Forget the alert on your iCal. To hell with the buds of green sprouting on the branches outside your window. It isn’t really springtime until legendary announcer Vin Scully utters, on opening day of the new season, “It’s time for Dodger baseball!”
Alas, Vin retired last fall after a 67-year run, ending one of the great rites of spring. I can’t blame him, though; he’s more than earned his retirement. There isn’t a person in the world that doesn’t wish him a long and happy ride into the sunset. Life, meanwhile, goes on. Spring came just the same. So did baseball season.
I have a special fondness for spring. It is the season of my birthday, which evokes all those happy associations from childhood—not just the parties and presents, but emerging from the long winter frost to be tempted back to the streets by the perfume of blooming flowers, the petrichor of rain-slick pavement, the gentle, pre-summer warmth coming back around for a long overdue visit. Nothing, however, heralds the season for me so resoundingly as the resumption of Major League Baseball.
This has not always been the case. Truth be told, baseball is a fairly recent personal pastime of mine. My wife is the real sports nut in the family, having grown up only blocks from Shea Stadium as a card-carrying—and long-suffering—Mets fan. I was raised in the Bronx, right up the Deegan from Yankee Stadium, though it’s probably for the best I was never much of a baseball enthusiast, and certainly not a Yankees fan, otherwise our two-decade romance might have proven too star-crossed to survive one of the great New York rivalries. Given how resolute (to put it diplomatically) team loyalties can be, it was fortunate I was decidedly nonpartisan.
I guess you could say I discovered the pleasures of baseball the really old-fashioned way—by sitting in the stands and watching the games. And that only happened here in L.A. Through her work, my wife regularly receives Dugout Club tickets to Dodger Stadium—those fully catered VIP seats right behind home plate. (Yes—they’re as fantastic as you might think.) I’ll admit I initially went along for the all-you-can-eat Dodger Dogs, but, somewhere along the way, I learned the game—and got invested in it. That’s the thing about baseball, after all: For three-plus hours, you have nothing to do but sit and watch (once you’ve reached your gastrointestinal limitations from the buffet, that is), so eventually you’re left with little choice but to start paying attention. Baseball doesn’t wow you into engagement so much as lull you into complacency. But more on that point shortly.
I wonder if it would please my late father, or just frustrate him, that I wound up coming to the game so relatively late in life? He and I had very few interests in common; he fed his preternatural intellect with political talk radio and the financial pages (“the real crime blotter,” as he called it), with absolutely zero interest in or knowledge of pop culture from any era. Given his hypercerebral nature, he was hard man for anyone to connect with, and our nearly fifty-year age difference didn’t help matters.
He was a great lover of baseball, though—it was the only thing he ever watched save the nightly news—and he tried tirelessly to endow me with that same passion for the game. He never came home without a pack of baseball cards for me, and we watched games together on WPIX both at home and down at Ehring’s Tavern near Broadway. (I’ve noted previously on the blog how much time I spent in the neighborhood bars before I’d even reached double digits.) For my tenth birthday, in 1986, he brought me to my first game at Yankee Stadium, against the Cleveland Indians. I still have the program. It might even be one of my happiest memories with him.
But I just couldn’t connect with baseball. Born without much of a sports gene to nurture, I preferred instead to sink my time into movies and comics. I lived for fantasy—for the heroes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, for the horrors of John Carpenter and Wes Craven, for the monthly adventures of Batman as envisioned by artist Norm Breyfogle. (My mother took me to the movies on a regular basis; Dad never joined us.)
It’s appropriate, then—and certainly telling—that my fondest baseball memory from childhood was sneaking into a screening of the R-rated Charlie Sheen comedy Major League (Golden Fleece—“Sports Fleece”) with my best pals Matt and Sean when I was twelve. I couldn’t relate to—or even make sense of—statistics on the back of a bubblegum card (ERAs? RBIs?), but I could identify with characters. It’s safe to say that writer/director David S. Ward more effectively cultivated an appreciation for the game in my receptive mind during the two hours spent watching Major League than my poor father managed to do in a dozen years of direct tutelage. Even then, it seems, story was how I related to the world around me.
