When I was growing up, I had the privilege of listening to Dave Niehaus — the best broadcaster to ever call a baseball game — animate the ups and downs of the Seattle Mariners on long summer nights. I only realized how good I had it after I moved across the country, and had to rely on a virtual tool to provide game updates. As a pitch comes in, a red, green, or blue dot will indicate either a strike, ball, or ball in play. Balls put in play are followed by a neutral, and technical description of the action.
I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy a rewarding summer. I found a great job, explored a new city, and made friends. But I have to admit that some of the best moments of my summer were spent eagerly awaiting that next colored dot.
To some, it may seem as though the state of Major League Baseball is in decline. The game is emerging from the steroid era, and players we wanted to remember as legends will instead go down in history as cheaters.
Another troubling sign is the growing sense that baseball is boring, and tedious. Games take too long, critics say — there is too much downtime between moments of action that are too few and far between.
Fans usually answer by pointing out the game’s cerebral subtleties: the metagame between a batter and a pitcher, a potential base stealer dancing off the bag, managers picking matchups based on players’ histories.
But baseball’s defenders often miss the most powerful rebuttal of the complaint that the sport is boring.
Baseball is a game of stories — of hundreds of individual and collective sagas — that collide on the diamond.
For some observers, these stories only become exciting as teams near elimination, or glory. But even while rooting for a losing team, during the dog days of August, one can find stories that make watching baseball a magical experience.
Aside from the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the Seattle Mariners have been a losing team. Even though their struggles pale in comparison to those of other franchises, Mariner fans are often pessimistic. The 2013 Mariners still have a losing record, but they have given fans a few reasons to be optimistic.
A week ago, that optimism would be tested — in ways that revealed some of the stories that make even the longest of games so great to follow.
On July 31st, a few hours after the deadline for teams to make major trades, the Mariners were at Fenway Park for the second game in a three game series with the Red Sox. The M’s were expected to be sellers at the deadline, but they didn’t make any major moves — a declaration of faith in the players they had. Now it was time for those players, unburdened by uncertainty about their immediate futures, to play ball.
After a solid performance from Hisashi Iwakuma — perhaps baseball’s least-known All-Star — and after a disappointing performance from the Mariners’ bullpen, the game was sent to extra innings. Mariner and Red Sox relievers breezed through opponents, until the eleventh inning. Thanks to two singles, the Mariners had runners on first and second, with two outs.
Up came Dustin Ackley.
Drafted in the first round — and second overall in 2009 — Ackley had been heralded as a potential savior of the franchise. After being called up in 2011, he got off to a hot start. But when pitchers adjusted to the rookie, he failed to re-adjust, and ran into months of headwinds.
It was speculated that the root of Ackley’s problems wasn’t mechanical, but mental. Like many other players, when Ackley didn’t perform as expected, he began to press, and tried to do too much at the plate. After being sent back down to the minors twice to fix his approach, Ackley’s future with the organization began to look bleak. If he continued to fail, his future with any major league organization would be in jeopardy.
He had returned from the minors with signs of success, but still hadn’t broken through. Now, in front of a packed Fenway Park, he had a chance to show himself and his team that he still belonged.
Matt Thornton, a Red Sox reliever, uncorked a 95 mile per hour fastball that was just low. A green dot flashed on the virtual strike zone on my screen. Ball one. Ackley has often been criticized for being too passive at the plate — letting fastballs sail by for strikes. Thornton’s next offering would give Ackley a chance to rebut that criticism, and put his team on its way to winning a tough battle at Fenway.
Ackley crushed it. The ball sailed on a line into the left-center field gap, towards the green monster. Jacoby Ellsbury — the Red Sox center fielder — raced to his right, and made a diving catch, robbing Ackley of the go-ahead RBI. A blue dot flashed across my screen. In play, out. Ellsbury (whom the Mariners may try to sign during the offseason as a potential replacement for Ackley) casually trotted off the field. He had done his job. Ackley had done all one can ask of a hitter, but he still didn’t get the job done.
The game stayed scoreless until the bottom of the fifteenth. The Red Sox had loaded the bases with only one out, and Stephen Drew lined a single down the right field line — just over the outstretched mitt of who else, but Dustin Ackley.
I was disappointed, but I went to sleep knowing that the next day, the Mariners would get another chance to beat the Sox, and this time, they’d send the best pitcher in baseball to the mound.
Mariners fans are accustomed to “King Felix” Hernandez dominating opponents, but they aren’t accustomed to Felix’s starts being supported by a strong offensive performances. On this hot August night at Fenway, however, Felix not only dominated, but he was also given runs, four of which came off the bat of 41 year old backup catcher Henry Blanco.
Blanco had been signed earlier in the year to “mentor” a 22 year old rookie catcher. Blanco’s role was to play one game per week, and to pass on his knowledge to the rookie. He did a lot more than that on Thursday night — knocking a grand slam over the green monster that plunked an unsuspecting Red Sox fan directly in the kneecap. For those who appreciate good stories, it didn’t get much better than that.
But the story wasn’t over. The Mariners bullpen inherited a five run lead in the 9th inning, and promptly surrendered six runs. A Felix Hernandez gem was thrown away once again.
But that night, I went to sleep knowing that the Mariners were now headed to Baltimore, which meant I’d get a chance to see them.
On my way to the game, I knew I’d be writing this piece, and I caught myself almost wishing that the Mariners would lose. After all, it probably would have made for a more fitting ending. But the Mariners won. Even in victory, they found a way to disappoint.
After the game, I left a somber Baltimore stadium with a renewed faith in my team. I’m sure there will be times when my optimism seems naive. But in the meantime, I’ll be on the edge of my seat, even in front of a computer screen.
Yes, baseball games sometimes feel too long. But if you know even a little of the history, even a few of the stories of a few of the players — their trials and travails — then the pauses and doldrums of the game offer opportunities to reflect, savor, and empathize.
Who wants a good story to end too quickly?