What Do We Want From Baseball?

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.”
Robert Frost

I don’t play video games much anymore, but like many of you, I’m familiar with the sensation of beating the game. You feel accomplished for a minute, then there’s a little let down. Maybe you go back and play it on a harder level. You beat it a few more times, then you move on to something else.

What does this have to do with baseball? I’ve been thinking a lot about what we want from our favorite teams. The answer that comes tripping out with the most ease is this: Win. And make the correct decisions to continue winning. Spend free agent dollars wisely. Employ advanced statistics to maximize the effectiveness of the lineup. Do not give an aging player a lucrative extension for the sake of sentimentality. Instead, develop replacements from within. And, by doing this, win every year. Win it all, every year. That’s what we want, right? I’m not so sure.

Not even the Yankees have ever quite gotten to the point of being untouchable (though they got close in the 1950s). And so I’m speaking only theoretically here, but I think if teams always did what they’re supposed to do and won every year, that is, if they beat the game, it would get boring. It would get cold.

I tend to wear my fandom on my sleeve when I write about baseball. I’m not a sports writer. I don’t have to be objective (or pretend to be) and I’m not. I’m a fan. Specifically, I’m a Reds fan. Back in 2000, we were watching Barry Larkin’s career wind down. He was under contract because of the aforementioned sentimental extension. And then he was traded to the Mets. He really was. The deal was agreed upon, but he had 10/5 rights and a weekend to think about it. I was in college at the time and I remember watching those games. Every time he came to bat, there was a standing ovation. Every time. And not just a token standing-O. It was loud.

Larkin was born and raised in Cincinnati. He had spent his entire career there. No one wanted him to to leave. I didn’t want him to leave. I was in the first grade when he came up. As far as I was concerned, he’d always been the shortstop for the Reds. I don’t know who the Reds would have gotten for him. I didn’t care then and I don’t care now. I never will. I wanted him to stay a Red. And he did. He vetoed the trade. He played four more years for the Reds and then he retired.

In hindsight, the trade wouldn’t have mattered. The Reds teams that followed were terrible. It was one of the worst runs in franchise history, and they were hobbled by decisions much worse than hanging onto Larkin.

But that’s not the point. The point is to illustrate a moment when a large group of fans wanted something different from a championship. We didn’t, in that moment, care so much about winning.

I think a lot about why I follow baseball. Why I care. There are a lot of reasons I won’t go into here. And sure, more than a little bit of it is because my favorite team won a championship when I was 10 years old. And yes, part of why we all loved Larkin is because he was integral on that team. You’ll never hear me claim that I don’t want a championship.

But what I don’t want is ruthlessness. I don’t want pursuit of the championship at the cost of connection. Jerry Seinfeld had a bit about how we’re all just rooting for laundry. It’s true enough, but he’s also a famous Mets fan. And so he knows, we’re also rooting for memory. And we’re rooting for the guy who’s been there forever and for the likable new kid who’s just come up. We’re rooting for story. We all want a good story and we all want a happy ending.

I teach writing, and one of the things I tell my students when they are writing stories is that plot matters a lot. Things need to happen. But if the reader doesn’t care about the characters, then they won’t care about what happens. They’ll get bored.

This is really what I’m writing about. If our favorite teams cast off players constantly because it made good business sense, because it would help the team win – if they constantly pulled in new, young, skillful automatons who brought championship after championship – I think it would be boring. I think a lot of us would stop caring.

The epigraph at the top is from a poem called “After Apple-Picking.” It’s about a man who spends his whole life in pursuit of wealth only to find that he feels his life has been wasted. At least that’s the one-sentence explanation of it. Head over heart.

A friend of mine who cheered a recent extension told me not long ago that his heart had been ahead of his head. The way he said this made it clear that he believed this was the wrong way to go. He should have thought more. Felt less. But I don’t know. That doesn’t seem like much fun to me.

I don’t want to win every year if it comes at the expense of feeling. I don’t want a story with no characters. I want my team to win a championship often enough that it always feels like a possibility. Often enough that all the fans who’ve gotten to high school can remember one.

Baseball, if it works like it should, can be part of a good life. It can be about more than winning. If you stay a fan your whole life, it has to be about more than that because no one has figured out how to beat the game yet (and how many of us really want them to?). Pick your apples, sure. But stop sometimes. Climb down from the tree. Take a walk.

