I was re-watching Moneyball with my parents over spring break (what a good movie), and one quote really jumped out at me. “It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball,” says Brad Pitt as Billy Beane.
I thought about it during the movie, and I thought about it that night, and I’m still thinking about it a month later. It’s just so true. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to be romantic about baseball. How else would sportswriters make their living? How else would teams gain new fans? Baseball without romanticism is just a sport. Baseball with romanticism is baseball.
It’s just that the game is so relatable, in a strange sort of way. It’s a team sport, but it’s so individual. Everyone is alone in the batter’s box or on the mound. Everyone is so human, and we have time to see the expressions on their faces and the way they grimace after mistakes and grin after victories. Everyone on the field is alone under the scrutiny of 80,000 eyes in the stadium and millions more on TV. They’re all painfully like us, just a little more skilled and a little better-paid. Baseball isn’t too slow, it’s just right. If it were any faster, it would be harder to empathize with players and teams, harder to really root for a player.
I think everyone who really loves it sees a better version of themselves in their favorite team or player. If the White Sox can win after spending so much time in futility, maybe our lives can be turned around, too. Maybe one day the Pirates will be in first place again, and maybe one day everything that’s wrong in our lives will be good again. If Adam Dunn comes back this season, maybe things will be ok for us, too. “Who hasn’t yearned for the unattainable?” my dad wrote in an email when I asked him about this. “Who hasn’t glimpsed the Could Be in life and had to settle for What Is?” And most of the time, settling is what we have to do. Our team isn’t going to win every year. They’re not even going to be good every year, even if they’re the Yankees and have half a billion dollars to spend. But that just makes it even sweeter when they do succeed.
There have been generations and generations of boys who grew up with the lights of some major league stadium shining in their eyes, fantasizing about being up to bat in Game Seven of the World Series in the bottom of the ninth with two strikes, two outs, bases loaded, down by three. They all want to be that hero, the one who swings his way into legend with such apparent ease. And they live out that story in their head while watching their favorite player dig in.
It’s so easy to just do it, to write about it like that, intentionally or not. Baseball lends itself so well to heroes and villains, scapegoats and saviors, and all on such a grandiose stage. Even just the thought of it brings up such vivid images, some of the most endearing in American history— bright green grass under a pure blue sky, the infield dirt untouched before a game. It’s almost enough, if you really, really love it, to bring a tear to your eye (but there’s no crying in baseball).
A three-RBI triple in a flat, fact-based, dull version of baseball is a ball hit to a spot such that the batter can advance three bases while the three runners ahead of him score. A triple in baseball that is alive with romance is a ball hit in the corner and Alexei scores, Morel scores, Beckham scores, Pierre is making the turn around second and the throw is coming in from right field and it’s a bullet but he’s safe, he’s safe, he slides in just under the tag, a bases-clearing triple! It’s exciting. It’s action-packed, despite what disbelievers say. It makes you want to jump to your feet and yell incoherently and when it’s over, you want to whoop and dance and maybe shed a few tears of joy.
There’s a lot in baseball that can make you feel like that, despite what Tom Hanks says. If you’ve ever seen your team win in extra innings, you know what I mean. If you’ve ever seen a perfect suicide squeeze. If you’ve ever seen a collision at the plate, or maybe a strike from the center fielder nails the guy trying to score at home, or maybe the left fielder reaches over the fence and robs one. If you’ve ever seen a perfect curveball, the kind that just leaves you unable to do anything but laugh.
If you were watching the last day of the 2011 season, you know what it’s like. If you’ve listened to Russ Hodges screaming “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! … I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I do not believe it!” If you saw Kirk Gibson limp his way around the bases after his home run, fist pumping. If you saw Luis Gonzalez leap into the air over first base after winning the World Series for the Diamondbacks against Mariano Rivera. If you ever saw Buck O’Neil speak. God, even the title of his book— “I Was Right on Time.”
Maybe there’s no crying in baseball, but baseball has something to say about that.
The thing is, there’s just so much that has happened in the history of baseball. I know a ridiculous amount of baseball trivia, but I am not even close to remembering every baseball great, legendary moment, or unique play. Not even close. And every man who has been penciled into a major league lineup— every single one— has done something that, regardless if you know them or not, people are still talking about. There are just such a huge number of incredible and outrageous baseball characters and stories that you just can’t know them all at once. It’s impossible to even write about it all. There’s just too much. As soon as you think you’re done addressing one subject, a dozen more spring up. It can’t be done. You can only ever write about a little at a time, no matter how much you love it and no matter how many words you have.
And the context varies. One game can be an epic and grand event full of drama and tension but one where your team wins in the end. But it can also be a tragedy, one where defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory, two runs score in the ninth.
That’s the true greatness of baseball. No matter how bad your favorite team is, they are still going to win some games. No matter how good your favorite team is, they are still going to lose some games. Your favorite player will go hitless. Your favorite player will go 4 for 4. The season will end. The season will begin again.
Baseball is like a relationship. Runners in scoring position are just idle flirting. A run scored says it’s serious. And a walk-off home run? A walk-off home run is like being in love.
But of course, it ends. Spring turns into summer turns into fall, the World Series is won, your favorite team goes home, the winter begins. Snow covers the field and the sun goes away.
As the late and immortal A. Bartlett Giamatti once said, “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”
And it is. And it does.