It is beautiful in its symmetry (three outs per side per inning, every infield identical) and in its asymmetry (nine random innings, and each outfield unique).
It is beautiful in its democracy - every player must bat when it is his turn to bat. There is no feeding the ball to Kobe every time. You have no control over who the ball gets hit to. It is incredible that baseball will make heroes out of Endy Chavez, and DeWayne Wise, and Aaron Boone just as often as it will of Albert Pujols.
But most importantly, it is beautiful in that the game is not ever over until it is over. In football, you can kneel and run out the clock. Basketball devolves into a bizarre mini-game of fouling. In soccer and hockey you can try to keep possession of the ball until relieved by the clock.
But in baseball, there is no such luxury. You don't get to sneak away from the game until your opponent is completely vanquished. In fact, you must deliver to him his opportunity to come back. In every game, you must attain 27 outs to win.
The same can be said about the course of a long season. Although comebacks from deep in the standings are rare, you can still hope and pray while you remain mathematically alive. There is always hope. Until you are down to your final out and strike, anything can happen.
There is no time that this feeling is stronger than on Opening Day. And for no team is that feeling stronger than for the New York Mets.
Who can explain the Mets and what they do to us? Who can explain the white-knuckle finishes to so many of our seasons? How can you rationalize their incredible record on Opening Day except to say that they have an uncanny ability to provide hope in a way which no other franchise in any other sport can compare.
The Mets were great today, so please forgive me for my one quick tangent. I realize that most of you who read Fonzie Forever look forward to our thoroughly grounded perspective on things. I have been very proud of our willingness to even-handedly criticize the team, and to ground our opinions deeply in statistics, scouting, and other objective fact.
But not today. Today I will allow myself to dream.
Something Ron Darling said during the broadcast today was truly brilliant. At the time, he was discussing David Wright's troubles last year, but what he said is applicable to baseball in general. In fact, it crystallizes into one sentence exactly why hope springs eternal as a baseball fan.
"When you're a major league player and you are struggling," Darling said, "You are an inch away, not a mile away."
And he's absolutely right. On a micro level, he is absolutely correct about David Wright. Only in baseball does a microscopic hitch in your swing turn an All-Star into a journeyman. Only in baseball does a loss of 1 or 2% of your skills knock you out of the game entirely.
But Darling's point has a broader application than that. We wrote a post here in February where we discussed this ephemeral concept:
Baseball is so much more than just a string of isolated offseason transactions. And now, with the snow on the ground in Flushing finally beginning to melt, we as fans are transported to Port St. Lucie, clipboards in hand, listening to the sound of Johan Santana's fastball popping into the mitt of one of our thousand catchers.
And regardless of how underwhelmed you were with how the Mets did this offseason, you've got to find yourself thinking, if only for a moment, "can we do this?"
Tiny little incremental improvements make an enormous difference in baseball. So no matter what position your team is in, and no matter how disaffected you are by the long cold winter of disappointment, there is reason to dream.
In baseball, you can make the playoffs by winning 90 games. That is only eight more wins than a team that is a .500 team. That's eight lucky games, eight fortuitous bounces of the ball, eight great managerial decisions or bad umpiring calls.
So on a day when the Mets play such fantastic baseball, you might find yourself thinking about Darling's theorem. What if the Mets offseason plan executed itself perfectly? What if, for once, we were a little lucky instead of unlucky? Because it truly would not take much to make this Mets team, projected as a middle-of-the-pack team, to put themselves in the playoff picture.
... Reyes and Beltran come back according to schedule and play like All-Stars?
... Wright regains just SOME of his power and hits 25 home runs this year instead of 10?
... Angel Pagan maintains his level of play and becomes the best fourth outfielder in MLB?
... Just one of Pelfrey, Maine, or Perez takes their game to the next level? It is not so crazy to think that JUST ONE of these very talented young pitchers can elevate themselves to an ace. I wouldn't bet on any individual one of them doing so - but I wouldn't bet against one of the group doing so.
... Jeff Francoeur and Rod Barajas have decently good seasons, giving the Mets one of the deepest lineups in the entire National League?
On Opening Day, you are allowed to dream about these things. Although when all is said and done, over the course of 162 games, the best team will probably win - it does not take much for a contender to put itself into the conversation.
And that's the beauty of baseball. You are always just an inch away.