Like so much of my early education, it occurs to me now, I probably would’ve taken more from it if I’d had a little context for what I was learning. (Again: one of the benefits of couching lessons in narrative.) But, save the occasional Major League sequel, baseball pretty much went dormant for me after my parents separated through arriving in Los Angeles in my mid-twenties. For over twenty years, movies were my prevailing passion, screenwriting my vocation, and narratology my field of study. I had room for little else in my life, and I was fine with that. If you’re blessed enough to have one, you know that passion inevitably becomes obsession, and obsession, like addiction, wants your complete attention—for better and for worse.
BASEBALL IN A POSTNARRATIVE WORLD
A few years ago, I grew deeply disillusioned with the movie business, and left screenwriting behind to pursue a career as a novelist. And though the correlation didn’t occur to me till I started writing this post, my interest in MLB kicked into an appreciably higher gear right around that time—2014 or so. That was when I learned to really follow the game, understand the calls, and even start making them in my head before they were officially announced. I was even becoming familiar with the Dodgers’ roster—not merely names and positions, but each player’s strengths and shortcomings. Once I knew the personalities—their backstories brought to light by Vin Scully—and understood the rules of engagement, I was invested in the game, same as I was invested in the plight of the underdog Indians in Major League. It just took thirty years for the two roads to intersect!
Because when I said earlier that baseball lulls us into complacency, what I meant is that it brings us into its world gradually; we have to invest time in it before we’re able to invest emotion—just like a good story. “Traditional team sports are not only dependent on mainstream, larger screen television for their success, but also on the top-down style of old-school media and narrative consistency of an enduring and inviolable value system,” writes media theorist Douglas Rushkoff (Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, [New York: Penguin Group, 2013], 40). He goes on to say:
“Team sports take hours to watch and require a very particular sort of commitment to play. A kid must sign up at school, submit to a coach, and stay for the season. By contrast, extreme sports are improvisational in nature, and more about texture, pleasure, and style than about victory over an adversary. They emphasize process, form, and personal achievement, and resist efforts to standardize play” (ibid., 41–42).
In other words: Sports, like stories, can reflect a narrative or postnarrative worldview. And it’s the slow-burn, old-school narrative of baseball, in contrast with the watch-this-now! immediacy of extreme sports—of virtually all our on-demand media in this day and age—that I respond to. It’s also the reason I’m reading more than ever now and watching so much less scripted television: I feel bombarded with shit I have to watch, and all of it is instilling in me an opposing preference for quiet, contemplative activities.
Which is why I take such pleasure in sitting down with my wife to watch the game almost nightly—mostly on SportsNet LA, but on occasion at the ballpark itself—between April and the onset of autumn. The game holds our attention but doesn’t demand it; it allows us to have a daily shared experience, but with room to breathe. The DVR queue of “must-see” TV, by comparison, is all homework—a never-ending to-do list. Baseball, on the other hand, is something my wife and I can invest in together every night, as fervidly or as casually as we please given our mood. (One can chat during a game, after all, but not a show.) I wish I’d understood that was the point of it all when my father tried to get me into baseball way back when.
AMERICA’S FAVORITE PASTIME
All that said, however, I should confess: Though I can now follow the sport—from game to game and even across the arc of a season—I can’t rattle off stats with encyclopedic authority, and I only have a cursory awareness of the other clubs in the National League (from when they play the Dodgers), with virtually no sense of the AL teams. I couldn’t sit with anyone but my wife and have lively conversations about careers, averages, the merits of a controversial call, or who’s showing promise in the minors—all of that is beyond my scope of expertise.
