Lord knows 2020 has been tough on all of us, and baseball is no exception. No matter what trial or tribulation our country has undergone this year, MLB has seemingly found a way to handle it poorly. In the midst of what for many will be the darkest, slowest offseason of their lives, it’s important to remember why we’re here, and why baseball is great. In a winter starved of good news, the draft we conducted last month of all the things we love about this crazy game was a wonderful reminder that in spite of all this badness, there will be a day when we can once again relax in the bleachers under the sun with not a care in the world. So, without further ado, I hope you enjoy my over-romantic breakdown of all these lovely things about baseball that I just think are simply the best.
1.2 – Walkup Music
There’s simply no scenario in which walk-up music (and intro music, for pitchers) doesn’t make the game more fun. Even when it’s off-kilter and cringe, as it often is, it’s a booster shot of life and individuality in-game that all too frequently prioritizes uniformity, unwritten rules, and staying in line. During our live draft, I couldn’t help but laugh at how after playing nearly a decade of replacement-level baseball for my White Sox, my lasting impression of Gordon Beckham is irreversibly tied to The Outfield’s 1986 classic “Your Love,” so needless to say, it was validating to soon learn that I’m apparently not alone! That’s the power of a good walk-up song:
— colleen (@colleensullivan) December 5, 2020
Like pizza, walk-up music is usually worth your while even when it’s bad. Is Mike Stud a good rapper? Of course not! Is it incredible that Marcus Stroman warms up to his songs because they were teammates at Duke? Absolutely! Even if they can’t have their own iconic intros like Mariano or Trevor Hoffman, walk-up and intro songs can make a folk hero out of the most nondescript benchwarmer. Neither Gerardo Parra‘s career nor the story of the 2019 Nationals is complete without Baby Shark, is it?
2.7 – Baseball on the Radio
Given our recent collective obsession with podcasts, it surprises me that baseball on the radio isn’t more popular. A well-called baseball broadcast can put an image of the game in your head that’s just as good as anything on TV, but without needing our undivided attention. Baseball on the radio feels like a Sunday afternoon in the bleachers, where each pitch is simultaneously the reason we’re there, but also a little bit beside the point. With the right voices, the radio brings us the game with an intimacy that’s hard to replicate anywhere else. The inability to see what’s happening and our total reliance on the descriptive power of the announcers to fill in the gaps between the action on the field has the potential to turn any activity into a baseball experience. Ed Farmer, for example, may have infuriated White Sox fans with his steadfast refusal to remind listeners of the score more than once in a blue moon. But he was one of us, a lifelong South Sider who went to St. Rita High School and was an All-Star in a White Sox uniform, and so those broadcasts might hardly feel different than a conversation you might have with your neighbor in line for beer at Comiskey Park. Those little moments when there’s nothing going on between pitches, innings, and mound visits when it’s just us and a couple of disembodied voices—in my mind, that’s where we really get to know baseball.
3.2 – Big Dudes Stealing
The art of the big dude steal is a joy, to me, as one of those rare moments in the game that combines aesthetic ridiculousness with serious skill. Usually, when someone is as big of a human as Pablo Sandoval or Evan Gattis, their job is simple: hit the ball far enough that they can run from base to base as slowly as their heart desires. But similar to Pitchers Who Rake™ (which I’m shocked didn’t make our draft pool, in retrospect), there are few better spectacles in sports than a player succeeding at a completely different part of the game than the one they’re supposed to. It’s fun because it’s never pretty, but it works—think Manute Bol draining six threes in a single half, or William “The Refrigerator” Perry rumbling into the endzone in the Super Bowl. It reminds us that even the pros who don’t resemble your normative Adonis archetype are about a hundred times more athletic than we’ll ever be. And I’ll take a hit of whatever you’ve got if you, presumably non-professional baseball playing reader, think you can swipe a bag on a major league catcher. So, without further ado, let’s take a moment to love and appreciate the fact that Gattis somehow beat this one out, despite the ball being a lot closer to the bag than he is:
And that Pablo Sandoval made it to third base safely here despite being maybe a third of the way down the line as the ball crosses the plate:
Prince Fielder was one of my favorites growing up because, despite his size, he busted his ass on the basepaths like few others. The guy legged out a triple in the ninth inning of an All-Star Game he was winning by three runs! That hustle got him a surprising number of swipes—18 for his career—so here are two images from what was indeed a successful steal:
It runs in the family. In fact, we’re fortunate enough to have footage of his dad Cecil’s first career stolen base, which both he and his teammates seemed to find pretty funny:
The steal is not yet dead; long live the big man steal!
