Friday, April 12, 2024

A National Tonic

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If you want to learn about America culturally, politically, or just the brass tacks of it all, you go to movies. Failing that, you watch baseball. Baseball may be a flawed metaphorical representation of American life but it comes closer than most things.

You may think I’m joking but I’m not. Of all the sports, baseball is the only one that makes sense to me. Time is abstract in the game, the field fans out as opposed to running along a horizontal line, the sounds of the game are instantly recognizable, it is the best thing about America outside of the movies.

We played baseball even during the Civil War. It’s as if the basic makeup of our national character demanded we play the game even in our darkest times. Like movies baseball is a collective experience.
In 2014, the Kansas City Royals had made it to the American League Wildcard game. We were up against the heavily favored Oakland A’s. Their General Manager Billy Beane had instigated a new way of playing the game that had allowed the Red Sox to break their Bambino curse in 2004. Beane and his team were the subject of both a best selling book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game” and a  2011 movie Moneyball starring Brad Pitt.

No one gave the Royals much of a chance. As Sophia Petrillo would say, picture this: bottom of the twelfth, the game is tied 8-8, and Christian Colon has made it to first but found himself unbelievably stranded there as the great and majestic A’s cycled through three pitchers, finally landing on Jason Hammel.  Now comes our catcher Salvador Perez, who has been up to bat five times and has struck out each time. Colon, being the beautiful bastard he is, stole second when the A’s catcher Derek Norris dropped the ball as Hammel was trying to give Perez a ball so he could throw Colon out. (Trivia: Hammel now pitches for the Royals and he’s just as good now as he was then.)

So now Hammel has a man on second, and the guy at the plate has hit nothing but air the whole game. He throws Perez a slider. Perez swings—at a pitch he has no business swinging at mind you—and like a scene from The Natural, exploding lights and everything, he hits a line drive down left field where Gold Glove winner Josh Donaldson just misses the catch. Colon scores and WE WIN! Holy mackerel. For the first time since 1981 we’ve got a shot at the World Series.

What follows is an historic seven game winning streak. We play the Los Angels Angels and put them away in three in a best of five series. We play the Baltimore Orioles who we sweep in a four best of seven series.

On the other side of the baseball world though, the San Francisco Giants are making history themselves. They’ve just played the longest game in postseason history. A staggering game of eighteen innings in game 2 of the National League Division series against the Washington Nationals.

The Giants easily put them away in two more games, then win four games against the St. Louis Cardinals in the Championship series and…finally it’s here. The Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants in the 2014 World Series. We take them to the full seven in a best of seven game series.

In the seventh game is when things get weird. Madison Bumgarner is on the mound for San Francisco. Bumgarner had been called in at the top of the fifth after only two days rest. He then proceeded to strike out 14 batters. It’s now the bottom of the ninth, two outs, the score is 3-2 Giants, and Alex Gordon is on third. With Gordon,the tying run, just ninety feet away, Salvador Perez steps up to the plate. And every Royals fan’s heart stops as the baseball gods give us a familiar final act.

Bumgarner is not Hammel though. He throws Perez six pitches, all fastballs, all high and inside. A bastard of a pitch because of how easy it is to see but deceptively hard to hit. Perez finally makes contact.  The ball pops up. It’s a foul-but it’s caught by third baseman Pablo Sandoval. The Giants win.

I told you about that series and not the 2015 World Series where we put away the New York Mets in four games, because baseball isn’t about winning. As a nation and as a culture, we’re obsessed with winning. The Grand High Sentient Cheeto that conned his way into the Oval Office even campaigned on ‘Winning’.

There are one hundred and sixty two games in baseball. Starlin Castro, second baseman for the New York Yankees, has the most hits in all of baseball right now, with fifty four hits. He has played in thirty seven games and gone to bat one hundred and fifty four times. Of those fifty four hits, twenty nine of those are scoring runs.

You’re going to lose more than you’re going to win. But that’s okay. You’re not alone. Don’t worry about the clock. You can’t beat time. All you can do is step up to the plate and try and find the best pitch to swing at. But there’s also hope. Hope that the next game will be better or next year will be the year your team goes all the way.

There’s an old quote, “Baseball isn’t life and death, but the Red Sox are.” Baseball is heartbreak. But it’s a shared heartbreak. It reminds us of the psychological importance of a shared geography. Baseball is as American as apple pie, democracy, and Beyonce. As Cubs announcer Harry Caray once said, “The impossible is possible, the unbelievable is believable.”

But that’s what baseball is in the end. It’s not metaphors or anything as highfalutin as poetry. It’s  just fun. How can you not love this game?


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