One of the most beautiful elements of baseball is the unquantifiable experiences while watching a ballgame — the unending potential that something will happen, the gloomy, unerring feeling that your team has no chance even when it’s a one-run game, and everything in between. Recently I wrote about the realm of narratives in baseball, serving up hopes or attitudes or “mindsets” about winning, as opposed to the quantifiable perspectives formed by questions about winning — those logical darts that deflate a desperate GM’s throw-in-the-chips, run for it all, or a big market’s cash grab for players that were great four years ago. These narratives cover grand terrain in our minds, and often inform our positions about the game; perhaps we prefer them to questions not because they are truer, but rather because they feel more comfortable or assert a “reality” that is easier to digest than the real one. Most importantly, they make the game a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
As I understand it, my grandfather played amateur ball with the military. He has the calcium deposits on his wrist and arm that suggest an arsenal full of drops and curves and screwballs and knucklers, but he didn’t make his way into organized baseball because he said, “my fastball was a change up.” My grandfather knows the game, and when I ask him questions like, “how do you throw a curveball?,” he’ll say things like, “there are two ways to throw a curve. Here’s the right way.” He also made his knuckleballs break to either side of the plate, played in an era with big drop curves that could break in- or out-, and of course, he once struck out 28 batters in a game. Needless to say, I was thrilled five years ago to have the privilege of watching a ballgame with him.
On June 6, 2007, a whole gang from my family got together to watch the heated rivalry between the Cubs and the Brewers. In light of the actual rivalry between the Cardinals and the Brewers after their heated series over the last few years, I realize now that the Cubs’ rivalry was thanks to Brewers fans trying to assert their relevance, willing their beloved Nine into contention (whereas the Cardinals’ rivalry feels like it’s based in actual games and outcomes. In that regard, the 2007 season was particularly painful. Despite a blistering start to the season, reinforced by a 17-win June, the Brewers did almost everything they could to hand back their division lead; they finally succeeded for good on September 19, as Matt Wise was the goat in an extra innings loss at Houston (one of 32 bullpen losses accumulated by that Brewers club). On June 6, that was the far, distant future — the Brewers were in first place for more than 40 days when they took the field behind Jeff Suppan.
I took a seat next to my grandfather down the third base line, and promptly settled in for an afternoon of good-natured ‘dissing. You see, my grandfather grew up in a Wisconsin without professional baseball, and for that reason he is a diehard Cubs fan. His Chicago Nine had the hated Carlos Zambrano on the mound — one of the Brewers’ greatest nemeses, and of course, one of my favorite pitchers to watch. I grabbed my scorecard, ready to track the pitch sequences and velocities of Suppan and Zambrano (needless to say, a much more exciting task for Zambrano than Suppan).
I was astonished to learn that my grandfather followed the game just like me — he would look to the scoreboards to follow the radar gun readings, and he and I would speculate about the type of nickel curve or moving fastball that Zambrano threw. When Suppan snapped off one of his sub-70 MPH drops, we could see the ball break from our vantage point. The afternoon promised to be an exciting affair of baseball and pitching analysis.
Suppan was going to be the free agent anchor to lead the Brewers’ rotation to the Division title. I will never forget the raging debates about Suppan’s value as a $50 million pitcher, but I will also never forget the feeling that maybe the Brewers were finally relevant. In 2007, a middle of the road righty could easily land $50 million on the free agency market, it seemed; it was all a matter of delivering that stability within a National League that seemed to score a lot of runs.
In his first seven starts, Suppan looked brilliant, with only a couple of bad starts, a 5-2 record, and 2.63 ERA in 48 IP. In May, however, Suppan had a string of starts that would affectionately lead to the “Suppan” we now know. When Suppan took the mound on June 6, his previous five starts went something like 2-3, 32 IP, 5.34 ERA. Immediately, he and the Brewers’ defense established that this stretch of starts would continue; after a first inning unearned run, Suppan blew the game open in the second inning. A Koyie Hill walk and Zambrano single were lethal once Felix Pie deposited an offering into the seats. My grandfather and I were doomed to an afternoon laugher, and worse yet, he got to rag on my beloved Brewers.
Needless to say, I don’t remember much else from the actual game that afternoon. This was a narrative building game; across generations, I learned that my grandfather watched the game with the same attention to detail that I loved; this was an intense game of, “What did he just throw?,” or a debate about fielding positioning. My favorite memory of this game occurred in the Brewers’ half of the eighth inning. After Prince Fielder singled with one out, maybe producing one final chance to rally, my grandfather looked at the Cubs’ fielding arrangements, watched Johnny Estrada waltz to the plate, and immediately called a double play. I protested, noting that this was the Brewers’ chance to comeback, but my grandfather promptly learned he was right as Estrada immediately grounded the first pitch he saw into a double play out. I learned then that my wishes for a Brewers’ comeback were no match for my grandfather’s acumen, but what kind of fan roots for Johnny Estrada to hit a double play, anyway?
Strange things result from baseball games, and some days we remember those mundane, “we do this everyday” sort of games, rather than the great ones. Goodness, I’ve seen so many wild plays, or big pitches to get out of jams, or moonshot homers, but those memorable moments pale in comparison to the everyday narrative building experience of watching ball with my family. I would have loved to have seen the Brewers win that day, but I’m not convinced that I would have been a better fan for that victory. The price of a loss was easily recouped by debates about sliders or watching the radar gun or trading jabs, for I gained experience about baseball beyond my years.