"The poetry of the battle between a pitcher and a batter"


baseball grass.jpgFor as much as we all love baseball, we sometimes take it for granted, overlooking its beauties and its wonders.

I received an email just after midnight that reminded me why I love this game so much, and I feel obligated to share it with you.  It’s long, but I encourage you to read it all.
Dear Craig,

My name is Rolf and I was born and raised in Antwerp, Belgium. Indeed, Europe, where football – the kind in which you can actually use your foot – reigns supreme and few have ever heard of baseball. I can’t say I was any different. Even if I vaguely realized there was a sport in which men try to hit a ball with a stick, I can’t say I ever actually watched or showed any interest in baseball.

Until I was about twenty years old. I took a road trip along the East coast during summer holidays, and it was obviously impossible not to get into contact with the sport as it dominated the headlines and tv channels. I was strangely fascinated by the weird, almost sacral nature of the progressions through  which baseball players went as they tried to hit that ball.

A prototypical child of my generation, I bought a computer game, called MVP baseball. I didn’t know the rules of the game, I didn’t know any players, I just knew I had to hit the ball with the stick – which, I soon learned, was called a bat. Here was a European kid, playing baseball on his pc. And something just felt right about it – the strategy of it, the patience it required, the jubilance as I hit one out of the park. Yes, it was MVP baseball that got me hooked on baseball.

I started surfing the internet and the very first site that got my attention was yours. Circling the bases, as it was called then, gave me an insight into the game that – unlike Americans who grow up with the game ingrained in their DNA – very few Europeans grasp and understand. I started to learn that baseball was more than just another game, more than just a sport. In my mind, it came to symbolize the U.S. itself.

Yet I’d never actually seen a baseball game. Of course, I watch the daily recaps, keep up to speed with what’s going on… But for lack of a credit card and living in the GMT+1 time zone, I never got to see an entire game. Never mind a live one.

Until this Wednesday . . .

Staying in Washington for a week,  I bought myself a ticket to watch the
Braves take on the Nationals. Obviously, having been an avid lurker at
your blog for a while now, I know more about the Braves than perhaps any
other man born in Antwerp, Belgium. I was psyched to go see the
phenomenon Jason Heyward in person, to see Tommy Hanson pitch and to
watch the Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. More than anything, though, I was
excited to go to my very first baseball game.

It was everything I could’ve hoped for and more.  In the very first at
bat of baseball I ever saw, Luis Atilano threw four straight balls and
walked Nate McLouth. Undoubtedly cocky because of his easy trip to
first, nimble Nate attempted to steal second and was thrown out by 38
year old Ivan Rodriguez – another Hall of Famer who, on my behalf I like
to believe, flashed a little of his former brilliance in this game by
also hitting a double and knocking in a run.

In the bottom of the first – still the very first inning I ever saw –
Nyjer Morgan hit a ground field double a few yards to my left, as I was
seated right next to the foul pole in left field. The Nationals followed
that up by a perfect sacrifice bunt and a deep sacrifice fly. Pretty
neat for my first inning, I thought to myself. In the second, Atilano
immediately walked another batter. It came back to bite him in the ass
when Omar Infante followed that up with the first home run I ever saw.
As it comfortably cleared the wall and landed in the bull pen, I felt a
rush that took me back to the first home run I hit on that video game…
Only better, more real and infinitely more exciting. I might as well
have hit it myself. They say chicks dig the long ball, but at that
moment I was kinda digging it myself as well.

Basically, I had already seen everything I could’ve hoped for in the two
first innings of my life. In the bottom of the second, Ryan Zimmerman
was up to bat. He fell behind early and Hanson challenged him with a
fastball. He hit it a real long way, about 370 feet, but he didn’t even
stop to see where it was gonna land as it was obviously going to hook
foul. In left field. Where I was sitting.

As that ball was heading straight towards me, the world seemed to
momentarily stop spinning. The woman in front of me stated the obvious
and shouted it was heading our way. It’s hard to describe what I felt at
that moment, but I’m pretty sure I thought… I’m gonna catch a foul ball
in the very first game I’ve ever been to. To be honest, it felt a bit
like destiny.

