It’s complicated

Baseball and I have had a complicated relationship these past few years. At first it was the Mariners — I was so fed up with the franchise and its stupid decisions that I decided to stop investing financial and emotional resources in them. The former was easy; the latter wasn’t. I tried to quit them cold turkey and start watching other teams, but there was no passion. I didn’t need to see the games, didn’t need to be involved in its rhythms and patterns — didn’t even really pay attention to the playoffs and certainly didn’t care about the World Series, except inasmuch as I wanted the Yankees (and, more recently, the Red Sox) to lose.

It’s sometimes said that one can be a baseball fan, in the sense that one is a fan of baseball, but I’m starting to think that you need to have a single team to root for — something that anchors you within the context of the sport. You might know how to appreciate a good ball game, and even enjoy watching teams you have no vested interest in for the sake of watching the game (minor league ball is a lot like this for me), but the joy isn’t there if it’s not a team you care about. Maybe other people are capable of caring like that. Probably other people are capable. I’m not. Without the Mariners in my daily life, I came unmoored from baseball: vaguely aware of what was going on, and what had happened over the past week or so, but not engaged and involved in it. I stopped reading Baseball Prospectus, stopped reading the box scores, stopped reading game summaries. If only because the commentary is so thoroughly excellent I still paid attention to USS Mariner and Dave Cameron; the Mariner-specific stuff served only to enrage me further and remind me of why I wasn’t investing any energy in caring.

Don’t play, can’t lose. Don’t care, can’t get hurt.

Thing is, the game can always find ways to hurt you more. In 2004, the Mariners signed Ben Christensen to a minor league contract. Christensen is possibly the most despicable human to ever play the game; in 1999 he thought a hitter in the on-deck circle was timing his pitches, so he unleashed a 92-mile an hour fastball at the guy’s head. Anthony Molina was doing nothing of the kind, but that didn’t matter: the pitch hit him in the eye, blinding him. Derek Zumsteg has written about this in the past, and it made me angry as hell. Not angry enough to stop caring, but the signing was coincident with the beginning of the long, miserable slide in Mariners performance, so the fact that I gradually started investing less and less energy in the game around that is probably more coincidental than anything.

Derek’s angry article was still rattling around in 2010, when the Mariners traded — traded — for Josh Lueke. Compared to him, Christensen is just a thug; Lueke really is despicable. Among other things, he’s a rapist, and and the story is actually a lot worse than you might think based on that comment alone. Mobutu’s post basically mirrored my own reactions, except his is about the Rays and I don’t care about them. Nevertheless, when the Mariners traded for Lueke, it was the final straw: I sent an e-mail to Mariners customer relations, outlining my history with the team and my unwillingness to continue supporting them. I didn’t have season tickets to threaten — just the willingness to hop across the strait and down the sound, on my annual baseball trip to Seattle. I wasn’t willing to do that, I wasn’t even willing to watch them on TV.

It was a silly, hollow gesture. Derek wrote about being complicit in a team’s decision to make the trade, to ignore and overlook the greater issues in the pursuit of winning. (Lueke isn’t even that good, not that being a good pitcher would get me to ignore his heinous past.) My e-mail wasn’t about the team, in the end — it was about me, and my need to declare (to myself, if no one else) that I would no longer be complicit in this team’s activities, that I wouldn’t allow myself to become emotionally invested in an enterprise I considered corrupt doing things I believed were wrong.

Predictably, I got a form letter back saying they were disappointed by my decision but that the team was excited about the possibilities for the coming season. I can’t find it anymore. “Fuck this,” I thought, and I stopped caring at all. When I found out Lueke had been traded to the Rays I felt bad for Tampa Bay, but then I realized I could end my pointless boycott of the Mariners. The problem was that the Mariners sucked, and continued to suck, and it’s No Fun rooting for a shitty ball club. I’ve done this dance with the Mariners before, got four really great seasons out of them, and besides that it’s been shit all the time. Even Ichiro! can’t reignite my interest.

But a funny thing happened last night. I was trying to find something less objectionable than “Monster in Law” on TV, and it turned out the Mariners were playing the Red Sox. I hate the Red Sox more than the Mariners, so it was OK for me to watch this game on the basis that I could pretend I was cheering for the lesser of two evils, instead of rooting for my own team again and waiting to watch them inevitably fuck it up. (I’m frequently reminded of Homer’s comment about the Springfield Isotopes. “Who won, the losers?” “No, they lost.” “Ha ha. Losers.”)

So there we were, in the bottom of the seventh. First-and-third, two out. Ackley had just reached because Adrian Gonzalez missed a throw; Brendan Ryan — who no one will confuse with a power hitter or a real threat to do anything (he of the .180 average) was in the box, bat weaving. And I stood there, watching the TV, listening to the sounds of the game, watching the patterns unfold as I knew how they would — it took all of about 30 seconds to get invested in that at-bat. Ryan, naturally, grounded out to third ending the inning, but then I got to see Felix punch out his twelfth batter of the night, matching his season high, and I got to see Casper Wells make one hell of a catch in the top of the eighth.

It was enough for me. I didn’t see how the game ended, haven’t actually gone to look, but it was just enough of a taste to make me remember what I loved about the games, what I loved about the rhythm of it. What it was like to care, back when I did care. It made me think about Tom Boswell, who talked about not having to listen to or to watch or to go to every game, but that being able to, if you needed it, was the important thing. I guess I needed that tonight, and I remember why.

The Mariners are still bad — epically bad. They’re still going to lose a lot of games. But I might be with them for the rest of the year. Maybe it’s time to hope again.