Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Small Clap of Thunder: Opening Day and the Everlasting Lore of the Game of Baseball

There is a unique affection for things that have come and passed. It flows with the tide of the seasons. Moments are romanticized to forget the misery within the ceaseless heat of August and overwhelming darkness of December. So goes the realm of baseball. Each year I pontificate baseball as something grander than just a game. The desire to sublimate it as a metaphor for the heartache and resiliency of the human spirit is easy, given the long process from spring training to the World Series. There are peaks and valleys to a season, complete with all of the stages of grief tagging along to help a fan through a star player injury or the agonizing tension of the trade deadline. So when a new season begins, even the most meager of fan bases hold out some faith that the great ball of fate may roll their way. It is the perseverance of our hearts that leads us to believe in something that may undoubtedly hurt.

Every story begins somewhere in the middle. Nothing is just there. Even the big bang needed a spark. Even Genesis 1:1 begins with God just hanging out by himself. For the thirty teams of Major League Baseball, their 2016 journey began years before today's first pitch. The last one standing will have done so after years of trial and error, sacrifice and suffering. Take a look at the Kansas City Royals. Before they did away with the New York Mets, before falling to the San Francisco Giants the year before, they were perennial losers. A twenty-nine year playoff drought came to an end after years of believing in an idea that young talent could develop into a championship contender. Patience is the virtue of baseball, after all. When teams go through long droughts without a winning season, playoff appearance, league title, or world championship, that stoicism in the face of inevitable fulfillment of tragic expectation begins to wear. The reason we continue to unite under our communal ball caps each spring is because at some point we know that much like in the trials of life, baseball must get better.

I'll admit as much, after the Mets swept the Cubs last year, I was heartbroken. Sure, the future looks good for my team, but it can be difficult to assume future success when living in the time of the Washington Nationals. From 2012 to 2015, I picked the Nats to win it all. Who could blame me? With a pitching rotation that seemed to be bursting at the seams with Cy Young caliber talent, along with a lineup that could feasibly outscore anyone, they were an easy pick. Baseball, as it turns out, is not played on paper. Each year, the team that seemed to be an early season favorite fell far short of the ultimate goal.

Many times, the team that wins the World Series is not even the best team that year. Last year's Royals aside, there are very few instances I can recall wherein the team that won it all seemed to be headed that way back in August. Since Major League Baseball instituted the wild card playoff spot in 1995, there have been twelve such teams to play in the World Series. Six times the wild card team won everything, including 2002 and 2014, in which both teams in the World Series had come from that spot. The latter of the two featured two teams with fewer than ninety wins. Winning the World Series comes from getting hot at the right time, as the San Francisco Giants have proved over the last decade. In the wild card era, only four times has the team with the best record in baseball won it all. So cheer up, Pirates fans, anything is possible.

As long as a season tends to drag, believing in preseason hype has about the same value as heading outside in March without checking the forecast. Sure, your choice could pay off, but there is a pretty good chance that your parade will literally be rained upon. By the time October rolls around, with all of its crisp air and early nightfall, the manifestation of a full work is present. Even if your team is great from April to September, there is no guarantee that will seep into the postseason. Take for example the Oakland Athletics of the early 2000's. Despite the "moneyball" success in the regular season, the small sample size of a five game series was damning to a team full of role players with an ability to get on base. For all those teams did for innovation in the way we analyze the game, their lack of success in October is almost as much a part of their story as the winning.

The modern baseball theme is to grow a strong core of young players and make moves later to fill in gaps. Prospects have overtaken the mainstream, and they have given us an era of youth that has revitalized several fanbases. Players like Mike Trout, Carlos Correa, and Bryce Harper have lit a spark almost instantly for their teams. There are several more young players and pitchers who have impacted the game already, and the trend only seems to continue. The young talent has permeated so wholly that players like Anthony Rizzo and Chris Sale feel like grizzled veterans. Now several years removed from the "steroid era" that saw careers thriving into players' late-thirties, the youth movement seems to be a reflex of that, almost a form of cleansing the game of that era's misdeeds. Prospect watching is a favorite hobby for fans of failing franchises, as it gives some kind of prolonged hope that the future will be better than the present. Believe me, I've been there.

