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first person

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

I remember having dinner at a Thai restaurant and watching my friend pick all the little green leafy bits out of her spring roll. There wasn’t much cilantro in the rolls, as far as I could tell, but she was detecting it in parts per million. Uncharitably, I decided it was kind of childish to be that picky. But I have since learned that the dislike of cilantro is a genetic sensitivity to the soapy-tasting aldehydes. Apologies, Megan, for being so judgy.

Baseball, I have learned, is a lot like cilantro. There might even be a gene encoding the affinity for baseball because people either love it or seek to avoid the mere suggestion of the sport. I acquired my love of baseball from my father, nature and nurture having brewed its potent blend. Baseball permeates the disconnected vignettes of my childhood memories: playing on the backyard swing as my dad listened to the play-by-play while weeding the garden, the repositioning of his Zenith radio marking his progress; attending a Blue Jays home game in April, 1977, on the cold aluminium of the general admission benches; precociously parroting the closing credits of the Blue Jays radio broadcast at the end of the game – yes, they did end eventually – my dad chuckling every time I thanked each engineer and producer by name.

As I grew up, my interest in baseball successfully bridged the gap between something I did to hang out with Dad, to something I enjoyed for its own sake. My adult memories are less dream-like, but suffused with baseball nonetheless: adjusting the antenna of a small transistor radio in Killarney Provincial Park during the 1993 World Series run, Jerry Howarth’s voice fading in and out as it bounced off the ionosphere; whiling the afternoon away in my own backyard, gardening and listening to the game, each activity justifying the inconsequentiality of the other, neither holding the other to account. Baseball tells me I’m not in a rush. Actually, it tells me I can’t be.

With the popularity of the game waning over the past 15 years, baseball (the institution) has attempted to remedy what it calls its “pace of play” problem. Trying to speed up the game of baseball with new rules is a bit like begging your aunt to not tell inappropriate jokes at dinner when you have your new boyfriend over. Predictably, when asked to speed up, baseball finds ways to get even slower. Meagre economies are readily absorbed into the fundamental time sink, the pause between pitches. As the pitcher wanders aimlessly around the mound, he considers whether it is worth $40-million to subject his elbow to the torque of a 100-mile-an-hour fastball. That commitment requires reassessment after each pitch. It’s an impressive display of mindfulness. And it takes time. The establishment of a pitch clock this year has shaved an average of 20 minutes off the game, but I’m not worried. Baseball, though seemingly caught off guard, will find a way to reassert its indolence.

Attempting to change baseball is futile and besides, it will never bring the haters onside. You can’t convince people that baseball is great – you either already know or you will never understand. Baseball is just beautifully wacky. And that’s why you love it. Or hate it. Baseball’s wackiness begins with its fascination with measurement. Every game can be codified as a series of discrete events allowing for a mind-bending degree of analysis. If statistics are just numbers looking for a fight, then baseball statistics are a bunch of numbers out to challenge your grasp of reality. While sensible sports track what actually happened, baseball tracks what might have happened in an alternate universe. The dERA, for example, tracks how many earned runs a pitcher would give up in an average game, discounting the (positive or negative) effects of defense. In other words, how would the pitcher have fared if he had teammates that did none of the good things and none of the bad things that they actually did while playing the game with him. The statistics have an additional benefit (apart from their wackiness, which as we have already established, is awesome): The discussion of the stats helps fill the gaps created by the pitchers’ mindfulness meditations.

As zany as baseball statistics can be, the zaniest part of baseball occurs on the field. In what other sport does a player suffer a season-ending injury while running toward (but never participating in) a brawl, as Blue Jay Joaquin Benoit did in 2016? Where else would a player be arrested on the field for unintentionally killing a seagull with a warmup toss? In what world do you have a guy admiring a home run and another throwing a ball at another’s head, and the one who hit the home run is the bad guy? And then there is the actual playing of the game, where the prospect of what you might witness is comprised of all possible combinations of an infinite number of discrete moments, which… sorry, I don’t have time to get into.

For lovers of the sport, the combination of the unconstrained pace and unbounded wackiness is a balm for the soul and this is where baseball pedals its stock-in-trade: hope. On any given night, there are players on the field who look like they might have sought an exemption in gym class and players who are displaying highlight-reel feats of athletic prowess and, on some nights, the same guy is both those things. If you fail less than two-thirds of the time, you’re in the Hall of Fame. No matter how far behind your team is, you just need one guy in your bullpen to be better than one guy in the other team’s bullpen. There is always time for a comeback. So much time.

Baseball provides an antidote to sensibleness, nearly every day, over an absurdly long season. It asks for little in return, not even your full attention. Rest assured, the urgency of the announcer’s voice or the roar of the crowd, will pull you back in time if something wacky is about to happen, which it will. Personally, I just let it flow over and around me, like water. Even if you don’t have the gene for baseball, you might just learn to love it.

Karen Raymer lives in Dundas, Ont.

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