The oldest living human is 117, born in 1903 and probably incapable of having been a baseball fan any earlier than 1908 or so. By that point, the sport had already produced superstars, World Series champions, a common language of statistics, memorabilia, slang, hundreds of minor league and semipro teams, two major leagues that drew 10 million fans a year, and most of the rule changes that brought the sport to its current shape.
Which is all to say that every baseball fan alive today jumped into this show late. Once we did, we got invested in it, and the desire to see storylines conclude is probably the major reason I'm so interested in what happens this season, which starts with a pair of games Thursday night. But when I started loving this sport, I was already 100 years behind. Most living baseball fans were.
John McMullen bought the Houston Astros in 1979. He asked his GM, at one point, "What's an RBI?" He would go on to be voted the best owner in franchise history, and at his funeral, his coffin was carried by Baseball Hall of Famers. Have you avoided baseball because you are worried about having to learn what RBIs are? It's not too late. There's not really a bad time to start, in my opinion.
But this year truly is an ideal entry. Because of how short this season will be, due to the coronavirus pandemic, we're all going to be learning a lot as we go; and because of the nihilism of small sample sizes, a lot of the storylines are going to get wiped clean. For most of us, it's going to be a really weird season -- uncomfortable, scary even. But Major League Baseball aspires to be a comfort this year too.
As we embark on yet another baseball season, here's what a brand-new fan needs to know.
1. What's it about?
OK, on the simplest level: It's a somewhat complicated -- or perhaps impossibly cerebral -- game of tag. Every round of tag is initiated by a battle between two players who each have a skill that is almost impossible for any other human: The pitcher tries to throw an impossible-to-throw pitch, and the hitter tries to hit that impossible-to-hit pitch. If the batter does, then all the pretty stuff happens: A team of fielders chases the ball and then chases the runner. When the hitting side is successful at rounds of tag, it adds up to points. When the pitching side is successful, it moves the game closer to its conclusion. I said it's somewhat complicated, but the rules are very easy to pick up within minutes of watching alongside another fan. You can probably understand 90% of the sport's rules and tactics after watching one game; you can spend the rest of your life working to understand the next 9%; and nobody, except some umpires and a few managers, ever reach the final 1%. That all goes to the point that it's easy to enjoy baseball even with only partial understanding, which is all most of us have.
So that's the simplest level. Really, baseball is the ongoing story of 30 clubs battling to get all the best players and then, once they have the best players, trying to not screw it up. (Or if they don't have the best players, it's trying to knock off Goliath.) And beyond that, it's the story of a few hundred players -- many of whom come from modest backgrounds -- competing for extraordinary wealth and historical significance. The personal stakes for players are massive and constant: It is, far more than perhaps any other sport, a game in which every pitch can end a career and a game in which a 28-year-old making a few thousand dollars a year can still become a 32-year-old making tens of millions a year.
2. What have you missed?
This is the 145th official major league season, but if you think of baseball as a long-running television show, it's probably easier to think of each season as an episode -- for example, "The One Where Ted Williams hit .400" -- and to think of the sport's eras as its seasons. There are probably six of those "seasons," and each one has taken the sport in a new and bigger direction. Once an era is established, its changes never really leave. Subsequent seasons just add new levels of detail and grow the game further.
Season 1: The pre-modern era, from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. The game was constantly being tinkered with and often looked very little like it does today -- or even like it did in 1920. Eventually, though, it settled into the format we have now, more or less.
Season 2: The celebrity era, from around the 1910s to the late 1940s, when Major League Baseball players (especially Babe Ruth) became some of the most famous people in the world and a slight, Tin Pan Alley song about the sport could become a smash hit and a lasting cultural artifact.
Season 3: The post-integration era, from 1947 to the early 1970s. Before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, the major leagues were nearly all white, which meant a large percentage of the world's best players weren't in those leagues. Afterward, the major leagues featured not only Black players but, eventually, thousands of players signed out of Latin America and Asia. Major League Baseball wasn't just the top league anymore, but the home of nearly all of the world's best 500 or so players.
Season 4: The free-agency era, from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, when the players' union grew its power and toppled the old industry norms that kept players underpaid and trapped on one club. Ballplayers who'd been paid like school teachers, principals and occasionally superintendents would eventually become multimillionaires, and the commentary around the sport would be driven as much by contracts, years of team control and payroll flexibility as by player talent.
Season 5: The steroids era, from around 1988 to the early 2000s, when players (with and without performance-enhancing drugs) became far more physical and physical performance became far more professionalized. The steroids would eventually be mostly eradicated, but the new physical standards of the era would remain.
Season 6: The technocratic era, from the early 2000s to now, when much of teams' and fans' focus shifted to analytical front offices, and the Ivy-educated decision-makers became nearly as famous as their players.
