The point is to make you happy.
Baseball makes me deliriously happy. Baseball, with standings and leaderboards and the whole deal, nourishes my soul. If following baseball won’t make you happy, please do something that will instead. Nobody wants you to be unhappy. But if baseball offers even the potential to make you happy, I want to help you get there.
You don’t like baseball, though? Don’t give up. I hated onions for decades, but a number of caring people taught me how to cut them, how to cook them, what to cook them in and what function they serve, and now onions make me happy almost every single day. Not every great joy comes as easily as a mother’s love or a satisfying sneeze, and any number of my favorite things — Prince, The New Yorker, Saturdays with the internet turned off — are loves that developed only because somebody explained to me how to do so.
I want you to be happy. Here’s what I’ve learned about the how.
How to watch baseball: Don’t watch baseball
It’s intimidating to start consuming something that will take up a lot of your time. I don’t watch “Doctor Who,” not because I’m afraid I won’t like it but because I’m afraid I will. Who has the time to like a show with 827 episodes? The thing that makes something special — its bottomlessness — becomes a burden, becomes a flaw.
Baseball is a beautiful sport, a joy to watch on television. But every baseball team plays 162 games a year, and every one of them is long. I don’t imagine you, a person who at the moment merely tolerates the game, are eager to sit on a couch and stare at a TV screen for 500 extra hours a year. Five hundred hours! That’s long enough to organize your junk drawer, bake cookies and take 498 naps. That is long enough to seriously affect your health.
The good news is that you can follow baseball without spending 500 hours stationary in front of a television, because baseball — with its seasonal omnipresence — was never required to be a television sport. Back before every game was televised, only a couple dozen road games would be televised in most markets. And before that, there was no television at all. There was just Vin Scully or Ernie Harwell on the radio, filling the air around our most boring moments. Baseball on the radio takes baseball’s burden, its flaw — the bottomlessness — and turns it back into something special. It is entertainment while you weed, while you stare at the brake lights in front of you, while you do dishes, while you take a walk, while you paint a room, while you stand in line, while you sit on a porch and stare off into the twilight after a bad day and try to remember how hopeful tomorrow is. It is a podcast that comes out every day, stretches for hours and has, as a bonus, a pregame podcast and a postgame podcast.
If you find a friend in baseball on the radio, you will never feel lonely again. And this, really, is the best part of baseball on the radio: It turns all your unpleasant activities into opportunities to listen to baseball. The great burden of living a life — of managing thousands of tasks, demands and delays — becomes a theater for your enjoyment of the sport. It’s like a pilot fish, harmlessly following you through your life and eating the parasites that accumulate on your belly. And like pilot fish, it is said by many to be quite tasty.
What to watch when you do watch: the catcher’s mitt
There are people who like to consume the entirety of a thing, but I find that my happiness is increased by compartmentalizing a performance and focusing on one small, crucial aspect of it. I like to focus on the cuts in a movie, on the internal rhymes in a rap song, on the umami in a savory dish. When I watch baseball on TV, I like to focus on the catcher’s mitt.
This is partly because it’s almost always on screen. Another challenge of following baseball is how spread out the action is. You can’t see what the left fielder or the runner on first is doing until the camera cuts to him, by which point any number of his previous acts have gone unnoticed and immediately upon which practically everybody else is off your screen. But the catcher’s mitt, as a focal point, is reliably there, turning yet another “flaw” of the game’s center field camera into a strength.
That’s because a catcher’s mitt is an extraordinary source of information. Before a pitch is delivered, the mitt tells you the defense’s strategy against a hitter, its perception of the hitter’s strengths and weaknesses and its understanding of the changing state of each count. As the pitch is thrown, the movement of that catcher’s mitt away from its target tells you how well the strategy was executed, giving you critical insight into the pitcher’s effectiveness. If a batter hits that pitch for a line-drive single up the middle, the movement of the catcher’s mitt strongly suggests whether the hitter beat a good pitch or whether the pitcher delivered a bad one — and the direction to which a pitcher is erring tells you precisely how he is failing. The movement of a catcher’s mitt in the split seconds before and after a pitch arrives gives you insight into the catcher’s skill at “framing” the pitch, which recent research has indicated might be the third-most valuable skill in baseball (behind “hitting baseballs hard” and “throwing pitches that can’t be hit hard”).
But watching the catcher’s mitt for an extended period of time also reveals the deep secret about baseball that so many of us miss: Pitchers don’t hit their targets very often. It is extremely difficult to throw a baseball with that much velocity and movement to a precise location. That makes the sport incredibly chaotic on a sort of molecular level, with each pitch arriving to a location that is perhaps two parts intent and one part random chance. Embracing this chaos makes the sport more exciting and unpredictable — scarier too. If pitchers can barely control where they’re throwing the ball, it makes a 3-1 count with the bases loaded not just a moment to root for the pitcher but also a moment to root for an embedded act of God or nature to go your way. It’s the flop in Texas Hold ’em, basically: As in poker, skill wins out over a long period of time, but with a slot machine’s mercilessness controlling the margins.
Whom to watch: the relievers
Any discussion of how to make baseball more popular will get to the question of pace of play, and any pace of play discussion will inevitably get to the brutal slowdown in later innings. Relievers are swapped in and out for one or three batters and interrupted each time by four commercials for oil change centers. Worse, these pitchers who take the stage are often the most anonymous people on the roster, a series of marginal players named Doug.
A few years ago, I led a giant fantasy league in which only relief pitchers could be drafted. It required me to learn hundreds of these guys’ names and skills. It made me so happy. But such a fantasy league is not necessary to enjoying the rewards of relief pitching. Just learn the guys. Learn their names. Learn their dimensions. Learn what they throw. Learn their failures; they’re almost all of them “failures,” low-round picks or washed-out starters who have found some degree of fame, wealth and usefulness in the bullpen, baseball’s loser’s bracket.
There’s a joy in the variety of relievers. Last year, you could turn on a Yankees game and see Dellin Betances — 6-foot-8, 265 pounds, a former top prospect who throws a fastball 102 mph — relieved by the 5-foot-11 Nick Goody, a former late-round pick who scrapes the low 90s and depends more than almost any active pitcher on his slider. It’s like seeing 7-foot point guards or 195-pound offensive lineman, all thriving.
You get to know these guys, and the late innings are no longer (as much) the boring part when everything slows down. They’re the part in which variety emerges, when the story produces an ensemble cast and the strategy of who is warming up takes over. It helps to remember that these relievers often know less than anybody where the ball is going.
• Learn to make GIFs. Baseball has always been a giant blooper factory, and GIFs have democratized them.
• Read “Dollar Sign On The Muscle,” a classic book about scouting. Winning a single World Series can often be traced directly to decisions made over the span of literally decades by people who never wear a uniform. Appreciating the many hundreds of “normal” people who invest in ballplayers and ballclubs adds the sort of real-person drama that can otherwise be overwhelmed by the demigod physicality on the screen.
• Go to a game or two a year at some level lower than the majors: indie ball, high-A, high school or whatever is in your area. Watching the majors after that is like jumping into the hot tub straight from the pool. These guys are so good at baseball.
• Procreate. It isn’t original to observe that sports fandom is a profound, shared experience in many families, a nonthreatening unifier that can remain powerful for the entire century you might be lucky enough to live in. Nothing against basketball, football or any sport that brings you and yours together, but baseball is especially suited to this simply because of the schedule: It takes place during the summer, when kids aren’t in school. And it’s 500 hours of action a year, which is daunting for an adult but about a third as much as an obsessed child longs for.