Prodigal Pastime (1)
Baseball is my prodigal pastime. I used to be obsessed with the sport – and then I wasn’t. Baseball was lost to me for over a decade but it’s started humming again. I’ve been trying to come back to it for two years with middling success. This constitutes a third time – hopefully the charm.
I also know the meaning of the word “prodigal” and the meaning we erroneously assign to it
I grew up in a baseball family. My Granddaddy Melvin played amateur league baseball in central Virginia and he’s legendary as a first-baseman. (“Shoot boy, Melvin was as good as any ballplayer I ever did see.”) When I started playing in kindergarten, he started training me, and for a while I was pretty good. But I was a baseball fan more for the watching.
I grew up in the gilded age. I watched Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa duel for a home run record and Roger Clemens blow batters away. Baseball was thrilling – and then came Barry Bonds. Steroids were an open secret that everyone overlooked so long as the long ball kept sailing over the fence. But Bonds was different. First of all, having such a storied record in baseball history be broken three times in less than five years by three men so obviously under the influence of anabolic steroids cheapened the record itself and lessened the high of the chase. But I’m convinced that Bonds brought the whole thing down because he revealed the whole charade for what it was: boring, unimaginative, unequivocally bad baseball.
To be clear, it had been heading that way for a long time. The temptation of the home run ball for Major League Baseball is that it’s unambiguous: big, flashy, sudden, easy to measure and count. New fans were pulled toward towering fly balls launched into the San Francisco Bay. But to a loyal fan they were a snooze without context. An inning where the bases load but no one crosses the plate is exciting. A pitchers duel where only a handful of people get on base at all is a thrill. A close game broken open by a sacrifice bunt and a ground ball over second base is euphoric. Any sport where something called a “no-hitter” constitutes an historic thrill cannot live on home runs alone.
We’re so easily seduced by the fast action. We yawn over a rock solid zone defense and lose our minds over a good tomahawk atop a gaping defenseless center. We live for the diving header but take for granted the Pythagorean beauty of a well-passed advance down the pitch. We pass on the well-thought and go hook-line-sinker for the flashy. We talk through a gorgeous mode mixture but scream each time the strobe pulses or flames shoot from a dark corner. I think I learned that lesson the same time that I was forced to stop ignoring steroids in the game I loved: the 2002 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Anaheim Angels.
On paper the series was perfect. Two California teams facing off – both scrappy, wild card underdogs – taking the thing down to the wire in a high stakes seventh game. But it was the absolute worst baseball I’d ever watched. Barry Bonds hit anything close to the strike zone a god damned mile for the entire season and, by the play offs, no one would pitch to him. He took thirty turns at the plate and walked thirteen times – most of them intentional. He hit only four long balls, batting in only six runs. He didn’t even get to swing unless the bases were empty or the score wasn’t close. Or both. The Giants lineup was top heavy, so the Angels were willing to walk, not only Bonds, but David Bell and others to get to the weaker bottom. It was boring and infuriating. I don’t fault the Angels. They were exactly the sort of team the league should love: solid pitchers, reliable defense, a big bat or two, and loaded up with fast single and double hitters. Their coaches just happened to catch onto a weakness in the Giants, and the way baseball was being played in the whole league.
For years, the league had kept its eyes on the spreadsheets and ratings as the home run totals kept climbing. It wasn’t exactly baseball so much as a derby for higher stakes, but no matter. Until the home runs became so absurd that the solution was not to let anyone swing at all. What was bad baseball, became quite literally no baseball at all.
I stopped following baseball seriously after that and, in 2005, Raphael Palmeiro (one of my favorite players from my favorite iteration of my favorite team) was both caught using steroids and briefly threatened with perjury for having denied doing so before Congress. I was getting more serious about soccer and not playing as much baseball, but that was the nail in the sport’s coffin for me. I didn’t watch another game until I moved to New York and befriended a die hard Dodger. We met up a few times to watch the Dodgers’ hot new prospect throw his first few innings or his crew face off against the local Mets. We went to a couple random games at Citi Field; watched a few playoff games
The sport is different now to my eye. Or rather, it’s the same again. Games don’t score high. Forty-five home runs gives one a shot to top the leaderboard. Games are more likely a tangle of strikeouts, doubles to right field, infield singles, and stolen bases than a doldrum punctuated by races to the fence in left-center. Nine innings hang on pitchers throwing one too many pitches or wreckless third base coaches. Tactics are front and center. The game is interesting again.
Baseball is my prodigal pastime. Bring hither the fatted calf and kill it! Bring forth the best robe! What was lost is now found - my sport was dead and now lives! But the point of Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son was not that he left. The word “prodigal” denotes an extreme and self-destructive wastefulness. The point was that he left with everything and came back with nothing. Baseball squandered its prestige, threw it away for cheap ratings and Sports Illustrated star power. But it fell hard, slept with the pigs, ate its bread from the sty, drank its water from the gutter. Now it’s back. I only hope to be so understanding.
Bring hither the fatted calf and kill it!