I didn’t give a shit about baseball until I turned 25. Hot days, slow games, the mundane repetitiveness of a guy throwing a ball at a guy with a stick. I’d rather sleep than sit through a round of glorified golf.
Then, three things changed.
One, I moved to a city with Barry Bonds on the team. I’ll fully concede he’s a cheater, a bad teammate, and a jerk. However, he was the best in the game, a lethal clutch hitter, and violently entertaining. I’d plan evenings around Bonds at-bats, lest I miss something fantastic.
Two, I figured out I could get tickets to the best baseball park in America for free. I simply make a little handwritten sign that says “Free Ticket Please” and stand in front of AT&T Park in San Francisco, usually landing a free ticket in less than five minutes. (Try it, it works.) My seat always has a view of the Bay, often with sunset crackling pink across the horizon. The garlic fries are delicious and affordable; bike parking is free. It’s a magical way to catch up with friends.
Three—and the most important variable—I started listening to baseball on the radio. The announcers’ descriptive powers are immense, and took me beyond the mindless commentary of television and into the characters’ heads. I learned the pitcher-batter chess game, how the history of pitches between players affects future pitches and future swings, how the balls-strikes count deeply skews the confidence of pitchers and batters, how fouling off a lot of balls slowly tilts the at-bat to the batter’s advantage. The importance of batters waiting for a pitch to hit and the beautiful talent of pitchers when they never dish up that pitch. The mental funk of a slump, the electric clarity of a hot streak. When to yank a pitcher and play the rookie. The endless joy of clutch play.
Finally, I got it. Beneath its placid surface, baseball cooks a cauldron of mental strength and emotion and guts. It’s the best of the novel in sport form.
Consider the characters. If you fall in with a team, like I have, you probably spend more time with the players than you do with your family—almost every day of the summer, for three hours a pop. Players are usually funny and likeable, and rarely speak in soundbite. My team, the San Francisco Giants, features an overweight Venezuelan nicknamed Kung-Fu Panda; an upgraded minor leaguer who needed ten years to make the big leagues for good; a two-time Cy Young winner called The Freak whose recent pot possession arrest may have made him more popular than his accolades; and a mohawked closing pitcher who dyes his beard and colors his spikes with Sharpies.
Consider the plotting. The season is a marathon, 162 games in which few games truly matter but all of them somewhat do, enough time for storylines to unwind and split and evolve into a saga that usually ends in dismal failure, softened slightly by the hope of next year.
Football’s more popular, the Hollywood blockbuster of our culture, loaded with violent spectacle and huge marketing budgets, invading our home theaters with surround sound body crunches. Their stories are epic and magnificent, D Day and Waterloo outfitted in pads. There’s still nothing bigger than the Super Bowl, a sporting event so huge I was seriously tempted to refer to it as “the Super Bowl of football” so you’d get just how massive it is.
Whereas baseball unlocks the quiet moments. The small adjustments of changing characters, the patience to let a player fight through mistakes and evolve. Hot breezes on a summer day. Incremental improvement over time slowly changing everything. As there is no page limit in novels, there is no clock to race against in baseball—only obstacles to beat. It’s so damn human it hurts.
This week we enter the postseason, the final act. With the pressure to win condensed into a five or seven-game series, strategies shift. Ace pitchers come in as relief; a cold streak can sink a team; every move matters more. Built-up pressures come to a head, capping the ride of the season with a genuine resolution.
It doesn’t get any better than this.