Today is Opening Day. Last night doesn’t count, and the somewhat ridiculous charade of the games in Australia don’t count either. Today is Opening Day.
I love Opening Day. I’m not going to say that it’s a symbol of spring, of new beginnings or any of that. It’s the start of baseball season. And I love baseball season.
Major League Baseball is no longer considered America’s Favorite Pastime anymore; in fact, depending on who you ask, it may not even be ahead of the NBA in terms of overall popularity (I’d point you to MLB’s strong attendance numbers vs. the NBA’s, however).It’s probably not always the most engaging to watch on TV or in person; fantasy baseball is extremely arduous, and the seats at certain ballparks may have been built for people a couple inches shorter than the folks around today. In the end, I don’t really care about any of that.
Here are a few reasons why baseball is so great.
1. The long, long season. The season — 162 games — may seem too long to many people. And maybe it is a bit too long. But the MLB’s long season is great for the exact reason the NFL’s short season (in terms of number of games) is so great. What I love about the NFL is that when my team is on, I watch that game. I sit and intently watch. I am happy when they win and I am annoyed and angry when they lose. It’s a roller coaster, and it’s great. Every game counts and one game can turn a season. The MLB is not this. I’m the first to admit it. But the great thing about the long season is that, for the most part, the teams that make the postseason are the best teams. There is very little hiding behind a schedule and injuries, barring catastrophic, season-ending ones(which a little depth in the system ought to mitigate). Which brings me to #2…
2. An actual, functioning, useful trade deadline. Major league Baseball and the National Hockey League separate themselves from the NFL and NBA in that they each have trade deadlines that make sense, move big-name stars, and help rebuilding teams get some pieces in return. The NFL’s trade deadline, which was moved back to Week 8 in 2012, is still too early in the season to encourage teams to make significant trades. The NBA’s deadline sees significant action, but we rarely see stars moved. Instead, we see role players get moved to contenders while expiring contracts get shipped back to the selling team.
But in the MLB and NHL, we routinely see big names moved around and highly touted prospects shipped back in return as teams mortgage their future for the chance to make a run immediately. This is exciting for all parties, as fans of the “buying” team get a big name star to root for, while fans of the “selling” team get the hope that comes along with a new young prospect. The MLB deadline also has the distinct advantage of occurring on the same day every year, July 31, a date I circle on my calendar every year.
Here is a crappy video discussing one of the most memorable MLB trade deadlines in my lifetime:
3. The Postseason. Every one of the major four American sports (and heck, I’ll throw in the MLS too) has a great postseason. It’s hard to rank them. I love the do-or-die of the NFL playoffs. I love the parity of the NHL playoffs and how a series escalates as it goes on. I don’t even mind the NBA’s playoffs (aside from the first round, which has only amounted in a handful of “upsets” since the league expanded it from best-of-5 to best-of-7. The MLB Postseason stacks up to any of the other sports'; in fact, structurally, I think it’s the best of all of them (though I’m very excited to see the new NHL playoff structure).
MLB made a bold move to expand playoffs to 10 teams last year. Given the long MLB season, it makes sense that the lowest percentage of teams make the playoffs in the MLB (33% of teams); even lower than the NFL (37.5% of teams). [I add parenthetically here that it's quite dumb that >50% of the NBA's and NHL's teams make the playoffs]. That MLB allows 10 teams is quite misleading, however, since a wild-card berth gets you nothing more than a 1-game playoff nowadays. I’m not a huge fan of the idea that one baseball game should determine who is a better team, but I do love the idea that you’ll be lucky to even make the playoffs unless you’re the best team in your own division. The threat of having to play a one-game playoff forces every team to try and win the division, and not settle for a wild card spot. Once you weed out the teams that lose the one-game playoff, only 8 of the 30 teams (26.67%) remain. After three rounds (every other sport has 4) and one month of games (every other sport has between 1.5-2 months), it’s done. The MLB postseason accepts only the best teams and stays engaging and exciting through a relatively quick month before the champion is decided.
The only bad thing about the MLB Postseason? Dane Cook once did a commercial for it (and by once, I mean we had to watch it 39 bajillion times).
4. The anticipation. What’s the most exciting scenario in your favorite sport? In basketball, I’d argue: Down by one, 3.5 seconds on the block, inbounding from half-court. In hockey, I’d probably say: Down by one, 90 seconds left, goalie pulled. Or maybe any regulation penalty shot. In football, it’s: 4th goal, ball on the 5, three seconds remaining, down by four. All very exciting situations. What is it in baseball? As most kids playing wiffleball in their backyard would agree, it’s: Seventh game of the World Series, down by 3, bases loaded, 2 out, bottom of the 9th. Who could argue with that?
The beauty of baseball is that the entire game is filled with little moments like that. From Opening Day to seventh game of the World Series, you have little microcosms of that situation in nearly every single game. Sure, it’s not all exactly the same as the one described above, but maybe you have runners on first and third, one out, tie game, and you really really want that double play ball. Or maybe you have a runner on 2nd in a scoreless tie in the eighth inning against a guy you haven’t been able to hit all game. Baseball is a game chock full of these types of situations.
You can argue that football has these types of situations as well. I’d agree. But the thing baseball has that football doesn’t, at least for me, is that split second where you hold your breath, right before that critical pitch is thrown, knowing that something so good or so bad is about to happen… unless you get that agonizing foul ball and you have to do it all over again. Most people will tell you that there’s too much time where nothing is happening in a baseball game. I say that’s what makes it so damn fun to watch.
5. They let em’ play. I don’t think anyone can really argue that baseball is by far the least referee-dependent sport. While every pitch that hits the catcher’s mitt is subject to an umpire, most of these are clear-cut balls or strikes, and even if the ump misses a call here or there, it’s irrelevant 95% of the time. Calls on the basepaths are typically easy and are typically called correctly (and if not, MLB managers can now challenge calls). Every other sport places the referee in a position to either stop play entirely (especially you, basketball), or changing the course of the game by levying penalties which are not subject to review and can completely change the course of the game. And this is in addition to making routine calls that don’t involve fouls or penalties, such as ball placement in football or offside calls in hockey.
6. Ballparks. Baseball is the only sport where the actual dimensions of the arena differ
from location to location. I love this. It’s fantastic. While providing some instance of home-field advantage, it also creates story lines. The Boston Red Sox focused acquiring right-handed power hitters throughout the 80’s and 90’s so they could launch balls over the Monster. The short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium has claimed many baseballs that would be outs anywhere else. Pitchers were terrified to play in Colorado because of the altitude difference (not a geometry thing, but still). There is a HILL IN CENTERFIELD at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Who doesn’t love all these quirks?
7. Nothing else. Just baseball. Baseball is unique in that it essentially has the summer to itself. Once the NBA and NHL playoffs wrap up in mid-June, baseball has the scene to itself — aside from the odd Olympics or Grand Slam tennis tourney, for nearly three months. There is no other sport I’d want to have three months to itself other than baseball.
Welcome back, baseball. I missed you. See you next Tuesday for Red Sox-Rangers.