It's not totally clear whether we're still at the end of Season 6 or at the start of a new season. If we are in the start of a new season, it's quite possibly either The End Game or The Renaissance, which -- well, those are the exact opposites of each other.
3. When is it on?
Starting Thursday night, it's on nearly half of all minutes between now and the end of September. If you turn on a TV at a random time on a random day this summer, you've got a coin flip's chance of having baseball on -- and, of course, considerably better than that if it's not 3 in the morning. The bulk of games start at 7 p.m. local time, but local time moves across the nation each evening, so from 4 p.m. Pacific time through 1 a.m. Eastern time, there will be a game on virtually every day for the next three months. There are day games on Saturdays and Sundays, and usually a bunch of day games on Wednesdays and Thursdays, since teams that skip from city to city every three games can get an early jump on their pre-weekend travels. Roughly speaking, that accounts for about 40% of the minutes between now and the end of September. And that doesn't include all the spin-offs: In a typical year (not this year), there are around 200 minor league teams in this country alone, plus foreign leagues, women's baseball, hundreds of college baseball programs (including high-level junior colleges) and, of course, high school and youth sports.
When baseball is being played, it is best to think of baseball as an abundance, as a constant stream that flows past your home. You are a water-consuming creature, but you would not try to drink every drop of that stream. If you did, it would be stressful and unpleasant. Rather, you appreciate the near-infinite abundance of that stream. You know that when you have thirst, it is there, and you can dip your cup into it. Of course, as we've just seen -- no stream is so abundant that it can't go dry, and this year's season could stop at any time. The best way to handle this fear is to simultaneously deny it and let it grow your gratitude for the games we do have.
4. Who are the good guys?
The good guys are the team you choose to root for. They are morally superior to all the other teams. Baseball is a morally relativistic sport, and because of this, you will find yourself morally compromised by your choices. Other teams are filled with cheaters, scoundrels and pests, while your team will be drawn from the exact same pool and yet is comprised mostly of Happy-Mother's Day-Wishers, Elaborate-High-Five-Givers, and Always-Time-For-An-Autographers.
This is the one step you need to take to give the season's omnipresence some structure: Pick a team. It helps if the team is local -- though not as necessary as it used to be -- and it really helps if it's a team that is loved by somebody you love. The first and most reliable way that baseball will satisfy you is by giving you exactly one jolt of emotion every day, when you find out that your favorite team either won or lost. This is the daily ritual at the center of it, and it's as satisfying as your first cup of coffee or the sugary snack you save for midafternoon or the first embrace of the pillow at night. You don't have to watch your favorite team play to get this jolt, though of course as a sport of abundance, it will give you a lot of free content to dip into. To get the jolt, all you have to do is check every day. Give yourself at least one moment to look forward to, when you'll find out whether a good thing happened in your life or not. (Then you can check all the bad guys' games too. A day when your team wins and the nearest bad guys lose is cherries all the way across the screen.)
5. Who are the bad guys?
The Astros. Even in a sport that is essentially all complicated anti-heroes, the Astros enter the season as the clear villains at the center of the biggest ongoing storyline. In fact, if you're a non-baseball fan and you heard one thing about pre-pandemic baseball in the past year, it's probably the overwhelming cheating scheme the Astros used in 2017, when they won the World Series. (The scheme was uncovered this past winter.)
That's the Astros' place in modern baseball in a nutshell: There are all sorts of ways baseball in the late 2010s disappointed its fans, from cheating to tanking to turning a blind eye to domestic violence to speaking of our national pastime using lingo cribbed from business management guides. The Astros took each of those to extremes, and eventually it became clear that we all hate them.
You can hate those guys!
6. So what's happening this year?
The main change is that the Major League Baseball season this year will be a 60-game race, instead of a 162-game marathon, as COVID-19 caused the lengthy postponement of the season. Consequently, Major League Baseball will look a little different: No fans in the stands, some social distancing guidelines on the field, the Toronto Blue Jays playing their home games elsewhere because of Canada's travel restrictions, and a lot of strategic trial and error as teams adjust to all of this. Many more differences are still possible: We don't yet know whether there will be the typical flurry of midseason trades, for instance, or whether large numbers of players will opt out midseason if playing doesn't feel safe, or even whether the stakes of winning will feel at all the same this year. But for the most part, it's still most of the same players trying to carry forward the same storylines that they left off at the end of 2019:
There's a guy named Mike Trout on the Los Angeles Angels who has been, arguably, the greatest player in history through his first eight seasons. He's still only 28, and according to betting odds, he is about as likely to win the American League's most valuable player award as he is to not win it. In every year of his career, he has managed to raise his game in some way, but his team has been bad enough around him that he has barely played in the postseason, let alone played for a World Series. His wife is expecting their first child this summer!
