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Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Take Me Out to the Ballgame
Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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Humphrey Bogart said, 'A hot dog at the game beats roast beef at the Ritz.' Are you going to argue with Bogey? Do you even American, bro?
As a licensed, board certified Genius, it goes without saying that I have a wide and eclectic range of interests. From World War I to Shakespeare, from Jazz to a vast array of world cuisines, from the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone Park to the upper 2/3s of actress Kat Dennings. I am a man of many parts.

For all my pursuits, though, there are only a handful of things I am really passionate about. Music, obviously, is chief among them. I have harbored a deep and abiding love for it virtually my entire life, even before I took up a musical instrument at the age of 12. There is food, being from a food-centric culture in Southern Appalachia, particularly pizza and Barbecue*. And then there's baseball.

It would be an understatement to say that I am a sports fan. While I don't spend my time memorizing stats or going to games with my face painted the colors of the home team, I do spend a goodly portion of my leisure hours watching sports. In the fall, I enjoy the quaint and vaguely anachronistic collegial atmosphere of Washington & Lee University's football games. As fall turns to winter, I can be found at the home rink of Roanoke's hockey team, the Rail Yard Dawgs (yes, they spell it like that and yes, I think it's cutesy and annoying). Having been a wrestler myself, I also enjoy college wrestling. But as winter turns to spring, a special part of my soul awakens with those four magic words: "Pitchers and catchers report."

It's sort of the same thing with Jazz. I like a wide variety of music, from vintage alternative rock to Mexican banda, but only Jazz awakens that part of my soul that nothing else can touch. It is as pure a feeling as an imperfect human such as myself can experience, and the best part of it is that it is not rare. I can have that feeling any time I want just by putting a Coltrane CD into the player. Or by attending any one of the thousands of baseball games that will be played this year.

I have already purchased my half season tickets for the Salem Red Sox, of the venerable Carolina League. You will find me in my designated seat for at least 35 games, enjoying an overpriced beer and an undersized hot dog as I cheer on the local nine. I also plan on attending my annual Orioles game with Commodore Ricci, and seeing my beloved Atlanta Braves in their shiny new park. And I will be in my Zen, a place of great peace punctuated by moments of boundless excitement disturbed only by the occasional request for the umpire get his head out of his ass and watch the same damned game the rest of us are.

Moving forward.

There is something about baseball that inspires me to leave the comfort of the Geniusdome 35+ times per summer and sit out in the balmy evening air watching men attempt to hit a ball with a stick. And it goes even deeper than the fact that I've been a baseball fan since I first started playing Little League 42 years ago. It speaks to my elemental being, my unalterable self, where lives my most basic identity as an American and a Virginian. It is as ingrained in me as is my left-handedness, my heterosexuality, and my steadfast belief that Sofia Coppola was not the only reason that Godfather III was such a flaming pile of fail.

On the surface of it, baseball is a relatively simple game. The game is divided into nine innings, each inning gives both sides three outs to work with, each batter gets three strikes or four balls (quit giggling) to get either a hit or a walk. The pitcher delivers the ball, the batter tries to hit it. If he hits the ball, all nine defensive players try to catch it before it hits the ground; or, failing that, catch it and throw the batter out at first base. Once on base, the object is to move around the bases and return home to score a run. As easy as getting naked or killed on Game of Thrones.

Beneath the surface, however, baseball is a game of almost unfathomable depth. To the untrained eye, it might appear that there's a whole lot of standing around doing nothing. That's the same attitude that hears Jazz as just a bunch of tuneless noodling. There is always something going on during a baseball game, wheels turning even between innings. The pitcher and catcher are constantly conspiring as to whether to deliver the pitch fast or slow, high or low, inside or outside. The batter is trying to predict the pitcher's intent. The managers in the dugout and the coaches on the field are constantly relaying instructions to the players by way of cryptic physical signals that the other team is trying to decode.

Furthermore, off the field, everything is being counted. Balls, strikes, outs, hits, walks, everything is tallied. A hitter is measured by his batting average, a pitcher is measured by his earned run average. Defensively, each player is measured by their fielding percentage. There is nothing in baseball that escapes scrutiny, that cannot be quantified. Stat geeks can luxuriate endlessly in the minutiae of the game, arguing the merits of any player against whatever criteria they choose and backing it up with a virtually endless parade of hard, if sometimes obscure, numbers.

The beauty of baseball, though, is that it can be enjoyed even by those who don't see the world through the looking glass of mathematics. As for me, I could care less about most of the numbers associated with the game. I've been a Braves fan for four decades, and I still couldn't tell you the batting averages of my favorite players. In fact, over the hundreds or perhaps thousands of games I've seen, I doubt I could even recall the outcome of more than a handful of them. Even the greatest game I've ever seen in person, when the then-Salem Avalanche won the 2001 Carolina League championship with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, I don't remember the final score.

There is a beauty, a perfection, to baseball that transcends mere numbers. For me, it is the ebb and flow of the game, the moments of stillness that can erupt into heart-pounding action with the mere swing of a bat. Add to that all the manifold games within the game, the incessant strategizing, and I can lose myself in the psychology and mindfulness of it all. Add to that the fact that there is beer, another thing I consider to be elemental to my being, and I am as close as I get to a state some people spend a lifetime trying to achieve called Nirvana. And, not coincidentally, I often leave the park afterwards listening to the Foo Fighters.

Baseball is Our Game, the same way Jazz is Our Music. It is an indelible part of our American identity, whether we consider yourselves baseball fans or not. Even if you've never seen a baseball game in your life, you know what it means to strike out. You've had something come out of left field. You've watched a screwball comedy, been to second base, and were thrown a curve. You've also probably eaten a $10 hot dog and drank a $12 beer, both common occurrences at the ballyard.

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