On taking a break from baseball

i guess this picture seems kind of boat-y - Volvo Ocean Race

I just took a three-week, work-enforced break from the Mariners. Then I came back to a four-day, MLB-enforced break from the Mariners. Get on with it, Mariners!

I can't come up with a good way to start this post. Even this beginning is surpassingly shitty: opening a piece by confessing that you have no good way to open it is an old trick used by lazy writers, and opening a piece by confessing you know that but you're doing it anyways is an only slightly newer trick used by only slightly less lazy writers. (Triple recursion just makes you an asshole.)

I think I thought way too hard about what I should do for my first standalone piece after my extended baseball writing break. For a while I was convinced that I'd need to do a heavy-hitting sabermetrics article, just to get back into the swing of things, and for a while I was convinced that I'd have to do a joke post, just to ease myself back in gently. By a week ago I'd finally decided to start with a nice simple game recap, a wonderful plan that Bud Selig went and ruined by scheduling the All-Star Break specifically so that it would coincide with my return. Asshat.

So I thought some more, and I thought some more, and I thought way too much and then I finally realized hey maybe I should write about what I was actually doing for the last month. Which is not-baseball. Literally, the absence of baseball. I would like to talk about breaks, and taking them, and why it can be a good thing.

I've been a member of Lookout Landing since the summer of 2011. Since then, I've checked in on the Mariners more or less every day, whether it be reading recaps here or searching through stats on Fangraphs or watching highlights on mlb.com. There hasn't been a disconnect, not even in the offseason, when I've spent way too much time pondering trade rumors and writing useless hypothetical plans for the Mariners to ignore.

And in many ways, it's been good for me. In just two years I've gone from being a Miguel Olivo fan to being a Tom Tango fan. I've involved myself in a community of intelligent and interesting people. I've gotten a crapload better at writing and methodical thinking. I've had fun.

But the length of the baseball season is both a blessing and a curse. Because a baseball season has 162 games, aspiring analysts like myself have large enough samples of data to draw meaningful conclusions about the game on a regular basis. Because a baseball season has 162 games, baseball is the only major American sport capable of sustaining year-round interest. And because a baseball season has 162 games, the Mariners can really start to grate.

Before I left my island home for three weeks at sea on a Korean research vessel, the Mariners were starting to wear thin. I was running low on ideas for Seattle-centric sabermetric posts and turning my attention to enormous, possibly ill-conceived projects concerning baseball as a whole. There are only so many Dustin Ackley groundouts you can watch before you start to get tired of them, and I was well beyond the threshold.

So it was with a certain degree of relief that I shelved my sabermetric pursuits, grabbed a bunch of DVDs, and boarded the R/V Onnuri. For the next three weeks, I knew, I'd be an altogether different sort of mariner. Instead of poring through spreadsheets of wOBA and SwStr%, I'd be terminal-jockeying through the retrieval of seafloor mapping data. Instead of following a cast of young and lovable but often disappointing athletes with boy-band names, I'd be introduced to a cast of highly competent Korean shipmates with unusual ways of passing the time. Instead of watching Mike Zunino strike out, I'd be watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

And you know what? By the end of it, I missed the Mariners.

Don't get me wrong; the cruise was a great experience. Not many people can say that they've helped to make a seafloor map in real-time, or watched a fisherman land a shark from the edge of a research vessel, or sucked chocolate ice cream out of a condom. (I swear to God, the "condom pops" were an actual dessert served on at least three nights, and seeing the ship's crew devour them while watching K-pop videos was a uniquely surreal experience). I consider myself lucky to have eaten fresh-caught open ocean ahi, an ice cream sandwich with real bread, and at least five different varieties of kimchi. I still think that belowdecks ping-pong, complete with a table on wheels that rolls around as the ship rocks, should be an Olympic sport - with the Onnuri's captain as first world champion. I will be forever glad that I spent those weeks at sea.