The New York Yankees -- who have won nearly one-quarter of all the championships in the game's history -- haven't won the World Series in more than a decade. They are probably as good as they've been since the last century, and they just added the best pitcher in baseball, Gerrit Cole.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, meanwhile, haven't won a World Series in more than 30 years. Almost 10 years ago, Magic Johnson (and others) bought the club from its disastrous previous owner, and the new owners have made the Dodgers the most expensive and most successful team in baseball -- in the regular season. But they haven't won it all. Over the winter, they traded for Mookie Betts, the second-best player in baseball. Their most famous player, Clayton Kershaw, is the generation's best pitcher, but as it stands now, his postseason failures will be the melancholy second paragraph of his obituary, which he is trying to change.
The sport is dominated by young superstars more than at any point in the game's history, and young Latin American players in particular are claiming the sport's culture from older, more conservative players. Four of these stars -- Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres; Juan Soto of the World Series champion Washington Nationals; Ronald Acuna Jr. of the Atlanta Braves; and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Blue Jays -- could all contend for the MVP award this year. None is older than 22, five years before players typically peak (and before many top prospects even make it to the majors). A slightly older player -- the Chicago Cubs' Javier Baez, from Puerto Rico -- is probably the face of the game these days, on the cover of MLB The Show this spring and a sensation on YouTube. A career season might make him the crossover star that baseball hasn't had in a generation.
The Japanese star Shohei Ohtani of the Angels has recovered from arm surgery, and he'll again be baseball's first two-way star -- both pitching and playing an offensive position -- since Babe Ruth's early career.
Some of the league's players have vowed revenge against the Astros, whose 2017 cheating, as we said, was revealed this offseason. Whether or not that happens, fans had been expected to boo Houston mercilessly to start the season, and maybe throughout it. The Astros, meanwhile, remain an elite team, having come within a game of winning last year's World Series. Before the season was shortened, the Astros, Dodgers and Yankees all had faint hopes of chasing the all-time wins record.
Fifteen teams set franchise home run records last year, as for unknown reasons the baseball had less drag and traveled farther last year than it had in the past. Whether that ball shows up this year is a huge storyline that will start to be answered almost immediately, as teams and players again chase home runs or else stare blankly at fly balls that fall just short of the wall again.
Two of the teams that play in the smallest markets -- the Oakland A's and Tampa Bay Rays -- made the playoffs last year, and they will try to again this year. In a short season, though, almost every team has a chance. Every team except the Baltimore Orioles, basically.
7. OK, you're going to watch your first game. What do you need to know to not be disappointed?
It's going to be about three hours, and most of that time will not be very intense. Every event in a baseball game matters a little but very few matter a lot, which helps us stay interested while also pacing ourselves. When a rally gets going, the broadcaster's volume will pick up a bit, and when a close game gets late the commentary will get louder still. (There'll be a way, too, for you to affect the noise from afar.) But baseball is more talking blues than four-on-the-floor. We're going to spend most of the next 60 games relaxed, reclined, maybe sorting laundry, sometimes slipping into a nap, occasionally shouting. There'll be a lot of time for shouting in October, when the playoffs start.
Watch it with somebody -- which is a lot harder to do in lockdown, but try to find a roommate, a child or a sibling who lives with you. The pace is perfect for talking throughout the whole thing. Once you've got a good vision of what a game looks like, embrace radio. Baseball is often criticized for how long it takes, but its superpower is also how long it takes -- put it on the radio and you've got unending entertainment on long car drives or while walking 10,000 steps a day or while weeding. We think of baseball primarily as being about the baseball. But as a radio sport, it becomes a podcast that every team produces about 20 hours a week of: It's human interaction, human comfort, familiar voices talking about something you care for.
8. So, bottom line -- what is this show?
I mean, it's a little bit of a whole bunch of things. In some ways, it's like "Game of Thrones," with how many different storylines are going on at once, in how much backstory there is to mine. In some ways, it's "Breaking Bad," with how much it thrives on anti-hero tendencies. In some ways, it's a show like "Downton Abbey," with the dramatic dynamics between rich teams and poor ones. In some ways, it's like "Jeopardy!" with a basically never-ending supply of daily competitions. In some ways, it's like the radio -- just the radio -- in how you can pretty much always turn it on and consume it for a few minutes or a few hours, until you reach your next destination.
In some ways, it's Greek mythology, with these godlike figures who engage in this impossibly athletic physical combat but simultaneously have all the petty disputes and character flaws of us mortals. Probably the show I think it's most like is "Lost," with its blend of episodic drama (the contained storyline of a single game or a single pennant race) and deep mythological narratives.
RBIs, by the way, are runs batted in. It's the credit given to the batter who hits the ball that scores a runner and earns his team a point. You're now overqualified to own the Houston Astros.