Being excited about Major League Baseball in the first week of May is equivalent to being excited about your one boring friend’s New Year’s resolution to “really spice things up this year.” But what if he really meant it? What if he did something to prove it? What if he jumped out of an airplane, or decided to walk across Utah, or invented heelies for adults and then cruised around the mall? Forget the creepy factor – would you stay and watch? Would you congratulate him for his bravery?
You would if you were Kansas City and your boring friend was the Royals. For game one – a Monday night in KC (a school night!) – 22,000 fans not only stayed the duration to watch Zach Grienke pitch a 6 hit, 10 strikeout, complete-game shutout against the White Sox, but gave him a standing ovation both after the 8th inning and before the ninth and didn’t sit down until he finished getting hugs and high-fives from his teammates after the game. Grienke threw his second-to-last pitch 95 miles an hour, prompting the crowd to erupt once again and putting a smile on my face that didn’t leave until I headed for my car.
This is baseball. I can admit that it might not be a sport (if you can smoke and play it, it’s probably a recreation. Plus it’s a haven for professional athletes possessing that rare combination of fat and weak – google Bartolo Colon, Matt Stairs, Sidney Ponson, David Wells, Antonio Alfonseca, John Kruk), but watching the game being played correctly – seeing a diving grab up the middle, a back handed flip for a double play, a hitter absolutely baffled by a change up, a ball hit so hard you know, you just know, it’s gone as soon as it comes off the bat, well that’s a beautiful thing. A thing so beautiful it brings me together with Emo teens sporting awful forward swept hair dos and wearing spandex-laced denim jeans and converse All Stars; young couples wearing matching Royals jerseys, “Soria” scrawled across the back; old women using walkers with punctured tennis balls cushioning the supports; that girl wearing the “shuck me, suck me, eat me raw” t-shirt; and kids, kids everywhere – that is a beautiful thing. A necessary thing.
On the way out of town, driving I-70 East on a straight shot towards St. Louis I listened to a man call in to the Kansas City am radio sports station and share how he listened to the game with his son, them sitting in his truck outside his house because his “line of work keeps us right above the poverty line” and am radio was the only way he could experience a game; sharing that moment with his son and explaining to him what it meant for Zach Grienke to pitch a complete game shut-out, what it meant for 22,000 fans to not leave their seats on a Monday night – a school night! – in the first week of May, what it meant to him to have that moment of serendipity, bliss, and nostalgia because that’s what he did with his own dad, sit on the tool box in the back of his dad’s truck on his boyhood farm and listen to George Brett or Hal McRae hit bombs, listen to a crowd roar when Dan Quisenberry came in to finish the game. This is baseball.
There is a man in St. Louis named Albert Pujols, and aside from the unfortunate pronunciation of his last name, he is revered by Cardinals fans as, perhaps, the second coming. There are not many like him in the sport – Derek Jeter in New York probably; Barry Bonds a few years ago in San Francisco maybe – who command the respect and adoration of an entire city. Albert Pujols, because of what he can do to a baseball, because he can spot the rotation of the threads on a ball less than three inches in diameter coming at him from 60 feet away at 90 miles an hour and can not only tell exactly where that ball is going to cross the plate but can hit it, absolutely murder it, sending it over the outfield fence and causing thousands upon thousands of people to leap from their seats in synonymous joy. What is this? What void does Albert Pujols fill in those lives, what is this thing he possesses that brings together people, old and young, bad clothes and good? What is this thing that causes Bob from St. Louis to give me, unsolicited, $90 tickets along the third base line so I too can hang around for three and a half hours in order to share in this thing, watching Albert Pujols crush a baseball 370 feet in the bottom of the ninth inning, game out of reach but no one leaving just so they – we – can talk about him on the way back to our cars or busses or trains?
In the early 1940’s Abraham Maslow posed a theory that human beings have stratified needs, psychological needs causing you to first meet the necessities of life, air and food and water and sex and sleep, and not until these were met could you move onward and upward to things like security and health and friendship and intimacy, confidence and self-esteem, and not until you met these needs could you move to the top, to spiritualization and religion and morality. But I disagree. I don’t think it’s a pyramid, I don’t think it’s a scale. There is something to Albert Pujols, to baseball, to watching Zach Grienke pitch a complete game shutout the first week of May, to sharing the roar of a crowd and the success of your home team as you sit in your old truck on your dirt farm with your son at your side, school night be damned, there is something fundamental to this feeling, this necessity, on par with the very necessities of life. This is baseball.