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What Baseball Is (For Worse & For Better)

Baseball is a first pitch being thrown at 12:35 in the afternoon, and a schlubby fan attempting to follow it while working. A decision to listen on the radio because things are going well for his team while avoiding the TV. That’s baseball. And so is a kid from Defiance, Ohio, pitching for the first time in Cincinnati.

There’s a man in Connecticut who will confirm a forty-seven year-old pitcher from Philadelphia won a game for Chicago at New York twenty-four years ago [1]. That’s baseball. So is the scout reporting that a seventeen-year-old pitcher in the Dominican is a coming Dwight Gooden [2]. Baseball is a marathon and a sprint. A game of turning tides. It’s the pitcher who strikes out the side in his first go-round making you wonder why he doesn’t have a better lifetime record. It’s that same pitcher walking in a run three innings later, answering your earlier question.

Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered, or booed. And then becomes a statistic. A veteran outfielder, a tired old man of thirty-five whose last name is amended with Junior, breaks a slump of zero for fifteen and scores his team’s first run. By day’s end, he will have begun a new slump. A reliever who is still new to these major leagues pitches to nine batters and retires them all. Another reliever, who has pitched in every other game his team has played for the past two years, throws only two pitches and is declared the loser.

In baseball democracy shines its clearest. The only race that matters is the race to the bag. A second baseman hustles to first in his first at-bat, jogs his next time up [3] and trots the time after that when it becomes apparent he has no need to run. His double play partner, a shortstop who hasn’t hit as many as ten home runs in any of the past six seasons, emerges as the slugger who ends the game [4].

Baseball is a star third baseman removed to ensure that his seldom-used backup who has just pinch-hit remains in the game because he is the emergency catcher. It’s worrying that that move will backfire and having that worry rendered moot when the game ends two pitches later. It’s a stolen base attempt against a catcher who has thrown out every base runner who has dared to run on him. It’s questioning that attempt until a television replay shows the runner took too big a lead and got too good a jump to resist trying to steal. It’s the catcher negating the lead and the jump with an even more outstanding throw. That’s baseball.

Names are baseball, names that seem close, like Johnny and Jonathon and Jonny, and names that couldn’t seem closer, like Henry and Jenrry. It’s Laynce and Drew and Angel and Hisanori and a Francisco on each side. It’s searching for a nickname for the previous night’s hero [5] who doesn’t get to start because today is a day game. It’s an exotic name like Catalanotto belonging to a man who hails from a place called Smithtown. It’s the man from Smithtown singling to lead off the ninth for his first hit in a week and his fourth hit of the year and ultimately scoring the tying run, the second run he has scored after a month of play. It’s an enormous run when it goes up on the board, but it’s forgotten when his team loses. That’s baseball, too.

Baseball is the quiet frustration of Jason Bay. The mile-wide grin of Jeff Francoeur. The second-guessing applied to Jerry Manuel. It’s the wind current that blows to right at Great American Ball Park, a breeze that draws everybody’s attention until the game-deciding home run clanks off the left field foul pole.

Baseball is just a game as simple as a ball and bat. Yet, as complex as we who blog wish to make it. A sport, a business and sometimes almost even a religion. It’s a pastime, an obsession, a subject of endless fascination. It’s what we regret when our team loses, it’s what we wait for to return in two days when we realize there’s no game tomorrow.

Why, the inspiring tale of Jose Reyes working his way back from a hamstring injury. And then being told he can’t move a muscle because he has a thyroid condition. That’s baseball. So are the voices that sing his name [6] when he is cleared to return to the game he plays so beautifully.

Baseball is chewing your thumb, taking a deep breath, clicking refresh, balancing your logic with your superstitions, wondering how a text message can be more important than the next pitch and “Lazy Mary”.

Baseball is knowing people better than you would otherwise, feeling you know those you’ve never met and, at its best, baseball is a self-described tongue-tied kid from Georgia growing up to be an announcer and touching millions with his voice and his kindness, probably never grasping how much he will be missed when he is gone.

This is a game for America. Still a game for America, this baseball. And Ernie Harwell, we thank you for making as much of it as you did.

Do yourself a favor and read the real thing here [7], and a glorious take on the man behind it here [8].