But life just isn’t like that, so about two feet before it was gonna
land in my palm, it hooked further left and fell on the steps beside me.
The guy behind me, literally the seat behind me, reached down and
grabbed it a fraction of a second before it would’ve found its home with
me. I’m sure you can guess which word shot through my head at that

Somewhere in Washington, a guy now has a Ryan Zimmerman baseball and I’m
sure it means something to him. But I’m pretty sure it won’t mean as
much as it would’ve to me. But such is life, I guess, missed chances

The game had five lead changes in all and eventually went to extra
innings, in which the Braves pulled it out with some small ball. Just
another game to pretty much everyone in the stadium, I’m sure, perhaps
one of the better ones they saw in a while. For me though, this game was
everything and more.

But it wasn’t just the game. It was people laughing and drinking with
their family and friends. Braves and Nats fans needling each other in
jest with every lead change without the need for riot police. A nice
night out under the darkening Washington sky. A father with his four
year old daughter. A beer and a hot dog. Maybe some ice cream around the
7th. It even was the silly President’s race.

There is not a single sport in Europe which comes even close to that
experience. Up until now I always did get the appeal of baseball on a
rational level, I guess, the lure of the balls and the bases and the
meticulously cut grass and the diamond. I did find it a pretty neat
sport. But it wasn’t until Wednesday that I experienced the poetry of
the battle between a pitcher and a batter. Only on Wednesday did I truly
fall in love with the game.

Unfortunately, I am to return to Antwerp, Belgium pretty soon. There’s
no baseball there, not on television and certainly not on the field. To
be honest, I’m pretty disappointed in the man up above right now for
having me fall to earth on the wrong side of the Atlantic. But I’ll be
back, some day, and I will see another game. And you can be sure I will
grab that foul ball next time.

Best regards from a fellow baseball fan,

And do keep up the good work,


Champagne after a loss? Why not?

Astros Wild Card
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There was some hockey person last week arguing about how it was silly or untoward for baseball teams to celebrate clinching wild cards or other, less-than-championship-level accomplishments. Calling it bush league or lacking in act-like-you’ve-been-thereness or what have you. I can only imagine what he’d say about the Astros celebrating with champagne following (a) winning a wild card; and (b) losing the game which immediately preceded the celebration.

But screw him. Seriously.

I used to think that way. Indeed, if you search the HBT archives I’m sure there’s a post or two in which I disapprove of teams engaging in multiple champagne celebrations. But I was wrong about that and I’ve changed my mind on the matter over the past year or too. And on some other matters as well, all for the same reason: athletes are people just like us, not some avatars for our machismo and our fantasies. They’re people who have spent their entire lives devoted to their calling and do it under a lot of pressure and in the face of a lot of criticism and expectations from others. Why on Earth would anyone deny them their happiness upon the realization of an accomplishment?

This is even more true if you’re one of those misguided souls who erroneously believe that sports actually is separate from real life and believe them to be supremely and impossibly important. Even if you’re right — and you’re not — wouldn’t that give the athletes an even greater incentive to celebrate accomplishments? Funny how those people who who act as if sports is life and death would deny athletes their joy for defying death, as it were.

My view on the matter now is that if a guy hits a homer he should be able to celebrate it. If a pitcher strikes a guy out, he should be able to celebrate it. If a team makes the playoffs, no matter how low their seed and no matter the manner in which the accomplishment is achieved short of their competitors going down in a plane crash, they should be able to celebrate if they so choose.

So enjoy your hangovers this morning, Houston Astros.

And That Happened: Sunday’s scores and highlights


Diamondbacks 5, Astros 3: The Astros lost but, in the course of the loss, they learned the Rangers won and that was all Houston needed to clinch the wild card. No better way to evade beat writers’ questions about what went wrong out there than to be in the process of getting roaring drunk and thinking about playoff baseball, right? And come back in a bit, as I’m going to have a post up later in which I explain why it’s totally cool for a team to have a champagne celebration after clinching a mere wild card. Which some people think is lame.

Rangers 9, Angels 2: Cole Hamels was supposed to be a pickup for 2016 but, in his final start of 2015, he pitched the Rangers to the division title with a complete game. Adrian Beltre‘s homer and three RBI and the Angels’ craptastic bullpen, which uncorked a six-run seventh inning, didn’t help.

Orioles 9, Yankees 4: Joe Girardi whined a bit about having to start this game at 3pm, saying that an all-important game 162 shouldn’t be decided in long shadows. Hey Joe: if you had won either Game 160 or 161 on Saturday this game wouldn’t have mattered to you. Or if you had used your roster in a manner that suggested some manner of urgency, which you didn’t do in any of the games in this series against Baltimore, it wouldn’t have mattered either. And, of course, it ultimately didn’t matter thanks to the Astros’ loss. Wild Card game in the Bronx tomorrow. Viva long shadows.

