Baseball’s Beauty Lies in Foul Territory

My baseball fervor is much like my hometown’s own LA River. Are you familiar with the LA River? Even if you don’t think you are, you have probably seen it in a movie or something. Here, here it is.

See? Well, this is a prewritten article so I didn’t hear your reaction. Anyway, to describe it, it’s a long concrete channel that stretches almost fifty miles. It was once a natural river, but it was insulated with concrete following a series of devastating floods in the 1900s. And most of the time, it’s dry as can be. Just an empty stretch of concrete. But! When Southern California receives a lot of rain, or… even a fairly moderate amount of rain, up fills the LA River. 

See, the thing about a desert is twofold: first, they don’t get a lot of rain, and second, when deserts DO get rain, the land has no idea what to do with all that water. The soil doesn’t hold that water at all, and it floods. Incidentally, this is also why you’ll hear Californians complain about a drought, and then complain when it finally rains as well. We get screwed on either end.

What does this have to do with baseball? It’s like this: most of the time, I am not really into baseball. It’s a drought for me. I don’t have the time or money to go to games. I have never in my life had television channels at my home. And thanks to arcane policies on the part of the MLB, I can’t use their streaming service. Y’see, because I’m so close to LA, I’m in a blackout zone. They literally will not sell me their online baseball service. As a result of all these things, I am usually devoid of baseball content.

When I do get some good baseball in my life, I’m not used to it and it overflows. Right now, I’m watching baseball videos on YouTube, I have three different baseball games installed right now, and on the latest podcast I recorded, I went on a fifteen minute tirade on how great baseball is out of literally nowhere. My body can’t store all the baseball, and my mouth serves as my LA River as the baseball flows out of me. It’s funny that this happens while baseball (and most other sports) are out of commission, thanks to the pandemic.

Those three baseball games I’ve been playing have gotten my brain churning, though. Two of them are Sony’s first-party baseball mega-game, MLB The Show 19 and 20 on the PS4, and the other is the arcadey upstart series Super Mega Baseball 3 on the Switch. The Show 18 was the first of the series I’d ever played back when the Baseball River last overflowed for me, and it ended up being one of my favorite games of the year. Super Mega Baseball is new to me, though I’d heard a lot of praise, and I tend to prefer arcade-style games to more simulation-heavy.

What Super Mega Baseball has revealed to me is that baseball is an area where simulation is king. It could be argued that my findings are deeply personal, that this is simply because I’m enthusiastic enough about baseball that an arcade solution wouldn’t work for me. To that I say, hold up before you wave this off as the complaints of a fan too entrenched to see daylight. I am about to explain to you why simulation-style is not just the best way to enjoy baseball in game form, but the only way to really enjoy what makes baseball baseball.

Talking about baseball isn’t like talking about other Western team sports, which becomes apparent when you compare it to its peers. (American) Football, basketball, hockey, and the rising star of soccer/football are all games about momentum in a direct way. Take a stretch of land, put a goal at either end, and try to get the ball/puck there: that’s all four of those games. I don’t mean to dismiss those sports: hockey owns, and I have a lot of respect for basketball. (Football I don’t care for, and I don’t really get the appeal of soccer but I’m sure it exists.) However, it’s undeniable that the structure of these sports is very similar.

By contrast, baseball is much more rigid: it’s less a dance than it is a fiercely choreographed routine. Defense can’t become offense by suddenly snagging the ball: the momentum can’t shift that dramatically. There’s no concept of an “interception” or anything like it. In fact, much of baseball consists of world class athletes just… standing around. Kids in Little League will pick at the grass of the outfield and stare into space because so little is happening, and though pro players have more professionalism, it’s not as if they don’t ever zone out from boredom themselves. When batting, there’s one person at the plate, one person on deck warming up… and everyone else is just sitting on a bench, watching. These aren’t backup players or relievers, they are active in the game… except that for much of the game, they are quite inactive.

Often, the drama in the game is focused on just two players: the batter, and the pitcher. The catcher is in the background, directing the pitching and holding things down as an unsung hero. The rest of the defense stands in place, a safety net for the duel at the plate. There are innings when the pitcher is on point, and the rest of the defense just… doesn’t get to play. That also leads to a scenario where three batters come up to bat, are struck out, and that’s it. The rest of the offense doesn’t get to play that inning, either.

All of this is to say that baseball, by the basics and numbers, is a boring game. It is slow paced, takes a long time, and there are stretches where the best players are simply watching, uninvolved in the action. It’s a game that can be so boring that, if the legend is to be believed, a president once got up in the middle of the game, yawned, and stretched… and in an attempt to keep the moment from feeling awkward, everyone else did too. And now it’s a baseball tradition. This origin for the seventh inning stretch is apocryphal, but it’s the popular version of the story. And you want to believe it too, don’t you? It makes too much sense: that someone watching a game to be polite would get exhausted with baseball and need a break.

