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Baseball’s a mess, but the game is still the best

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The World Series exposed some of baseball’s most glaring problems. It also reminded us why it is still great.

2019 World Series Game 7 - Washington Nationals v. Houston Astros Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Among the swirling story lines, over seven World Series games the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros reminded us why the game of baseball is still unsurpassed in its ability to evoke romance and showcase humanity.

Baseball gave us seven World Series games, each stunning and moving in their own right. The series built to a Game Seven that would have disappointed if it hadn’t been so perfect. All post-season the Nationals played like the stars of a baseball movie made for kids. They gleefully danced and laughed. They sang Baby Shark, replete with hand motions, and drew the adult fans in the crowd into their joy. They were cast as movie characters; the aging veterans reaching for one last shot at glory and a ring, and the young players, reaching for their nascent dreams.

The Astros became the villains. They had an historically stacked lineup, the kind that made starting pitchers nervously sweat and relief pitchers pray the call to the pen wasn’t for them. They had two Cy Young Award contenders, and another past winner. They were the favored stalwarts against the underdog Nationals. Their villain persona was only exacerbated by their own front office.

Game Seven was a display of two starting pitchers with contrasting demeanors, pitching styles, and journeys. Max Scherzer was scratched from his scheduled Game Five start because he couldn’t move, much less throw. Armed with a cortisone shot and determination, he took the mound in the game the Nationals had signed him to win. Zack Greinke, who has let the public into his battles with anxiety, stepped onto the mound in his home ballpark, hoping to put away the underdogs. They pitched vastly different games. Scherzer gutting through his five innings, fighting for every pitch. Greinke spinning a fairy tale game; in the middle innings, we thought we might be seeing a World Series Maddux.

Everything from the previous six games had built the plot into the denouement last night.

Throughout the World Series, baseball-the-business tried to become the story. It put on display a physically inconsistent baseball,- sometimes it’s juiced and sometimes it isn’t -caused by a lack of quality control at best and blatant manipulation by Major League Baseball at worst. It paraded out a review system that showcased the floundering of baseball-the-business’s attempts to modernize the game.

Baseball-the-business reminded us how difficult and hostile it can be for women. We heard the details of an Astros executive taunting female journalists who spoke publicly about domestic violence. We saw their male colleagues speak out only after the team issued a statement discrediting the professional work of the woman who wrote about the incident. As they released terrible statement after terrible press conferences, the Astro’s problems shifted from blatant and hostile misogyny to a public relations disaster. With it the anger at their front office was fueled by their words, rather than their deeds, and the point of the whole thing was lost. Bad PR was perhaps the best PR move the Astros could have made.

Baseball-the-business has chosen to confront the complex issue of domestic abuse by ignoring it. The players are viewed as assets. The cost of doing business with a damaged asset is just a few angry women, right? Baseball-the-business will talk about consequences and redemption without allowing either to happen.

Baseball-the-business produces hype commercials extolling, “Let the kids play!” Baseball-the-business then reels in the kids and admonishes them for feeling feelings about the game they have sunk their entire lives into. Baseball-the-business frets about the lack of interest of young fans and declining attendance. Baseball-the-business employs broadcasters who spend their air time bemoaning how awful baseball is these days.

Baseball-the-business has been foreseeing its death since the beginning. Whether it was gambling or integration, free agency or paying minor leaguers, steroids or attendance, baseball the business relishes its own death knell.

Baseball-the-game would have you know that reports of its death have always been fabricated.

The long regular season of baseball stretches out over the spring and summer, laying a tapestry of games that slowly become indistinguishable in the design of an entire season. It’s long, it’s slow, it can feel meaningless. It’s all building toward something, weaving a story. Those long summer afternoons in the ballpark, trying to decide whether another beer will put you to sleep under the hot sun, can all blur together. The long, slow ride is a feature of baseball during the season.

The post-season is baseball distilled. It takes the tempered amble of the regular season and imbues every pitch and every pause until every moment is pregnant with meaning. It is baseball stripped to its core and concentrated. There are no second chances, no “we’ll get ‘em tomorrow”. These are the games that make you see the way every idle summer evening spent watching baseball has built to this.

Last night, Grienke was throwing like the Nationals would never touch him. Then, with one out in the seventh inning up to the plate comes Anthony Rendon. Rendon took a Grienke pitch into the seats. Juan Soto, the kid, drew a walk. Just like that Grienke was out of the game and his artfully pitched game slipped away from popular memory. Here came the Houston bullpen. Game on. Next up was Howie Kendrick. He lined the second pitch off the foul pole and just like that, an entire season’s narrative changed.

After watching the Nationals play this October, you knew they weren’t done. Even as Grienke looked untouchable, you felt the magic that had driven them to comeback win after comeback win. October had built up the legend of the 2019 Washington Nationals. The World Series had built the underdog narrative, the redemption arcs, and the deep, childish, belief that anything could happen.

And didn’t we, as Mariners fans, imagine ourselves watching the Mariners in the World Series when we watched the Nationals?

It isn’t hard to pretend that Juan Soto is actually Julio Rodriguez, the wunderkind changing baseball. That the Mariners are the Nationals, the underdogs no one believed could ever win a World Series. There’s an alternate baseball universe where Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon wear Mariners uniforms instead, and bring the other Washington a championship banner in right field. But things are what they are, and the Mariners have a batch of hungry prospects who aren’t shy about believing they will do what the Nationals have done.

Dreaming the big dreams, and believing even when nobody else does. It’s the plot of every sports movie, and the backbone of every epic sports story.

Game Seven ended in a culmination of all the cheesiness of a baseball movie. The team perceived as the “good guys” won. On the mound stood Daniel Hudson, a pitcher who had missed a game in the playoffs, to much hand-wringing and consternation, to attend the birth of his child. He’d been through two Tommy John surgeries and had fought to find a job in a bullpen. A group of long-time MLB veterans won their first rings; Juan Soto, a young kid with unlimited potential, got to show off his talent to the baseball world.

It was cheesy. But it wasn’t a movie. It was real.

It was everything about baseball we want to believe, and everything that made us fall in love.

Baseball is a mess.

Baseball is the best.