Dodgers 6, Padres 3: Clayton Kershaw faced 13 batters in his final tuneup before the playoffs. He struck out seven of them. Yeah, gonna say he’s tuned up nicely. That gave him 301 strikeouts for the year. Before yesterday baseball had not had a 300-strikeout pitcher since 2002, when both Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling did it.

Braves 6, Cardinals 0; Braves 2, Cardinals 0: After a span of 24 winless starts stretching back to May 17, Shelby Miller finally gets a win. This is exactly the sort of thing which should set him on the right track and really help him in his next few starts.

Oh. Wait. Damn.

Phillies 7, Marlins 2: The game didn’t matter a bit in the standings but it mattered for Dee Gordon, who went 3-for-4 with a homer and a double and ended the season with a .333 average and the batting title thanks to Bryce Harper‘s 1-for-4 in the Mets-Nats game. Gordon bomes the first NL player to lead the league in batting average and stolen bases (.333/58) in the same season since Jackie Robinson did it in 1949. Which, wow.

Pirates 4, Reds 0: 98 wins and the Pirates are still playing a one-and-done game on Wednesday and needed this win just to clinch home field for that game. Man, the NL Central was rough this year.

Rockies 7, Giants 3: Down 3-0 in the ninth, the Rockies rallied for seven. Pretty sure the entire 2015 Rockies highlight reel will just be a quickly-burned DVD of that inning.

Tigers 6, White Sox 0: It was a year to forget for Detroit, but at least it ended with a young pitcher acquired in a mid-season white flag trade pitching a nice game. The pitcher was Daniel Norris who allowed one-hit over five innings. The outing allowed the Tigers to think a bit about the future.

Indians 3, Red Sox 1: And on the last day of the season the Indians move above .500. What a weird year for them. Such a talented team which had so many issues putting it together in the first half and, later, when it mattered most.

Cubs 3, Brewers 1: Chicago ended the regular season with a three-game sweep in Milwaukee and forced the Pirates to win one for home field advantage in the wild card. Regular season momentum doesn’t really mean much in the playoffs, but if it makes the Cubs feel better between now and Wednesday to say they have it, all the better for them.

Royals 6, Twins 1: Like I said: momentum doesn’t much matter, but on the off chance it actually does, Johnny Cueto has to feel OK, having allowed one run over five innings. We’ll forget for a second that it came against a deflated, recently-eliminated, spit squad Twins lineup.

Mariners 3, Athletics 2: After the game Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon tossed his cap into the crowd. Which is fine as it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be needed it next year. Not that I can act all smug given that I was one of those loonies who though the Mariners would make the World Series.

Mets 1, Nationals 0: Like Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom was merely tuning up for the NLDS. He’s running just fine too, having tossed four shutout innings with seven strikeouts. They were no-hit innings too, actually, but it’s not like Terry Collins was going to leave him out there for that sort of thing with the playoffs looming. Curtis Granderson‘s eighth inning solo shot was the only scoring. The Nationals, finally, have been put out of their misery and can go home and wonder about what in the hell happened to them this season.

Rays 12, Blue Jays 3: Mark Buehrle was supposed to come in and pitch two innings to get his 200 for the year and then retire. Which would’ve been a neat thing for him given that he’d tossed 200+ innings for 14 straight years before that. He couldn’t escape the first inning, though, as first the Jays’ defense and then his ability to get dudes out disappeared. Oh well. One crap inning doesn’t negate a first-ballot Hall of Very Good career.

And with that another regular season is in the books. Another season of 8, 12, or (usually) 15-game days. Of flipping TV channels or radio stations or clicking between websites and between games. Games which, compared to the other 2,400 or so that happen during a season, mean nothing. But mean everything. Games which can be enjoyed and savored for a bit if your team won and enjoyed and easily forgotten if your team lost. The easy listening soundtrack of the past six months now fades away and in its place comes a 30-day burst of hardcore intensity.

And it’ll be a lot of fun. The playoffs are the point of it all, right? Assuming, that is, baseball has to have a point. Maybe it does, but it’s an assumption that, the older I get, is less and less necessary for me to hold in order for me to enjoy it.

Thanks for another good season, everyone.