Why We Watch Them Play The Games

On May 31st, 1964, the Giants and the Mets had a doubleheader scheduled in Shea Stadium, and thus started playing baseball sometime early in the day. Apart from the break between games, they didn’t stop playing baseball until early the next morning; the second game went on for a recorded 7 hours and 23 minutes, ending in the bottom of the 23rd with an 8-6 Giants victory. Gaylord Perry got the win for his ten innings of shutout baseball, which began in the 13th. Willie Mays went 1 for 10 with a walk. I believe it’s this season that Kevin Goldstein popularized the #weirdbaseball hashtag on twitter for late-night, extra-inning games. This was #freakishbaseball, or possibly #Dadaistbaseball.

Of course, I have no personal familiarity with this game. What I do know is that my grandfather, who has never really been into baseball at all, had to work the next morning when the game started, and had to work that morning by the time it ended. He didn’t get much sleep, though, because Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons were talking several feet from his head. According to him and my grandmother, she listened to all twenty-three innings of that game, and likely added her own commentary throughout.

I’m incredibly unqualified to comment on what makes a successful marriage, but I understand that there are times that you just have to grin and bear it. I’d guess that by, oh, the fifteenth inning or so, my grandfather might’ve realized this was one of those times. There was no turning that game off. They’d gone too far, and Theresa Poling was not about to quit before her Giants did. And her persistence was rewarded with a victory (not to mention a bonus Gaylord Perry complete game shutout and then some.)

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The Giants’ World Series victory this year came with the usual complement of clever narratives and moving personal stories. Marco Scutaro never thought he’d win a World Series. Buster Posey has yet to see proof that he never won’t win a World Series. Ryan Vogelsong was this close to teaching gym somewhere, and now a jersey he wore while pitching and winning in the Series is going to the Hall of Fame. And so on.

There’s a lot to talk about, and fans of twenty-nine teams are going to get sick of it pretty soon if they aren’t already. Giants fans, meanwhile, might think “Are you crazy? Look at these guys! Brandon Crawford was a Giants fan when he was five years old, and now he’s saving runs in the Series! Pablo Sandoval is Babe Ruth now! Barry Zito… just Barry Zito!” And so on, until our long-suffering friends and relatives turn off our power strips, block our numbers, or just choke us into submission.

We’re right, of course. The story of how the Giants won the 2012 World Series is incredibly cool, and you’re an empty shell of a human being if you don’t appreciate that. This is also true of every World Series ever. The odds of any single man playing baseball in the major leagues, let alone doing so on a team that wins the World Series, are so astronomically low that there has to be a good story behind every win. Behind all twenty-five of those guys, and their coaches, and the front offices that brought the team together, and the friends and families that supported them all through the impossible dream.

It’s a great story. They’re all great stories. This one’s ours.

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There’s a lot about my grandmother that I don’t know, it turns out. Some of that’s by coincidence, and some by design. But I know that she loved baseball, ever since she came to San Francisco from El Salvador, if not before. I know that for a long time, she followed the Giants with a passion and fervor matched only by her devotion to her family and her faith; my father was six or seven years old before he understood that the baseball team from Los Angeles was the Dodgers, not the Hijos de Puta.

Theresa passed on her fandom to all her children to some degree or another; if my dad doesn’t have it the worst, it’s not for lack of trying. And he passed it on to me and my sister, like some weird hereditary disease that can also infect spouses, friends, and possibly pets. Meanwhile, my grandmother got older and less energetic. Other things started to take up her attention; she didn’t have the time or focus to devote to keeping the radio on for seven and a half hours to listen to her Giants kick those hapless Mets in the huevos.

But she still paid attention, and she was delighted in 2010. Of course she was, we all were, right down to the seagulls circling AT&T for a few extra games; still, it was something to see. The great Juan Marichal was her favorite player, so of course she loved Tim Lincecum and his weird windup; loved the idea of this skinny little gringo bringing the same madness to the mound as the Dominican Dandy and his impossible high kick had in her day. And she was delighted by Andres Torres, the Nicest Man In Baseball.

I’m sure it wasn’t the same; sports passion, like any other great love, is partially a product and time and place. The Giants of the 60s and 70s in which she raised her children would never be the same Giants again, and she’d never be the same exact Theresa Poling who kept her radio quiet enough that it wouldn’t wake her children, but had no such mercy on her husband. People change, and even when they don’t, baseball changes around them.

But the Giants are still the Giants, and Mays and McCovey and Cepeda and Perry and, yes, even occasionally Marichal still hang out around the yard. That was enough for Theresa. I hope that in fifty years I can say the same about myself and Romo and Posey and Cain.

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I remember thinking very clearly, during Game 5 of the NLDS, Why do I do this? Why do I make myself feel this way on purpose? Why would any sane person do this? It was torture of the purest, slogan-inspiring form, comeback after comeback, teetering on the edge of disaster, tantalizing us with the promise of an inspiring victory while keeping the threat of a last-second, unspeakable collapse hidden but ever-present. The worst, of course, was Jay Bruce’s 13-pitch at-bat against Sergio Romo in the bottom of the ninth, which went on for about six years of my life, and gave me ample time to contemplate my poor decision-making.

It would’ve been pretty easy for me not to care about that game; with my bohemian, left-coast parents and my nerdy suite of interests, it would have been easy not to be a baseball fan at all. I lost interest for a few years; in 2004, I was standing in a Circuit City in San Bernardino County, watching that wretched toad-man Steve Finley hit his backbreaking grand slam while some middle-aged hijo de puta stood behind me making choking noises. That made it easy for other things to get my attention, but like any good parishioner, I returned to worship. Or like any bad addict, I fell back off the wagon. Whichever you like.

The question still arises, though, when I’m in a philosophical, time-wastey mood. I have no influence on what happens on the field. I have no personal relationship with any of the players. All the hours I’ve spent arguing about bullpen usage and Brandon Belt’s playing time and the value of sabermetric analysis have had exactly zero influence on the games I watch. So how do I get so excited about this fucking game? And why do I get so involved in a pastime that stands a roughly 29/30 chance of just leaving me some degree of disappointed at the end of the season?

Many of my friends in Seattle have no interest in baseball beyond laughing at my reactions (which are, to be fair, probably hilarious). I’ve made the occasional attempt to explain sports fandom to them; it turns out you can’t explain it. You can only demonstrate it. After enough rants about Aaron Rowand, enough incoherent descriptions of Madison Bumgarner’s slider, enough silent fist-pumps with the headphones in at work, they get it just as well as I do.

Which is to say, none of us really have any idea how I can get so emotionally invested in baseball. But I remembered why when Jay Bruce finally, sometime in April 2018, popped out, and Scott Rolen swung through a hanging slider, and the Giants won, and everyone in the bar went absolutely batfuck insane. Oh yeah. That’s why.

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Sunday night, the Giants won the World Series. I cheered my throat raw, I drank a lot of champagne toasts, and so on. I came home in a lot better shape than I did in 2010, but Monday morning at work was still pretty rough.

It got a bit rougher when my grandfather called me to let me know that my grandmother had passed away. We knew it was coming, had known for a long time; that made it easier, but not easy. You know how this goes; you think about your last conversation, the things you didn’t say and the things you didn’t hear. I don’t know if last goodbyes are graded on a curve, but I think I did pretty alright. So did she, for the shape she was in.

There was a weird bit of serendipity in her death coming when my brain was still as full of baseball as it’s ever going to be, since baseball was the last thing we really managed to talk about. Maybe that’s not so much serendipity as the way things work for me these days; there’s a lot of baseball in my life, and consequently more in the lives of the people I talk to. But it still worked well that way. I could draw some sort of connection, some sort of parallel. Some sort of meaning. Baseball’s good for that. It has narratives, y’know?

Those narratives don’t always parallel what actually happens, though. The A’s and the Orioles saw miracle seasons come to a crashing halt; the great Justin Verlander never got a chance to redeem himself for Game 1; Buster Posey came one swing away from not doing much of anything in the World Series. Similarly, there was no great denouement to my grandmother’s life, no final act in which a great family secret was revealed or a long-held hope came to fruition. She just left, quietly, after a long and sometimes painful goodbye.

But there was that conversation. I don’t know if it did for her anything like what it did for me; honestly, I probably could have jumped around the room yelling “WOKKA WOKKA WOKKA!” and she’d have been delighted and fulfilled. (The standards are pretty low for first grandchildren.) It gave me something to hold on to, though; a way to reach through the passage of years and connect with what was left of my grandmother in there.

And I think it says something that with so many things forgotten or misremembered in her last days, she remembered that game. Twenty-three innings. Seven hours and 23 minutes. Gaylord Perry pitching ten innings of shutout baseball, starting an hour after the game was supposed to end. And my grandfather suffering through it, and through work the next day, because sometimes that’s the sort of thing you have to do for the people you love.

It’s beyond cliche to say that baseball brings people together; the idea of fan community and family pastime is so baked into the word that “baseball brings people together” is practically a tautology. I’m not sure it’s true, either. It gives people an excuse to come together, is a better way to put it. We make that decision for ourselves.

If I ever have to guess if I chose right – if it turns out that not only do I not have the time and mental energy to devote myself to following the Giants, but the time and energy I’ve already spent up to this point was a huge mistake – I’ll remember telling my grandmother about Tim Lincecum’s weird windup, and Andres Torres greeting his teammates several times a day. And I’ll remember her, with an assist from my grandfather, telling me about The Twenty-Three Inning Game; a game that somehow, impossibly, had a happy ending.

One thought on “Why We Watch Them Play The Games

  1. da5id says:

    Finally got around to reading this today. I’m glad I did. Really outstanding.

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