Yet I love baseball, deeply and purely. So what is there to love? It’s the quirks. It’s the Infield Fly Rule, a special rule invented to stop the defense from intentionally not catching a fly ball in order to get more outs. It’s the ground rule double, another special rule that gives you extra bases if the ball bounces out of play. It’s pinch runners, for when someone gets a hit but they just suck at running the bases, so you substitute a faster runner for them. Baseball is good because it’s weird.

Baseball has been around in some form or another for almost two and a half centuries. In that time, I wouldn’t exactly call the sport supple as a reed. Issues arise, and they get addressed eventually, but often not with much haste, and usually not smoothly. The Infield Fly Rule isn’t an elegant solution to a problem. It’s a messy denim patch slapped onto a leather jacket. The Dead-Ball Era was almost twenty years, and during that time the sport was in a dire state due to both the cost of a baseball (one ball cost around $92 in 2020 money), which led to balls being used well past their shelf life, and also a proliferation of pitchers doctoring the ball in ways that weren’t made against the rules for way too long.

And after two hundred and forty-three years of weirdness, the character of baseball is defined by an irregular topography of oddities and exceptions. Though I think Super Mega Baseball 3 is a very well-made game, it simply doesn’t have the budget to get strange. Its bobblehead art style and exaggerated animations replace baseball’s inherent quirks with generic wackiness. Commentary, baseball’s enthusiastic voice of self-awareness, isn’t present. Games proceed in near silence, with only the calls of umpires, the crack of bats, and the occasional non-verbal grunts of players.

The players act with a generic sense of comedy when walking up to the plate, but spend the rest of the game in blank-faced focus. You can customize players yourself, but all this exposes is how little your changes actually matter. Every character feels the same, an off-brand Funko imitation of a baseball player.

Compare that to MLB The Show. Sony San Diego has the benefit of the budget of a console publisher. The severe time constraint of yearly releases prevents them from making too many changes between releases, but on the whole San Diego’s budget affords them the freedom to explore the angel in the details of baseball. The game has perfect precision, always knowing what pitches are strikes and what are balls, and yet simulates umpires getting this wrong from time to time. Sometimes the commentary observes this discrepancy, but other times it slips past them too.

Players wear their hearts on their sleeves. I’ve seen a pitcher mouth “you’re KIDDING” as I blast a liner over their head, and a catcher hang his head in dark acceptance as he realizes he’s witnessing a walk-off home run. Batters express their frustration with umpires without going far enough to get ejected. Managers tell you to steal base when it’s a blatantly bad idea. Facial expressions, animations, stats: all of them express the players’ individual personalities.

But the biggest thing that makes MLB The Show a special game is its RPG mode, “Road to the Show.” You start out at the Topps Amateur Showcase, putting your talents on display for scouts, and then get drafted into a double A baseball team. You climb your way up to triple A, then finally the Show itself: Major League Baseball. Through all of this, you’re playing your own created character, developing your stats, forming relationships with fellow players, negotiating salaries, and more. You get in practice, you trash talk other players. You can even check Not Twitter and watch haters express frustration at your success.

Super Mega Baseball doesn’t have this focus on the individual. You always play as a team, and it’s a fictional unlicensed team like the Sirloins or the Overdogs. I didn’t feel any sense of growth: it was just moving from game to game. The teams didn’t feel distinct either: they were so easy to customize that all I cared about was what their mascot was, and what their focus was, as a team. (As a pitcher fanboy, I went with the Grapplers, who were described by the game as “Bullpen Beasts.”) This is part and parcel with being unlicensed by the sport itself, but that logic only carries them so far. You don’t need known teams to give players personality, or build a compelling single player experience.

In truth, baseball isn’t about baseball. For some people, it’s about the history: their investment in teams and players, the records of the past. How do modern batters and their approaches compare to players like the legendary Ty Cobb of the early 1900s? Will any pitcher ever play the way the unstoppable Cy Young dominated in his day? And how relevant are these records, when the game has changed, but not so much as to be unrecognizable? Will the Mariners ever win a World Series? Will Cleveland ever push through the Curse of Rocky Colavito?

For others, like me, baseball is about seeing personalities clash with the game’s oddities. You’ve probably heard that the Houston Astros stole pitching signs from their opponents for two seasons recently. It’s a terrible act of cheating, very scummy… and I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. Do you know how easy it is? All they needed was an extra camera pointed at the catcher. Or, have you ever seen an Eephus pitch? This one isn’t against the rules, it’s just the junkiest of junk pitches, designed to be the most annoying pitch that’s still legal. Here, check it out.

What a bunch of NONSENSE. I love it. Sadly, the Eephus is a pitch that still doesn’t exist in any baseball game I’m aware of- neither The Show nor Super Mega represent it. But this is the beauty of baseball. It’s not in the game. It’s in everything that SURROUNDS the game. And that’s what makes The Show the better game: because the sooner you can get past the fundamentals of baseball, past the diamond, and into foul territory, that’s where you’ll find what makes this sport truly special.