There are a million things worse than watching a movie on a Monday night. But at the end of last March, I couldn’t think of any. Suddenly I never wanted to watch a movie ever again.
This is not an ideal position to find yourself if your job is to write about films. I could read a book, of course, or watch TV, but during this horrible year these were my choices every night: watch something on my TV or read a book. Rinse and repeat.
“I can’t,” I told my husband one evening after dinner, in a spasm of despair – “I just can’t watch anything else.”
I knew it was just the weight of my world crashing into my head. I had written and taught all year, trying to pretend my professional life was normal. I was sad and worried about friendships strained by distance. And like everyone else, I felt uneasy about the unknown future.
But it took me a while to figure out what was really going on. What I really needed was baseball.
In early April, my Twitter feed suddenly lit up with friends celebrating another party we missed last year: Major League Baseball’s happy spring opening day. The 2020 season had been truncated, reduced to mid-length by the same damn pandemic that cut everything short. This year was back for the full season, from April 1 to October 3, 30 teams, 162 games.
I wanted to watch the season cut short last summer, but when it kicked off I realized it made me too sad to watch players in empty stadiums (despite the clever solutions). Everything made me sad then. I no longer needed to add anything to the stack.
But now they were back in full force, and I felt a familiar pull. I hadn’t watched baseball regularly since college. It takes commitment to follow the season, with games almost every day, each of three or four hours, time that I don’t normally have. And as a Red Sox fan who has lived in Brooklyn for 15 years, it’s hard to go see my team at the stadium.
On April 5, however, as a sort of experiment, I filmed an evening game. It was the Red Sox’s fourth game of the season against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park. They had lost their previous three games, and therefore had an unfavorable 0-3 record, but anything is possible. They were playing baseball. There were people scattered around the stands. And it was on TV.
The game started just after 7pm, and to my delight, the Sox won easily, with a final score of 11-2. The next night I turned it back on and the game went down to 12 innings. There were some wild throws and face-off errors, and when the Sox won it was – at least for us fans – like the end of a great movie, where you hope they win. but you don’t know if they can pull it off.
I was delighted. I was addicted. I needed this.
Within days I had decided what to do: I spent $ 130 on the MLB.TV virtual table and asked, politely, if they could please give me all the baseball. .
And that’s what they did. This sum gives me a feed of most non-market games (i.e. games that don’t air on my local stations) for every team in the league, except when they’re playing in my city – and it turns out one of the best things about being a fan of an out of town team is that i can see almost every game.
Almost every day there is something to watch – or half watch. Keeping an eye on baseball is not a full-blown affair, as some sports are. (I love hockey, but it demands your eyes.) I can turn it on while I’m jotting, writing, or doing chores. I know when to look at the screen and when it’s safe to look away.
This is partly why watching a baseball game is so different than watching a movie or reading a book, two activities that should get my full attention. The main reason has to do with something else: storytelling.
There is a story arc to a baseball season. Becoming a fan of a team means catching up, even superficially, on the history of that team. The Red Sox, for example, were one of the eight chartered franchises of the American League. They have been playing at Fenway Park since 1912. At first they won four world championships, but in 1918 they sold star slugger Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, and thus sparked the “Curse of the Bambino”. 86-year-old championship dry spell that was only broken when they finally won the World Series in 2004. (An even sweeter victory because they arrived in the series by beating their archrivals, the Yankees, in the American League Championships.)
I remember that 2004 season vividly. It ended during my last year in college, one of the most stressful times of my life. In addition to commuting from my parents’ house a half hour from campus, having two jobs, and taking a full load of top-level computer courses, I was also looking for a employment. I had to travel 100 miles south to New York for second round interviews several times during the semester. There was also some mess in my personal life and sadness about my group of friends getting ready to move on. I felt tremendous anxiety about the unknown future.
Almost every night, until I got in my car in the wee hours of the morning to get home and get some sleep, I would sit at a student union table and do my homework. I had been doing this for four years. Energized and tired, I discovered that my mind was drifting away from my job into the unknown.
But out of pity, I found the solution: baseball. My boyfriend and I had started watching games during the summer; his family would sometimes buy tickets to games at Fenway and then drive the three hours round trip in one night. It was fun in the stadium, a crowd of people having fun watching guys like Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon and Big Papi do their thing on the pitch. Everyone was loud and boastful – it’s Boston, after all – but also visibly nervous about whether the ghost of Babe Ruth would show up and destroy what seemed like a great team.
In the fall, it was more difficult (but not impossible) to travel to Boston and get tickets. And that was in 2004; my computer was not yet able to stream baseball games and I had no way to watch them at school. (You could watch the game in the campus pub, but they were very strict on IDs, and I wasn’t 21 until after the series.)
Still, I was lucky. MLB had released a software platform called GameDay that showed a small graphical representation of the pitch and updated it as games played on the pitch. It was like watching a lo-fi cartoon from the game. If I parked at a table near the entrance to the campus pub, I could hear people screaming together when someone was shooting a home run or catching a flying ball. . I felt connected to them, to the game, to the victories. The night the Sox beat the Yankees and captured the American League pennant, my heart was pounding, but not, for once, from my own anxieties. Just because of the happiness.
Coming back to watching it this season is like stepping back into a glorious story. I needed a reminder of where I came from, who I am and how far I have come.
I needed a reminder where I’m from, and who I am, and how far I’ve been
A light bulb lit up during this match on April 6, the one that lasted 12 innings. It ended well after midnight; By the time it got into the extras, I had put aside my other distractions and was stuck in the game. The Sox would be behind early in the inning, then, late in the inning, with three outs and two strikes, a player would either hit a home run or hit a runner, tying the game and sending them into another inning. When they finally won, it was because in the absolute bottom of the 12th, when it looked like they had probably lost, JD Martinez hit a two-run homer and won the game.
“What a twist! I found myself thinking. And then I remembered that there are no writers’ rooms in baseball, no guarantees. It was real life. You couldn’t predict how it would turn out.
It’s so different from a movie, where someone has carefully written, shot and edited a story with the aim of giving the viewer a special experience. Or even a reality TV show, where the material of life is crafted and edited into a narrative. No one was leading me through this experience, although oddly enough the rails it ran on were even more obvious than in most storytelling arts: innings, outs, strikes, balls, runs, singing “Sweet Caroline” in the seventh. handle. But the end result was undetermined by me, the league, or whoever could watch. We waited to see what was going to happen.
Right now, that’s where I live. After the vaccination there is still a lot of uncertainty, but I have a little idea of what my year structure will look like. I know, in other words, the “rules”.
But I’m still waiting for the outcome, wondering what twists and turns will come and where the story will lead. I live in several different waiting rooms simultaneously, having no idea, in some ways, of what I’m even expecting. I am still sad, nervous and worried.
Watching baseball right now, I remember two things. This part of my life is part of a bigger story that I have been living for a long time. And while I love narrative media and great stories, life is a lot more like an open game where the end is not yet written. It’s scary, but it’s also invigorating. A victory is just as likely as a loss, and no one loses forever.
Maybe one more thing too. Any curse can eventually be broken. And when it does, there is the celebration on the other side.
Alissa Wilkinson is a critic and senior cultural journalist at Vox and an associate professor at King’s College, New York.