Jason teaches high school English, writes fiction, runs a small writing program and writes about education and literature. He also writes for Redleg Nation and both writes and edits for The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLinden, visit his website or email him here.
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(the other) Walter
9 years ago

Very true — the players we like – the characters that make up the team we follow’s story – can matter more than winning. (Cubs fans, anyone?) And you’re right – if our favorite team just casts off these characters too easily, we feel less of a connection to the team. The flip side of this is just as true – when the characters cast off our team (and thus us) “for a few dollars more” – less connection to the players means less connection to the team. I’m not sure teams or players really take any of this into account, which is short-sighted on their part – pay attention to your foundation or risk losing it.

9 years ago

Of course absolutely everybody knows this except Sabermetrics types. And Billy Beane.

9 years ago

Thank you so much for the article. love to read yours more.

Mark L
9 years ago

I wonder how many hardcore fans Albert Pujols has in Anaheim, compared to the legions of the devoted he had in St. Louis? I think that’s the perfect example of money being more important than story – he could play another decade for the Angels, but all I’m ever going to remember is his wife calling 5 years and $130 million dollars “an insult”. He can do what he likes, of course, but it’s just so sad.

Jack P
9 years ago

There is no better example than Albert Pujols. A player i still have immense respect for, but what a colossal blunder for both him and the Angels.

Here was a man who’s spiritual light shone as brightly as any athlete out there and yet $26M per year wasn’t enough. He gave up having a statue outside the park with Stan Musial and the increasingly rare career played entirely in one city. I’m a Cub fan on steroids, but that man at one time was the best I ever saw and I’ve seen Mays, Clemente, Gibson, Aaron, Rose and many others in persons plenty of times.

Something happened to Albert–it was like the day the music died when he changed uniforms. You see him now and although he’s still a force to some extent…and although some of his decline is surely age, some of it isn’t.

Well said Mark L–it’s sad.

Eric F
9 years ago

Huge Red Sox fan here, and I can say without a doubt this is true. Of our 3 (recent) titles, I can remember 2004 like it was yesterday, and 2013 is probably my favorite. 2007 was another title, but not quite as memorable. The big thing about 2004 for me (besides the first in 86 years and 0-3 comeback against the Yankees) was The Idiots and Cowboy Up. That team had unbelievable characters. And somehow, the 2013 Boston Beards managed to top that!

9 years ago

This article helped me think about where I stand re: Chase Utley in Philadelphia. He’s probably the last truly valuable player the Phillies have left from their recent run of success. The team is in rebuilding mode; he’d fetch quite a bit on the trade market. Yet, Chase Utley has 10-and-5 rights and has expressed a desire to finish his career in Philadelphia, bad times be damned.

On one hand, I’m slightly frustrated, as I’d like the team to rebuild, and moving Chase would help towards making that rebuild a success. On the other hand, he’s built a lot of happy memories in the red pinstripes, and I’d love to see him finish his career in Philadelphia. He’s given everything to this team, the city, and its fans, myself included. There aren’t many players left who would make the same decision Chase has; purposely stay with a losing team out of loyalty. He’s a good guy, and I’d like to keep rooting for that guy, even if it’s just for a couple more years.

Thank you for writing this.

9 years ago

I’m a Jays fan, I just want to see a wild-card play in game before I die of old age, or at least a meaningful baseball game in September, Winning might not be everything, but trust me when I say that 21 years of nothing remotely resembling winning can start to ruin the pure love of baseball, it’s tough to get fired up in the spring when hope has died.

Loren H
8 years ago

Another Red Sox fan here and the first thought I have after reading this piece is “Amen.” I’m no fan of losing, hate it, but the value of the occasional loss or, as with the Red Sox this year a lost season (and more proof you can’t buy a championship) comes in the appreciation of how hard it is to win consistently, and at least for me the respect for other fan’s enjoyment of the same thing we want for our own team… The win. KC’s reception after the World Series is a great example. Good for the team and their fans. Every year my daughter and I have our eye on one of our players… Pedroia. As they develop we’re paying more attention to Betts and Bogaerts to be sure, but Dustin’s our guy. An everyday dirt digger, great talent, plays hard, plays like he loves the game, fun to watch. I hope he’ll retire here, but I also understand there will likely come a day when his and the team’s stars don’t necessarily align, which is to say either party decides the other cannot help get to the win. Hopefully both sides will handle it with class and dignity and if they do, it will make the departure a little easier, though not much, and I know I won’t care much at all about his or the team’s metrics. The game is about people, not statistics. Giamatti had it right on both counts: no one is bigger than the game, and it’s designed to break your heart.

Mary Louis
7 years ago

Interesting take on what we want from baseball. Take a walk with baseball.
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