There is something intrinsically magical about baseball. You can't deny it. If it is your first time at a live ballgame, be warned--your senses will be overwhelmed.
The perfectly manicured field is awe-inspiring, even at venues that are considered to be unacceptable by league standards. (*Cough* Oakland Coliseum.) Just the sight of it can instantly drop your blood pressure by twenty points. Even before the game starts, you can see the players that are paid to do what they love. Most of them are in the outfield stretching and throwing the ball around--smiling and laughing. They're not stressed or nervous, just anxious for the game to start.
When I close my eyes I can hear the sound of the game beginning. The pitcher winds up and delivers. POP. The ball finds the catcher's mitt. The umpire shouts, "Steeerike!" Life is good.
As a child I remember thinking it can't get much better than this. But it did. The batter swings. CRACK. If you're not ready for it you will lose the ball. But no worries--the center fielder is all over it. You might not know the rules. You might not even know when to cheer, but the feel of the crowd will let you know.
Few things are as magical as a home run--even if you don't know what that is yet. The crowd will let you know. You'll hear the crack--maybe a little louder this time--and for the tiniest moment the air will leave the stadium in anticipation. The crowd's hopes and dreams are now flying with the ball, soaring higher and higher, defying the laws of gravity. If someone can hit a ball like that, I can do anything. Then suddenly and all at once the fans rise to their feet. A deep rumbling of cheers erupt and you wonder for a second if the stadium might come toppling to the ground. All around you, fans are jumping up and down in celebration, embracing complete strangers. If the hair is not standing up on the back of your neck by now, you may not be human.
When you first embrace the game of baseball, you don't think in terms of wins and losses--just happiness. Every game is a gift, regardless of win or loss, postseason or spring training.
Soon you become familiar with the players and eventually even build connections. As an Athletics fan born in the '80s, I was spoiled. They had too many great players--and personalities--to list here. My connection was with Rickey Henderson, and it was supernatural. Though he probably was unaware. (Don't worry. Nothing stalkerish.)It started one evening after school. I must have been about 8 years old. My mom had called into the living room telling me to clean up my room. Rickey had just stepped up to the plate. I can't leave now. I blurted out the best excuse I could conceive. "In a minute, mom. Rickey is about to hit a home run." Sure enough, he did. Over the next couple years it happened several times--my room was often unkempt--though I admit it didn't happen every time.
Just this last season, Rickey played in the celebrity softball game during All-Star week. For nostalgia's sake I called out, "In a minute, mom. Rickey is about to hit a home run." (Even though I have not lived with my parents for several years.) He did not let me down.
As I grew older, my understanding of the game increased. The chaos was replaced with reason--magic replaced with science. Rules I had never noticed became clear and stats I had never imagined were now important. My eyes were opened up to a new world, filled with trends, and park factors, and regression to the mean.
Instead of just reacting to the game, I learned the tools to predict and project. I formulated ideas to better build a roster. I developed strategies to take advantage of park factors and market strengths and weaknesses. The game was changing for me--and I embraced it.
Sure, the magic was fading, but in its place came the science--the math. And it was a science of creation. I could build a team in my head (and on paper)--and a damn good one if I may say so. The challenge was finding the undervalued commodities and targeting the players with which those commodities are embodied. The challenge was creating a formula better than everyone else's, to more accurately predict a player's performance.
I became increasingly saturated in all aspects of the game, especially the minor leagues. What a great surprise to find a wealth of young talent, just yearning to be molded and buffed to a shine, waiting for their turn to prove their worth in the majors. And they belonged to us already--they were a part of the family. If they put in the time and played well enough, they would be an integral part of my formula.
After years of quiet contemplation and slow studies, I saw the team in numbers and acronyms--OPS, FIP, BABIP. I saw the team in wins and losses. I put in the time. I was invested.
The problem with the numbers was that they worked. I was well-informed, but the games weren't as much fun to watch when you already knew the outcome. The magic was gone.
Then came the enlightening. I was putting too much weight into the projections, as a fan. The projections are a great tool when building a team, or for predicting how well they will perform, but they are not law. They will be right more often than they are wrong, but there is no way to perfectly project how a single player will perform, let alone an entire team. There is no way to project a team's intangibles--a team's heart or moxie. You never know when a middling small-market team will win twenty games in-a-row in the second half to storm into the playoffs.
The magic was back. What could be greater than a team overcoming the odds and achieving the improbable? I could look at a team and see they don't look very good. Wouldn't it be something if they could overcome those weaknesses and do something special?
When I first became a fan of baseball, it was from a pure love of the game. It was innocent. But I grew up and I became educated. I got a peek behind the curtain, and despite that, I developed faith. I can now accept when my team has poor odds, but I will not give up on them. Anything can happen, and however unlikely that may be, the reward will be much greater.
I will still head to the coliseum on a sunny spring day and gaze upon the field in amazement. I will still sit in enjoyment and embrace the crowd. I will root for my heroes and patiently wait for that blissful sound of maple upon leather. And when I watch the ball soaring toward the outfield bleachers, I'll think if someone can hit a ball like that, then I can do anything.