It’s an odd, prickly moment for baseball and its followers. The new season is off to a jerky start for a lot of teams. Losing teams are drawing the ire of their fans; winning teams are drawing the ire of everyone else. We can’t decide if we should love or hate the Cubs. The Angels are wasting Mike Trout’s prime. Noah Syndergaard is either the best pitcher working, the best pitcher who isn’t Clayton Kershaw, or a pitch away from Tommy John, and quite possibly all three at once somehow. It’s bedlam! Home crowds boo players when those players return in a visitor uniform. Bat flips! Curt Schilling! Netting! Slide rule! We retreat to our corners, convinced we know epistemological truths about playing the game the right way. It can all feel very fractured and separate. We have our camps, but everyone is grumbling. In the early going, we can’t even really agree who is good and who isn’t, or even when we can start to say. Stadiums are chilly, and sparsely populated. Our experience of baseball feels a little odd and prickly, set amidst so much uncertainty and such small samples.
Except sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, in the 10th inning of the final game of a series, staring down a sixth consecutive loss and a miserable start, Dae-Ho Lee runs into one on an 0-2 count, and walks-off the Mariners.
Sometimes, in moments like this one, separated by geography, and language and even time (I wasn’t aware of the call in the stadium), we are actually engaged in community, and celebration. We aren’t prickly, provided we weren’t rooting for the Rangers. I don’t know what the Korean broadcasters are saying exactly, as I don’t speak Korean, except that I do. I know exactly what they are saying. The most obvious barrier (language) is inconsequential. The complexities of grammar and vocabulary are beyond my grasp, but their meaning isn’t. The inflections and tone tell a story as completely as fluency might.
Half a world away, I’m united in a moment of swift, fleeting feeling with strangers. I’ll probably never meet them, or know their stories. I’ll never learn their names, or rehash favorite moments from games past. If we told tales at the ballpark, they would feature the same game, but different players, and different great plays. Not certainly, but most likely. It would be familiar but not the same, like one of those picture puzzles where you have to spot the five differences between two photographs. Except for this one moment. This one, we might both talk about. If they had been transported to the upper deck of Safeco that day and we had happened to be standing next to one another at the moment the ball left Lee’s bat, we might have high fived or embraced, strangers momentarily brought together in a spontaneous outburst of joy. Of sameness. We would be elated, we would be incredulous, we were so damn relieved not to have lost again.
Would we have had this moment if Dae-Ho Lee weren’t Korean? Maybe not. But there is something familiar in that as well. But for the fact that my mother went to school in Seattle instead of her home state of Colorado so she could meet my dad, but for their marriage ending and my step-mom being a baseball fan, but for 1995 and the Double and Griffey and Ichiro and Felix, but for all those things, I might not care either. Maybe I’d be moved by the exclamations of the broadcasters calling Byung-ho Park’s 466-foot home run at Target Field. Maybe I’d be a Tigers fan. Maybe I wouldn’t like baseball at all.
Sentiment is the brother of tradition, or at least a close cousin. It works into the interstitial spaces between our memories, binding feeling to reminiscences until we’ve deified nostalgia in service to our own emotion. It pumped a particular version of the game into our blood, and we need it to survive. Worked in so deeply, the idea that we might distance ourselves from sentiment strikes some as ludicrous, rending the game from its meanings. Others rightly point out that an overabundance of sentiment can make the game inert, resistant to the progress it needs to survive and thrive. Some want so badly to feel something about the game they’ll obstinately defend its silliest or most regressive aspects rather than risk having to update their priors. Others seek to fly pell-mell forward, surging toward a game reflective of our values now, attachments be damned. It’s part of this odd, prickly moment.
Luxuriating in sentiment might seem saccharin, hokey, cornpone. Ascribing meaning to one random home run call and using that to draw lines between points on a map and the people who live and cheer in those points, might seem overwrought. Perhaps it is. But in the middle of all this prickliness, and 400-foot outs in cold April air, and making of camps, maybe a bit of sentimentality is called for. Maybe we’d do well to remember that what distinguishes organized baseball from playing catch with your folks in the backyard is that a whole lot of other people like it, too. So maybe in the midst of the prickliness it’s worth remembering what we dig our heels in over. To take a moment to marvel at what the game can bring us and make us feel with half the planet and a foreign language between us. We have our little camps and tribes, we hear our home run calls in different languages and voices, we fight over bat flips and advanced stats and justice, but mostly we just love baseball. We love a walk-off home run. We love a hard fought win. We love the sight of a portly Korean first baseman rounding third, arms outstretched, being greeted by his teammates and his manager at home. Because regardless of the language it’s rendered in, no matter its flag, that is baseball, sentiment and all.
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