In 1989, my beloved Oakland Athletics put together the sort of season you read about in the history books. They had pitching and panache, they had hitting and heroism, they had defense and domination. As an 11-year old, they were the best sort of magic: the kind that you could count on to come through for you when life was nothing but uncertain. That was when I fell in love with baseball and became a convert from soccer and football.
The peak was short-lived.
I tell you this by way of introducing myself, and for this one story: I’m told that the Attendance Secretary at Emerson Junior High School kept the note that my parents sent that day in October. It began, “We believe in the Church of Baseball.” My excuse was granted, and off we went that afternoon to the Coliseum to watch them in the World Series.
That was the year they got swept by the Big Red Machine from Cincinnati. That was the year I almost gave up on baseball.
Over time, I’ve come to appreciate the ups and downs of baseball’s many turbulent moments. The wins and the losses mark the time between the seasons, and when it is dormant and sleeping in the middle of Winter, I miss it the most. Hot days in the sun, in the midst of a playoff chase, those are the things I dream of when the temperature drops below freezing and stays there for a week come January.
A few years ago or so, my friend Lisa remarked that the middle of January marks The Lent of Baseball. It’s after the end of the Winter Meetings, there’s hardly a bubble in the pot on the hot stove, and the fan’s mind turns with desperation to any hint of news about their favorite club. There are 40 days, starting today, until Pitchers & Catchers report down in Viera, before the first strikes are thrown, the first homers are hit, and the first web gems are coined. This is the single most agonizing time as a fan. You are anxious either to repeat the successes of the previous year, or to recover from the year’s previous failings.
This is that dark place where there is no data but past data. This is that dark time where all of the unknowns in a roster seem as if they are their worst possible outcome, and where rebuttals to those arguments are impossible to back with results. It’s a pretty terrible time of year to be a baseball fan, when everything is still theoretical. I try hard to tune out the pundits and armchair general managers, as I find the conclusions of hypothetical position battling and prediction building to be tedious at best, and rumor-mongering at worst.
Over the last few years, I’ve used the 40 days before pitchers and catchers report to Viera as a personal meditation on my relationship with baseball, and focused my efforts on better understanding the game that I have come to love and respect. One year, I did nothing but work to understand advanced statistics. Another I spent in pursuit of the perfect trilogy of baseball movies (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and The Sandlot). One year I got lost in nothing but the work of W.P. Kinsella that concerned baseball.
This year is feeling a lot more scattershot. This is my second off-season as a new father, and the first one where I’m getting regular sleep. After a season off, my general goal for this Lent of Baseball is a firmer understanding of the difficult personnel terrain the Nationals find themselves in, and how that will affect their pursuit of the Commissioner’s Trophy. What shape that will take is yet to be determined.
Making sense of their present situation can be instructive on understanding where they’re going and how they’ll arrive there.
I hope you’ll join me as I go exploring. What are your goals for the next 40 days?