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On the staying power of good baseball

Beyond all of the stats and the money and the mechanics, the human element is what makes this game so special.

Texas Rangers v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

I was never particularly good at baseball. I mean, yeah, I could field decently well, I could run the bases, and I could throw fairly hard, but I was undersized, I had absolutely no idea where the ball was going when I threw it, and I couldn’t hit to save my life.

My general ineptitude never stopped me from acting like I was good, though. I wasn’t exactly a confident kid, but when I stepped foot on the baseball field, I was a certified world-beater. With my knee-high socks, hi-top cleats, and the No. 2 proudly worn on the back of my jersey, nothing could stop me from pretending I played for the New York Yankees for an hour and a half a few times per week. Except, you know, the fact that I was playing house league baseball and had no chance of going pro.

As a huge Derek Jeter fan — and the younger brother of Jeter’s biggest fan north of the border — I started my baseball journey, naturally, as a shortstop. Every time I had to move to my right, and I mean every single time, I figured out a way to work in a jump throw. As a kid of the 1990s, replicating Jeter’s signature move was basically the baseball equivalent of yelling “Kobe!” every time you tossed anything into the garbage. Did it infuriate my coaches? Yes. Did it make me commit more throwing errors than I’d like to admit? Also yes. But did I look cool doing it? Well, give how unathletic I am, probably not.

Eventually, when coaches had seen enough of me striking out for their liking, I was moved to the pitcher’s mound. This move, oddly enough, made me a better player. My mechanics were all out of whack — my old high school coach, who sometimes peruses this site (shout-out Mr. Fortuna), can back this up — and I still couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn, but a weird growth spurt meant that I could suddenly throw fairly hard, and that’ll always fly on the mound.

With the move to pitcher, I had to ditch Jeter’s jump throw and turn to my other favourite player, Mariano Rivera, for encouragement. Because I so desperately wanted to be like Mo, I refused to start games for my non-high school teams. I claimed it was because I needed more time to get warmed up, but really it was because I just wanted to make a dramatic, memorable late-game impact like Rivera. So, naturally, I decided that I would only pitch in relief. If Rivera was the best closer of all-time, I wanted to be one too. Hell, I even pretended like I could throw a cutter when, in reality, it was nothing more than a fastball with a cutter grip and no movement. The leagues I played in didn’t allow us to use walk-up/entrance music, but you best believe “Enter Sandman” was playing in my head every time I entered a game.

I ended up blowing out my elbow when I was 17. Ironically enough, I made a relief appearance in what would have been my final championship game anyway (regardless of the result, I was aging out of my league at season’s end), and about four cutters fastballs into my appearance, I felt my elbow pop and that was the end of my mediocre baseball career. No more Jeter impersonations at shortstop. No more fastballs masquerading as “cutters.”

When I was watching yesterday’s matinee against the Baltimore Orioles, the way I felt watching Aaron Judge’s majestic home run got me thinking about all of these things all over again. I love analyzing stats and I love examining mechanics just as much as the next guy, but it’s not the back of the baseball card stats that keep me coming back to this game.

Sometimes, the best thing about this game is seeing someone do something so remarkable that it leaves you speechless, even for just a moment. Whether it’s Jeter effortlessly jumping and throwing across his body to get a runner at first, Mo sawing off bat after bat after bat with the one pitch everyone knew was coming, or Judge clobbering some of the most picturesque home runs I’ve ever seen, the true staying power of baseball isn’t the numbers or the mechanics; it’s the people.

Now, this is probably all just a romanticization of the players I grew up idolizing from the perspective of a jaded adult returning to baseball (albeit on a beer league softball team) after over a decade away from the game, but seriously, how can you not be romantic about baseball?