(Originally written at the beginning of the season)
I’m a huge baseball fan. But don’t ask me to join your fantasy baseball league. Heck, don’t even bother asking me stats or which player transferred to which new team. Those are irrelevant details—because my love is truly for the game itself.
This is opening week, a return to the grand, grass-filled sanctuaries filled with hot dog eating fans, and constant coverage on ESPN and the MLB Network. Life feels more like it’s supposed to feel when baseball is in season.
Still, whenever I express my love for the game, I’m prepared to hear people say things like, “Man, baseball is so boring,” or…nope, that’s it—that what everyone who isn’t a baseball fan says.
But Opening Day signifies a kind of new life, a fresh start, a rebirth of the old teams, a blank slate of possibility. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve said about my favorite team at the end of the season, “Maybe next year.” Well, next year is here. And there’s always a chance that something new and exciting will happen. Last year’s slump will become this year’s triumph. Last year’s basement dweller may just become a wild-card contender.
But baseball to me is more than just who wins and loses.
I love my Minnesota Twins, mostly because I’ve grown up with them. The logo incites a certain kind of familiarity, a home-ness of sorts. It’s my team. And I want to have a “my team”—that’s an important value to me. This culture seems to pound out our individual desires and spoon-feed us what we’re supposed to root for. So having “my team,” especially if they are not doing particularly well, is a standing up for my individuality, but within a community environment. Does that make sense?
Where I live in Tennessee, it’s very rare to see anyone wearing a Twins hat. I’m unique. But when I go home to Minnesota, it’s as if everybody has a Twins hat, jacket, or jersey! I’m among like-minded folk, even if I’m not unique any longer. Individuality turns into being a part of community.
I believe this is what happens when fans gather together in a stadium. We bring our individual passion for the game and its players, and come together to celebrate with other like-minded believers. A spiritual gathering, complete with our own secular eucharist.
It’s fascinating to me how baseball is as much a game of individual performance as it is a team sport. Heck, the offense of one person—the batter—goes up against the entire defensive team. All nine in the field working together to defeat the one man with the bat standing at the plate. This is simplifying the game to a huge extent, because there are scores of offensive strategies employed, mostly going unnoticed to the uneducated eye. Then the roles are reversed. The entire defense comes in from the field and sits on the bench, cheering for their hitters who go up to the plate one by one.
It’s a game that honors individualism within the context of a team sport. The most valued athletes are the ones who are able to react instantly and excellently on the offense and defense, and who must be able to hit, run, throw, and field. Even the physical separation between the players on the field highlights the individual, and their need to cover their area. As a player you’ve got to be excellent in the field and at the plate. You’ve got to be a great individual player, but also a top-notch team player.
I’m also fascinated by how a successful hitter is someone who gets a hit three out of ten times at the plate. And someone who is struggling usually gets a hit two out of ten times. If only we could allow ourselves that same kind of grace off the field! They even have something called a “sacrifice,” usually a fly ball or a bunt, where the guy at the plate will actually try to get an out, just to advance or score a runner. Talk about “taking one for the team!”
There’s a certain order to baseball that is perhaps what some people interpret as boring. There’s seldom any recklessness in baseball, something you can often find in the brutality of football or hockey. It is a game of great fairness. There’s no clock to run out. Each team gets exactly 27 chances.
Football discourages reflection. Though I love the tribalness of football, with one team battling the other to take over their territory and cross a certain line. It’s raw and masculine. But baseball is a thinking person’s game. Managers act as chess masters in this grand game of strategy, orchestrating the movements of his players. Defensive strategies can change with each batter, even with each pitch, depending on the situation. There’s unpredictability to the game that has to be responded to with great skill.
Call me old fashioned, but I’d rather live in a baseball world, than a football world. Baseball is a world where there are more errors than home runs, though we all still step up to the plate, putting aside our fear, seeking to do our best. And if it doesn’t work out this year, there’s always next year.
Two years ago I took an amazing trip to four great baseball stadiums with my buddy Eric. Our final game was at the prolific Fenway Park in Boston. The Red Sox were playing my team, the Twins. I felt like I was the only one in the whole place with a Minnesota jersey, cheering for my guys. I leaned over to the dad with his two kids sitting in front of me and offered a kind of apology for rooting for the enemy. His response summed up one of the great beauties of the game. He said, “No problem. As long as you’re a baseball fan, you’re alright with me.”