Wednesday, May 17, 2017

So It's Come to This: A Baseball Post

I haven’t written a baseball post in what seems like forever. I can discern two reasons for this:

1.    I have been pretty busy at work during MLB’s off-season. Whereas I would obsess over rosters and trades and prospects and lineups in years past, I do that to a lesser extent now. School had a lot of downtime. Fitting your whole life into the eight waking hours you aren’t chained to a desk does not.

2.    The Jays resembled a very large, very hot dog turd at the start of the 2017 season.

But regardless of how much work I have to do, baseball is still never very far away from my attention, so I still have some thoughts which only feel at home on the warm, lime green confines of IMU, so here we go.

The Blue Jays started this season extremely badly. Almost everything that could go wrong went wrong. Josh, Troy, Russ, Sanch, and Happ all got hurt and Jose started looking a lot more like Josh Phelps than Jose Bautista. When a team loses all of its good players in the first two weeks, it typically does not follow that by winning games.

Note: When I was a kid, I LOVED Josh Phelps and was convinced he would be around forever.

It’s funny how quick baseball fans’ expectations and temperaments can change. From 1994-2014, the Jays ranged from “yep, they’re bad” to “two or three pieces away” with nothing to show for it. Then I was spoiled with a magical 2015 season in which everything went right and was the most fun baseball could be, and a 2016 season where the Jays substituted magic with “just playing well the whole year”. I had waited my whole life to see the Toronto Blue Jays in the playoffs and both of those years absolutely met the unreasonably high expectations that I had set.

I, along with many others, had mixed feelings about 2017 though. It seemed like the team was increasingly leaning on the “if this, this, and this work out, we’ll be good” crutch which is always the sign of a middling baseball team. Then, in the space of two weeks at the start of April, the beautiful “playoff team” image of the Jays had been shattered. Josh Donaldson was hurt and Chris Caughlan was playing third base. Aaron Sanchez was hurt and Mat Latos was starting. Edwin Encarnacion was playing for the Cleveland Indians. Jose Bautista was swinging through letter-high fastballs.

Baseball is unlike any other sport because of how long its season is. Playing 162 games over the course of 6 months means that you have to be patient during bad stretches because they always come and are something every team (and more importantly fans) must endure. But the Jays started 1-9 and it got pretty hard to imagine them playing the first place team for the rest of the season. But because it was only the second week of April, you had to say "it's early", instead of "burn it to the ground".

The team’s recent success brought in loads of new fans, which is to be expected when a traditionally bad team suddenly wins a lot in a huge city (see: Raptors, 2013-14 season). However, those fans also don’t know what it’s like to suffer through a bad baseball season (they also *shudders* do the wave), because not only do you have to watch a shitty version of something you love, but you have to watch it every day for six months.

But even though watching Ryan Goins take everyday at-bats for a whole month can be tiring, it is much better than the alternative, which is no baseball at all. The fact that every MLB team plays almost every day (there are 21 days during the season in which I am not blessed with Blue Jays baseball) is a huge part of what makes me love baseball so much. Once you get into the habit of watching the team every night, the team takes a special significance and becomes an integral part of your routine. They are always there. If I have a shitty day at work, the game becomes a nice thing to unwind to when I get home. It’s something I do friends and it’s something I do alone. It’s there when I feel good and when I feel bad. Baseball never stops and I love that so much. Once you are sucked in, watching your favourite team becomes a very meditative experience. It becomes an automatic process in the best way. It’s at once something you can have on behind on you while you cook dinner and something that keeps you on the edge of your seat with your friends. Few things in the universe can exist with a duality like that, but baseball can because it is unique and it is the best.

Sidebar: The fact that the long games and season drive away people who would otherwise be casual fans makes me love it even more. Get the fuck out of here.

Baseball’s meditative nature has turned it into something essential to me: A time to reflect on my thoughts, feelings, and life. Baseball has space, which lets your mind breathe during the game and consider other things. I could conjure up hundreds of examples of this happening in my life, but I will choose the following:

One summer, I lived alone in Guelph after I had finished my undergraduate degree at the city's university. At 23, it was my first time ever living alone and I was very sad and unsuccessful in lots of ways for the entire summer. I spent most of my time alone and it was a very trying time for me. One thing that I had was no-name stereo receiver that I bought at a weird odds and ends store downtown to use with my record player, which also had a radio built-in. Every night that summer, I listened to the Blue Jays game on radio with Jerry Howarth and Alan Ashby doing the call. I had a few friends in the city that summer, but I like to think that Jerry and Alan were my best friends. Listening to the Blue Jays on the radio gave me at least one thing that I loved every day. I would feel pretty bad most days, but that would subside when Jerry's calming voices would proclaim "the Blue Jays are in flight" after an Edwin Encarnacion home run. The team was terrible (4 out 5 starters got hurt in a week and a half in June), but the season was punctuated with small victories that felt like everything when they happened, like Edwin's great coming-out season or Colby Rasmus going 5-5 after moving to the 2-hole.

Another sidebar: Listening to a whole season on the radio was a significant moment in me being a shitty baseball hipster, as baseball on the radio was the main medium by which the sport was consumed for about 50 years. This is unique to baseball because of how old the professional leagues are.

Baseball is so important to me for all of these reasons. It does the amazing task of distracting me just enough to not focus solely on things that are bad while still allowing me to process them.

But this post isn't just a lengthy diatribe on why baseball is just the best. It just mostly is.

I said all of this to give context to the fact that the Blue Jays 2017 season felt a little bit weird to me for the first month. It felt very different. After two years of amazing success, this was such a quick, crushing return to the reality that your favourite baseball team is kind of bad for most of its existence. Unless, you are this guy. The last few years, I've grown a lot more skeptical about the state of the world and find myself continually angered by some of the things that happen and the rationale behind them. It's nice to be able to escape that by watching Brett Cecil's curveball at night. Now they are not doing so hot, but the funny thing is that they can still be that escape,

It's strange because when the team rattled off seven losses in a row, it almost felt like I was returning to a comfortable world I had been away from. I had watched the Blue Jays lose forever. This was just more of what I loved! But it also felt shitty because it was definitely the end of the murderer's row Jay's lineup that had led them to the ALCS the two years prior. It was nice and bad at the same time.

It's an ethereal thing, but the 2017 Jays team feels a lot more like the teams of the 00's than the phenomenal ones of the last two years. Things like Chris Caughlin diving over Yadier Molina are the sorts of small victories that I would pull out the ticker tape for in 2014. The infield tonight, which is currently losing to the Braves, is Smoak-Travis-Goins-Barney. Maybe they'll turn it around. Maybe they'll turn it around in two years. Maybe it will be another two decades. There's no way that I can know.

But thinking about all of these differences, I forgot the most crucial fact of all:

Baseball is always there, every day. They played yesterday, they played today, and they'll play tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. okay, fine, this is a really good post. Forever love the way you make baseball palatable for everyone