Earned Run, or how I learned to stop worrying and be okay with Baseball, Part 3
Once I had squeezed as much enjoyment from amateur baseball as I could, I spent some time watching highlight reels of exceptional professional baseball plays: batters “crushing hanging curveballs,” successfully “turned triple plays,” balls snagged from the air at impossible angles, etc.
I found the videos to be dull. The first couple clips were always exciting, but if you’ve seen one clip of someone blasting a ball into space, you’ve seen them all. Ten minutes of the exact same highlight with different teams isn’t exactly riveting. But what makes any sports highlight reel exciting?
One of my favorite series of clips is of safeties in American football absolutely obliterating defenseless receivers. Every fall Sunday, I tune in to NFL games hoping to catch a glimpse of these raw acts of violence. I remember when Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard hit New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley so hard that Ridley fell like a rag doll to the ground. I literally jumped up and down in awe of that play and made my dad rewind so I could watch it over again. It is my favorite football video to date.
But there’s only so many ways you can watch someone get their clock cleaned. If you’ve seen one clip of Steve Atwater decapitating some helpless player, you’ve really seen them all.
A rare few plays truly are timeless and stand out, even among the clips of other great plays. Odell Beckham Jr.’s reaching catch against the Dallas Cowboys in 2015, for instance, is primus inter pares among one-handed catches. It will be shown as long as football is played.
But these immortal plays happen in baseball too. Bo Jackson throwing out Harold Reynolds from the outfield is such an impossible feat of athleticism that 30 years later, there’s still been nothing like it. In fact, most of Jackson’s highlights are almost unfathomable. They defy logic and physics in a way that only Jackson could. The immense satisfaction of watching the tantalizing suddenly become obtainable can happen in any sport.
Perhaps what is lacking from the baseball highlights I watched is context. Pollard’s hit on Ridley happened in a playoff game that the Ravens won en route to a Super Bowl. If he hadn’t eviscerated Ridley, the outcome of the game may have been different. I can feel that hit rippling through Ridley’s body and into the annals of league history every time I watch it. I don’t have the same context for a clip of an inning-ending double play. It could be that that was in a crucial moment, down one score with runners in position to change the game. And that the game was at a crucial junction, one game out of the playoffs against the team one slot ahead of you. Who is making the play can change the complexion of the moment. Is it your star player showing why he’s an all-time great, like Beckham Jr.? Is it a hard-nosed, underappreciated contributor who just put his one and only stamp on the history books?
In August of 2009, the Philadelphia Phillies led the New York Mets 9-7 in the ninth inning. The Mets were threatening to score, with runners on first and second and no outs. The Phillies were the one of the best teams in the league: They had won a championship the year prior and they would go on to make another World Series that year. But in this game, they were holding on by the skin of their teeth. The Phillies needed a miracle to get to the end with the lead. And they got it. Shortstop Eric Bruntlett snatched a line drive ball from the air, stepped on second base and then chased down the first base runner, Daniel Murphy, who didn’t realize what had happened until it was too late. Bruntlett converted the 15th unassisted triple play in modern league history and the first ever to end a game.
The 52-second clip of the end of the game looks remarkably unspectacular. But in that moment, Bruntlett crushed the hopes of hundreds of thousands of Mets fans and gave hundreds of thousands of Phillies fans something to remember forever. Every baseball player dreams of living that moment: being the hero for the day and punching your ticket into the history books. And Eric Bruntlett lived it. It was a peak in a career of valleys. Bruntlett didn’t do much in the league before he became a legend. He didn’t do much after that: He would play four more games in the MLB after that game before being cut by the team he saved weeks prior. A year later, he was out of baseball entirely. Ten years later, Bruntlett is a trivia answer. But 100 years from now, his smirk after he tagged Murphy and the joy that the Phillies had in that moment will be going strong.
And that makes a damn good highlight.
On April 12, 2019, MSNBC journalist Chris Hayes tweeted, “Baseball is such a great way to teach little kids how to deal with boredom.” I mulled over that tweet for a few days. Hayes didn’t mean anything significant by it: He probably was watching his own son play baseball and thinking about the lessons that were being learned. But to me, it was something more. Baseball is a relic, not unlike the I-70 Drive-In in 2011. In a time when everything is becoming rooted in instant gratification, baseball bucks the trend and it is getting left behind because of it. It could change—college baseball has a pitching clock to cut down on the run time of a game—but it doesn’t want to. The things I see as outdated are viewed nostalgically by its fans. Baseball is boring. Baseball fans know that. That’s part of the fun. It’s not easy to enjoy baseball; it’s a skill honed over decades of practice. I’ve got nothing but respect for the people who sit through grueling 3-hour games in the middle of a 162-game season with glee. Lord knows I can’t.