But a ship is a small, isolated place, and once you've gone through your DVDs and the book supply is starting to run low there isn't a whole lot to do but think. And when it's after midnight, and you head out onto the back deck and gaze into the fathomless inky void beyond the ship... well, the view doesn't offer a whole lot to distract you. See, the light pollution from the deck blots out the stars, and a mapping ship on its line moves so slowly that it doesn't leave any wake to speak of. When you're standing on that back deck at night, there's you, and there's the edge of the ship, and then there's an enormous gaping maw of impossible blackness. There is no horizon. The waves reflect nothing. For all intents and purposes, the ship and her crew are suspended in a gently rocking universe of infinite dark.

So I thought about a lot of things at sea. I thought about my family and friends, and about how I was going to express to them the unique value of my seagoing experience. I thought about my future as an engineering student in Massachusetts. I thought about my increasing dissatisfaction with kimchi cabbage, and about the Buffy writing staff's effective methods of early-season character development, and about the Korean crewman who was just a little too friendly for comfort, and about the racial undertones in the writing of Larry Tye's Satchel Paige biography, and about the things I wished I'd done differently in the previous year. Lastly - most relevantly to Lookout Landing - I thought about baseball.

Completely divorced from the Mariners, I had a lot of time to think about my justifications for baseball fandom. Sure, it's wonderful to use a hobby as an environment for honing and practicing rational thought, but what's the proper ratio of practice to real-world application? Will it change as I get older? If I never add anything new to humanity's stockpile of knowledge, what good is the "rational thinking practice"? And how does the irrational end of baseball fandom, the emotional investment, differ from the other kinds of entertainment that I enjoy in my spare time? Is it more or less worthwhile than reading a book, or watching a movie, or playing D&D? Or should I throw them all out?

I'm not sure that I have satisfactory answers to those questions yet. Maybe I never will. I don't know. There are a lot of things I don't know.

What I do know is that, after two weeks out at sea, I was missing the M's. Given how frustrating they often are, I wasn't entirely sure why. Perhaps, I thought, I'd developed a peculiar case of Stockholm Syndrome that was leading me to feel affection for a source of frustration. Perhaps I just missed my old habits - watching baseball, sending emails to friends, and stuffing articles full of parallelism by listing three things whenever the opportunity for a list presented itself. (Sorry.)

But now that I'm back I think I know. See, the Mariners are pretty mediocre, and they have a history of making subpar decisions about even more subpar players, but for all their little flaws and idiosyncrasies they're mine. I've emotionally invested in them, and unlike with money it's a serious pain in the butt to diversify feelings. Besides, I think their little flaws and idiosyncrasies are endearing. I wouldn't want to write about a baseball team that was always right, or read a book about a hero who never makes a mistake. It wouldn't be interesting, or fun.

That doesn't mean I don't want the Mariners to win. I do! It would be wonderful to see them start making better decisions, developing prospects into major league regulars, and succeeding at the highest level. It would make a wonderful story, and I'd be happy to watch it happen and receive a return on my emotional investment. But even when I remove the rational aspect of fandom from the equation and focus on emotions, there's something to be said for following a losing team. A losing team feels, I dunno... more human. More like a friend.

And that's what I learned by taking a break from baseball. The point being, distancing yourself from a situation can be a great way to work out your feelings and organize your thoughts. The risk that you take, of course, is missing the moment: the Morales walkoff, or the Ibanez resurgence, or the Felix shutout. I'm not sure it's a risk that I'd take every year... but in the dullest part of a lost season like this one? Perhaps it was indeed worthwhile.

Which brings me to my final point: how this is relevant to you, the reader. On this day, the Mariners will resume their 2013 season with a game against the Astros in Houston. For the last four days, they - and we - have been on break. I know that the All-Star break can be annoying and full of overblown pomp, but I hope that rather than degrading it we can all acknowledge it for what it is: an opportunity to take a step back, reevaluate our fandom and ourselves, and choose our new path forwards.

Me? I'll be watching the Mariners, just like always.

I hope you'll join me.

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