Baseball So Far

Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia

The baseball season is now more than two months old, so that its comforting shape has begun to come clearer into view, filled with the same familiar and unfamiliar moments anticipated since the winter and since every winter. The moments whose basic structure is the same, but whose individual names and faces and accomplishments are always changing, like a great group of words constantly altering and rearranging and prisming out into infinite stories.

For instance, there’s the remarkable run of the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera. In 2012, he became the first player since Boston Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to hit for the Triple Crown – leading his league in batting average, runs batted in (RBI) and home runs. It’s a versatile and formidable achievement, and one that connects Cabrera back to the early days of baseball, when the crown was first won in 1878 by Paul Hines of the Providence Grays. Hines hit four home runs that year, in a time long before the homer reached its current esteem, and the Grays folded in 1885, but he and Cabrera are still tied together now, bookending the royal club until the next man joins them in the permanence of the past.

And that next man may again be Cabrera, whose current hot hitting could catapult him to even better numbers than last year. As of June 7, he led all of Major League Baseball with a .373 batting average and 66 RBI, and his 17 home runs are second in the American League behind the Baltimore Orioles’ Chris Davis, who has 20 – Davis, one of the breakout stars of 2013, is currently second in the American League to Cabrera in RBI and batting average. So while Davis’s emergence, the grinds of a long season and other obstacles could thwart Cabrera’s attempt at a repeat, he has a chance to become the first player ever to wear the crown in consecutive years.

While the increased attention paid to advanced statistics – which can probe farther and more intricately into performance than the old standards of batting average and the like – may have taken some luster off the Triple Crown, Cabrera’s accomplishments are still historic. And Cabrera is still a giant figure in the sport today – a man with breathtaking offensive prowess and consistency, a man who once got a game-winning hit while a pitcher was trying to intentionally walk him, and a man who has had very human battles with alcohol like other luminaries of the sport, so that it’s as if the mythic and flawed nature of many baseball legends resides in him.

While Cabrera’s achievements bring baseball closer to its past, other changes in the game are moving it farther away. For one, baseball went through a small realignment this past offseason, with the Houston Astros moving from the National to American League. Houston is the first team to switch leagues since the Milwaukee Brewers moved to the National League after the 1997 season, and Houston’s move means that for the first time in the sport’s modern era, there will be an odd number of teams in each league, a situation necessitating nightly interleague games.

Regular season interleague games of any sort are still a relatively new concept to the major leagues – there was no interleague play other than exhibition games, the All-Star Game and the World Series until 1997. From 1997 through 2012, a series of interleague games were played each year, though most days of the season featured only intraleague play. Now, though, every night with a full schedule must have at least one interleague game, further blurring the differences between the two leagues – leagues that were founded at different times, that once had separate umpires, and that still have separate rules, with the National League requiring the pitcher to bat while the American League in 1973 began allowing a designated hitter to hit in the pitcher’s place.

And while the two leagues coming closer together isn’t in itself negative, interleague play does take away a part of baseball’s timelessness and immovability and connection to its past. There was something comforting and timeless, for instance, about knowing that the Phillies and Athletics – two teams that shared a city until the Athletics moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City and then to Oakland – would never play a regular season game against each other, and that they would only ever meet in their annual City Series of exhibition matchups or a hypothetical World Series that never materialized. But the teams played interleague games in 2003, and again in 2005 and 2011, and the sport moved a little farther away from how it used to be.

Another major storyline of the current season – video review of umpire calls – also seems to discount the importance of a connection to the past, at least at first. In 2008, Major League Baseball implemented video replay for home run calls, and there has been increased attention on expanding the system to review other rulings, such as fair-foul and safe-out calls. For most of baseball’s history, replay was impossible, then impractical, then unpopular, and consequently calls that would have remained unchanged in the past can now be altered. But unlike with interleague play, increased replay makes each game tangibly fairer, so that even though it takes baseball another degree farther from its roots, it still honors those roots, since there is no better way to honor the past than to improve upon it.

There are plenty more on-field stories this year too. There are breakout young pitchers, like the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Patrick Corbin, whose team is 11-0 in his starts, or the New York Mets’ Matt Harvey, whose four-pitch repertoire has added scores of excitement to each start for his otherwise struggling club, and scores of zeros to opponents’ box scores. And young hitters like the Phillies’ Domonic Brown, who after a few years shuttling between the majors and minors has established himself in the middle of the Phillies’ order, and who gave the season one of its most remarkable statistics when he hit 12 home runs in May without drawing any walks – making him the first player in major league history to do so. Milwaukee’s Jean Segura has also broken onto the scene with a scorching offensive start while crafting his own oddly memorable accomplishment – stealing second base, then later in the inning getting tangled in a rundown that saw him retreat back to first base, so that he tried again to steal second, this time getting thrown out.

And each of these players, and each of their accomplishments – sublime and odd – have brought new breath to historical comparisons, as Mets fans think back to pitchers Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden, while baseball historians and statisticians and fans try to figure if anyone’s ever stolen second and been caught stealing second on the same journey around the bases.

Because that’s how baseball is – every new achievement brings memories of old ones, every new innovation brings nostalgia for what’s been superseded, and every new player brings fresh color to the ones who came before, so that the game continues to move resolutely forward even as it remains resolutely inside its past. And as it elegantly straddles this paradox, baseball reminds fans to treat life the same way – marveling at what’s still to come, while still marveling at what’s come before.

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