Another baseball season has been and gone, and if you don't mind, I'd like to take a minute and pour out this color-changing beer can -- that I love more than my family -- for all the mups that passed away. Big mups to y'all.
If we can discard for a minute our fan self-pity, we have to admit to ourselves that something as consistently fun as baseball doesn't present us with many travails. Sure, our teams lose, but they don't cede land or get beheaded by the victors. Even five years ago, one could be agitated by the sabermetric war against Luddism, but it's clear now that the nerds won. We're just waiting for the last vestiges of the old commentariat regime to get on with retirement. (Pace, McCarver. You will always be a song in my heart.)
The most glaring hardship is easily the offseason, those three months of darkness during which hardcore fans can get themselves geeked up for winter meetings and trade arcana but which, for most of the rest of us, just suck. And without actual games to talk about, baseball think-pieces emerge. The minor-league philosophers of the game, unbounded by anything like scores or outcomes, start to tell us what baseball means. Poetically.
Which is, I think, the only other real baseball drag: The endless busta poesy of people who have to extrude deep existential narrative from the game. Baseball gets wrapped in a Reilly pun within a Costas homily and then eephused at you by George Will -- a man who adores sacrifice bunts and spends all of the rest of his life telling the sick and impoverished that it's every man for himself, as if determined never to learn anything from what he so loves. (Then again, he also wrote a book with the same title as a Charlie Sheen/Emilio Estevez movie about garbagemen and produced the less moving work.)
By far the most familiar poetical observation about baseball is that it begins in the spring, when all is new, ripens and blooms, then ends with autumn and the passage into cold, barrenness and dark. Which, OK. But nobody ever says this about football, which begins in the vibrancy of summer and ends in February. Also, the last thing you have to see at the end of the season is Roger Goodell.
Still, if I may be permitted to veer close to hypocrisy, let me make a practical case for thinking so highly of the baseball season. Namely, that the rosy nostalgia baseball that never-was -- for Abner Doubleday or an era in which owners were not exploitive crooks -- and the atavism of people like Will et. al misses the point. For all its pastoral and 19th century trappings, the game could not be more ideally structured for modern life.
Multitasking is awful, but it's safe to say it's not going anywhere. Baseball is the sport most conducive to it. Even though it was invented before radio, it might as well have been designed by it. Hockey and basketball are so rapid that by the time one can really visualize a play, it's probably over; more to the point, half the appeal is in the artistry of any play's execution. If you're not watching, you might as well not bother. Football has 22 moving parts on every down; good luck with that. Meanwhile, it takes little time for all of us to memorize ballpark dimensions and picture the setup of each game. Each baseball transaction starts with only two parts, pitcher and batter, and once the ball goes in play, the rich argot of the game (blooper, dribbler, laced down the line, skied-out, etc.) makes visualizing the outcome easy. You can tweet, repair your car, do housework, talk to people, fiddle with Facebook or even go to work with baseball as a soundtrack.
This ability to be ubiquitous without being intrusive lends itself to a kind of learning-by-osmosis. While all of us probably want to be knowledgeable fans and begin each year aware of each team's roster moves and how all the starters looked in spring training, there's too much of real life surrounding and overwhelming us. It's easy to miss things and have that moment of, "Holy crap. That guy is on the Astros now?!"
Sports is recreation, and feeling instead that one must read about it as research is exhausting. But 162 games are forgiving and subtly comprehensive, and if you watch more than one per day, those 300 or 400 eventually create an encyclopedic season.
Every year, I begin with the best intentions, having read as much as I could, locked in to each game, and every year I start to lose the thread after a few weeks. Life intrudes, work dominates, friends come first. Eventually, I feel ashamed that I've missed so much, yet then the steady workings of watching game after game slowly knits everything back together. By the time the energy of a pennant race rolls around, happy accident has left me able to verbally abuse middle relievers from teams I made no great efforts to see. The fullness of the baseball season is such that, even if you keep only one ear cocked toward the radio, it will tell you its own story.
And then, of course, it's over, and that too is outstanding in its own way. There are so many games for so long that we become complacent and neglectful, like youth presuming they have all the time in the world. The end of the season is always rather like leaving college and confronting all those wasted hours when maybe you should have read more. "I could have got more out of this. I didn't appreciate it enough at the time." That regret compounds over the winter months, feeding the renewed commitment to another season.
All of these matters of time and interactivity are practical things, not lyrical affectations of memory-honeyed narrative, and all of them are ingeniously structured (even if that structure is largely accidental and commercially inspired). Still, it works beautifully -- and fortunately on its own terms that it will ever be so, with or without some tweed dink writing a poem about shortstops.
Goodbye, 2013. It's been two days, and I miss you already.