“How can you not be romantic about baseball,” – Billy Beane as played by Brad Pitt in Moneyball.
As the first pitches of the 2016 baseball season were thrown over the past few days I’m once again forced to face the truth I encounter every spring: Baseball is the one sport I feel most emotionally connected to. I know how strange that sounds coming from someone born in the final ten years of the 20th century. There’s a name for my generation that’s often greeted with disdain or a sneer: Millennial. I’m supposed to be part of the “me” generation. I’m supposed to be entitled and I’m supposed to want everything five minutes ago. I’m supposedly disconnected from reality and true human connection but plugged into everything with the world at my fingertips, forcing all things, sports specifically, to engage me with updates every sixteen seconds in the form of fantasy updates and six second Vines of Aaron Rodgers’ latest touchdown throw. Then give it five more seconds and I’m supposed to be disinterested and on to the next six second video of a parrot dancing to “I Don’t Care.”
Baseball is supposed to be the anti-millennial sport. It’s apparently too slow. Every month a different old fart who used to be something in the league comes out and barks at my generation for whatever atrocity we supposedly committed against America’s former pastime. A bat flip. A goofy haircut. We stare too long at a homer.
I’m supposed to hate baseball. But I don’t. It’s the one sport that gives me true, raw, human connection. Why? Why every spring does I, a Millennial, feel like Opening Day one of the most beautiful days in all of sports. Why, when on a hot summer night in July, do I feel compelled to grab a cold beer, sit on my porch listening to the sweet sounds of Pat Hughs, the radio voice of the Chicago Cubs since 1996 walk me through the latest Cubs collapse or the latest Cubs walk-off homer?
To me, it’s because those people who look negatively at my generation, don’t realize they’ve created the love of baseball within us all. It’s about playing catch with your dad when you were young in the backyard. It’s about seeing Derek Jeter appear in an All-Star game, or going to your first big-league game. For me, it’s watching the Cubs with my late grandfather on a midsummer’s afternoon watching Sammy Sosa, Mark Grace, and others fight valiantly before inevitably falling in the late innings. Baseball buries itself deep in our hearts and never lets go.
Baseball is a relationship. A love affair once explained in the funniest of ways. On the bus home from Wrigley Field one summer a few years back my cousin and Cub companion G turns to me, disheveled after a 3-1 loss to the Phillies and says, “Baseball is a summer relationship with a girl you know it’s not going to work out in the long run but it’s damn fun when you’re in it.” We shared a laugh and I thought that was the end of the conversation. But G thought about this idea, let it marinate a little more and continued. “You meet the team in March for Spring Training, right?” I nodded. “It’s like meeting the girl at a bar. ‘Hey, how are you doing? What do you do for work?’ You basically start vetting her, right? Then you go on a couple of dates in April and you realize ‘Wow this girl is pretty special!’ Well that’s the first part of a baseball season. It’s the Honeymoon Phase. The Cubs can lose 2-1 to St. Louis and it won’t matter because there’s still the hope that this thing could work out. And then you get to the dog days of July and August and all of a sudden a 3-1 loss to the Phillies is your first fight with the girl. Before you know it you guys are fighting every single day and by September you’re calling it quits – just like the Cubs.”
We share more laughs and kept the analogy going for a while. The first walk-off win is the first time you and this girl make love. It went on and on. But what dawned on me then is what makes baseball so beautiful now. It’s the only sport in existence that can be explained but the inexplicable happen. There is a measurement for everything in baseball. It is calculated, cold, razor sharp, and raw. If a batter is 0 for 4 with 2 strikeouts, he’s o for 4 with 2 strikeouts. It whittles a player down entirely to his performance. Yet, something about the complexities of the game itself becomes beautiful. It’s a masterpiece play orchestrated over nine innings where anything a player does has a direct outcome on the future of the game. A seemingly insignificant groundout in the top of the first inning, 26 outs later may very well have been the chain reaction that caused a 7-0 loss. Everything in baseball is mutually exclusive and symmetric. Every action has an equal an opposite reaction. Baseball feels right because it is right. It isn’t abstract or odd. It’s perfectly linear.
Yet we don’t notice this as consumers of the game because therein lies the true beauty of baseball. It’s poetic. Every game is entirely different and every game has perspective. Things can always be measured and compare in baseball. A past can be found, a story can be told, and it’s the only sport that preserves its history to perfection. Baseball has commented on society, on culture, cultivated change, ushered in eras, good and bad, and through it all it’s remained the same game. Baseball hasn’t changed much in 160 years. Sure, equipment has changed, ballparks have changed, playing styles have changed, but 27 outs today was 27 outs in 1860 and a home run is a home run in 2016 as it was in 1916. There is beauty in history.
Baseball uses these supposed disadvantages and instead bridges the gaps between generations. A 70-year-old who saw the likes of Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle can speak the same language of a 20 year old who looks up to Bryce Harper and Mike Trout today, and they all speak the same language of my generation who grew up watching the Derek Jeters and Ken Griffey Jr’s. of the world. Baseball is the universal language of sports that binds all generations.
Why, then, to a millennial, does baseball offer the highest emotional connection of any sport? Because it’s in our DNA. It’s our game. It’s fathers and sons playing catch or experiencing their first game together. It’s the playground game when you were a kid and the sun was coming down. It’s a past linked with a present pointing towards a future. It’s calculative yet unpredictable. It’s the only thing we have left from a world that was simpler and slower in an age where everything is faster and more complex. It’s our way of taking a step back from the expectations of our generation and appreciating a game so pure and so American.
Welcome back, baseball. We missed you.
Love, The Millennial Generation.