Recently, my poor colleague and resident Yankees fan Max Henson and I talked about the meaning of the MLB regular season.
We discussed the notion that fans become estranged from the game because, as Yankee fans, it’s easy to feel as though nothing can be accomplished in the regular season. Regular season success for the Yankees is the bare minimum. And thanks to an astronomical payroll, a playoff berth is viewed as a given or requirement.
So in effect, there’s no reason to watch until October when, as always, his Yankees will beat the Twins in the ALDS, then most likely face either the Red Sox or Angels the ALCS.
Maybe he’s on to something. Maybe he’s right that the Yankees, even in one of the toughest divisions in the league, are always expected to make a deep playoff run. Maybe baseball lacks true competitive balance.
But there’s so much more to the game regardless of who’s playing that’s worth your time.
It starts on the mound.
There is no other sport where on any given night someone can make history like one can in baseball.
A pitcher takes the mound at about 7 p.m. local time. It’s their sixth start of the season, and they’ve gone 2-2 with about a 4.25 ERA. Even though most people have scarcely heard of him before, about two hours later, ESPN has switched all of its coverage to the final outs of his game to show the guy throw a perfect game and insert his name in the record books for the rest of time.
You just don’t get anything like that in other sports.
Think about the simple artistry of pitching in general. Pitchers with stuff that garner adjectives like ‘nasty’ or ‘filthy’ or ‘disgusting.’ If a hurler is throwing pitches that evoke those types of descriptions, I want to see it.
But wait, there’s more.
Let’s talk the home run ball. The sound sanded-down ash makes when a slugger hits one on the screws and drives it 450 feet is pure ecstasy. The pitcher doesn’t need to turn around because he already knows what stratosphere the ball is headed to, simply by the crack of the bat.
The left fielder doesn’t even move an inch from where he’s standing as the ball sails over his head.
And the best part is the guy who hit the home run gets to run around the mound, almost in mockery of the pitcher he just torched.
And that’s just a regular home run.
There are hardly many other plays in sports that are more exciting than the inside-the-park home run variety (maybe a kickoff return for a touchdown, overtime in the NHL or the Kentucky Derby rivals it, but that’s about it).
Then, there’s the walk-off. It is the buzzer beater, the 50-yard field goal as time expires, the sudden death over time winner of baseball. What a feeling it must be to collect the game winning hit, then watch your entire team crowd around the plate ready to mob you as you trot home.
But for as great as the home run is, for as great as hitting in general is in baseball, the most exciting part of the game is actually the defense.
The majority of highlights produced by the game don’t come from the batter’s box. They come from the field. It’s why the “Web Gems” segment culminates every episode of Baseball Tonight.
Think about leaping catches over the wall to rob home runs, diving catches in the outfield to snatch away base hits, Derek Jeter going deep in the hole, plucking the ball from the dirt then leaping while turning and firing one back to first in a play that defies physics.
Some believe the 6-4-3 double play is the most beautiful play in all of sports. And when the short-stop ranges to a ball up the middle, flips it behind his back to the second baseman who bare-hands it and guns it down to first to roll ’em up, that’s really hard to refute.
Then there are the players themselves, the men who day-in and day-out man the same positions for your favorite baseball team all summer.
When you’re a kid, you feel like you grow up with these guys. When you’re older, you’re wise enough to grasp what a grind the regular season is for these players and how respectable it is that most of them (Manny Ramirez excluded) bust their butts every game, no matter the score, no matter the standings.
Some of the saddest days in a baseball fan’s life are when a favorite player retires. It’s as if they are losing a part of them, a part of their life that they have lived with for so long.
I’d literally trade my healthy dog for another summer watching the Big Hurt mash on the South side.
Finally, you have simple attendance of the live game. Sure, baseball is probably last of the four major sports in the U.S. in terms of wire-to-wire excitement, but there’s nothing like going to a baseball game on a hot summer day in July and taking in the alchemic sights and sounds.
Catch a foul ball, eat a hot dog (with mustard and grilled onions, no ketchup obviously) and enjoy the very best part of summer.