When the Game Cannot Go On

It’s becoming clear that leaving your jacket behind was a mistake.

The sun has been giving this mid-March day a Fourth of July tint all afternoon, and you’ve been waiting all winter to brave the outdoors free from layers. That sun was still out when you got to the ballpark just before 5 pm, and the air felt mild, so you left your jacket in the car. You should have known better. The high school baseball game you’re watching probably wasn’t going to end until 7:30, when the sun was nearly gone — along with whatever lies it promised you about warmth.

Now, that 7:30 final out is beginning to feel wildly optimistic. One of the starting pitchers had trouble throwing strikes in the first inning, needing 33 pitches to get through it, according to your count. The second inning is shaping up to be even worse. The same pitcher hit the first batter, and has walked three more to force home a run.

Really, it isn’t his fault. He isn’t going to pitch in the majors, or even in college. He isn’t a baseball player at all, really. He’s just playing the part, like so many other kids you’ve seen, happy for any chance to be outside with his friends.

And it isn’t going well. One of the few strikes he’s thrown this inning got laced to left field for a base hit, scoring two more runs. Now the coach is going to the mound, but his options are limited. He doesn’t have many pitchers on this year’s small roster, and tomorrow his team has a doubleheader scheduled. He really needed tonight’s starter to go deep into the game. But he’s already thrown 55 pitches, and made only three outs. The coach attempts to level with the 16-year-old standing in front of him, pats him on the shoulder, and returns to the dugout.

The breeze is picking up, and unwelcome clouds are now blocking out the sun. It’s too late to grab your jacket. You’re here to cover this game for the local newspaper and you don’t want to miss a pitch. The parking lot is all the way across the complex. There’s no way you wouldn’t miss at least one batter, even if you left as soon as the third out of the inning was made.

And who knows when that could even be? Baseball has no clock, something many admire about the game. It doesn’t matter how far ahead a team is, it still needs to get the opponent out a certain number of times to claim victory. Until then, anything is technically possible. But occasionally, a particularly bad day for a pitcher exposes a glitch in the system.

Throwing the ball over the plate, into a spot where a batter can reasonably make contact with it, is the act the entire sport is based on. Strip away a player’s ability to do that, and the game cannot go on. This, too, is unique to baseball. In football, if an offense cannot move the ball, the clock runs. In basketball, if one team cannot make a shot, the clock runs. Baseball’s forward progress, however, relies entirely on one player being able to repeat the same task over and over again.

And as this particular pitcher issues yet another free pass, it begins to sink in just how difficult that task is. It’s not as simple as handing a football off to a teammate, or bouncing a basketball on a court. It is trying to hurl a tiny ball into a not-so-big box from more than 60 feet away. It requires a great deal of coordination to pull off, and that isn’t even the end of it. Because standing next to that box is a person holding a stick, one that is designed specifically for hitting the ball as hard and far as possible. You must not only hit the box, but do so while throwing the ball as hard as you possibly can so the person with the stick can’t hit it. Pitching, you begin to realize, is impossible.

A groundball, at long last, is hit at the first baseman, chopped too slowly for him to have a play at home but not so slowly that he can’t turn and step on his own bag for the first out. The first base coach extends a hand to high five the kid responsible for the groundout, but it barely registers with him. He struck out in the first inning, the only one to do so against this pitcher today. On a night in which each of his teammates have seemed invincible at the plate, he looks lost.

Seeing him reminds you of what an impossible task hitting also is. You know how that kid feels, after all. Years ago, when you were a teenager yourself, you would spend months and months in the batting cage, trying desperately to learn a skill that seemed to come naturally to everyone around you. But you never did. Whether the pitcher threw hard or soft, all fastballs or all junk, you couldn’t seem to find the ball with your bat. If you weren’t granted the mercy of a walk, you struck out, with virtually no exceptions. You cried about it, confused not only by why you couldn’t do it, but also how so many others could.

Baseball, you realize, should be a magnificently hideous thing to see. No one should be able to throw strikes consistently, and no one should be able to hit a baseball. This should only get worse as the players learn to throw harder, until major league pitchers are attempting to control 100 mph throws and hitters have just three-tenths of a second to react to a pitch. You might as well have a sport where people try to catch bees in their mouths while sprinting in socks across a sheet of ice. None of this should work.

And yet, it does. There are hundreds of major leaguers, thousands of professional players, hundreds of thousands of college kids, and millions of youth players. Somehow, all of them pull off an astronomical number of games every year, almost all of which go off without a hitch. Elementary school kids throw balls that land squarely in their best friend’s mitt, or smack line drives just out of reach of a diving second basemen. If the mechanics of the sport can be executed by this wide range of age groups and backgrounds and skill levels, how can they be that hard?

Another grounder, this time to the shortstop. But this one’s hit sharply, and after standing still in what is now 45-degree mountain air for most of the last hour, the shortstop’s limbs are tense, and don’t move with their typical smoothness toward the ball. It hits his glove and bounces out in front of him, and after his scramble to recover, he stands up to watch the runner reach first without a throw. The pitcher is crestfallen. Parents behind you start to get restless.

No, you decide, this is hard. You hear Ron Washington’s line from Moneyball in your ear, and you listen to him. Beyond that, even — baseball, performed even adequately, is a miracle. You’ve always known baseball is a miracle, of course. You know because of the way watching a game in person changed the tenor of your father’s voice after he got laid off for the first time. You know because the first time you stood close to the woman you’ll one day marry, you thought her eyes reminded you of outfield grass. You know because throughout your life, almost nothing has made you feel better, and almost nothing has made you feel worse.

But those reasons have more to do with the way baseball feels and sounds, and the extra color it adds to memories old and new. Now, you realize the simple action of it is a miracle, too. Its balance is too delicate, its gears and levers too reliant on fine-tuned movements to ever be able to work, but it does.

Or at least, most of the time. It’s not working in the game in front of you, and it’s getting painful. Your hand is red and shaky, the scorebook under it an unmitigated disaster. You spent all winter thinking about when the next time would be that you got to sit outside and watch baseball. After fewer than two innings, you already wish you were home, so you could turn on major league spring training and watch a miracle happen. You want to forget about this game as soon as possible.

But you won’t forget it. You’ll think about it for the entire spring, when you watch many other high school games, some of which threaten to fall to pieces just as this one has. You’ll think about it as you watch major league and college games, wondering how they don’t fall apart just as easily. And when Opening Day comes a year later, but the baseball season has been suspended for an undetermined amount of time because of a pandemic so menacing and dangerous that it makes you feel guilty for every second you dare to even think about baseball, you’ll still think about this game. It was the day that baseball at its ugliest forced you to consider everything that makes it beautiful. And all you wanted to do was leave.

Sitting in the bleachers on that chilly day, you don’t know any of that. You can’t. Another walk has been issued, and you gaze into the dugout, looking for the pitching coach. For a moment, it seems like his eyes meet yours, and you silently will him to go make a change, to do anything that makes this game move forward. He doesn’t move.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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2 years ago

This was beautiful.