A Drama in Nine Acts, by Bob Connally

3 Apr

“Football is to baseball as blackjack is to bridge. One is the quick jolt. The other the deliberate, slow-paced game of skill, but never was a sport more ideally suited to television than baseball. It’s all there in front of you. It’s theatre, really. The star is the spotlight on the mound, the supporting cast fanned out around him, the mathematical precision of the game moving with the kind of inevitability of Greek tragedy. With the Greek chorus in the bleachers!” – Vin Scully

In recent years, baseball organizations have become heavily dependent on the contributions of brilliant mathematical minds. Sabermetrics, the highly sophisticated statistical analysis detailed in 2011’s Moneyball, has, let’s be honest, strong nerd appeal. While I am unashamedly a nerd, my love of baseball has nothing to do with acronyms such as WHIP, FIP, VORP, BABIP, or WAR (that last one stands for Wins Against Replacement, which I still don’t understand how anyone can quantify). While I respect the role those statistics have to play in building baseball organizations, I sincerely have no interest in learning how they actually work. I don’t love math and I certainly can’t imagine ever writing about it. I love stories which is why I almost everything I write is about film or television. While baseball is a game steeped in numbers, what it is, really, is a story. Every at bat is a scene, every inning an act, and every game one episode out of 162 of a full season.

My love of baseball dates back to – I suppose – birth. As a baby I would sit on the floor, mesmerized by the television, trying to announce games with my limited vocabulary. According to my parents I could say, ”A balla balla balla,” over and over again. Once I could run around I would play imaginary games of baseball by myself in the backyard. And the front yard. And the living room. And the kitchen. If all the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players, and one man in his time plays many parts, then all my world as a five-year old was a ballpark, and I was all of the players, and I played many positions. …I was like Bugs Bunny. I also imitated many batting stances and when it came to my favorite player, Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken (the reason I became and remain an Orioles fan to this day, despite having lived my whole life in Seattle), I had a new batting stance to learn every season.

For me, this wasn’t simply running around though. This was highly organized. I’d have the starting lineups written down on little cards, I kept track of the innings and the score, and I would imitate the announcers I heard the most to describe the action. Vin Scully, whom I heard every Saturday morning on the NBC Game of the Week (when my older brother wanted to watch cartoons) and Dave Niehaus, the radio voice of the Seattle Mariners. They didn’t just relay news about balls and strikes. They were storytellers. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was writing, directing, and starring in my own nine act plays, complete with thrilling catches and 9th inning comebacks to win in dramatic fashion.

In addition to baseball, I would spend much of my play time playing Star Wars or Ghostbusters. Demonstrating the blurring of lines between these was my use of the same wiffle bat as my baseball bat, lightsaber, and stick for the proton pack.

As I was playing these backyard dramas in the ‘80s, Major League Baseball was still really the king of American sports in the hearts and minds of the public. Clearly now however, that crown belongs to the NFL. As Hall of Fame announcer and beloved American treasure Vin Scully put it, “[football] is the quick jolt.” Football is loud, it’s violent, it’s rife with bursts of speed. It’s primarily a spectacle and with games played only once a week between September and the first Sunday in February, it is an event. Baseball on the other hand, is played every day, starting at the beginning of April with the final game of the World Series being played right around Halloween. In a time when there are so many options for entertainment, a deliberately paced game that is played day after day for give or take three hours at a time, understandably has an uphill battle in the fight to create dedicated fans. But for those of us who get invested in the drama, the story that unfolds over the course of a season is utterly engrossing. If football is The Fate of the Furious, then baseball is a season of The Americans.

I’ll take you back to Saturday, October 15, 1988. I’m six-years old. My mom, dad, brother and I are gathered around the TV. Game 1 of the World Series is being played at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. The Dodgers trail the heavily favored Oakland A’s 4-3. They’re down to their final out with a runner on first base and the A’s have the most dominant closer in all of baseball, Dennis Eckersley on the mound. The Dodgers are sending a pinch hitter to the plate named Kirk Gibson.

Gibson was the National League’s Most Valuable Player that year but he had gotten injured during the playoffs against the New York Mets. The most- and arguably only- viable offensive weapon in the Dodger lineup would not be in it for the World Series. Meanwhile, the A’s had a powerful offense which included the likes of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco (who six-year old me couldn’t stand). The sports media predicted an easy four game sweep was all but in the bag for the A’s. Now, it looks to all the baseball loving world that super closer Eckersley is about to seal Game 1 for Oakland. My dad, with a sense that he knows something no one else does, says, “Eckersley’s gonna make a mistake.” As the hobbled Gibson slowly makes his way to the plate the tension begins to build, with the aforementioned Scully telling the story as only he could.

This at bat is the baseball equivalent of the original Death Star trench run with Gibson’s home run being Luke’s blast into the thermal exhaust port. The A’s would never recover from the shock of this as the Dodgers would go on to win the series 4 games to 1.

This was just one of many classic stories in baseball history. These stories come in many forms. From the inspiring (Cal Ripken’s 2131st consecutive game) to the funny (any Bob Uecker story), from the world-changing (Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier) to the tragic (Lou Gehrig retiring after being diagnosed with ALS), from the bizarre (Disco Demolition Night) to the apocryphal (Babe Ruth’s “called shot”), baseball has had all of it. And when it comes to a game’s or a season’s final outcome, there are two sides to every story. Last November, a long-suffering Chicago Cub fan’s long awaited triumph was a long-suffering Cleveland Indian fan’s heartbreak.

A new season is upon us with new stories to be told. They will be unscripted but as always they will be absorbing and full of unforgettable moments along the way. I anticipate another season that reminds us that – just as when we talk about our favorite films or TV series – “It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.”

2 Responses to “A Drama in Nine Acts, by Bob Connally”

  1. Bro April 3, 2017 at 4:11 pm #

    WAR is Wins ABOVE Replacement. And it’s a made up number that uses pixie dust, unicorn farts, and the mixed childhood tears of Albert Einstein and Abner Doubleday to calculate… something. It is my least favorite number … Besides 4. … You know what you did, 4… you know what you did.

  2. Bob Connally April 4, 2017 at 5:49 am #

    As Shawn Spencer was fond of saying on “Psych,” “I’ve heard it both ways.” But after looking up SABR’s official terminology, I see that you’re right. They say above. It goes without saying though that a guy with a WAR of 4 is clubhouse poison.

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