, and I doubt your last cabbie had his own clothing line.)
The idea of baseball being closer to ‘regular’ life than other sports goes both ways. We force our ideals on the game as much as it imitates us. This is why some of the major leagues’ brightest talents like Yasiel Puig or Bryce Harper are constantly dogged by criticisms of not playing hard enough or getting dirty, even as they just throw out a runner 300 feet away, or hit a 450 foot home run. Meanwhile, relatively mediocre players are routinely lauded for sprinting down to first base on routine groundouts or popouts. It’s not enough to be talented, intelligent and competitive: you have to show a constant thirst to succeed.
This is also why runners insist on diving in to first base, despite the increased danger of injury and multiple studies showing that it actually slows you down. Baseball is great; not always smart.
Baseball seems to fit our year perfectly as well. The season begins as the weather warms up and spring begins. It’s brisk at first, winds whipping through the stadiums and carrying hot dog wrappers on to the field. April turns to May and June, and players and fans alike begin to sink in to the routine. There are no longer any huge firsts of the season – home runs have been hit, strikeouts recorded and umpires booed. The dog days set in. Ballparks become warm, then hot as the sun beats down relentlessly. Players begin to pick up small injuries. A jammed finger here, a weak ankle there. But again, the constant nature of the game whispers in their ear to keep playing. Don’t take a day off – you might get Wally Pipp’d and lose your spot.
Just as we all seem to reach the breaking point, the routine approaching tedium, September begins. A wave of young players flood the dugouts, and we are revived by the joy of seeing a rookie outfielder record his first RBI against a wily veteran, or an impossibly young reliever catches us off-guard with 100 mile per hour heat on the inside corner. Playoff races steal our breath, as competing teams are whittled down and eliminated from contention. Every game is vital, a blown call by an umpire or tactical error by a manager draws the ire of the masses.
At last, the playoffs begin. Only the best of the best remain. Battle-tested clubs with deep lineups, ace starters and unhittable relievers. Also, a team which barely broke .500 but squeaked in to a division title. The game is cruel with its change – a 162-game marathon abruptly shifts in to five or seven game sprints. A game of tiny margins that relies on half a year of games to even out comes down to a week’s worth of pitches. A game supposed to be played in the heat and sun is thrust in to cold rain and late nights at the most important time of the year.
Finally, as the temperature continues to sink, and fans finally concede the battle against woolen scarves and thick coats, a champion is crowed. Out of 30 teams, one remains, successful while all others have failed. The champion celebrates, the loser regrets.
Then, just like a candle that catches a breeze, it’s gone. We are forced to endure four months of tarped-over fields and locked gates. Out of desperation, we grasp for false imitations of the game, tidbits of news of contract extensions and free agent negotiations. We say goodbye to retiring legends and welcome the latest prospects, tantalizing us with thoughts of a new generation of highlights. But it’s not the same, and just like the weather , we left cold and bereft without the game we love.
Until we hear it. The sound of gum chewed through ragged breaths as players run sprints. The first crack of a bat splintering on a pitch that got in on the batter’s hands. The thump of a line drive off the outfield wall. The ice thaws and we head back to the green fields, for another year.