After all this time, Mike Zunino can play. We can let that in.
Fans are impatient. We are ready to call a player a bum after a week of bad hitting, and kick that bum to the curb after two. Get tossed, ya bum. But we all have our guy. You know, your guy? That kid you saw in Double-A, who you felt just had something. You hug him close. He becomes, for you, untouchable. A cornerstone who just needs a little more time. He is distinguished from other fan favorites. He isn’t a star, or an aging veteran, or even a clown. To be a clown, and simply enjoy his antics, you’d have to admit he wasn’t a star, and he is a star. He’s just not a star yet. He scuffles and strikes out and strives, and others move on. Honestly, what hope is there of a good breaking ball at this point? He’s not a prospect anymore, but damn it, he’s still your prospect. Maybe you have a couple of them. Maybe a couple of them work out. That’s where you start to lose your feel.
We think of it as something akin to loyalty, and we want to categorize it as virtue. You’ve committed. We read in Revelation 3:16, “So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” We know fandom as fury; a hot, devoted act of faith, with those who equivocate bound to be expelled. We spit you out! But really we’re just being stubborn. There’s nothing inherently moral about enduring. Of course, we can persist if we want. We’re fans, and our stakes are low. We think about the game so much of the time, and these are our guys.
I used to think that Mike Zunino was my guy. Even in the rough spots of 2014, he was saved by his prodigious power, or the promise of it, and the pitch framing, and a prospect pedigree that demanded we allow him more time. The Mariners had messed him about, you know. He was promoted too early. He’d get his hacks in and it would be fine. This was like Triple-A, only harder. The trajectory seemed to point decidedly upward. In 2015, the failures began to mount. He’d hit a home run, and I’d be too excited. Not just that he’d hit it far, but that he’d hit it at all, that he’d even made contact. I could hear myself being ridiculous. I could hear others tiring of me. This was not the start of a turnaround; this was a desperate pleading for Tacoma. He ended the year hitting .174/.230/.300, with a .196 TAv and a lost look. When rosters expanded, he was not asked back.
And I realized Mike Zunino was not my guy. I had let too much of the cold in, and a good share of the lukewarm. I mentally adjusted his projections down. I grappled with reality. I hoped, but I also hedged. I wondered what he might do. I let in what he was. I told myself the truth.
Humans are said to harden as they age, their knowledge calcifying. We become increasingly intimidated by new buttons and gizmos. I haven’t experienced that yet, though perhaps it is coming. I wonder if I’ll notice right away, or if like aches and pain and a reluctance to stay up too late, it will sneak up on me. Maybe. I think though, whatever comes later, we spend our thirties feeling less certain. The more I’ve seen of the world, the less sure of anything I become. I’m at times overwhelmed by its cruelty and complexity. I find myself clinging with greater desperation to process and inquiry. Baseball players play well or poorly, and we try to figure out why, and while I think it ought to be fun, I also want it to be true. I need to know how to suss things out. Not because I do not feel, but because presented with a tableau at once murky and vibrant, I risk feeling too much, being too wounded, too jubilant, too certain. Of forever exclaiming “THIS!” and “YAS!” and other sounds, when a smirk or sigh would do. It’s too changing and too nuanced and too hard to be convinced of the hot and cold.
Especially in our larger moment, I find myself attracted to facts. I’m keen to thread them together, test their links, then replace the parts of the chain that prove to be faulty. I hope that these chains will tether me to something real. Of course, the funny thing is that with these facts come our reactions to them. It’s all bound up together, these facts and feelings, even when they’re sensible. They always sneak back in. Our states are on fire and flooded; I feel dread. The Mariners teeter on the brink of another year wasted; I feel disappointment. The more I let in the facts, press their strength, the more I let in the rest. But the hot and cold become tempered, lukewarm. The feeling is there, but changed along with the shifting world. The exclamations are rarer. I’m too tired sometimes. This made me worry at first, thinking I had lost something, unable to access the fire and fury. Was this what other writers meant when they talked about their fandom slipping away? Despite a sense that feeling less would make things more peaceful, more grounded, would it also be hollow?
Which brings us back to Mike Zunino. 2017 started with more scuffling. Old habits emerged. All my facts told me what they meant. I felt sad. Zunino was demoted. I shook my head and told the truth. Then he came back, and started hitting. My heart tightened. Not the skipped beat of someone who had always known, all fire and fury, but of someone who had doubted, and sighed deeply, and wondered about the damage of so much failure, and then allowed herself to be surprised. I carried with me this chain of facts, and I had to make room for others. New facts, good facts. The lukewarm changed, fueled by a respect for the struggle that had come before. It was so hard for him, and now it was easier. I was buoyant, though still grounded. In this state, the lows of the cold and the highs of the hot didn’t average out to something lukewarm but brought me to something else entirely. I feel an earned joy, a true joy. And it is wonderful.
Mike Zunino was a bad baseball player for a time. That time felt like it might stretch forever. Now, Mike Zunino is hitting .248/.331/.507. He has 23 home runs. His hands have quieted; he’s stealing strikes again. As catchers go, he’s a good one. He’s known the crucible. He appears to be, after all this time, a major leaguer. He could always fail again. Maybe that 37 percent strikeout rate will be the fact in the chain we remember. But considering what we’ve seen, the reality to which we’ve been tethered, we find ourselves in an informed state of joy. And we can let that in.