Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Loving Baseball as a Writer

Two greats of American literature
at a Red Sox game.
As we enter the last few weeks of the baseball season, I'd like to share my appreciation of the game with you as well as some thoughts of why baseball is, in many ways, the most literary of sports. With one hundred sixty-two games over a few short months, baseball is part of the rhythm of the summer, faceless voices on the radio painting a word-picture as background music to accompany yardwork, days at the beach, or just a Sunday drive. It can be more than that; like a great novel a baseball season rewards a bit of focus and attentiveness to detail. There's a richness and complexity which, as a teller of stories, I find quite appealing.

One bit of writing advice which stuck with me is that anything you include in a novel needs to serve at least two purposes, be that to advance the plot, help set a tone, develop characters, illuminate a relationship, give background information, or something else. If all one worries about is plot, then one ends up with a flat, single-dimensional book. What does this have to do with baseball? While a baseball game might be a story, the bigger story is the entire season with choices made day-by-day having ripple effects for weeks if not the entire summer. Picture a scene: my beloved Mets are trailing by one run in the sixth inning. It's late May, the bottom of the sixth inning  with the pitcher coming up to bat. Not a very dramatic moment, is it? Not bases loaded, 2 outs, bottom of the ninth in October. What I love about baseball is that the choice here matters, not just for today, but for tomorrow and the next tomorrow and, in a way, the whole season. What happens next?

Does the pitcher take his at bat, perhaps strike out? He'll have to pitch the next inning and, if the team is limiting his innings to prevent injury he might have to exit a late-season game earlier. In the shorter story of the single game, the opposing batters have all seen him a few times now and might have a better chance of getting a hit, especially as he is tiring.

Do we pinch-hit and go to a relief pitcher? Who? Carlos Torres again? He's been the most  consistent reliever, but he's pitched three times already this week. If we run him out there again today, will he be available tomorrow? is he a rubber-armed wonder, or will he eventually go from being our best reliever to an afterthought as over-work begins to renders him ineffective? (this arguably happened this year; Torres went from the first choice to something farther back as he was, quite likely, overworked over the first months of the season). If we pinch hit, who is it? Is there a bench player who needs another at bat or two to avoid getting a bit rusty, or have the part-time players given most of what they can?

It takes attentiveness to see how choosing a given player for a given role makes a difference long-term, but the connections are there for those who watch closely and attentively. Compare, say, a football game in which each week's game is in many ways an isolated event. The best players will play this week, the best players will play next week. There's far less managing a season and more managing a single game. A baseball season is serial; if you want to compare to a TV show it's a serial show in which a larger story builds over the course of a season - and beyond.

Through the magic of the internet, those of us who are serious and semi-serious fans can follow the team's minor league prospects. Two years ago, for example, the Mets traded Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey for, amongst others, catcher Travis d'Arnaud and pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard. Syndergaard in particular became quite the story as he moved up the organization, perhaps struggled a bit, and took a whole year before arriving in the big leagues. When we first saw him it was the final act in a play that had opened two years prior, his name and fame preceding him. It was for this reason - and this story - that I attended Syndergaard's first home game at Citi Field.

Taking advantage of a quiet moment to learn the lost
art of scorekeeping
And, sometimes, we get a personal story. This year the Mets famously almost traded their starting second basement Wilmer Flores. When the deal was announced during a game, Flores was given a warm ovation by the crowd. Whether by the crowd response, the reality of being traded from the only team he ever knew, or some combination of the two, Flores was literally brought to tears on the field. The trade, as we now know, fell through. Flores got another standing ovation from the home crowd his next game and, in a moment too cliched for me to even consider putting it in actual fiction, drove in the game winning run in extra innings. It was a great moment much greater for those who've followed the whole story from Flores' initial signing at the age of 16 to his time in the minor leagues to his sometimes struggles to play various infield positions for the sake of the team. I find great joy in following stories like this for a bad team with unsuccessful seasons while carrying the hope that things will turn around and get better. When the team starts winning (as my beloved Mets are now) it feels that, as a fan, I've earned the joy in seeing their success by sticking with them for the years of struggle.

Finally, on a note of personal taste, baseball is a slow-paced game of pregnant pauses, anticipation, white-space framing the action. It's slow enough that one can think about and digest all of these small moments. It's a fandom which I often try to communicate, but with some difficulty; watching a single game can be a pleasant enough experience, but without the larger picture it is missing - at least to me - a measure of the richness which makes it special. 

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