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The Mercy Rule

The Joyless Joy of Bad Baseball

Watch a lousy team on a losing streak, though, and you'll eventually see what baseball skeptics see whenever they watch: a game that’s aimless and dull and stilted and long, and which isn't even quick about it. But for months we settle in, drink down...
Κείμενο David Roth

Photo via Flickr user Bradley Buhro

Watching a long, slow, poorly played baseball game that doesn't end how you wanted it to is analogous, in several ways, to drinking pitchers of lousy beer outdoors on a very hot day. For one, it is both demonstrably not good for you and progressively less fun as time spins on and the beer gets warmer, flatter and fartier. For another, it's still significantly better than most other things, and good enough to do again tomorrow. The low buzz of it runs not so much concurrently as concentrically with the hangover—everything happens at once, slowly, and somehow the next day's wedge of behind-the-eyes headache arrives before the bottom of the glass even comes into view. It's the sort of self-administered poisoning that our bodies and minds are built to process, even if they don’t do it happily.


Human psyches are pretty resilient machines, thankfully, and ones that can withstand a lot of garbage. If all the toxins and idiocies and little cynical minimiseries we poured through ourselves stayed there—if we carried with us every glimpsed TMZ headline about Courtney Stodden and defective MS Painted Redditorial decoding of Joss Whedon's oeuvre and 41 Otters with a Case of the Mondays—we would be immobilized and miserable, obese and heartsick from accumulated empty-calorie triviality. Instead, these things pass through us and we wake up the next day with all those crummy think pieces on the first three episodes of the new season of Arrested Development and memories of last night's Mets loss filtered, processed, and already on their way to being gone.

The hangover is made of what's left. What's left—in the Mets' case, the memory of some sad-faced relief pitcher's breakless breaking ball hanging over the plate like a balloon until someone on the (fucking) Braves drives it into a gap—is annoying, but less so than it could be. We'll live, which is good, while probably not learning a sufficiently painful lesson to keep us from coming back the next night, pouring bad baseball down our throats with abandon, chugging strikeouts and chasing them with narcotized baserunning mistakes and inning-ending double plays.

With a long summer of conspicuous bad-baseball consumption ahead for a great number of us—your author included and my inert, migraine-y Mets' strange, brief winning streak notwithstanding—it's worth wondering how healthy all this could be. It's not exactly bad for you, watching a bad baseball team play baseball badly, although it's also sufficiently un-fun to provide plenty of fleeting moments of clarity. During these, a series of uneasy questions all open onto the realization that you are watching unhappy looking men scowl and spit and flail at pitches in the dirt with all the coiled forcefulness of a grinning cardigan-clad elderly person riding a stair-chair in an underlit TV commercial. You also realize, as time wears on, that you are watching all this by choice, and that you will continue to do so as the weather gets cold and fall sets in and your team is looking toward the draft and free agency, while the others compete for a World Series title.

People who don't like baseball are not easily converted. Baseball is slow and full of empty space. The sudden eruptions of grace and force are surrounded by long periods of squinting and standing around. If baseball works for you, all that negative space is more than fine—it's summer itself, performed nightly and at its own pace, and sometimes your team even wins. Watch a lousy team on a losing streak, though, and you'll eventually see what baseball skeptics see whenever they watch: a game that’s aimless and dull and stilted and long, and which isn't even quick about it. To read about a lousy team that's actively getting worse is even less fun—it's one continuous carping feed of squabbling mediocrities panicking officiously, huffy mayo-faced owners signaling their disappointment in vain country club code, and various front office goofs defending various indefensible things ineffectively before finally just giving up and firing the hitting coach. This is not a pastime, really, so much as it's a stirrup-socked pantomime of the United States Congress. Not good.

Truly bad teams don't just lose, they actively hollow the enjoyment out of an idle hour of tuned-out television watching. And yet, even knowing all this, even facing the prospect of several hopeless, fitfully enraging but mostly enervating months of it, we come back, shake off the never-quite-absent hangover, and pour another round. No one makes us watch or care about our team but ourselves, really. There's a stubborn knot of habit at the core of what makes fans of bad teams watch games we know won't make us happy, but there's also the choice not to cut that knot and do something else. Bad baseball doesn't exactly feel good to watch, or taste that great going down; it's bad baseball, after all. But it’s still refreshing—the buzz is enough even when the beer is flat and stale. A whole bottomless summer of this doesn't sound good, admittedly. But I keep coming back, helplessly but not really sadly, to how thirsty I'd be without it.


Previously: Hearing the Spurs