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Confessions of a Die Hard Fan

First off, I'd like to say that I am not Tim and I hope that doesn't disappoint you loyal readers. My knowledge of baseball—and most subjects—is inferior to his, but when Mr. Chalberg invited me to write for his beloved blog, I was honored. I've been reading SMM for a few years now, and as it's one of my most trustworthy and interesting sources of baseball-related information, I'm a bit nervous about seeing my own name among its posts. But enough of that. My flattery is probably embarrassing this blog's aforementioned creator, so I'll get on with it.

My name is Ben and I've been a Mariners' fan since the legendary 1995 season, when Seattle was ecstatic with the spirit of 'Refuse to Lose.' Like Tim, baseball and the Mariners have been of a part of my identity since I first heard names like Ken Griffey, Jay Buhner and Randy Johnson. I played baseball growing up on Bainbridge Island, Washington and spent many summers listening to the voices of Dave Niehaus and Rick Rizzs while sorting my thousands of baseball cards in countless three-ring binders. It was around this time I declared Field of Dreams my all-time favorite film—big surprise. I worked at a fledgling (and eventually, bankrupt) baseball statistical analysis company as a teenager, sold t-shirts at the Mariners Team Store during one summer in college, and even got to be a broadcaster for the PLU Lutes for a couple of seasons. Now, I work as a teacher in Hong Kong and have spent the last six months working with grade school kids on beginner baseball after school. I have my own blog all about my life out here, and it's called A Mariners Fan in Hong Kong. Ironically, after nearly two years, this will be the first post to appear there that mentions anything about the Seattle Mariners.

Tim asked me to write here after I posted on my own blog about wanting to branch out from my usual topics of travel, teaching and cultural observations. I wasn't sure what to write at first, and to be honest, I'm still not sure where this is going to go. Nonetheless, I feel I have a lot to say considering I haven't written much about the topic that consumes my brain on a daily basis. The biggest question regarding baseball for me personally is this: What is it about the sport that has made it so important to myself, Tim and millions of others?

I can't speak for Tim or the legions of baseball fans around the globe, but I can at least try to sum up why it's essentially the only part of my life that's just as present as it was eighteen years ago, excluding my family. As yet another season is two short weeks away, it seems appropriate to delve into the very bests parts about the game so dear to my heart.

Working with six-year-olds in my job, I've come to notice that they can be like goldfish, forgetting much of what happens to them on a daily basis. For example, "What did you do this weekend, Daniel?" "Ummm...I don't remember." So my vivid memories of Edgar Martinez' Double and the ensuing euphoria eighteen years ago become even more meaningful due to the young age I was at the time. This strong emotional connection to the game is part of what makes baseball so special. I've been nearly brought to tears watching old highlight movies of Cal Ripken's record breaking streak or Luis Gonzalez walk-off bloop single in 2001. These weren't even players on my favorite team but just watching them, and knowing the context of the moment, I can truly feel the power of the event.

Some may call this irrational but I prefer John Sexton's term, ineffable. He uses this word as a foundation of his recent book Baseball as a Road to God when finding similarities between religion and baseball. The word doesn't simply mean 'impossible to explain' or 'unknown'; it means, according to Sexton, something we do know profoundly but is just too overwhelming to properly define. To some, this is a copout to really digging deeply into the psychological draw to the game but I personally like this ineffable description. Or perhaps this quote from Tom Hanks' character in A League of Their Own can capture it. “Baseball is what gets inside you. It’s what lights you up, you can’t deny that.”

"America's Pastime" has been held on a pedestal by countless authors, moviemakers, journalists and musicians. This mythical nature is certainly a big part of the appeal. But part of the game's intrigue comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of approaching ballparks as cathedrals, hosts to countless heroes and villains, one can take the game under a microscope. Study its intricacies like the living organism it is. If ineffable is the first word, the second word is: statistics.

Another memory I have of my earliest days of baseball fandom was asking my dad and other grownups to explain to me what 'AB', 'ERA', 'HR' and all these acronyms on the back of my baseball cards meant. I eventually found the answers and have been studying the numbers attached to them ever since. As I got older and started to become aware of the changes in the game, I embraced sabermetrics, though again, my knowledge is at a very basic, Moneyball-level. Bill James is my Charles Darwin, and the knowledge he's devoted his life to sharing is as revolutionary as it is provocative as it is complicated. Baseball has its division between old-school and new-school and while I fall into the latter category, I get annoyed by both sides at times. The old schoolers call the sabermetricians geeks who've never known what it's really like to play the game. The new schoolers sometimes reduce baseball's magical moments to intangible flukes that distract from the cold, hard facts and equations. For me, and I know Tim will agree, the grandeur and the statistics are not enemies, they are complementary. Like yin and yang. Or science and religion! After all, many of baseball's most hallowed moments come from statistical records being broken.

To try to reel this meandering Marlin in, let me segue into my third and final reason for my love of baseball. Though I can get frustrated by the people whose opinion is miles from mine, e.g. managers, reporters or even friends, these endless debates are an integral part of the fun. Who is the best second baseman of alltime? Should the All Star Game decide home field advantage in the World Series? Why did the Mariners trade John Jaso for Michael Morse? Should Edgar Martinez be in the Hall of Fame? Why have there been more perfect games pitched in recent years? Which team has the best uniform? And on and on and on. For many, these questions mean next to nothing. It's the way I feel when my English colleagues discuss European football: no attachment whatsoever. But to those of us who have had baseball as a contant in our lives since before we lost our first baby tooth, it's these debates and conversations that give us common ground, a community of sorts, for even though we disagree, we both care so much about the topic at hand.

Early spring is among the best times for baseball fans. Everyone can feel optimistic about the near future, no matter what their team might be. When the Mariners commence the season on April 1st, I'll be somewhere near Kunming, China on my spring vacation, trying yak butter or steam pot chicken. No one there will speak much English, let alone know anything about baseball, but it'll be another season nonetheless and once I find Wi-Fi, I'll be temporarily transported back to the world of the Bambino and UZR, knuckleballs and grand salamis. To slightly modify a song from the musical Shenandoah, "Baseball ain't a state like Maine or Virginia, baseball is a state of mind." And that is why I like, no, love, no, live for baseball.