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I didn’t give a shit about baseball until I turned 25. Hot days, slow games, the mundane repetitiveness of a guy throwing a ball at a guy with a stick. I’d rather sleep than sit through a round of glorified golf.

Then, three things changed.

One, I moved to a city with Barry Bonds on the team. I’ll fully concede he’s a cheater, a bad teammate, and a jerk. However, he was the best in the game, a lethal clutch hitter, and violently entertaining. I’d plan evenings around Bonds at-bats, lest I miss something fantastic.

Two, I figured out I could get tickets to the best baseball park in America for free. I simply make a little handwritten sign that says “Free Ticket Please” and stand in front of AT&T Park in San Francisco, usually landing a free ticket in less than five minutes. (Try it, it works.) My seat always has a view of the Bay, often with sunset crackling pink across the horizon. The garlic fries are delicious and affordable; bike parking is free. It’s a magical way to catch up with friends.

Three—and the most important variable—I started listening to baseball on the radio. The announcers’ descriptive powers are immense, and took me beyond the mindless commentary of television and into the characters’ heads. I learned the pitcher-batter chess game, how the history of pitches between players affects future pitches and future swings, how the balls-strikes count deeply skews the confidence of pitchers and batters, how fouling off a lot of balls slowly tilts the at-bat to the batter’s advantage. The importance of batters waiting for a pitch to hit and the beautiful talent of pitchers when they never dish up that pitch. The mental funk of a slump, the electric clarity of a hot streak. When to yank a pitcher and play the rookie. The endless joy of clutch play.

Finally, I got it. Beneath its placid surface, baseball cooks a cauldron of mental strength and emotion and guts. It’s the best of the novel in sport form.

Consider the characters. If you fall in with a team, like I have, you probably spend more time with the players than you do with your family—almost every day of the summer, for three hours a pop. Players are usually funny and likeable, and rarely speak in soundbite. My team, the San Francisco Giants, features an overweight Venezuelan nicknamed Kung-Fu Panda; an upgraded minor leaguer who needed ten years to make the big leagues for good; a two-time Cy Young winner called The Freak whose recent pot possession arrest may have made him more popular than his accolades; and a mohawked closing pitcher who dyes his beard and colors his spikes with Sharpies.

Consider the plotting. The season is a marathon, 162 games in which few games truly matter but all of them somewhat do, enough time for storylines to unwind and split and evolve into a saga that usually ends in dismal failure, softened slightly by the hope of next year.

Football’s more popular, the Hollywood blockbuster of our culture, loaded with violent spectacle and huge marketing budgets, invading our home theaters with surround sound body crunches. Their stories are epic and magnificent, D Day and Waterloo outfitted in pads. There’s still nothing bigger than the Super Bowl, a sporting event so huge I was seriously tempted to refer to it as “the Super Bowl of football” so you’d get just how massive it is.

Whereas baseball unlocks the quiet moments. The small adjustments of changing characters, the patience to let a player fight through mistakes and evolve. Hot breezes on a summer day. Incremental improvement over time slowly changing everything. As there is no page limit in novels, there is no clock to race against in baseball—only obstacles to beat. It’s so damn human it hurts.

This week we enter the postseason, the final act. With the pressure to win condensed into a five or seven-game series, strategies shift. Ace pitchers come in as relief; a cold streak can sink a team; every move matters more. Built-up pressures come to a head, capping the ride of the season with a genuine resolution.

It doesn’t get any better than this.

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Matt Stewart Matt Stewart's debut novel, The French Revolution, has been called "wildly imaginative," "brilliant," and "an excellent achievement" by people he's not related to. He's mildly infamous for posting the book on Twitter first. You can grab his free French Rev iPhone app via his website, Twitter up, Facebook in, or simply share pleasant thoughts.

11 Responses to “Inside Pitching”

  1. You know, like you, I find LISTENING to baseball on a radio wonderfully soothing. So much more pleasurable than actually being at a game or watching it on TV.

  2. Matt says:

    When I was a little kid, my dad had season tickets to the Padres. He used to take me. Then my parents divorced, and I grew older and ambivalent to baseball and sports in general.

    This last couple of seasons, though, my interest has been rekindled. I went to a few games when I could, and I listened to them on the radio when I couldn’t. I’ll probably go to more games next season.

  3. Brian Eckert says:

    ah, yes. there’s nothing better in all of sports than post-season baseball. It makes the super bowl indeed seem crude and garish.

  4. I grew up never really getting into sports (I can’t see so well and have no depth perception), but the days I remember are days my dad brought me to Phillies and Flyers games. My grandfather was apparently a big Phillies fan. I think part of the rest of the reason I didn’t get into sports was the Philadelphia fan culture. Just not a scene I ever wanted to be part of.

    Still, I collected baseball cards. Thomas, Griffey, Bonds. I never minded Bonds. I know everyone cries he’s a cheater, but my feeling’s always been that the game itself is inconsequential in the great scheme of things. That compounded with the fact of corporate tie-ins and the marketing culture behind it? I mean, it’s like people hating Ben Roethlisberger right now. Yeah, he’s immature, and basically an overgrown frat boy, a lot of the time, but people seem to forget they’re paying him millions per year to throw a leather ball at other overgrown frat boys in a game sponsored by alcohol, trucks, and corn chips so that other frat boys who have become more overweight than overgrown in their age can criticize performances they can only fantasize about making.

    I liked the comparison here, of baseball to a novel. The subtle, marathon season of baseball compared to football’s Hollywood blockbuster.

    • JB says:

      I think that hatred of Roethlisberger you speak of has less to do with his “immaturity” and more to do with his inability to not rape young women.

      Football players as overgrown “frat boys”? American football is around 67% black.

      Anyway, I hope your Giants fare well, Matt. Sportsbook has them at 7 to 1 to win the World Series.

      • Worth pointing out: no charges filed. No trial.

        I mean, innocent until proven guilty, no?

        It’s like with Vick. Vick had a trial and went to jail for killing puppies. Convicted felon.

        Until Roethlisberger gets a trial of his peers, the quarterback gets a pass in my book.

        I’m confused by your second and third sentences. Or rather, what your racial statistic has to do with your question. Do you think fraternities don’t accept black students?

        • JB says:

          Nah. When I think of “frat boy” I think loud, drunk privileged white guy. Most of the frat boys I’ve been around have been exactly that. Maybe I need to update my idea of what a frat boy is. Meh.

      • dwoz says:

        Roethlisberger.

        He will inspire hatred.

        He’s going to bump at least 4 pitchers from their perches in the pantheon. He’s an enigma.

  5. Matt Stewart says:

    There are plenty of black frat boys out there! And the fans are undeniably frattish. It’s an easy sport to noogie to.

    Thanks for the warm wishes on the Giants. I’m just enjoying the ride.

  6. Simon Smithson says:

    I wish I knew more about baseball than what I’d learned on Eastbound and Down now.

  7. Tony DuShane says:

    we’re lucky with our announcers, love Kruk and Kuip, they are one of the main reasons to watch the game b/c they are so passionate about it, and they’re funny as hell.

    yeah, i have also thought of baseball as a very literary sport….or something to inspire literary. they have to play so many games and play when they’re tired, jet lagged, sometime sick, in a sport where if you fail 7 out of 10 times in the batter’s box, you’re a star.

    whenever i start to flake on my writing schedule, i think of the ball players putting their time in everyday, so my writing becomes a work out, that fails 7 or 8 times out of ten.

    great piece.

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