Retrogamer: Welcome to the Show

When I play MLB: The Show, I always go straight to the manager’s tab. I click on my players and look at their stats, at trade offers. I see how much money is flowing in, check the status of my minor leaguers. I wonder at next year: will I be offering contracts to my mid-tier players? One of my mid-tier guys is Adam Jones and, in real life, he’s my favorite Oriole. But here, in this game, he’s my backup fielder. Is he worth it?

The next game is against a top pitcher (Clayton Kershaw, pitching for the Red Sox in this reality), and my top center fielder, Jacoby Ellsbury, is tired; his stamina bar is pretty low. I swap Adam Jones in and decide that if he does well here, maybe I’ll keep him around a bit longer. See if he’s worth it in the long run. What’s the point of fandom if you can’t be a fan?

After I’m done with player management, I check on my stadium. I have enough money to add some bleacher seats. My team (the Orioles) are doing quite well and have a ten-game cushion in the AL East. Fans are pouring in. I purchase the bleacher seats and up the ticket prices by $5/seat. It’ll pay for itself in a game or two. I nod, satisfied.

It’s only when I’m tapped out of management that I sigh and start the next game. I’m not particularly enthused about playing a full game. I think about turning off the fielding and letting the computer take over. I debate turning off the pitching. Instead, I leave it all on and decide to handle it.

When the game is over, I wonder, how in the world did I get here? I didn’t always like baseball.

I think about Kevin Costner. I think about Field of Dreams and Bull Durham. I love one of those movies and think it’s just about the greatest representation of what the sport can be. And the other? I think it’s the opposite. I think it’s about all the crap that people want baseball to be.

Kevin Costner? He’s fine, I guess. I liked Waterworld so maybe my opinion doesn’t count for much.

I never cared much about baseball. I enjoyed going to Orioles games, and I liked pretending to care who won. I liked being part of the crowd, the roar and groans. I liked cursing at opposing pitchers and seeing the sun set over the stadium, casting mile-long shadows. Playing it, I liked batting (I hit more homers than singles and walked more than I struck out, even if it was only little league), but I was medium-bad in the infield and hopeless in the outfield. But I liked being part of a team and saying we, we, we.

The only baseball game I played as a kid was Ken Griffey Jr’s Major League Baseball. This was before likeness rights beyond the title player, so the teams were thematic and named after reality. The Phillies are made up of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. There’s a team filled with horror directors and teams filled with mobsters. I could never figure out who the Orioles were. Who were J. Waters and T. Turnblad and C. Baby?

I mean, I know now. Programmers have senses of humor.

Back in those days, Ken Griffey was remarkable because it tracked the stats of your team. You couldn’t trade or cut players, there was no minor league, it was impossible to make an error…limitations, yes. But there was novelty in seeing characters grow with the season. And because it was in the days of the SNES, it was likely that after a season (which I rarely completed), I’d have four batters hitting .400 with 30 homeruns each.

To those who don’t know baseball, that’s a lot. That’s L33t-level pwnage, or whatever.

While I loved Ken Griffey, after I grew bored with it, I never picked up another baseball game. It was a rare blip in an otherwise straight trajectory of fighting games, RPGs, and the occasional racing game.

But there was always a kernel of interest. The Orioles. Ken Griffey. Little league. It would just take a while for that kernel to explode.

Enter 2008. It was the year I went out with my wife for our first date, and it was also the year I dipped my toe into fantasy sports. Soon after: MLB: The Show ’11, the newest (and admittedly only the second) baseball game I’ve ever loved. Here, I’ll show you the steps.

Step 1: Start dating a girl obsessed with a baseball team, specifically “your” team’s rival (in this case, the Red Sox).

Step 2: Meet her dad and brother, sports fanatics with encyclopedic knowledge of baseball in general and the Phillies in specific.

Step 3: Go to a bunch of games in your first year of dating just as your team—the Orioles—are turning around a decades-long flirtation with terribleness.

Step 4: Find yourself at an awkward work function where your co-workers are struggling to converse with you. They bring up sports, over and over.

Step 5: Become determined to make office small talk (you’re there a lot) and read an article about fantasy sports. It’s too late for baseball, but football isn’t far away.

Step 6: Start an office-wide Fantasy Football league with the express purpose of being able to talk with your colleagues (who don’t give a shit about the arts, or movies, or recreational drug use, or anything you give a shit about).

Step 7: Find yourself very, very interested in fantasy sports. Realize that constructing a team is basically like recruiting an RPG party. Pretend the Quarterback is the party leader, the Running Backs are knights, Wide Receivers are wizards. Pay attention to stats and know, instinctively, that you understand this. You’ve played games like this your entire life.

Step 8: Win your football league. Realize that you know way more about the New England Patriots’ two new Tight Ends and their tiny running back, amusingly named Woodhead, than you ever thought you would.

Step 9: Chase the dragon, that feeling of accomplishment.

Step 10: Join a Fantasy Baseball League. Unleash the beast.

Unlike Fantasy Football, I was in way over my head with baseball. Football’s easy: there are only a handful of important players to care about and, living in a football town like Baltimore, I had more osmosis-based knowledge than I expected. But baseball? There were eight position players to worry about and three different kinds of pitchers to plan for. I didn’t even know that “closer,” the dude who finishes the game in the 9th inning, was a pitching position.

And, during that initial fantasy draft, I had the number one slot and made my wife laugh very hard when I asked, “Hey honey. Who is Albert Pu-joles? Is he any good?”

