Last night, the only sports event worth watching on TV was the Major League Baseball All-Star game—and no, neither NBA Summer League scrimmages nor an El Salvador-Jamaica soccer match are worth watching, in case you were wondering. The All Star game was played in Cincinnati where home team favorite and once-Little League World Series hero Todd Frazier had won the silly but entertaining newly reformed home run derby the night before. Frazier and the rest of the All Stars were all smiles before, during, and after the game. It’s kind of the baseball way.
To start things off Ciara gave us a miserable rendition of the national anthem and then two now-ancient legends—pitcher Sandy Koufax and catcher Johnny Bench—teamed up for the opening pitch. I began to feel it.
Having planned to watch another episode of The Wire—which I am embarrassingly only now getting to—I ended up deciding to drop everything for the All Star game, because, well, the game is the game. And something weird was happening. I was daydreaming back to all of the All Star games I had watched in the past, from back when I collected baseball cards and traded them with friends, from back when I actually played baseball as a kid on dusky pinkish blue evenings holding my mitt and fiddling with its strings and laces and the balls in the dugout with the bench and the metal cage. I liked being in the hole but got way too nervous when I was on deck, as if I was coming up in the bottom of the ninth inning in a World Series game with my team down one with two on and two out, when it was actually just the top of the third and we were up by five.
I also enjoyed being outside, especially for evening practices and games under the lights, but hated the heat of long, sluggish afternoon games. While fielding came pretty easy, I could never hit, in part due to the nerves, in part due to simple physical inability. Had he known me, Benny Rodriguez, of the sandlot, would likely have called me “a ‘can’t hack it’ pantywaist who wears his mama’s bra.” Who knows, I might’ve even been “a L 7 weenie.”
And yet, I’ve always loved the game, relished having a catch in the yard, paused my life to watch the playoffs and sometimes regular season games on summer’s lazy days. During last night’s All Star game, which the American League won 6-3, I rediscovered what Terence Mann (James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams) means when he says, “it’ll be like they dipped themselves in magic waters.”
I’ve never been a baseball guy. It’s a type. Part of it is that I have a bit of a darker, angsty side, and part of it has to do with my tastes. I’ve always preferred Basketball Diaries to Field of Dreams, Like Mike to Rookie of the Year, Lost to The OC and regular gum and the occasional smoke sesh to Big League Chew and dip. I’m a little too gritty and naturally anxious to be a baseball guy, but I like and appreciate them all the same.
Baseball guys are great to have as friends, perfect for afternoons of endless video games or beach bumming or meeting girls to hang out at a bar or a mall food court, depending on how old you are. Baseball guys can be awkward when you first meet them but an interesting and pleasant kind of awkwardness rather than the painful kind. They aren’t going to tell you pointless stories that are too long or refer to themselves in the third person or brag to you about their of-age “friend” who gets them alcohol (again, depending on how old you are), but they also might not tell you much at all. It’s their quietly hilarious sense of humor and country charm that makes them nice to be around, even fun.
Some baseball guys have a lot of infectious energy to the point where you just want to listen to what they say next, like Jimmy Rollins, Andrew McCutchen, Felix Hernandez and Mike Trout. Some are slightly quieter, fascinating weirdos like Madison Bumgarner and every closer ever. And other baseball guys are throwbacks, the quintessential all-American workmen like Derek Jeter, Tony Gwynn, Giancarlo Stanton and Buster Posey. You find all these different variations of the baseball guy from the Majors on down to high school, and in different ways they seem to represent aspects of a kind of mature, laid back manhood that basketball, football, and hockey players don’t quite match. Baseball guys aren’t better than other athletes or NARPs, they’re just usually calmer, more relaxed, comfortable, and it comes from the game they play.
In most sports, each level of competition represents a major transition in how the game is played. In basketball and football, as players move from high school to college to the pros, the intensity, tenacity, aggression, and open displays of effort and emotion increase immensely with every step. In baseball, this often does not appear to be so. Major league baseball games like the mid-summer classic, or any regular season game, and even some playoff games, at least appear to remain relatively relaxed.
And that level of relaxation and easygoing cool is not how all of us operate. Like Bill Russell, I was the type to feel like vomiting before games, and so for that and whatever other reasons, basketball has always been my sport rather than baseball. But I had my moments as a baseball guy too. We all do.
The most significant baseball guy moment in my life happened around this time, two years ago, when I was working on a cattle ranch in Wyoming for the summer. My boss was a Rockies fan without being able to name more than two players who ever played for the Rockies, and I was his ranch hand without being able to do much of use on a ranch. Despite our weaknesses as fans and workers, we were both comfortable in our respective positions, and I always thought that summer that my boss had the personality to have done well on a baseball diamond.
One afternoon on the ranch, with only an hour to go in the workday, I was driving a tractor and forking big round bails of hay, each weighing about a ton, and stacking them over in a stock yard near the field. I was listening to Katy Perry on the radio when a commercial came on so I changed the channel, and suddenly I was listening to familiar voices talking about baseball. It was the day of the 2013 All Star game, and what I was hearing from the radio waves traveling around the country somehow perfectly aligned with the work I was doing on the land. I almost cried but didn’t.
Happy summer, everyone.