I’ve never enjoyed football, and I long ago abandoned hockey and basketball. Baseball was the first of the major team sports that I embraced, and it’s the last I let go of.
I tried to give it one last shot. I tuned in the other day to the “first wild card game in baseball history,” as the announcer intoned on the TBS broadcast. This is a new format this year, where two potential “wild card” teams have to play each other in a one-game “play-in,” with the winner seizing the wild card spot for their league’s playoffs. The ardent sports fan in me thinks this is actually a promising innovation, because it gives two more teams a shot at the playoffs, and it increases tension as the pennant races wind down, while giving more weight to actually winning a pennant, since having the fourth best record in your league doesn’t automatically guarantee you a wild-card spot.
Or at least, the ardent sports fan in me would think this, if he hadn’t died some time ago.
I think he died a few months ago when I saw a headline in Yahoo or MSN saying that some team, maybe the Oakland A’s, went from hopelessness to being the hottest team in the game. At that moment, I realized that I couldn’t name a single player on that team, nor did I care to find out. Oh, and I hadn’t watched a single baseball game all season. Nor did it electrify me that there were seven no-hitters (including three perfect games) this year.
So when I was flipping through channels and happened upon this one last game, St. Louis Cardinals vs. Atlanta Braves, I was surprised to find some lurid fascination in it. I tuned in with the Braves leading 2-0, and I thought a Braves win would be nice, because I at least knew that their star third baseman, Chipper Jones, would be retiring at the end of the season, and a long playoff run would be a respectable way to go out. Jones is a universally respected player, and one of the few active players who was around when I was a kid who still got excited about baseball cards.
Naturally, Jones soon made a throwing error that led to three runs for the opposing team, putting them up 3-2. Then it was 4-2 after a Cardinals home run. Then 6-3, Cardinals, thanks to two more Braves throwing errors. In the bottom of the 7th, Jones came to bat with two outs, two men on base, and a chance to pull his team even. He grounded out swinging on the first pitch.
Somebody stop the bleeding! And yet the worst was yet to come. In an act of unspeakable masochism, the Braves insisted on keeping hope alive by again bringing the tying run to the plate in the 8th inning. With runners on first and second, some player I’ve never heard of hit a long pop into left field. A miscommunication between two fielders allowed the ball the drop untouched. Maybe a hit? Likely an error. Either way, the bases would be loaded with only one out, and the Braves would have their biggest chance of the day, aided by a heap of what is called “momentum.”
But no! The umpire invoked the infield fly rule, the details of which are so arcane that I won’t go into them here, but the result was that the batter was ruled out, and the runners advanced to second and third. Scoring position, but two outs, not to mention a burning raft of controversy surrounding a call that could not have been considered reasonable by anyone other than the employees of Major League Baseball whose sole job is to toe the company line.
Oh, the game was played in Atlanta, and what happened next was what Gorilla Monsoon might have called “pandemonium.” The fans immediately hurled drink cups, food wrappers, and assorted trash and debris onto the field, accompanied by a lusty cascade of boos and hisses. The TV announcers shook their heads and deplored this “very disappointing” and “absolutely embarrassing” behavior on the part of Braves fans. (Yes, an uncharacteristically boorish response by fans who for the last several decades have cheered their team with a “tomahawk chop” and faux-Indian chanting.) Whatever “momentum” existed was extinguished in the 20-minute delay that was required for the grounds crew to pick up the garbage.
Presumably, the Braves players were too ashamed to score after this disgraceful display. But Chipper Jones would have one last chance in the bottom of the 9th, two outs, no one on base. He hit an infield squib that he barely beat out when the first baseman was pulled off the bag. It was ruled a hit instead of an error by the official scorer. Many commentators considered this a gift. I guess you know it’s time to retire when the scorer is giving you a hit that you probably didn’t deserve. Two batters later, the game was over and the Braves were finished, as was Jones’s career.
* * *
At one point in the game, during an unconventional putout (the pitcher threw the ball to first and it bounced off the runner’s back), an announcer said, “In case you’re keeping score, that play was 1-3. Does anyone keep score anymore? I hope so.”
Why do you hope so? What pleasure do you get from seeing solitary old women sitting in the stands and marking down a bunch of numbers to record the mundane details of where the fielders throw the ball?
As a matter of fact, I have started keeping score, and the score is: Sanity 1, Baseball 0
I loved baseball as a child because it was full of baseball cards that I could collect and statistics I could memorize. It’s the only sport where numbers themselves take on mythic status (61, 714, .400). It had old stadiums that people would wax poetic about, and those were just one small piece of the venerable history of a sport that seemed intertwined with the American spirit. Most of all, baseball had “hero moments.”
In the other team sports, there is always some kind of mob ready to spoil your moment – the double-team jumping in front of your last-second shot in basketball, the backfield crowding all available receivers in football, the ridiculous crush of bodies that makes even skating down the ice seem impossible in hockey, let alone shooting with any sort of freedom.
But in baseball, there is patience. The hitter stands in the box, the pitcher stands on the mound, with nothing between them, and they wait, each one knowing that the next pitch can be his “hero moment.”
My fandom had existed as a kind of hero worship, but we long ago entered an era where I no longer know who the players are, and when I can no longer conceive of hunting for heroes in pop culture, but am far more interested in becoming the hero of my own life. And so I find it remarkable that millions of men (and women) can be found who so gladly hitch their dream wagons to these sports teams and their fortunes.
Watching this Braves-Cards game, I saw that professional baseball, as reported and televised, has become a circus act. Once in a while, you get to see some bizarre or humiliating spectacle, and that can be amusing. But the days of baseball being something I identify with are over.
Hats off to Chipper for devoting two decades of his life to The Show. Time to call it a career, for you and me both.