At last, baseball is back

by Andrew Bailey

(via Facebook)

(via Facebook)

2012 was the year I rediscovered baseball. For too many years, my childhood love of the game had faded away, obscured by a growing obsession with football and a dispersal of the time and patience that baseball requires. That the Orioles had spent more than a decade wallowing at the bottom of the standings certainly didn’t help.

But as the new season crept up, I made the conscious choice to rededicate myself to the sport. I subscribed to the full MLB.tv package, signed myself up for fantasy teams, and placed a series of orders for new Orioles and Nationals merchandise. Quickly and most assuredly nudged along by the early season arrival of Bryce Harper and the Orioles’ sudden knack for competence, my intrigue returned. I began watching games religiously again, using my TV service subscription to evade commercial pauses and catch the at-bats of the game’s top players, effectively refamiliarizing myself with the landscape of the league.

So much had changed since the last time I clung to every at-bat. The game had calmed down from the offensive insurgence of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Pitchers dominated again and seemingly every night came packed with at least a couple games still undecided in the late innings. The Orioles kept winning even though it seemed like they shouldn’t, the Nationals’ promise started to fulfill itself quicker than most expected, and Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera turned in two of the greatest single seasons I’d ever witnessed, ensuring that I had to stay up just a little later to catch their last at-bat of the night. For the first time in longer than I could remember, I felt like the kid who would spend hours sitting on the floor playing out all-star games with Starting Lineup figures (the players in hitting poses would bat and those in fielding poses would play the field, of course) and shreds of loose leaf paper for bases.

Today, after what seemed like an eternal spring training, baseball is finally back. And the kid in me couldn’t be happier.

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It’s hard to say exactly what my expectations are for this coming season. Last year, I was mostly free to take the game as it came. My expectations for the Orioles had long since been crippled and, while I did think the Nationals were poised to be a contender, I hardly believed they’d put up the best regular season record in baseball. And the truth is, at this time last year I couldn’t even be positive that I’d be drawn all the way back in.

With regards to the Orioles, my gut and basic logic tell me to expect regression. The team still lacks a transcendent player in the line-up and last year’s improbable playoff run was made possible by an even more improbable 29-9 record in one run games. The 2012 O’s were 16-2 in extra inning games as well, which would seem to be a record with little shot of being replicated this season. Of course, they also stormed into the post-season with a magnificent late season run before eliminating the Texas Rangers and taking the hated New York Yankees down to a final deciding game. Luck is certainly a factor, but the kind of prolonged success the Orioles had last year is at least cause for hope. And really, at this point, how can you not trust in Buck Showalter?

Oddly enough, the player I’m most excited for in Baltimore is Pedro Strop. It’s a strange feeling to be psyched about a relief pitcher, but, well…

The Nationals, on the other hand, should be playing deep into October, especially with Stephen Strasburg’s innings cap lifted, the arrival of Denard Span, and the addition of Rafael Soriano to strengthen an already stacked bullpen. My only concern here is health, particularly in the rotation (Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Dan Haren all have injury blemishes in their history). But so long as the roster isn’t ravaged by DL stints, this is a team with the kind of depth, untapped potential, and players in what should be their primes to give any number of reasons for excitement. Referring back to my gut instinct: a second consecutive National League East title or at the very least one of the two wildcard spots seems like an appropriate starting point.

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All predictions and expectations aside, the best thing about the return of America’s pastime is the renewed excitement I feel about it. Opening Day is an official holiday that went without celebration in my life for too long. Last season, I was perfectly content to listen to the first games of the season on the radio from my desk at work. This year, I’ve spontaneously tapped into my vacation time to skip out early, guaranteeing that I won’t miss a pitch.

Hokey as it sounds, I’m as ready as one can be for those two famous words: “play ball!”

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