Baseball is a beautifully unpredictable game. The best hitter ever, whether that’s Ruth or Gibson or Williams or Bonds, fails to reach base in over 50% of his plate appearances. When he does reach base, he fails to score 60% of the time. The best pitcher ever (whether that’s Johnson or Paige or Gibson or Clemens) lets ten batters reach base in an average nine-inning game and three of them come around to score.
It’s the double-entry nature of baseball that makes it such a great game. Every play is an interaction between two players, one of whom one will succeed and one of whom will fail. Baseball has no free throws, no field goals, no open-net goals. With the possible exception of Rickey Henderson strolling to second on fielder’s indifference with an eight-run lead in the ninth, baseball is entirely comprised of contested showdowns between masters of their trade, each player’s next eight-figure contract riding on his opponent’s failure.
Why, then, do we look at our teams’ results in a vacuum, as if all games are played against a pitching machine or a pitchback? Most baseball fans have a favorite team, and most of us think we’re acutely aware of our favorite players’ habits and the reasons for their struggles. Albert Pujols has contract negotiations on his mind. Carl Crawford can’t handle the pressure of Boston. Nick Swisher has a hole in his swing. No one ever looks at a struggling hitter’s season and says “Adam Dunn’s numbers don’t look so good because Gio Gonzalez and Jeremy Guthrie and Justin Masterson have thrown really great pitches against him this year”. It’s always your guy’s failure.
As a blogger, I try to be as neutral an observer as possible. I don’t pick my All-Star teams based on games I’ve watched or give a guy extra credit towards a Cy Young award pick because he pitches for my favorite NL team.
As a fan, however, I almost always care who wins. Everybody has a favorite team and probably a least favorite team. I tend to have a hierarchy of preference that runs through the whole league. It may change year-to-year based on personnel and winning trends, but some spots stay the same. Right now, it looks something like this:
Rays (those two switched when Milwaukee got Greinke and Tampa got Damon)
Mets (this low because of Fred Wilpon, this high because of Sandy Alderson)
Diamondbacks (residual goodwill from 2001)
Blue Jays (my childhood favorite, but they don’t excite me anymore)
Cubs (traditionally my NL team, but there’s nothing to root for now except Fukudome’s name)
Nationals (loved them in Montreal)
Twins (stop rolling over against NY in the playoffs and I’ll reconsider)
Angels (love them when they beat the Yankees in the playoffs and employ guys named Chone; dislike them when they sign bad outfielders to huge deals and back into division titles in a weak division despite playing 1910s baseball)
Astros (can’t shake that Clemens/Pettitte stench)
Winter in New England
war (lowercase w)
All this brings us to last night’s game between my favorite and least favorite teams. When the Red Sox play the Orioles or Indians or just about anyone else, I see their results as I expect most fans do- in a vacuum. Dustin Pedroia didn’t go 0-for-4 because Brett Anderson had all his pitches working; Pedroia just didn’t make good contact. Clay Buchholz didn’t issue four walks because four Blue Jays had great at bats against him; Buchholz just couldn’t find the plate.
When the Yankees are involved, on the other hand, every interaction is epic. Jacoby Ellsbury doesn’t just come to bat five times; he has three duels with AJ Burnett, one with David Robertson, and one with Mariano Rivera. Daniel Bard doesn’t just throw an inning of relief; he faces off against Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Robinson Cano. Any faith I have in Jonathan Papelbon’s resurgence (Saturday’s fiasco aside) is canceled by my fear of the dreaded Jorge Posada bloop double.
It may be familiarity that breeds this reaction. These teams play 18-19 times a year and it sometimes feels like 40. I follow the Yankees nearly as closely as I do the Red Sox, pulling for a New York loss as least as hard as I root for a Boston win. It may be contempt, or fear, or some underlying respect for the greatness of Rodriguez and Cano and Mariano Rivera. Whatever it is, watching these two teams, as difficult as it can be, tends to be a more wholistic baseball experience than the one-sided view of a fan watching his team win or lose.
My question to you, potential commenters, is this: do you feel the same way watching your favorite team? If you’re a Reds fan, do you see Joey Votto going 1-for-4, or Yovani Gallardo giving him three tough at bats before he drives Mitch Stetter’s fastball into the seats? Do you watch Cardinals games differently? Or am I just crazy?