4.7 – The Worst Team Wins 50 Games; The Best Team Loses 50 Games
When the Bears (inevitably) lose on Sundays in the fall, I go to bed pissed off. I avoid football coverage for a day or two until it’s time to delude myself into looking forward to next Sunday. Even when I expect the worst, losing still stings because it only happens once a week. A really bad team can easily go four, five, six weeks at a time without winning a game. Reasonable people may disagree, but I don’t find such an absence of winning to be a particularly rewarding experience.
On the other hand, when I go to bed after a White Sox loss—and there’s been no shortage of those in recent years—it hardly sticks with me at all, because there’s always a game tomorrow, and they have to win some of them! Even in the very worst of those Sox seasons, I still had about a 40% chance of seeing a win every time I went to the ballpark. It wasn’t much, but with cheap tickets, it was worth my while. At some point even in the worst baseball season, your team will play well for a few days. They’ll give you something to smile about, something to make you think better days are ahead. It might be real or it might be completely misplaced hope, but it’s always there. It’s a special quality of the everyday grind that is spring and summer baseball, and one that I’ve grown to greatly appreciate in my time as a fan of a losing team that still won 60 games every year.
5.2 – Being Out Under The Sun In The Summer
Would it be too cringe to mention that my Hinge profile says an ideal first date is a sunny afternoon baseball game? As we come terrifyingly close to having lived a full year in Pandemia, I hope this one doesn’t require a super thorough explanation. Just picture yourself in the bleachers, or maybe down one of the baselines or in the topmost reaches of the upper deck. There might be a few clouds dotting the sky; once in a while, one of them wanders across the sun and momentarily drapes the field in a little shade. If you’re lucky, there’s nobody sitting in front of you and you can put your feet up, There’s a big plastic cup of watery beer—not a bad thing, necessarily—that you probably paid way too much for in the cupholder by your feet. The price-gouging doesn’t bother you as much as it probably should. You’ll only need to get up and move your feet and cheer and be active once in a little while and win or lose, the sun will leave you happily exhausted at the end of the day. It’s a good kind of exhaustion, one that makes you feel like you did a good job enjoying the experience of being human. Say what you want about anything else, but baseball was meant to be played (and watched) under the sun.
6.7 – Diving Plays
Baseball is a slow burn, a steady diet of low-key pitch and catch punctuated by brief moments of excitement. In any sport, what we really live for is the uncertainty baked into those exciting moments: that instant when the basketball is in the air between the shooter’s hand and the basket; when the QB rears back for a fifty-yard bomb that could be either a great idea or a terrible one. It’s that fleeting moment of anticipation where we’re truly unsure of what’s about the happen, and things almost seem to move in slow motion.
In baseball, there aren’t too many of those moments, for better or worse. The battle between the pitcher and hitter happens 300 times per game. And besides, baseball would be exhausting if we were on our toes for every single pitch. But diving plays, as well as their close cousin, the home run robbery, are the apotheosis of that out-of-nowhere big play moment we’re always looking for. Those of us who could be considered hardcore baseball fans have a pretty good sense of where the ball is going when the hitter makes contact. There are always surprises, but most of the time, we know a hit when we see one. But sometimes it doesn’t go according to plan. Maybe it’s a grounder that looked like it was going to a hole, or a sinking line drive certain to hit the grass or a deep fly in the gap that gives the outfielders a seemingly impossible expanse of ground to cover.
