Mobile games such as MLB9Inning20 let you play out an imagined version of the baseball season
Mobile games such as MLB9Inning20 let you play out an imagined version of the baseball season
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By David L. Ulin / July 14, 2020 9:20 am

The Yankees had a rough time at the Stadium last night. In the top of the fourth, carrying a two-run lead over the Toronto Blue Jays, Luis Severino lost control of his pitches and gave up seven hits. Chad Green came in from the bullpen, but he was ineffective too. Before the third out was recorded, Toronto was up 7-2.

Were this a normal year, a normal month, a normal baseball season, there’d be nothing noteworthy about what I’ve told you: just another midseason game. It’s possible I might have even been there — although more likely at Dodger Stadium, a few miles from where I live, or Anaheim, where my brother and I were supposed to see the Yankees take on the Angels at the end of May. When we bought those tickets (in another world, it seems) it was impossible to imagine not being able to spend an evening at the ballpark, eating hot dogs, drinking beer, cheering with the other fans. That, however, was before COVID-19 rendered live sports moot. In early March, the NBA and NHL suspended their seasons, and shortly thereafter, Major League Baseball shut down spring training. Now these leagues are scheduled to reopen, but during the intervening months, fans have found little with which to avail themselves: classic games on cable and the internet, or live ball from Korea and Taiwan, played in empty stadiums. 

I don’t have a lot of use for rerun sports; much of the pleasure (or the pain) of fanhood resides in the anticipation, the not knowing, the possibility that with every pitch, every batted ball, the entire fabric of the game might change. I have a similar lack of interest toward a league (or leagues) in which I do not know the players; it’s why I was never that engaged by minor league ball. No, for me, baseball is intensely personal, atavistic even: a blood sport, I once described it to a friend. What I mean is that I am stirred not only by the players or teams I love but also by those I loathe — the Boston Red Sox, say, a franchise I enjoy watching lose with nearly the same intensity (okay, more intensity) as I enjoy watching the Yankees win. 

So what’s a baseball fan to do? Let’s go back to last night’s game. For the past few months — since Opening Day, in other words — I’ve been playing a full 162 game virtual season using MLB9Inning20, a free app for the phone. This is not my first go-round with MLB9Inning20; playing as the Yankees, I’ve won two World Series in a row. It is, however, the first time I’ve felt … if not the urgency then the necessity of playing, as a means of keeping myself connected to the game.

I’m not in any sense a gamer; the required skills do not belong to me. Years ago, my wife and kids gave me an MLB game for the Wii for Father’s Day, but I quit in frustration after failing, in any consistent way, to make my players hit. This game, though — it’s difficult enough to be challenging while also playable. The graphics are vivid, with real ballparks, nuanced in their details, and actual rosters I can field or trade. Last year, unhappy with my starting rotation, I added Madison Bumgarner and Max Scherzer; I brought in Whit Merrifield from Kansas City to play second base over Tyler Wade. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez: As in the physical world, they anchor this lineup, a screen-sized murderer’s row.

To be honest, I’d given up MLB9Inning20 in the months before the pandemic — hung up my managerial spikes, as it were. Why not? Those World Series made me feel as if I were Joe Torre, especially the last one, when I ran the postseason table with 11 consecutive wins. At the same time, I was looking to get a piece of my time back: It takes about 45 minute to play nine innings. Multiply that by 162 and you begin to see the challenges, especially for an adult who has a family and a job.

And yet, the pandemic has upended many plans, including my retirement from virtual baseball. All of a sudden, reassurance — or familiarity — is a necessity. Not just the reassurance of the app but also of the ebb-and-flow, the day in/day out nature of the sport itself, its relationship with time. What is summer, after all, without baseball? What is continuity? I went to my first game in 1968, a seven-year-old accompanied by my father. We saw Mickey Mantle hit his final home run against the Red Sox, and that is where a significant component of my life began. In the decades since, I’ve attended hundreds of games, visited ballparks coast to coast. I carry a personal Hall of Fame of moments within me, but just as important are the moments that leave no trace. The routine, in other words, the orderly progression of the innings, the variations that make each game both recognizable and unique. 

I wasn’t thinking about any of this, exactly, when I opened the app again, although such thoughts are never far from me. I was just missing … something, some essence, some bit of association, some sort of comfortable (and comforting) interplay. I began by dipping in, here and there, maybe once a week. I didn’t want to give myself over, until I did. Then I began to play more regularly: a game a night, the ongoing flow of it, as if in subconscious recreation of what’s been taken away. 

Now, it’s July. As of this writing I have just completed game 107 — we are past the All-Star Break — of a season I never intended to play. My Yankees are 70-37, first place in the AL East, pending tonight’s play. I’ll have Scherzer on the mound, and I hope he’s ready; the bullpen got a lot of work last night. As for the outside world, I’m still not sure that baseball will actually return, despite the assurances of both owners and players, or when, if ever, I’ll feel safe going to the ballpark again. Here, however, in the friendly confines of my living room, I continue with a season that stretches out like all the seasons that have come before and after: a reminder of the sustaining indispensability of the game.