Baseball Zen is achievable.
Sit on a chair in the outfield concourse of a minor-league ballpark. There’s a plastic cup filled with beer. And there’s a pair of sunglasses sitting on your cheeks. It’s late afternoon, early evening – it doesn’t matter; time can linger during Baseball Zen.
Baseball Zen is lying out on the berm at Bright House Field. It’s standing behind the bullpens with your best friend at Ashburn Alley. It’s your feet up on the empty chair in front of you, a panoramic view of a green-grass field at your lap.
Typically Baseball Zen doesn’t come when your team is competing every day for a playoff spot. Those grueling summer days and nights are spent with laser focus. You’re mumbling and jumping. You question every move. You can’t stop thinking. Baseball isn’t a good activity for incessant thinkers. Usually the thinkers are discarded from the game quickly.
And Baseball Zen doesn’t come when the team smells of rotten garbage, when there’s no answer in sight, no plan to follow, no rooting interests to grasp. Your favorite players are sputtering and crumbling to a crawl, and you can’t do anything but watch in pain. So maybe you turn it off. Maybe you spend a Sunday afternoon doing housework. Maybe Thursday night is better spent reading a book or calling a relative. Maybe summer doesn’t matter anymore.
Everyone seems to want Baseball Zen in April, and everyone seems near it in March, but don’t be fooled by the sunny stories and cheery clips. The fans of the good teams are bitterly worried about the next day, and the fans of the hopeless teams are already preparing other programming. They usually don’t even make it to May.
But on March 31, 2016, in and around Philadelphia, Baseball Zen is actually achievable. This can stay with us this year and this year alone. For next year we’ll start worrying about The Next Step, about free agency and a big deadline trade and if an injury can completely derail the train. Last year was impossible, starting with Chase Utley spitting around the diamond, with Aaron Harang blocking the center of our viewfinders, with Ruben and the gang hanging the garbage over our heads while dangling Cole Hamels, the last vestige of value, to whomever was ready to pony up. And when Hamels cleaned off the Chicago Cubs, a no-hitter in brilliant Saturday sunshine deep in the depths of the season, it felt both beautifully appropriate and overwhelmingly sad. It was his last moment on the mound as a Philadelphia Phillie. It was a no-hitter. The torment.
This offseason started inconspicuously. Hope in small places. Then full change in the front office with a fresh-faced general manager and a strategy to improve with science. Then the fiery reliever was gone, traded for a booty of starting pitchers who may or may not boost the future. They said all the right things – Aaron Altherr and Mark Appel and Aaron Nola, smiling in interviews and crafting the new direction for a franchise now hellbent on promoting youth. Ticket deals that get casual fans to the park all April. Flashy new vendors. An actual social media presence. This is a younger franchise than yesterday, and certainly ages younger than they’ve been in decades. The manager is excited to work with kids. The kids are excited to bring a jolt to the ballpark. And as spring closes the kids will face the younger kids in two exhibition games – one in Philadelphia and one in Reading, where families abound, where new generations will be introduced, where they’ll learn to say “Franco” and “Herrera,” “Eickhoff” and “Crawford.”
And Franco. Oh, Maikel Franco. That wrist. Those eyes. How the ball vaults off the bat and sails hundreds of feet into the sky. Is he capable of thirty? Forty? Let’s start with twenty. Let’s forget that. Let’s dream. Let’s dream big. Let’s remember the breakout at Yankee Stadium, the shot off Chapman, the final dinger just before the season ended, just after he returned for two games, just to show that he was doing it, because all the kids just want to show us they can do it.
There’s electricity running through the baselines now. And there’s dipping curveballs and tailing fastballs, line zaps into the gap, and bull horns on the helmets at every opportunity.
But let’s be real: This isn’t a contending team.
But let’s add to that: This isn’t rotten garbage.
For the 162 regular season games that will follow this weekend of warmups and exhibitions – of hot dog cannons and ZOOperstars – an emerging team will take the field, stumble and fall, but rise and excite. There are no expectations only that some players improve, but not simply in the tangible numerical way: Franco shows some patience, Nola shines his changeup, Tyler Goeddel acclimates himself, and Vincent Velasquez limits the wild throws. All manageable things. Mostly measurable things. But in all, clearly low-pressure for us, the fans, the ones tasked with maybe caring about these guys, about maybe investing once again in this franchise after a couple really stupid years.
So I guess we care, and we do it because we’ve always done that. Even when they were consistently losing 90 games and wasting away at Veterans Stadium in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and even when they were frustrating our fathers, mothers and grandparents during the late 1960s and early 1970s, we went to the park for a couple of games, and we allowed the radio and television to play the soundtrack to our summers, however depressing.
I think we were all hoping to achieve a little of that Baseball Zen, when we could sit there and watch the game we loved, and well … just enjoy it. Let it all happen.
This year, starting Monday, I think we’ll be able to do that. At least in 2016, and maybe for the last time in a while, Baseball Zen is achievable in Philadelphia.