On Sunday, I asked a few friends a question: what is your favorite sort of baseball play? One said a well-placed bunt for a hit on the third-base line. Another, preferring defensive highlights, elected for a smartly turned 6-4-3 double play with the shortstop going to his backhand, or else a home run robbed. One described the thrill of watching a pitcher who, after finding himself facing a bases-loaded, no-outs situation, manages to wiggle off the hook. Strikeouts swinging on a 100 mph fastball, and long balls that thump the batter’s eye, and outfield dances and coy smiles at a job well done, each answer was different, making up a tableau of the game’s joys.
For my part, I tend to be drawn to the interstitials between plate appearances, the little bits of tragedy or humor that bring alive the stats and those who make them, the funny faces that suggest a favorite passage from a book or that the pitcher has pooped himself. We can like so many different things, and baseball has room for all of them, the whimsy and rigor, the skill and struggle. It is your most compelling friend, your most interesting hang, a great, hard puzzle. It’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten, hearty and surprising. This is baseball’s greatest strength. It has so much to offer. But it also has some grumps.
I think we sometimes make the mistake of paying grumps too much attention. They’re so obviously grumps after all. When good fights present themselves, we should fight those good fights, but much of the grump’s grumping is so clearly just dumb, so plainly wrong, as to be beneath our sustained notice. This past Saturday, Braves broadcasters Joe Simpson and Chip Caray engaged in a bit of silly fuss over what the Dodgers wore during batting practice. They grumped. We chirped and rolled our eyes. We moved past it.
But on Monday, as we sifted through Sean Newcomb and Trea Turner’s tweets and subsequent apologies, and grappled with the Astros trade for Roberto Osuna, I kept thinking about Simpson and Caray. I thought about baseball, with all its room for what we like, also having room for hurt and pain. I kept thinking about how brittle our affection can be. I thought about that and those grumps, and I worried.
I’ve been worrying about worrying a lot lately. I don’t know how universal this is, but liking things can feel so silly these days. I worry I should be worrying more. That by not worrying all the time, I’m indulging something trite. That I should be spending time on other, more serious things. Small and large, but more serious. Writing letters to Congress, or helping old ladies with their groceries, or keeping my house cleaner. Doing those things doesn’t preclude one from liking things, even silly things, but time spent thinking deeply about Mike Trout, like very seriously thinking about him, is necessarily time I’m not spending doing my part.
And so for the grumps to go out of their way to niggle, to poke at the game as it is, to say that the way it is, as a thing I like, is worse and fallen, is a bummer, because my desire to take the time away to like things is already weak. They seem to think baseball sort of sucks, these grumps. Too much of this or that, too full of emotion or strikeouts or time. Too different from what they watched before they were grumps. And confronted with minor leaguers who are underpaid and racist tweets and players who abuse their intimate partners and front offices eager to turn those moments of abuse into postseason innings, I’m almost inclined to believe them, and do something else, some other thing closer to being serious. We can’t anticipate how others might answer the question I posed to my friends, what little things will make people sit up and think, “Baseball is one of the things I like. I’ll watch again tomorrow, to see if I still do.” My issue with grumps is that they make us think the thing we like is dumb, and unworthy. They winnow down our way to like this thing, to care about it, even as they fail to address its most serious, most important failings.
I think it is fine to fret about baseball because it is one way to love it, and keep it healthy. But I don’t know if we’re always fretting about the right things. I fret that the sport will be undermined from within by its various bad acts and bad actors; outside, I worry we will be overwhelmed by our sense that its frivolity is actually triviality. I worry we’ll feel compelled to cast it aside. I worry we’ll believe the grumps.
On Monday, after spending the afternoon worn out by the news of the Astros trade for Osuna and furious at Jeff Luhnow’s statement trying to justify it as anything but icky, I sat down to watch baseball. It’s my job to do that but also, baseball is a source of succor. And even on that day, a day I had spent being mad at this thing I like so much, it made me feel better. I was less sad. I felt better watching Gerrit Cole and James Paxton duel. I exhaled at the pop of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt. It was wonderful. Baseball is wonderful. That relief is another thing it has room for.
Literature is rife with examples, both high brow and pedestrian, of becoming that which we imitate. Vonnegut warned us: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer’s narrator, when reflecting on her childhood, notes, “I liked most of all pretending to be a biologist, and pretending often leads to becoming a reasonable facsimile of what you mimic, even if only from a distance.” Eventually, as Kesha tells us, “You know we’re superstars. We are who we are.”
Baseball can be zippy and effervescent, almost magical even, though it isn’t always. Clouds do loom. Stars disappoint us and hurt our feelings; they close the game off from us. We are made to feel implicated by our distraction from what is serious. We have evidence enough that the game is, in many important ways that have nothing to do with the shift, broken. But it also bright and lively; our best hang. All we want to do is love it with our whole little hearts, and I hope it lets us. I hope that, among the many things it makes space for and the many problems it corrects, it makes less room for the grumps. It would be a shame if we took them at their word.
Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs, the host of FanGraphs Audio, and the co-co-host of Effectively Wild. Her work has previously appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside.