photo by © Eric1513
It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.
– line from Moneyball
I have loved baseball since I was a kid. I grew up in Omaha and, every summer, my dad took me to see the College World Series. For as long as I can remember, until he died, my dad and I talked baseball. That could get pretty intense since he was a die-hard Red Sox fan and I have always loved the Yankees. In the end, though, we both just loved the game.
Any fan of baseball will tell you that every game tells a story, every season provides drama, and every World Series moves all of us closer to understanding the beauty of pure accomplishment.
When you’re a real fan of any team, you get to know the players, the manager, even the field announcer. You know the state of each player’s health from day-to-day, who’s on the DL (disabled list), who’s been sent down (to the minor leagues), who’s dating a starlet, who’s in need of anger management. The team is like family. And, as with any family, there is conflict and drama. There are good times and bad. As a result, baseball teaches us a lot about story.
1. There is conflict from the first pitch.
From the moment the home team takes the field, there is conflict between two teams. Every pitch, every at-bat is focused on winning the game. The conflict grows with each succeeding pitch. It grows as the season progresses, as teams go up and down in the standings, and the playoff picture starts to take shape.
There is outer conflict on the field between the teams. But there is inner conflict in every player. If the pitcher is in a slump, or the umpire is not calling strikes, you can see the drama play out on the hurler’s face, in his stance, in each warm-up pitch as he attempts to get his game going.
The batter may be in a hitless streak, or just back from rehab, or getting the sense that he could be on the chopping block (about to be traded) unless he gets a solid hit.
In a good story, there is tension on every page. In baseball, there is tension in every play.
2. A lot rests on the hero (pitcher).
In every completed game of baseball, there is a winning pitcher and a losing pitcher. This is usually attributable to two key factors: the pitcher’s skill and the ability of his team to score runs off the opposing pitcher. Even if the pitcher is throwing strikes but he is not getting adequate run support, he may find himself the losing pitcher in the game. For that reason, fairly or not,
the pitcher can be a hero or a goat.
If neither team is scoring runs, we call the game a pitcher’s duel. If the pitcher throws a complete game without letting any batter reach base – a rare occurrence – then he has pitched a perfect game.
If a team is ahead going into the ninth inning (or the final inning of a tie ball game) and the closer blows the save, then he risks losing the game. A lot is at stake with every pitch.
As in good fiction, the stakes for the hero must always be high.
3. Supporting players can make or break the story.
Obviously, every position player on a team is valuable as well, not just the pitcher. A player in the outfield can rob the batter of a home run by leaping into the air and catching the ball at the wall. Or he can miss an easy pop-up if the sun gets in his eyes. A shortstop can turn a nearly impossible double-play or he can bobble the ball and allow both players to reach base. A miscalculation by the catcher can result in a called wild pitch and the player on third base might then reach home plate and score a go-ahead run.
I have never understood people who say baseball is a boring game. So many things can happen at any given moment.
In a really good story, every character contributes something valuable to the action. If a character falls short, you need to write him out.
4. There is heartbreak in baseball.
Where do I begin? When Mariano Rivera, at age 42 still the greatest closer in baseball, tears his meniscus while shagging balls during BP (batting practice), that is baseball tragedy. Even Big Papi (Red Sox DH David Ortiz) expressed love and sympathy for Mo.
When a player has worked really hard, sometimes years, to get to “the show” (make the team), it can break his heart to be sent down to the minors or traded to another team.
And oh, how we fans mourn when one of our baseball heroes dies. I know exactly where I was in 1979 when I heard that Thurman Munson died in a plane crash. I was in Omaha, watching baseball with my dad. I still feel the pain.
A great novel makes a strong emotional connection with the reader, one the reader may never forget.
5. There is glory in baseball.
Not every team has a happy ending to the season. Only one team can win the World Series each year and, if that is your favorite team, there is glory in that moment.
But there is also glory in many of baseball’s quieter moments:
When Jon Lester takes the mound after battling cancer and, five years later, launches “Never Quit,” a campaign to fight children’s cancer.
When Lou Gehrig tells the world, “I might have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”
In a strong narrative, a character is changed, sometimes changed profoundly, by what happens in the story. The successful plot triumphs through a strong narrative arc.
As you can see, I could go on like this all day but it’s your turn. What inspires story for you?