Then there’s the moment when you comprehend that the player can’t get to the ball as they normally would, and the split-second afterward when you realize they’re actually going for it anyway. Is there any image in baseball more compelling than a player mid-air, parallel to the ground, stretched and twisted and contorted in ways that seem superhuman, eyes locked in on the ball mere inches away from getting past them? Pro athletes routinely make things that are really hard, look really easy, but we love seeing the athletic feats that none of us could dream of doing in a million years. A diving play leaves nobody unsatisfied. A fan gets their money’s worth, and a kid has something cool to practice on the field or in the backyard. Sometimes, even the hitter feels obligated to tip their cap to the opponent. It’s the best of baseball, in so many different ways.
7.2 – A Fan Catching A Foul Ball In His Beer With A Baby In The Other Arm
Really couldn’t resist this one, because, despite its odd specificity, I can picture it in my head without even trying. There are SO many dynamics in play here! Even a lowly 70 MPH exit velocity is pretty scary when it’s flying right at you, your beer, and your baby, so there’s a pretty high amount of skill and coordination required. Not to mention the fact that proportionally, a beer cup is more akin to a ski-ball target than a baseball glove. Even without the element of surprise or the live human in the other arm, catching a foul ball in a beer cup is worthy of an entry all by itself.
I’ve never tried it personally, of course, but I imagine there’s a heck of a decision-making process going on whenever one of these oddities lands on SportsCenter. Many of us have been in that position where a foul ball is casually hit in your direction, and– oh **** it’s actually coming towards me it’s landing in my section and I don’t have time to think AHHHHHHHHH before the thwack of the ball hitting the seats a few feet away and rattling around underfoot and being pounced on.
Imagine you’re going through all this, but there’s also a big full cup of beer in one hand (that you just paid $14 for), and a live human in the other. It’s not like you can just casually toss either of them to your partner! Putting a baby anywhere near a batted ball is a horrible idea, but it’s not like we have any choice! And at the same time, opportunities to snag a baseball are few and far between. My first foul ball, at age 9 or so, was also my dad’s first foul ball, at age 50 or so. What’s really the priority here, anyway? And yet, with all of these factors to consider, there are the brave few who attempt this feat of coordination nonetheless. If you succeed, you might get a voiceover from Scott Van Pelt later in the night. If you fail, well, enjoy the bruise, and go calm down your distressed baby. Depending on what bad team you’re watching, the biggest applause of the day could very well go to the fan who dares to rise to the challenge. And rightfully so! A word of advice, though—you should probably make sure the child is secured before triumphantly celebrating:
8.7 – Ejections
In most other sports, the rules are pretty clear when it comes to deciding what merits an ejection. In basketball, you get two techs, and unless you’re the unfairly-maligned Rasheed Wallace, it’s pretty hard to get booted from an NBA game without deserving it. They also use replay to assess flagrant fouls, as in the NHL, which mandates that game misconduct penalties be subject to video review. And in football, the sport being what it is, ejections are typically saved for the most vicious, uncalled for acts of violence. All in all, it’s pretty logical.
Umpires, though? They have about as much rhyme or reason as your typical Rockies free agent signing. You never know exactly how much leeway you’re going to have on any given day. Joe West burnt his toast in the morning? Curse once, and you’re out of there quicker than a Kevin Cash call to the bullpen. But get a guy like Bill Haller behind the dish on a good day, and you can spend most of the game doing your best Earl Weaver impression before hitting the showers (Warning: oodles of unsavory language):
The result of all this is that while ejections in other sports are typically a serious matter, it’s a full-blown theater in baseball. To this day, it’s unclear what it was about Brett Gardner‘s ceiling-banging that warranted an ejection, but it gave Aaron Boone a reason to go out there and yell some stuff about savages in the box. And only in baseball does anyone ever think that getting the boot might be a legitimate strategy to give a team a little life. Most of the time, it doesn’t even have to make sense. The manager knows exactly what they’re doing, the umpire also knows exactly what they’re doing, and for all we know (at least, in the days before live mics), they’re yelling recipes for their grandma’s red sauce above the roar of the crowd. I still don’t have the slightest clue what “ass in the jackpot” means, but Terry Collins made his point!
Usually, in sports, an ejection means that somebody’s been injured, or that the most serious standards of sportsmanship have been breached. In baseball, an ejection might be the most entertaining thing you see all day. I’m always here for it! I’m here for all of these things, and hopefully, you are, too.
Featured Image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)