I also don’t long for the days when MLB was “pure,” before it was spoiled by performance enhancers or free agents, because like a child born into our era of global warming, I have no sense of a less-polluted environment. This is all I know. Aside from this post, I’ll never write a paean to the sport like, say, Billy Crystal or Larry King has. When it comes to baseball, I am strictly a hobbyist—a casual spectator.
This is precisely the way I want it—exactly what is so appealing about the sport to me. Because, prior to developing an interest in baseball, I don’t know that I really had a hobby. Books and movies, as I’ve established, are both a passion and a vocation, and when I speak about such matters, I do so from a position of great personal investment and acquired professional authority. When my sister and I saw Rogue One last year, we had a long conversation about it over dinner, and only after I’d thoroughly and academically deconstructed it did she ask, “But did you like it?”
The unfortunate truth is, I don’t like any movies anymore. They elicit no emotional response from me whatsoever; I can’t recall the last one that made me feel something—even the ones I admire. Fifteen-plus years of working in Hollywood, it would seem, has beaten the delight of cinema out of me; nowadays, movies serve no function other than that of an intellectual exercise. Part of that is owed to my disgust with the business itself, and part with our current cultural preference for rebooted ‘80s IPs that have sucked all the air out of the room.
That’s why I’ve devoted so much real estate on this blog lately to calling out Hollywood for turning the cinema into a Gen X greatest-hits compilation. All the movies I grew up on, that I once couldn’t get enough of, are now the only option at the multiplex; a generation of filmmakers has squandered its opportunity to make a mark on the culture by producing big-budget fan fiction for a hopelessly nostalgia-addicted audience. What a waste—an inexcusable shame, as I have exhaustively (or, perhaps more appropriately, exhaustingly) observed on this site. Which reminds of something satirist Tony Hendra (he of This Is Spinal Tap) wrote in his memoir Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul:
“I’d already learned (and repeated to The New York Times) the routine [National] Lampoon defense of even its cruelest parodies: you only parody the things you love. (We rarely went as far as admitting the next step—and the truth—that you only parody what you once loved and now loathe.)”
That, it’s fair to say, is the reason I’ve been so critical of superheroes and Star Wars, of Ghostbusters and Star Trek, over the last year or so: I used to love them, but somewhere along the way I came to loathe them. It’s with no pleasure whatsoever I acknowledge that many of the groundbreaking films that inspired me to pursue storytelling have become corporate franchises that now only inspire my bilious disdain. Such, I suppose, are the perils of passion.
Because if passion is a gift, it is a curse, as well, and one’s feelings about his obsessive preoccupations tend to swing capriciously from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other; there’s seldom an equanimous middle ground. Our passion, particularly if it is our profession, is the lens through which we interpret and evaluate the world around us. No cop or doctor or athlete or artist could deny this. I grew up loving movies; later I became a screenwriter, then a novelist; now reality itself is processed in my brain by way of learned abstractions like narrativity and postnarrativity, and everything I see shares some measure of cause and consequence with everything else, even if it all appears unrelated on the surface. Like Neo in The Matrix, there’s no unseeing the streaming code behind the pretty pictures.
But, quite mercifully, I don’t think about any of that when Kershaw takes the mound. Or when Turner throws to González at first to get a runner out. Or when Utley collides spectacularly with the second baseman. I don’t think much about anything—I simply enjoy what’s happening while it happens as I root, root, root for the home team. If they don’t win, it’s a shame—but that’s all it really is. It’s not anything I’ll lose sleep over, or, worse still, that might trigger a philosophical rumination on how the corruption of the sport is itself indicative of an existential crisis on the part of an entire generation reeling from the loss of the analog world. (‘Cause Christ knows we’ve all read enough of that shit here over the past year!)
No, baseball is a subject I can’t speak to with any authority, nor any real appreciation for its nuances and gameplay patterns. With baseball, I just get to be fan again, like I was the day Matt and Sean and I slipped into that long-gone twinplex down on 231st Street showing Major League way back in April of 1989. For me, the game is a pastime in the purest sense: a welcome reprieve from the tyranny of passion.