It’s finally April, and nothing excites me more than the beginning of baseball season. The trope about baseball and spring is true: it is the time of the year for unencumbered optimism. For me, it’s always been the time of year with the most possibilities.
While growing up, I wanted to be a professional baseball player. This dream was not hindered by a critical, yet at the time overlooked, road block on the path toward fulfilling this dream: I was a terrible baseball player. Sure, I was pretty good while playing in uncompetitive parks and recreation leagues, where the equivalent of a tryout was the ability to pay the marginal entrance fee; a fee that returned a tee-shirt and a team name.
One of the things I remember most about playing on such teams was my obsession with personal statistics. Before the season, I would make a graph of all the statistics I wanted to keep track of throughout the year. I made sure that after the season was over, I would know among other things my batting average and how many runs I scored and batted in. I even took care to note minor statistics, such as assists. Looking back, it is evident that my attachment to baseball was mostly intermural. I wanted to win and play well, but more than that I wanted to know my numbers. I imagined that I could be ranked against all of my competitors and teammates. If I had spent as much time trying to keep my eyes open while fielding ground balls as making statistical charts for myself, I might have been a better ballplayer. I eventually played one year of competitive baseball as an eighth grader for the Junior Varsity team. I tried out and made the team, due to some good fortune and a gross oversight by the coaching staff. During this year, I didn’t bother much with statistics. After all, it was really easy to keep track of my .000 batting average without the tedium of daily bookkeeping, and I didn’t care to count how many errors I made. I’ve long accepted that I was not only a bad baseball player, but a bad baseball player who thought he was good.
When I think back to the time when I could call myself a ballplayer, I think about how every approaching baseball season was a time of optimism. My blank statistical charts—which I made less with the goal of measuring successes and failures than with the anticipation of being in a position to be successful and to accept failures—suggest this.
Eventually, I fully transferred by passion for baseball into fandom. Keeping track of someone else’s statistics was much easier and more fun than keeping track of my own—and definitely easier than keeping track of fly balls in the sun, a liberal use of eyeblack notwithstanding.
Baseball is a historically minded game. Before I ever knew that I would become a historian, I became engrossed with the way that the game interacted with its past. Every player and team has a historical measure, and the feats of the contemporary baseball player are more often than not estimated relative to how close a current failure came to reaching a historical success. That is not to say that the unprecedented does not happen in baseball, because it does.
There is little I can say about the upcoming baseball season that hasn’t already been said by the hundreds of quality baseball writers that populate the Internet. Suffice to say that this season I have a “wish-list” of players and teams I want to watch, often with a mind toward thinking about a measure with the history of baseball.
It is not often that teenagers force the baseball world to rethink everything that came before. The first baseball player that I ever loved watching was Ken Griffey Jr., who debuted as a 19 year old. He had the most effortless home-run swing that I’ve ever seen. Junior—the one word signifier that seems to be reserved only for ballplayers that transcend their peers and predecessors—also played the outfield with a swagger and athleticism rarely seen. I didn’t think it likely that I would ever see another player like him, all the while doing the very common thing of looking forward to the next year and waiting for “the next Junior.” Of course, that didn’t happen. Comparisons are fun to make, but no two players are the same, just as the game itself changes from year to year and players adapt. Last year, however, two young outfielders, aged 20 and 19, began their careers and reminded me what it was like to watch Ken Griffey Jr. play for the first time. What might end up being unprecedented (at least in my lifetime) about the careers of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper is that they may end up being two “once-in-a-generation” players with career arcs that almost precisely overlap. Something that probably hasn’t happened since the time of Willie and Mickey.
Not unprecedented, but it would be something comparable only to my intimacy with baseball’s past, and not my own memory. Another comparison for such story-like continuity is not overlapping careers, but a transition: 1963 was recently deceased Stan Musial’s final year as a professional baseball player, and his final hit was a line-drive past rookie second-basemen Pete Rose—that means that from 1941until 1986, two of the greatest hitters to ever play were active. The scientific half of my historian’s mind tells me that it was coincidental, but the story-teller’s half knows that such continuity encapsulates baseball as a game and cultural institution with a fluctuating, yet unbroken, past.
Dominant pitching performances are the closest thing to art anyone is ever likely to find in sports. When I was growing up, baseball’s Rembrandt was Greg Maddux, its Picasso Pedro Martinez, and its Rothko Randy Johnson. The first excelled at precision and subtlety in that his pitches blended into darkness and light to the point that hitters could know what pitch was coming, and still could not turn it into a success. Pedro Martinez, rather, pitched in such a way that the ball may have appeared to change shape as much as speed. Martinez had a vision of the one-on-one competition between pitcher and hitter that exceeded that of most of his competition. Randy Johnson, finally, intimidated and immersed hitters with the illusive simplicity of a flamethrower that left many a hitter seeing red after listlessly swinging and missing not the fastball, but the wipe-out slider. In my mind, there are no contemporary comparisons to these three craftsmen, although the four that come closest are Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez, and Clayton Kershaw—and I’m going to watch them pitch as many games as possible this year. The oldest of those players is only 30, and I tantalizingly don’t know what I will witness from them in this year and the future.
The excitement of a baseball season would not be complete without looking forward to seeing what my favorite baseball team, the Colorado Rockies, will do in their twenty first season of existence. Last year, the Rockies made their own bit of history by compiling the worst record in team history. That is not to say that my springtime optimism isn’t lost on this team. I’m quite optimistic that their performance this year will not be as bad as last year, if only because it is close to impossible for it to be worse, given the context of the injuries they suffered and the fact that however disastrous last year was, the team underperformed. That is, this year they should progress to the mean. I am also optimistic that the Rockies’ best player, Troy Tulowitzki, who a year ago was widely considered one of the best players in the game, will finally play another full season and remind everyone with a short-term memory that he still is one of the five best position players in all of baseball. Finally, I’m excited to see what some of the younger players can do. Will Josh Rutledge meet or possibly exceed the expectations recently lodged onto him? Will third-basemen of the future Nolan Arenado contribute to the present when he is inevitably called to play for the major league team in June? Can the young starting pitchers Drew Pomeranz, Christian Friedrich, and Tyler Chatwood harness their raw talent into the ability to pitch at the major league level? Beyond them, will younger pitchers such as Chad Bettis and Tyler Anderson live up to the potential that they might contribute to the team beyond 2013? I look forward to finding out, even though I know that not everything will turn out the way I hope at the moment.
Optimism is future-oriented, even in a game that is as historically minded as baseball. In the present, there is reason for optimism about the Rockies, given the blank statistical charts and 0-0 record as of April 1. In any case, the most fun part of the baseball season, beyond what appear to be the known quantities, will be witnessing the unexpected—perhaps even the unprecedented.