Sunday, April 2, 2017

Anno Catuli: Opening Day and the Rebirth of the Spirit of Summer

It is an elegant game, played by brutes and bastards. It gives space to breathe only to reciprocate with moments that stop the heart. It creates a wealth of memories, often nothing to do with any given pitch. Though the Major League season extends far beyond the warmth of July and August, we will always romanticize our game as such: Baseball has, was, and will always be the great human summer. It never requires unbroken attention. In fact, the game almost requires you to stray. It is a conversational pastime. What draws us back year after year is not just the final score and the plays that caused it. We tie our senses to the familiarity of a ballpark. The pristine-cut grass, too green to call it merely green. The gentle rumble of a few thousand separate conversations, turning to a roar at the crack of a bat striking a ball in that unmistakable way we all know. There is no requirement on our part. No reason beyond fulfilling that core desire to return to summer, where the halcyon days of youth can be recounted. Baseball has been a professional game now for nearly one hundred years. The rules have changed, players come and go, generations pass on the childlike wonder of watching adults play a game. One thing stands true and has for longer than any of us have been alive- no matter the weather, the opponent or the amount of confidence in one's team, Opening Day gives light to optimism. That everything will be alright in the end. That with the first sound of a ball whipping into a glove, winter has been defeated and all the sentimental fondness we have for summer days at the ballpark has won, yet again.

It is 2017. Vin Scully has retired. The Chicago Cubs are World Series Champions. To say that an era of the game has come to a close may seem heavy-handed, but it's true. We live in an age where the game is growing well beyond just nations that beach the Pacific Ocean. Every move made on a Major League field is tracked and calculated. Every pitch and every swing is measured in its entirety to allow adjustment, refinement and calibration. While it is essentially the same game played over a hundred years ago, it is esoterically divided between math and physics, staffed by the science club and the varsity squad. More players utilize advanced metrics in their own game preparation every year. It is a sport that allows for a lot of data, and with that information comes a more educated organization acting creatively and logically to grow each game. What comes of it all is a game that raises the tension with every at bat. Pitchers, on a whole, are more powerful than ever. Subsequently, they've never been more fragile, but that's a different topic for another day. 

It will be a year of change, a year of surprises, and a year of moments that remind us what makes this game so special. In that, it will be much like every other year, ripe with a bounty of unimaginable joy and heart-wrenching despair. 

We have a player in Mike Trout who may legitimately be the best all around player the game has ever seen. We have a pitcher in Clayton Kershaw who is redefining greatness on a start-by-start basis. In Texas, Adrian Beltre, perhaps one of the most overlooked baseball legends, nears his quest for three thousand hits. The New York Yankees, through trades that helped Cleveland and Chicago reach the World Series, have reloaded on young talent but have not sacrificed their twenty-five year winning season streak. The Atlanta Braves open their new ballpark with a ready-made rookie star in Dansby Swanson. The Cleveland Indians, after letting a 3-1 World Series lead slip through their grasp, have added Edwin Encarnacion, one of the game's premier power hitters. Tonight, in St. Louis, Dexter Fowler leads off against the Cubs after ending his two-year dalliance with the club. 

In a move to speed up the game, the intentional walk will no longer be four pitches, tossed half-assedly out of the zone. Managers can simply signal for it and the batter can take his base. The decision has caused a lot of arguing over the integrity of the game as well as its future. I honestly do not have an opinion on the matter yet. I want to see it in-game first. Much like when MLB instituted managerial challenges a few years ago, the change will take time to work out flaws. The same goes for pitch clocks. They have been a part of the Minor Leagues for a few years, and do not seem to affect the game in any particular negative way. The main complaint, no matter what is said, is likely more aesthetic. Baseball is a timeless game, in that it requires no clock to play. By merely adding a twenty-second countdown, the game lives within the boundaries of time, and that's where we start to get existential.

Sports have always been a great diversion, but baseball does it to a different degree. While there is always a clock or a watch or what have you to tell the time, baseball never cared. The game is such that it might as well boast "hey this thing is scheduled for nine innings, but honestly we could be here for all eternity," which is nice. Equally, the field only has two boundaries that extend from home plate outward into infinity. It is as if baseball enjoys seating itself outside of the confines of everyday life. And to be honest, that's why we love it. It gives reprieve from the sedentary by forcing us to relax a moment and unite ourselves once more with the fondness we've felt all our lives.

Then, of course, summer will give way to autumn, and autumn to winter as it always has. Baseball will start again as it does today. Today is special because it signals the end of those cold, dark nights, but in a way I'm grateful for them. After all, summer would never be so sweet without the juxtaposition of its opposite. Just like how winning feels so perfect after a lifetime of losing.

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