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Why Baseball is Better than the Movies

(Originally posted on February 14, 2000, reposted to at new site on December 6, 2008)

There are a lot of reasons why I like baseball. I’ve already talked about formative experiences of youth, bonding with my father, and so on.

But I think there’s more to it than that, and this has to do with sports in general. Because in recent years I’ve found my interest in all sports becoming more intense.

It began with Olympic coverage in 1996–frankly, I was disgusted with it. Every bar or restaurant we went into (we had no tv then and we still have no cable or regular reception), we were glued to it. But the network had tried so hard to create a “story” around each American athlete, that it actually worked counter to the drama of the games themselves. The drama and suspense was ruined because you knew that the three people they would show you profiles of would be the three medalists, and they didn’t show you enough of the actual competition and games, since they were spending so much time on the interviews and background features. I was, to say the least, annoyed. And I realized that a lot of the drama in sports is on the playing field itself. Yeah, you want to know who the players in the drama are, but it’s the actual amazement you feel at their achievement, (the amazing plays, the competitive edge, the home runs), the actual thrill of victory and agony of defeat you feel at the end of the game, the heartbreak of errors or bad calls… all that is what is actually compelling about it. I remember getting up early in the morning to see matches the year the US Hockey team did the impossible and won gold. The way the Olympics are covered now, there’s not time for that kind of drama to develop. The 1996 Olympics left me with a hankering for what they lacked.

Then, I read the novel INFINITE JEST by David Foster Wallace. Much of the book revolves around life at an elite tennis academy, and the inside game of tennis. This was an amazing book for reasons having nothing to do with tennis, but I suddenly got interested in tennis. I actually hated playing tennis as a kid–my mother and father basically strong-armed me and the friend who got married on the day of Game One of the World Series (see above…) into taking lessons together when we were like 11 years old. We were terrible at it. And my parents were always watching tennis on tv. Which I found boring. But I remember watching these apocalyptic showdowns between Borg and McEnroe and really being glued to the set. (no pun intended)

So anyway, inspired by reading Infinite Jest, while traveling for business we’d channel flip in our hotel, and come to ESPN2 broadcasting the Monaco Open or something, and we’d get sucked right into it. corwin and me both. Or even better, Classic Sports Network showing those selfsame Borg/McEnroe matchups. Yeah, this after about ten years of not watching any televised sports.

Add to this the fact that I write fiction for a living. I write short stories, novels, novellas. In the past I’ve written screenplays, tv scripts, (none produced, mind you) and to like, too. So when I see a tv show or we watch a Hollywood movie, I know what’s going on in the writer’s mind a lot of the time. Hollywood works on certain formulas, and, OK, this works to some degree because the movie isn’t a satisfying entertainment experience for much of the audience unless certain criteria are fulfilled. I.e. in an action movie you have to have a car chase (or boat chase, or whatever ‘spin’ on the car chase the director decides on), a shoot out, etc. Good guys usually win, and so on.

But as we all know, plenty of bad movies come out. The formula doesn’t always work. And at some point I just run out of compassion for characters who are weakly drawn or badly acted or just plain fake.

But baseball is real. Sports drama is real.

You don’t have to suspend your disbelief because these are real actual guys whose job it is to go out there and compete every day. And they are amazing at what they do. Believe it. And the back story? The baseball season is like a soap opera. On any given day, nothing earth-shattering may seem to happen. But who will rise above? Who will slump? Who will have the clutch hit at the critical moment? Who will get tagged out at third to end the rally? Who will get injured? Who will recover from injury?

This is why even teams that don’t have winning records have fans. Because it isn’t, actually, all about winning. It’s about being there. It’s about not knowing what will happen. No one is scripting
the happy ending for you. You never know if today will be a tragedy or a comedy.

This is why the Yankees are so compelling to me. The media have taken to calling them “the most storied” sports franchise in history, and I think that is really true. You could make a movie about a hundred different players or situations or seasons with the Yankees.

The Red Sox are pretty storied, too. But their story is so inextricably linked with the Yanks story, it’s hard to be objective.

Ah, who needs objectivity anyway? When I was a kid, I was a fan of a lot of things, Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, Duran Duran, and the Yankees. These days, I get interested in something like, oh, The X-Files, but it doesn’t last. I eventually feel cheated by the writers of the series who have other concerns than being true to the characters or satisfying me, the fan. But baseball, that’s real. That’s something you can get into, and stay into, because it’s happening live, right there, in front of you. The players you like, the teams you hate, it’s all unfolding in real time.

And this season, I’ll be right there for the whole thing.

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