All bad basketball teams manage to be bad in their own ways — the bummed-out Nets running the floor as if their sneakers were full of pebbles and scorpions; the avant-garde awfulness of the Bobcats, who will certainly take the court wearing skis by season’s end. And a bad basketball team also has a sort of formal unity to it, insofar as every internal moment of panic is manifest right there on the court in all its flop-sweaty anti-glory. But bad baseball — that is something else entirely. There is something unique and even kind of awesome in its badness. I’m fully prepared to reverse this position after spending four or so months with the Mets, but I’ll own it in April: I’m excited to see some crappy baseball.
I’ll grant you that bad baseball — slack, heatstroked, conducive to claustrophobia even if you’re in a bleacher seat — is a strange thing to look forward to, granted. But with a long season ahead, it seems kind of shortsighted to look forward to those distant, high-tension games in September and October and those games only. Baseball may be at its best in October, but it’s most endearingly itself in July. Baseball at its ostensible best — games played in colder weather, with higher stakes, often involving one unbearable American League East team or other — is a very different thing than the leisurely, summer-y thing that is baseball at its baseball-iest, the Tuesday night games between San Diego and Houston where the Astros make a call to the bullpen for a reliever with an ERA in the mid-fives. Different, but not necessarily better, and certainly not any more fun.
Yes, the stakes are higher at the average Yankees/Red Sox game, and not only because at least one fan in the stands has some sort of homemade shank on his person. And the game is more important, to the extent that import can ever apply to anything involving someone with Nick Swisher’s haircut or Kevin Youkilis’s facial hair. But a stadium full of anthropomorphized Manwiches beermouthing slurs at each other — at Yankee Stadium, it’s more precisely one tier of fans doing that and then another one closer to the field, where finance-biz swells huffily send back their duck confit — is not the sort of theater that gets Ken Burns excited, or even something most fans would characterize as fun. For all the tradition and pageantry, these games feel like nothing so much as a YouTube comment section — one in which the “fake“‘s and “gay“‘s are directed at extravagantly well-compensated professional athletes, instead of 12-year-olds singing Bruno Mars songs — that has come to horrible, goateed life.
Even ESPN, bless its goofy heart, knows it’s ridiculous to market a Sunday night game in May between the Yankees and Red Sox as if it were Wrestlemania, but chilling out isn’t really an option for a league looking to wring maximum dramatic tension from this frankly leisurely sport. The maximal approach works, in terms of TV ratings and such, but is so amped-up and energy-drinkish as to be wholly un-baseball. Baseball, in this case, being the somewhat tense and sleepy summertime thing watched outdoors in a sort of happy trance, preferably with snacks. That is not bad baseball — it’s just baseball, a slowish sport played by both good and bad teams.
There’s a limit to this, of course — if good-bad baseball feels languid and pleasantly buzzy, bad-bad baseball feels more like a sinus infection, with everything happening entirely too slowly and painfully, and with the existential suck-factor dialed all the way up. For instance, the Houston Astros — a team that has made maybe two good baseball decisions since Barack Obama was elected President — are a bummer. They don’t put out a competitive product, but they charge fans competitive prices for the right to consume it; their domed stadium features so much fake old-timey gimmickry and inauthentic quirk that it might as well be a gated community called Olde Baseballe Acres; much of Houston’s Major League roster appears to have been spit out of a Random Athlete Name Generator, and the organization’s player development strategy in recent years has been 1) short guys, 2) players who are related to former Major Leaguers, and 3) short guys who are related to former Major Leaguers. This is unfair to their fans for a bunch of reasons. It’s unfair, too, to people like Chris Johnson and J.D. Martinez — real baseball players on the Astros, promise — who are good enough at a very difficult sport to make it to the Major Leagues, but still get goofed on at BuzzFeed for their implausibly generic names. Broadly speaking, this is not good. It’s bad.
And yet, check back in a few months, on a comfortable early-summer weeknight, with the stars out and friends nearby and a beer in hand, and the Astros (or whoever, really) in town to play a team you care slightly more about. Who is at bat or on the mound — oh word, it’s “Fernando Rodriguez”? — won’t matter all that much. The score, even, won’t matter all that much. It will be warm and familiar and possessed of just enough action to keep everyone awake and faintly blissed-out. It will be baseball season, in short, and it will be very good no matter how bad it is.