I Loved You, Don Mattingly

On Tuesday night in Washington (hat tip to brilliant reader Owen Ranger), the Miami Marlins and Nationals played a game that meant absolutely nothing. The Marlins are abysmal, and few people care (they are the first MLB team in more than a decade to draw fewer than a million). The Nationals are mediocre and utterly frustrating; my partner in Passions in America, Dan McGinn, and his wife, Debby, are enormous Nationals fans, longtime season-ticket holders, and they both lost a lot of interest this year.

Anyway, it was the Nationals' penultimate home game of this surprisingly dreary season, and the Marlins now have four or five road games until their unhappy journey ends, and 26,483 fans spent a lot of money to come anyway, because, hey, despite it all, we do love baseball.

You know where this is going.

There are a lot of theories out there about why baseball attendance has dropped precipitously this year, and why baseball attendance is flat over the last 20 years, despite the building of a bunch of new stadiums and the influx of remarkable talent. I don't want to get into those theories now. But I do want to talk specifically about one thing that drives me utterly insane about this glorious game:

Too many people have forgotten the big idea of professional baseball. This is that baseball is supposed to be fun, exciting, surprising, interesting, thrilling... all those things. Baseball is supposed to make us feel things. That's why we watch. That's why we go. That's why we buy. That's why we connect.

A few weeks ago, Matt Carpenter had a chance to hit four home runs in a game. Heck, he even had an outside chance to hit five home runs -- he got pulled with three home runs in the sixth inning and was guaranteed to get two more at-bats. Everything about how that game ended was, in my mind, disgraceful. Cubs manager Joe Maddon put in a position player early, turning the game into a mockery. Cardinals manager Mike Shildt pulled Carpenter with baseball history on the line. Just awful.

I remember at the time there were a few -- not many, but a few -- who defended both managers by saying that the game was already decided, and the Cubs needed to rest their pitchers, and the Cardinals had a doubleheader coming up, and it made sense to "rest" Carp.* It's hard to imagine a less compelling argument. This is to say that the ONLY thing that mattered was who won or lost the game. It wasn't.

*Incidentally, since mid-August, Carpenter has been atrocious -- he's hitting .200/.331/.326 since Aug. 14 with, yes, three home runs. That's not to say that it would be different if he'd stayed in that game, but that's the point, isn't it? It would have been no different. Baseball, Carpenter, the fans were all cheated out of the possibility of something that we never would have forgotten. For nothing.

This comes down to the core of what I believe: Too many people in the game have lost their understanding of why fans love baseball. You hear in countless ways -- from gripes about advanced stats to defensive shifting to pace of play to the proliferation of strikeouts to the changing landscape of starting pitchers -- that many people find baseball less fun. It's my view that they rebel against the "winning is all that really matters" mentality that strips the game of so much joy and tension and beauty.

[caption id="attachment_23247" align="aligncenter" width="362"] Come on Donnie, give your pitcher a chance, and the fans what they came to see.[/caption]

Buck O'Neil loved to tell the story of Satchel Paige walking the bases loaded so he could face Josh Gibson. The story has been debated a lot, but my favorite part of it is that at some point, Buck called Kansas City Monarchs manager Frank Duncan out of the dugout to help talk Paige out of it.

And Duncan said, "Let him go, Buck. This is what the people came to see."

This is what the people came to see. THAT is what's missing.

And this brings us back to Marlins-Nationals, again, an inconsequential game at the end of two inconsequential seasons. In the seventh inning, with the Nationals already ahead 3-1, Washington put a runner on third. Bryce Harper came to the plate.

And Marlins manager Don Mattingly ordered Harper walked.

Are you kidding me? You're telling me that Don Mattingly -- DONNIE BLEEPIN' BALLGAME, for crying out loud -- won't let his pitcher try to get out Bryce Harper with one runner on base in a game that's probably already lost in a season that expired three months ago, in the other team's stadium with most of the fans coming to the park for the last time? What?

And then it gets worse.

Anthony Rendon -- who is, by the way, having a better season than Harper, so this was also a stupid baseball move -- rifled a double into the right-center gap, scoring the run and putting runners on second and third.

And up came Juan Soto, one of the most exciting young players in baseball history. Seriously, the very future of baseball is watching impossibly wonderful young players like Soto and Ronald Acuña and the like. Soto has a chance to be anything. He is unlimited. Watching every at-bat of his at age 19 is a treat that will never come again.

And Mattingly had him intentionally walked too. Unfathomable. Down 4-1. In a game that his team is definitely not going to win, and in a game that nobody even CARES if they win.

I rage often here about the intentional walk, but it's not the walk itself that sends me off the deep end. It's this: There are too many thieves of joy in the game. They are too many people in the sport looking for an easy way out, for a loophole, for a strategic trick to avoid an exciting and tense confrontation. It's maddening. The best part of baseball, the best part of sports, the best part of life, is when there's no place to hide, when the moment is fraught with suspense and nerves and fear and hope. Will you come through? Baseball is supposed to help us cut through all of the appeals and paperwork and red tape and fog of our daily lives.

But baseball, in dozens of ways, moves away from those moments. It's a huge mistake.

Remember, Donnie Ballgame, what it is that people came to see.