Leigh laughed from downstairs and shouted up at me from where I hovered over the computer, nervous. “Are you kidding? He’s the best baseball player of the past five years. He’s a first baseman for the Cardinals.”

“Oh. Well, should I draft him? Is that good?”

She didn’t answer me, and I went ahead and plucked the slugging first baseman onto my lineup. I filled out the rest of my lineup more or less at random, though some miscellaneous guys with cool names (Jose Reyes and Jacoby Ellsbury) found their way onto my team. When the draft finished, I thought that maybe I’d made a mistake.

But no, I wound up winning that league as well. Obsession kicks in unexpectedly.

It was after three years of Fantasy Baseball that a PS3 came into my possession, along with a single copy of MLB: The Show. If it had been a couple years earlier, I would never have bothered. What interest would Mike of the mid 00s have in a baseball game? He knew nothing about baseball.

But things had changed. I knew more about the game than I even thought I did. So, I figured, what the hell, and stuck in the disc. I was immediately blown away by how many options it gives. Now, I know that’s not exactly a hot take for anyone who’s been playing these sports games since they debuted in ’06, but for someone like me, who hasn’t picked up a game like this since the 90s, well, it was a revelation.

There’s something about having near-total freedom in a video game that appeals to some people. It’s why sandbox games like Fallout are so popular; yeah, there’s a de facto plot and route to take, but there’s also a whole world to explore and little nooks and crannies to shine some light on. And while the actual game of The Show is well done, it’s also to-be-expected. Pitching, fielding, hitting: none of it has changed dramatically since my days of Ken Griffey.

Of course, some of the available players weren’t even born when I was playing Ken Griffey. But that’s neither here nor there.

What I love about baseball isn’t really baseball. The sport itself? Mildly boring, though I appreciate the skill it takes (a lot like golf, if way more watchable). It’s the accoutrements of baseball that I get into. Trading, draft picks, management. I like how all of that stuff creates this gestalt that becomes greater than the simple game. I dig being in a fantasy baseball community and posting trash talk on message boards.

The only thing I like about a real baseball game? Being in the crowd or in front of the TV with friends, watching together. That sense of community. I like how when I wear my one article of Orioles clothing (a Wei-Yin Chen shirt, in Korean), I get knowing smiles and compliments from strangers. It’s like joining a pack. It might be why other people join fraternities: friendship and common language, a set of rules to follow, easily and quickly.

What I like about baseball, to be tautological, is the process of liking baseball. I enjoy the process, not so much the game. I don’t care about the individual players that comprise the Orioles—except maybe Adam Jones, who seems to run out of fucks—so much as I like what the Orioles represent. They represent me and my friends watching baseball.

It’s an odd sense of detachment, to not actually care about a thing you ostensibly really care about. It’s ritual, it’s community, it’s all of the trappings, not baseball itself.

Playing MLB: The Show enabled this kind of enjoyable detachment. I liked knowing that all across the nation, there were countless people just like me, doing the same thing. Taking that knowledge gleaned from the video game and applying it to fantasy, or conversations with my in-laws, or even seeing players I had “owned” in real life games. It just enriched and deepened an already existing pleasure.

There’s nothing mystical about baseball. It’s a messy, physical, cynical exercise in money-making. The owners, the players, they (often) don’t give a damn about what the game represents. No, that’s what fans project onto the game. I like the intricacy of it, like a living organism. I like contracts and hot dog vendors and applying numbers to an abstract concept. WHIP or WAR, they don’t mean shit. But they matter, because we care.

It’s why I love Bull Durham, a movie about minor league baseball players. And it’s why if I never watch Field of Dreams again, it’ll be too soon. Because one is a snapshot of what baseball is, and the other is a lie that we tell ourselves.

What I love about Bull Durham is the messiness of the whole thing. It’s rooted in the bones and blood and piss of real life. When the two unrequited lovers (played by Costner and Sarandon) meet for the first time, they talk about what they love of the game. Costner says, “I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hangin’ curveball, high fiber, good Scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, over-rated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.” It’s a real moment, if over-eloquent. And it’s true for Costner’s character: he loves that physicality, that movement and adrenaline.

But Susan Sarandon’s character, what she loves more than that is being part of something. She doesn’t have delusions that baseball is this grand, powerful majesty. It’s just a thing that she loves and if she can be a muse, a teacher, then she’s happy to do so. She’s caught up in the religiosity of it all, as she says:

I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. (sigh) But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology.

It’s the combination of these that makes Bull Durham work. This rooted-in-reality mythology. As opposed to Field of Dreams, which is rooted nowhere. Except maybe the clouds.

MLB: The Show somehow tapped into my new love and admiration of baseball by reveling in the minutiae of hot dog vendors and yet being a deep, interactive simulation at the same time. I could draft my fantasy team and simultaneously build bleacher seats. I could be a part of something greater and still focus on fundamentals. I love sabermetrics, and I love the idea of a 5-tool prospect, but I’m fully cognizant of the artificiality of the whole construct. And there’s nothing more constructed than a video game.

The only thing important about baseball (and sports in general) is that millions of people think it’s important. Their projection of meaning gives the thing meaning. I know that. I know that I’m part of the narrative in a lot of ways, especially because I’m aware that the narrative is artificial. Sports are a metaphor, for life, for war (where else did sports come from but from battle simulations, however diluted), for community and tribe. Video games simulating those sports are one more level removed from the throbbing heart of it all. How real can it even be? How much difference can it possibly make?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s important despite itself. At least, it is if we say it is.