The pure pleasure of baseball's Opening Day
Baseball's Opening Day often occasions syrupy prose about optimism and opportunity and clean slates. Every team starts with the same record. Have hope. Anything could happen. Even the most reliable losers could be winners this time around!
I say, no. Be a realist. This is going to be a tough year for fans of the Texas Rangers. And a disorienting one for baseball junkies in the Bronx who no longer have any of their career-Yankee legends. Enjoy A-Rod, I guess. And the only great assurance for the fans of the Philadelphia Phillies is that their ballpark now mercifully allows the sale of hard alcohol.
But even the realism of Opening Day should still be a relief. Because unlike nearly every other part of American life right now, in baseball, the rules and stakes are relatively clear. At the end of the game there is no dispute over who won or lost. The teams and their fans do not get to walk away with a conflicting set of facts. The greatness of an opponent is a threat only to your team, not to your sense of self-worth, or your feeling of membership in your country.
There are multiple cultures within and around baseball, but very little culture war. There is the jock culture — braggadocios, stunt-seeking, and a little juvenile and meat-headed — right at the center of the game, which I mostly like even though it isn't mine. Even within that jock culture there are cultural differences between athletes who are taught that sportsmanship demands stoicism, and those who like demonstrating to you how enjoyable it is to be something like a minor god.
The fans have their own cultures, too. The stats-obsessed have seen their greatest ascendency because Brad Pitt played their hero in a pretty good movie. Moneyball seemed to complete a transformation within this culture. When I was a kid, the stat-sheet wavers identified closely with the players, whom they dreamed of being. Now baseball's geeky fans dream of demoting the jocks and trading them like Pogs. They identify with Ivy-educated guys like the suddenly compelling Padres' new general manager, A.J. Preller. This means that some of the most intelligent fans are no longer necessarily on the side of baseball's laborers.
There is the bumptious, crude, but honor-driven culture of sports talk radio hosts and listeners. You know the type: Skeezy and the Old Ham Sandwich, afternoon sports trash talk. Men such as these offer to guard the sanctity and traditions of the game from clowns, punks. The bottomless ire is unselfconscious, yet very noticeably directed at Latin American players.
Yet somehow, these competing cultures are rarely in direct conflict. There are no culture wars in baseball.
The very superfluousness and get-along-go-along nature of baseball makes it a source of refuge from the rest of the world that I live in, a world that seems so contentious and anxious. Baseball allows me to have something to talk about with my oldest friends and new acquaintances alike. The abundance of baseball games — more than 10 times the regular season of football — means that for months you can watch them sleepily. A baseball game, even a mid-season loss, can be kind of fun and rejuvenating, where professional football losses leave their fans feeling exhausted and anxious. There's an ease to baseball. It's why I feel refreshed every morning of the year after a few hours curating a daily newsletter about baseball, The Slurve.
Baseball has challenges right now, of course. The steroid era has been followed closely by the era of the strikeout. I love it when pitchers rule the league and low-scoring games proliferate, but that is an acquired taste. And baseball has to experiment to adjust. Baseball players are making more money than ever, even as they take a smaller share of ever-increasing revenues. The playoff format undercuts regular season greatness. Owners are bilking local governments for handouts in an ugly parasitic attack on civic spirit. Expansion is probably justified by the continued growth of good baseball markets. New York should have a third team. Montreal should have one, too. And baseball needs to recover itself in the inner city and among black youth, who have been left behind by the exurbanization of the game.
But those problems are far outweighed by the great things that are happening in the game, namely that our athletes are better than they've ever been. Major League Baseball is now drawing on a larger global talent pool than ever before. And still, some incredibly unathletic men, like Bartolo Colo, can be astoundingly good through their paradoxically strong commitment to being blasé. The full spectrum of Cuban talent is finally entering the league. Aroldis Chapman's fastball is like a science-fiction gimmick. Yasiel Puig's play in the outfield is somehow alternatingly circus-like and frighteningly martial.
Get away from the culture war. Enjoy something like an accidental cultural symphony. A transmuted English game that is overloaded with Americana. Something that is managed by Ivy-leaguers, owned by blue-bloods and comic-book villains, populated by jocks and new arrivals, picked over by nerds and working-class blowhards. It's thrilling.