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Saying Goodbye Is Never Easy: Fond Departing Words for the 2011 Baseball Season

October 24, 2011

(Above: the new video for Wild Flag’s “Electric Band,” one of my favorite songs off their self-titled debut, premiered today and happened to be about baseball and/or The Bad News Bears. I’ll take it as an omen).

The baseball season isn’t quite over yet. There are at least two more games guaranteed, and if I had to wager, I’d bet on a third game later this week, but I had the time (and, perhaps more important, the itch) to write this afternoon, so I’ll say thank you for a great season of baseball today.

For a variety of reasons, baseball is my favorite sport. It’s the only sport where I have a “favorite team.” It happens during the seven best months of the year (eight if March gets lumped in, I suppose), and its arrival means the end of another cold New England winter. There’s far too much baseball to digest (especially compared with the NFL), and in a weird way that’s liberating to a fan. With so much baseball, I don’t feel obligated to watch every pitch, or see every team play in a given week. Despite this willingness to let go, baseball remains a constant in my daily life. From watching a game on a Sunday afternoon to listening to the replay of the overnight talk show on XM radio on my drive to work each morning, baseball stays by my side throughout the day.

With the exception of the 2006 baseball season*, I found myself more emotionally attached to this baseball season. I’d attribute it to 2011 being a year of changes (almost all positive ones, for what it’s worth), but my deepest attachment came in the last two months, when a lot of things that were in flux settled in. I thought about this in the car this afternoon, and I think the progression worked this way:

1. Getting MLB.tv for the final month of the season.

When I got MLB.tv for the last month of the season to watch the Mets after moving to Boston, I expected to watch a handful of games. I didn’t expect to find myself glued to my computer when Stephen Strasburg returned from Tommy John surgery**, or when whispers of Rays’ pitching prospect Matt Moore’s major league debut bubbled up on Twitter, or searching through a game archive to find a blown call in a Marlins-Phillies game. Looking back, though, it makes sense; now that I had the tools to see the kind of things I’d normally read or hear about the next day, I could follow along. The MLB.tv media center became a site I’d open without thinking just to check out the different matchups that night.

2. The Moneyball  movie.

I loved Moneyball (and, for the record, the “anti-Moneyball” Three Nights in August) when I read it a few summers ago, and I was skeptical about the film adaptation for a long time. However, the final product was terrific – a beautifully shot movie that painted baseball as both complex and evolving yet simple and visceral. It also painted baseball as a game capable of maddening frustration and extreme exhilaration – one that Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Billy Beane made into a borderline classical tragic flaw. It’s this capacity for heartbreak and hope for nirvana that spoke to me as a fan. It’s the same feeling I see bubbling up from the Cardinal fans in my Facebook feed and the same one that turned Boston sports talk radio (and, by proxy, national baseball talk radio) into a series of tell-alls and witch hunts. And it’s the constant reminder that every time a team celebrates, another wonders if the misery is a series of mistakes or a random chain of unlucky events. Not to mention the reminder of a familiar fall phrase – “there’s always next year” – and how a simple phrase could be a challenge to one, a reason to hope for another, and a reminder of futility for the rest (and, for some fans, a combination of all three)

It also helped that one of the film’s final scenes took place in an empty, gloomy Fenway Park. I saw the movie the Sunday after it came out on an overcast afternoon, and when I walked out of the theater, an empty Fenway (empty because the Sox were out of town, at least at this point) cut through the light fog. It felt right.

3. The last month and a half of games

In a season where the Mets were more frustrating than inspiring (yet exceeded my expectations – but let’s leave them out of it for now), the September playoff races (or, in the parlance of the people in my new city, “the collapse”) was a godsend to a baseball fan with no clear rooting interest in the playoffs. I wore out my iPhone’s battery updating MLB.com that final night of the season, listened to Bob Uecker call playoff games, and nearly did a double-take when Gary Cohen’s voice described a baseball game between Tampa Bay and Texas. The last month of baseball feels like a bonus – games that I’ve cared about immensely even if my team isn’t playing. They’ve just been a delight to watch and hear.

And then the World Series began, neither with the teams expected to be there nor the teams whose bandwagons I joined (sorry, Tampa and Milwaukee fans), yet I can’t imagine a better World Series unless I had a specific rooting interest***. The games have been exciting, both in the tense pitching duels and the explosive offenses in Game 3. There are plenty of storylines to latch onto (“Is this Josh Hamilton’s baseball redemption?” “Will Pujols Bash His Way to a $300 Million Contract?” “Which Manager Will Make the Strangest Substitution?”) or ignore completely. Most importantly, when I haven’t been able to watch, I felt like I was missing something, and I would hurry home to catch at least part of the game, even if it meant jogging back from the T just to see the final fly out last Thursday night. For a game between two teams I rarely watch throughout the season, this is a high compliment.

So I will enjoy these final two or three games before baseball hibernates for the winter. There may not be games to listen to or highlights to watch, but I doubt that it will stray too far from my daily routine. After all, there are free agents to find homes (Jose Reyes being foremost in my mind, but again, for another time), and questions to ask and answer until spring training. And even on the coldest day this winter, I’ll know that I’m one day closer to finding out if next year is Next Year. And even if it isn’t (and as a Mets fan, I’m not holding my breath), I’d be very happy with next year being a lot like this one.

(Oh, and if I may address MLB directly here: learn from the NFL and, most importantly and heart-breakingly, the NBA and get your new CBA done as soon as possible. And while you do that, modernize your blackout restrictions****, particularly for MLB.tv. It will go a long way toward convincing me to drop the $120 on it next season).

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*If I get around to writing about the 2011 Mets, I will probably have to revisit the emotional punch of Carlos Beltran’s 9th inning Game 7 strikeout in 2006. This almost certainly affects my “rooting interest” in a following footnote.

**One thing I will say about the Mets’ this year – In the time since Johan Santana last threw a major league pitch, Stephen Strasburg hurt his elbow, had Tommy John surgery, rehabilitated, and pitched half a dozen major league games. I know Santana is older and Strasburg is a freak of nature, but it still feels like an appropriate summary of this year’s team.

***I’m on record pulling for Texas with the caveat of “I want at least six games, preferably seven,” so even if the Cardinals win, I’ve already won.

****The fact that this link is from 2006 yet still applies speaks a lot about the arcane nature of these rules. Here’s two more recent takes on it.

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