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July 17, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

Breaking Up with Baseball

by Ben Cohen

‚ÄčBelieve it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Ben Cohen is a freelance reporter and writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow him on Twitter at @bzcohen and email him at bzcohen@gmail.com.
 

Here are some questions that no one has asked me but I've still spent time trying to answer in the very recent past:

If I live in New York, and I'm intrigued by the Knicks, but I'm not a reputable or even a disreputable fan, can I just get it over with and buy Brooklyn Nets tickets? And by Brooklyn Nets tickets, I mean a ticket to one Brooklyn Nets game until they get good, in which case maybe I will purchase that shoes-hanging-from-the-wires shirt? No, but really: Who are The Ladies? Until last week, why didn't I know Andrew McCutchen or Mike Trout? Not like know them know them, but actually know who they were? Black beans, or pinto?

Also, is it bad that I don't care about baseball anymore? I used to care about baseball. I used to really care about baseball. In fact, if I had known when I was eight years old that someday I might not care about baseball, I probably would've sulked off to my room and sobbed underneath my Derek Jeter poster, which was the poster next to my Alex Rodriguez poster. As if you need to know anything more about my childhood, my first AIM screen name was an homage to Chuck Knoblauch, so I was always going to be one of those middle-infield types who schemed to nab No. 2 (Jeter), No. 7 (Mantle), or No. 3 (I'm not positive, but I think Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez) on a Little League uniform. And of course I did what undersized shortstops do next, which was hike up my pants, paint the lines with bunts, and move on over to second base.

In high school—I know, but please indulge me, since no one else does anymore—I was the chattery pest who, on multiple occasions, drove in two runs with a single suicide squeeze. I had my exact batting average calculated every time I stepped into the box. I obsessed about baseball so much that my nightmares consisted of ground balls taking nasty hops and skipping over my shoulder, or, worse, getting caught in quicksand while stealing second base. That's right: I had not just one but several recurring, sweaty terrors about prep baseball. But then college happened. I considered playing at a Division-III school, and I told people I thought about walking on with my Division-I team, but I knew I never would. Actually, I didn't even bother with the tryout. Instead I joined club baseball and quit after two practices, and the only time I've picked up my trusty glove since then was for intramural softball.

So in the spring of 2007, I was no longer playing baseball, and without the YES Network, I was no longer watching much, either. That's when Joba Chamberlain came along. And man, did I fall hard for Joba. After a summer of mispronouncing his name, I went totally gaga, even snagging an Internet TV package for the fall semester to catch the Yankees' stretch run. I would monitor Yankees games and race back to my dorm room for the seventh and eighth innings to cackle at Joba's fastball and marvel at the slider, which buckled my knees just staring at it. When Mariano Rivera jogged in for the save, I would go back to whatever stupid thing I was doing, which was probably watching a game of beer pong.

Some people who once swore by baseball are turned off now by the increasingly granular nature of sabermetrics. They can't cope with the idea that there are better ways of understanding the game they knew, and loved because they knew. I'm not one of those people. I can't understand those people.

But in a way, I'm worse than those people. Not until recently did I figure out that Joba marked the beginning of the end of my love affair with baseball. Well, it wasn't exactly Joba. I needed a break from the game, and hanging up my spikes accelerated the falling-out, yet the third strike was something else: the midges. The midges! Do you remember those midges? I had forgotten about them, and Joba's unraveling amid their swarm, until I forced myself to look at pictures from that October night in Cleveland. Then I went to examine my mattress for bedbugs.

For no good reason at all—the midges, I mean—baseball was never the same for me. The grind suddenly was too long. The pace was too slow. The effort to keep up was too much. These days, I'm amazed by those who count the hours till Opening Day, and the Mets loyalists who wept during Johan Santana's no-hitter, and anyone who watched the entire All-Star Game. I'm also jealous of them. Really! I can't recall the last time I watched more than two innings of televised baseball, and when I tried to sit through the All-Star Game last week, I had no idea Rafael Furcal was still playing, let alone in the All-Star Game. What's more, his was one of the few names I recognized. Not among them were McCutchen and Trout, the Most Valuable Player candidates whose hitting stances I surely would have imitated not even a decade ago.

When I admitted this to my dad in the car recently, he nearly swerved off the side of the road. He tried to make me feel better about my ignorance by changing the subject. That only made it worse.

"So the talk has already started on FAN," he said. "When Joba comes back, is he a starter or reliever?"

"I honestly don't even know a single thing about the Yankees' starting rotation or bullpen," I said.

"That's not true!" he said.

"Dad—"

"Come on," he said. "What would you do?"

I had no idea. So last Saturday, with a friend visiting town, I ended up buying upper, upper-level seats in Yankee Stadium for a matinee against the Angels. Here is my report from the game. In the first inning, Robinson Cano homered. In the third inning, Curtis Granderson homered. In the fourth inning, a guy standing in front of me on the concession line placed his hand on his girlfriend's backside for a good two minutes while waiting for a drink. In the fifth and top of the sixth inning, I'm not sure, because I dozed off. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Cano came to the plate again, and I woke up to the alarm clock of "Rack City." In the ninth inning, I saw a lot of T-shirt jerseys, because those apparently are still a thing, and even some Joba Chamberlain T-shirt jerseys. But as I crammed back into the subway car, I didn't and still don't have a solution for Joba's future.

But then there is this little story, which perhaps I should have shared earlier. A month or so before my outing to the Bronx, I rode the 7 train out to Citi Field for a Mets game on the most beautiful night of the summer. I can prove it by showing off my pictures of the clouds. My friends and I found our seats on the Pepsi Porch behind too many rows of Wall Street interns. Even they could not ruin the first three innings, nor could the long line for Shake Shack that we beat by eating tacos and chips standing up. By the time we returned to the bleachers, it was already the fifth inning, and something remarkable was happening: R.A. Dickey was halfway through his second straight one-hitter.

By now Dickey's story is familiar, and I'm in no position to shed new light on it: I couldn't tell you the name of his catcher. But seeing Dickey in person was a revelation the same way Joba was five years ago. It wasn't just how Dickey's knuckler struck out 13 and baffled still more. It was how everyone off the field, including me, was similarly mesmerized by his one waltzing number. You didn't have to know anything about baseball, or anyone else in baseball, to appreciate the performance. It was a spectacle on its own. For once, as I left the stadium that night, baseball was all I could think about.

I'm not fully converted—have I mentioned that I fell asleep this weekend at Yankee Stadium?—and I still don't know if a certain pitcher should be a starter or reliever the next time he puts on pinstripes. But I do have some other questions I've been asking myself of late. Why are people discussing Joba right now on the radio? Who are they? How do they do what they do and feel what they feel? And is there a way we can still be friends, maybe not all the time, but definitely some of the time?

6 comments have been left for this article.

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