Sunday, March 6, 2011


If you let it, following the baseball season can become an exercise in existential frustration. No matter how much we agonize over the can't-miss prospect who seems to be doing a whole lot of missing or squeezing the last handful of productive at-bats out of a Hall-of-Famer, the inevitable fact remains that whether your year ends in Bearded victory or eternal defeat, four months later everyone will report back to camp with a clean slate and do it all over again. (As Flip Flop Flyin's Twitter feed so succinctly puts it: "Wake Up, do stuff, go to bed. Repeat till Dead.")
Baseball was played for decades before I was born, and barring the impending apocalypse (not that birds have ever been a plot point in a post-apocalyptic film or anything) it will in all likelihood continue for years after I pass on. However much I invest myself in Brett Lawrie and Anthony Gose's efforts to become transcendent baseball players and carry the long-suffering Jays to the promised land, if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, it isn't likely to affect their chances of doing so.

(Of course, when I start thinking along those lines, it puts this whole baseball thing in context. I hear about a baseball figure passing on - Ernie Harwell, Harry Kalas, the Duke, whomever, and strangely wonder: "But doesn't he want to find out who won the World Series?" I can just imagine a fading man crying out with his last breath in the middle of the ninth inning of a Game Seven: "Hold on, boys!"...Poor taste?)

I think this powerlessness is what prevents a lot of my personal friends from understanding my baseball fanhood; give them a console or a chessboard and they'll play for hours, but ask them to sit down and observe someone else competing, and they lose interest inside of five minutes.

All of which brings me to the subject of this post, which is a book I read several years ago when I was in a particularly ambivalent lull:
Have you ever simultaneously loved something and hated it? I don't mean something so bad it's good, like Troll 2 - more like, say, a Miley Cyrus or Justin Beiber tune that encapsulates your first breakup so well that you actually get some joy out of it? (I wouldn't know, I've never actually listened to the Miley or the Beiber - my reference point would more likely be something like this.)

Anyway, that's more or less where I was when I read this book. As a second-year writing student, I hated everything about it: the awful title; the mythical superstar so like Roy Hobbs; the awkward prose; the lengthy diatribes exchanged between the characters; the horribly idealized dream girl; the inevitable Red Sox World Series run (the book had the misfortune of being published in 2003).

But at the same time, there was something true about it that made it worth slogging through everything else. For reference, it's a book about the friendship that develops between a lonely beat reporter and a Red Sox uberprospect. Basically, Russ gets sucked into Casey Fox's social circle, pulling sophomoric pranks in hotel rooms and eventually falling for and dating Fox's swimsuit-model sister. The events that happen throughout are pretty incidental, though; what the book is about is what a baseball season means in and of itself. Why do we sit through 162 games? Why do young athletes devote their entire lives to becoming the best they can be at one thing to the exclusion of almost all others? (Why would you want to play another season after winning the World Series? It is the ultimate goal, after all, in the baseball vernacular.)
If those sound like hackneyed book-jacket quotes, it's because they betray my fascination with the subject matter. I'd never seen - and still haven't, really - something deal with the philosophical conundrum of the sports experience so completely. What is winning? Success, sure - adrenaline, glamour, money, megalomania. Since my last Sheen reference, I've gotten around to watching the Piers Morgan interview, and I no longer think he's lost touch with reality. He's simply become the token vestibule for the narcissism of our generation. He's standing on top of a mountain screaming, "look at me, man, I'm so high up," and while at first the reaction might be an apathetic, "cool," with the requisite derisive shrug, the public reaction quickly transforms. You know the irritating mother screaming "Get down from there, don't embarass yourself!" Well, maybe that's the masses projecting their own insecurities on the figurehead. (Or do we just point and laugh? Yeah.)

A lot of noted baseball commentators seem to be bemoaning their apathy as Spring Training games get underway. Why, they wonder, don't I care more? The answer is because baseball's just a game and - for once and all - a game that can have its admittedly more boring moments. I've spent off-seasons past eagerly awaiting Opening Day, and when that day comes I can't wait to duck out of class or work or whatever the case may be in my search for a television monitor. I'll turn on the game and be absolutely engrossed in every pitch through the first weekend - until I get to the season's first blowout. (There was a time when I would hold the channel in a 10-1 game, but that time is long past.) After the first legitimately bad game, the season settles into its normal routine - a series of hills and valleys.
As they say, to be a cliche-monger: football's a sprint; baseball a marathon. So if you can't get your panties in a bunch over a top prospect batting .400 over a week of meaningless games, don't worry. There's a lot more apathy to come.

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