The Arizona Diamondbacks signed Zack Grienke, the greatest Cy Young runner up in a generation, and loaded their roster with a win-now attitude that gambles against the future. While many times these kind of team-building ideas are met with criticism, I find some weird honor in going for broke over hoping things just work out. Teams have done it and won, and perhaps going against the grain of the modern, prospect-heavy mindset could be to their benefit. No matter the improvements to the roster, Arizona still has to deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers and even-year magic of the San Francisco Giants.

Baseball may be a game of money and data and labor now, but it will always echo the sentiment tied to the sounds and smells of pleasant days at a ballpark. Those leisurely muses of pastoral method seem to rise from the ground with the siren song of the first small clap of thunder. Its the sound of a bat meeting a baseball in midair. The sound that can grab the attention of forty thousand individuals from their own private conversations and unite them in communal jubilation. There is nothing like it in sport. Sure, the sound of a basketball falling cleanly through a net is downright heavenly, but it doesn't carry the same conviction of a base hit off of the sweet spot of a maple bat. It is the sound of baseball's oldest adage- that anything can change in an instant. The random nature of a round ball meeting a round bat is what keeps each pitch returning as a fascinating individual moment in time. A seemingly endless supply of outcomes can result from contact. With other games, precision is built upon some kind of concrete structure- a hoop, an end zone, a goal. In our game, it is as simple as it is complex. Just hit the ball, then run.

There is something pure about the dead sprint to first. A ninety foot test pitting the dexterity of a fielder and the raw speed of the baserunner. If the bag was six inches farther, the amount of runs each game would plummet due to a titanic shift in the amount of runners put out on infield ground balls. Close plays would be few and far between. That is how the game seems almost divinely inspired. Through the near two hundred years of baseball history, the play at first is still a brutally close and controversial moment that can swing a rally, a game, or even a season. It is a bastardized version of chaos theory. The runner beats out a throw, then steals second, then scores on a base hit. That run starts a rally that leads to a team coming back to win a game that could tilt the postseason picture.

In other sports, a clock can run down, time can expire, and a team can escape without allowing their opponent to have another chance. Granted, the likelihood of coming back from a ten run deficit in the ninth inning is pretty minuscule, there is always an opportunity to mount a rally until the third out is called. Within the founding rules of the game, there is reason to hold out hope. To every coin there is another side, though, and sometimes the gift of another chance to rally is presented to the other dugout. The tension that comes with each pitch can be nauseating, knowing it could be the mistake that causes your team to snatch defeat from the clutch of victory. This is what makes our game so special. It takes so many individual, microscopic battles to win the war of a game, and even then, you have to get up and do it again the next day. The joy of winning and pain of losing have to be forgotten almost immediately, as the game has never looked kindly upon those who sulk and gloat.

For one hundred and forty five years, baseball has been a professional game. The echoes of Cincinnai's 'First Nine' are dim, yet can still be heard in the essence of today's game. There is a feeling that this is something meant to endure. Not just for entertainment or a day away from the office, but something that resonates deeply into the fabric of our society. There was a time when players held offseason jobs to make ends' meet year-round. Before that, there was outright persecution of men who took money to play, and not just in instances of corruption and bribery. The entire concept of being paid to play a sport was rather far-fetched in the 1860's. Though the rudimentary rules of the game still remain, baseball is much different from what generations past remember. Someday we will see the game through similar eyes, perhaps believing that our version was the best. If you're my age, players like Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, and Randy Johnson are just a few of the names that stick out to be immortalized in the amber casing of our youth. I guess that is why I will never feel ill toward any of the "steroid era" players. They made me fall in love with the game.

What remains is what we've waited for all winter. Today is Opening Day, and with it the sentiment and the adulation we have for baseball. It is the prodigal son of the sports world. Each autumn, the game leaves us to fend for ourselves until springtime returns. Each year we take it back, hoping that this year will be our year. For those like me, the Cubs fans, there is a buzzing positive vibe around this year's team. For our dearest of rivals and those lesser so, I wish a good season and a healthy season. Summer is upon us, and with it comes the fondness we tie so closely to baseball and the pastoral days and nights of yesteryear: Those balmy afternoons, vying for shade beneath a balcony. The cool, velvet evenings ending in fireworks. The days when we can slow down for a few hours and take in something so simple and so complex as a man throwing a ball, and another trying his best to hit it.

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