The nation’s capital is the home of the Washington Nationals, the defending Eastern Division champions of the National League’s East Division. As is the tradition (ever since President Taft began it in 1910), the Nationals invited President Trump to throw out the first pitch to start the season. The president declined, citing a “previous obligation.”
The president is free to choose where he makes public appearances, and it may well be that he calculated that he might not get a rousing ovation in a stadium populated by folks who voted for his opponent by over 90 percent. The thought that those fans might decide to boo the president (a very real possibility in a city that is seething with pent up anger about the election results and the new president’s first actions) probably didn’t create a surge of excitement in the man who seems to need praise more than anything else.
But baseball is back, and that’s the good news, especially when many of us regard that the real news (the kind that otherwise emanates from the nation’s capital) has been a mix of the disturbing and bewildering since that new president was elected (and especially since he took office). And since we’ll take our good news wherever we can find it in the age of Trump, let me focus on the new baseball season for the rest of this column and suspend commentary on the Trump news (real, fake or otherwise) for this week at least.
The baseball season always begins just as the college basketball season is coming to an end. (The professional basketball season goes on interminably until just about baseball’s All-Star Game, which is ridiculous, but let me not digress.) And so, as Gonzaga and North Carolina were preparing to meet in the NCAA final game (marking the end of March Madness), baseball’s first pitches were thrown (albeit not by the president) at ball parks across the nation.
More fans attend the games played on opening day than on just about any other day of the six-month season. It isn’t that the games themselves have any greater importance. They count just the same in terms of standings and pennant races as all the other 161 games that the teams play thereafter. And while the pageantry of the opening day ceremonies can be impressive, with tributes to retired players, war veterans, uniformed military personnel, moms and apple pie, and with speeches (or at least appearances) by elected officials, community leaders, entertainment icons and the like, the games themselves are only occasionally memorable. It isn’t as if anyone thinks the pennant race will be decided based on the winners of the first games of the season.
Instead, I think the reason opening day games are so popular is that they signal the return of good times generally. Baseball starts in the spring, almost right at the start of spring. March 20 may be the first day of the new season, but it takes a couple of weeks to settle in. And in most parts of the country, by the first days of April, it really starts to feel like spring, with flowers and trees starting to bloom (or at least with buds starting to show). Even in the nation’s coldest climes, thoughts of last snowfalls are at least sounding real.
And springtime is special. It’s when many of us start to redirect our thoughts from dark, foreboding fears and dreads to brighter, sunnier images and dreams. It’s when the young, and even the not so young, find the joys of love and romance. It’s when a walk in the park sounds inviting, even delightful, and when all forms of exercise seem more invigorating. Spring is for the young at heart.
And so is baseball. It’s a kids’ game, always has been. Boys, especially, gravitate to it, primarily because hitting and throwing and catching a baseball just seem like the most natural things to do. And when you add running and sliding and getting your pants dirty and feeling like a million bucks when you get your first hit, it’s a game that just has to be played.
For over one hundred years, baseball was America’s pastime. It was the game that most Americans identified as their own. That feeling has been lost over the last fifty or so years, with football, and even basketball, gaining in popularity while baseball lost some of its appeal. Part of the reason for this change in attitudes may be the more bucolic pace and feel of the game. Baseball isn’t a constant action game like basketball or football (or hockey or soccer for that matter), and it isn’t a macho game like those other games, either.
Instead, baseball is a game that requires patience and attention to detail. To play baseball, you have to be ready at all times for the few times when you might be required to do something. If you’re playing in the field (unless you are the pitcher or catcher), you may only be required to make a play once or twice in an entire game. (I can certainly remember many little league games when I stood alone out in left field for a whole game and never had a ball hit to me, but I most vividly remember a game when I caught a fly ball with the winning runs for the opposing team on second and third base to win the game.) And while batting is what most kids look forward to the most, in a whole game, you’re only going to get three or four chances (at bats).
Meanwhile, there is time to contemplate the experience fully, to watch and root for teammates, to be ready to make a play on every pitch, to study the opposing pitcher to see whether his fastball is moving one way or another, to think about whether you’ll be hitting with a runner in scoring position with the game on the line or whether the coach will send up a pinch hitter (a fate I suffered more than once) when your turn comes.
It’s a game, in other words, that offers life lessons that can be conjured and explored while the game is being played.
And then there are the stats. No game has better statistics than baseball: batting average, earned run average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage. And those are the traditional ones that modern scouts and GMs largely ignore. Now there are things like WAR (wins above replacement) and BABIP (batting average for balls in play) and WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) that define a player’s excellence.
Many newspapers have stopped printing box scores in their sports sections. And they wonder why subscriptions are down. The box scores are the first thing a true baseball fan looks for every morning. At least they still print the standings, and, occasionally, they will print the batting and pitching leaders, too.
Ah, baseball. It’s so good to have you back.