Baseball, the game, has never been enough. It’s slow. It crawls along at a pace that’s never been able to keep anyone’s attention. When we go to the ballpark, we go with people we’re willing to chew the fat with. It’s a great place to pitch a new client; a great place for a first date.
Modern ballparks aren’t cathedrals anymore. They’re family theme parks. There’s more going on off the field than there is on it. We’re rarely glued to the diamond. Even less so to the screen at home.
For its fans, baseball plays in the backgrounds of our summer evenings while our lives roll on. 162 games, 1458 innings….a shade short of 9000 outs.
Baseball is more habit than thrill.
It’s not obvious to the untrained eye who is even good at it. We need precise calculations to measure them over long periods of time just to figure it out. Batting average. Earned Run Average. OPS. WAR.
The greatest hitter in the history of the game, whose name my eleven year old knows because of how he played baseball 80 years ago, got two more hits a week than people lost forever to obscurity. The greatest pitchers are rarely even on the field. Nearly nothing is intuitive. There are games within the games within the games. Such is baseball the game. It sounds horrible.
But it’s not.
Because within that Byzantine summer metaverse lives titans. There are legends. There are moments that fathers tell their sons about. That their father’s told them about. Ruth. Aaron. Koufax. Clemens. Bonds. Trout. The shot heard round the world. Game 6. Buckner behind the bag…
It’s the legends that make the game. It’s the lightning bolt moments they create that streak across the summer sky and leave their mark for generations. Without them, baseball doesn’t work. And it never has.
Last July, a 20 year old shortstop stepped into the batter’s box in San Diego with dyed dreadlocks hanging out of the back of his helmet, a thick gold chain hanging out of a half unbuttoned shirt and stats that showed he’d been wearing out the league from the moment his career started two months earlier. A fastball with a message about how this game is supposed to be played buzzed by his chin, knocking him to the ground.
He didn’t get the message. Because the kid hit the next pitch 417 feet over the centerfield wall and then trotted quickly around the bases and danced down the dugout. I watched that game live with my son. And for the next two decades my boy and I will talk about the moment we spotted a titan in the wild.
Fernando Tatis Jr is different than any ballplayer I’ve ever seen. He’s a giant, athletic outlier of a shortstop who runs faster, throws harder and hits the ball further than anyone in the league. This isn’t conjecture. Baseball has technology that measures these things now. And they understand what they’ve always understood. They need to hang one more cohort of data on the product to help people sort things out. Tatis though, doesn’t need that much sorting. He jumps off the screen. He doesn’t follow the rules. He scored from second base on an infield single. He tagged up and scored on a pop up to second. These are things one just doesn’t do.
He just turned 21.
Earlier this week, with his team up seven runs on the Rangers and the bases loaded in the 8th inning, he crushed an opposite field grand slam. It was his second home run in as many innings. After the game his manager said he’ll learn not to make that mistake again. And then Tatis apologized.
To understand why, you’ve got to understand one other thing about baseball. It’s an old institution. And just like any old institution, it’s got ghosts. And not all of them are good. Somewhere in the long dark history of things that live as long as baseball has, forces take hold and get down to the task of protecting the status quo. The way things are is the way they should be. And breaking unwritten rules, what Tatis apparently had done when his team was simply up too many runs for him to have swung the bat in a 3-0 count, is something to be held accountable for.
Part of that unwritten rule by the way is that it’s entirely acceptable to then throw a baseball as hard as you can at the next batter’s head. Which is, of course, ridiculous and amounts to assault in any other setting. The lunacy highlights, in an extreme way, how baseball is a microcosm of so much of what plagues America today. Is the ritual and history important? Or is it the people?
Some version of the human political debate brakes down along the lines of sorting that question out. Ideally the two things wouldn’t be exclusive. Inevitably a choice bubbles up though. And that’s when the politics of it all oozes in. When Fernando Tatis Jr is told he ought to apologize for swinging a baseball bat, it’s clear that we’re there.
Baseball is particularly bad at believing the game is what’s most important. And the norms and unwritten rules show it. The result is something from a past world that no one will watch today. The result is having a silly hall of fame where the best players aren’t in it. The result is a stale and dying game. And it’s time to stop it.
The most interesting thing to happen to the San Francisco Giants last year was when Max Muncy told Madison Bumgarner that if he didn’t like how he ran around the bases after he hit a home run against him, then he should go get the ball out of the ocean where he hit it. No one remembers when anyone just put their head down and ran the bases the way Mickey Mantle said was the right way to do it. And we too easily forget that the old great’s honest and respectful way to play locked out people of color from doing it. That was once “the right way” too. And if you think that telling foreign born players who want to bring part of their passionate culture to the game to just sit down and behave isn’t related to that, then you don’t understand the way the world works.
There are green shoots on the horizon though. Signs that perhaps things aren’t just changing but they have changed. When I asked my son if the Rangers pitcher should have been upset when Tatis swung, he said, “Nope…he should have made a better 3-0 pitch.”
The old guards like Johnny Bench and Reggie Jackson tweeted (yes Johnny Bench tweets) their support for the kid. And the world appears to agree that the unwritten rules are stupid. Let the kids play. Let baseball be fun. Let them flip bats. Let them sit back and admire when they hit a ball so far they know don’t have to start running because it’s landing in the next county. Let the pitchers celebrate when they buckle a hitters knees with a perfect curve ball. And let the best players in the Hall of Fame.
Baseball the game has never been enough. It’s the flesh and blood and energy of the players that carries it. And so the game should reflect the cultures and norms of the times those players have come from.
The one good thing about unwritten rules is that you don’t have to change them. All you have to do is let them play. And let the better angels of our nature sort the rest out.