I grew up around baseball my entire life. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve whacking Wiffle Balls in the front yard with my uncle and older cousin, who played for TCU at the time. I also grew up in the suburban confines of Arlington, TX – home of the Texas Rangers. I remember visiting the newly-erected stadium on a school field trip in 3rd grade and envying the lucky crop of students who were allowed to visit the dugout and the walk across the virgin, apple green field.
But I never loved baseball and I can attribute that to a variety of (what I consider) understandable reasons. I certainly understand the rules of baseball thanks to the mandatory grade school kickball games and the explicit lyrics of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” but I always found baseball painfully slow. Most popular sports are measured in timed fractions – two halves, three periods, four quarters. Untimed sports like volleyball and tennis have point ceilings – attainable goals that would eventually be achieved. But baseball has nine innings, nine. Action and big plays are few and far between compared to other faster-paced sports and baseball games theoretically could last forever if the opposing teams scored equal amounts of runs per inning. It doesn’t help that there are over 150 games per season making America’s pastime a long, boring and time-consuming one.
I wasn’t raised in a sports family and I’m a female so that fatherly or brotherly devotion was absent in the household. But over the years, I’ve grown to love a lot of sports – especially football. I’ve concluded that every sport is great. Every sport can be interesting and every sport can be fun to watch if you commit to learning more about it; so this year I decided to cultivate my limited knowledge of Major League Baseball and invest myself further in the sport.
I suppose this was catalyzed by the Rangers making it to the World Series two consecutive years in a row. Despite the devastating losses, the connection to my home town sparked a glimmer of interest and I started recognizing certain players and following the team more. However, I truly think the “bandwagon Ranger fan” reasoning is secondary to my true motives – baseball is a wonderful strategy game and I want to learn and know everything about it. Unlike football and basketball, arguably the two most popular pro sports in America, the athleticism in baseball is understated and seemingly secondary to the mental component of the game. A lot of baseball players are old, slow and chubby – but the mental effort that goes into drafting players, inserting them into the batting lineup in order to maximize runs is strategic and puzzling as a game of chess.
Michael Lewis’ Moneyball exposed me to a completely different perspective of baseball – a scientific one. The economics and statistics whittled this complicated game down to a science – How many runs can I score with the amount of money I’m allotted to buy players? How can I take advantage of undervalued athletes that other baseball clubs have overlooked? The Oakland A’s under Billy Beane were such a fascinating case study – a real life application of how statistics and numbers completely revolutionized the game of baseball. (Also, I rented the film, which I consider a pretty accurate representation of the book. Jonah Hill particularly impressed me by playing the serious role of Peter Brand articulately and convincingly)
But what impacted me most was finishing The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach; Harbach’s description of the game wasn’t scientific or technical like Moneyball (though I did thoroughly enjoy learning how GMs can construct winning baseball teams based on a list of statistics.) Harbach’s storytelling transformed baseball not only into a science, but also into an art form. The Art of Fielding is arguably my favorite work of fiction I’ve read in the past year. The prose was just so beautiful and lyrical and the characters were so flawed and human – I identified with so many of the characters, their relationships and their problems. I loved them. I wanted to befriend them. I wanted to be them. I particularly ached for Henry Skrimshander, the protagonist shortstop, whose love and commitment to the game of baseball is so impossibly pure. His mastery of fielding is compared to a brilliant painting; his graceful throws are described as poetic and musical. I also loved the charming and witty Owen Dunne and the emotionally damaged, but remarkably bright Pella Affenlight.
Though Moneyball was historical and The Art of Fielding was fictional, these two books ignited in me a new found sense of respect and understanding for the game. It helps that Josh Hamilton is breaking home run records and the Rangers’ new starting pitcher, Yu Darvish, is striking out hitter after hitter. I have a feeling our team will be good this year and hopefully will return to the World Series for a third time this season. And hopefully, the third time will be the charm. But for now, I’m content with sitting back with a box of Cracker Jack and simply enjoying the game.