Join Cameron Kunzelman here at Paste on his journey to become the Sportsman of the Year.
The American South has two sports of note for those who are teens and below: football and baseball. It’s a real boon to this column that everyone is an expert in the former via Friday Night Lights (in the same way that everyone became an expert in inner-city politics via The Wire) because it means that I can really go whole hog on how traumatizing baseball was for me while neatly saying that football was just as much a thing.
There are two noteworthy moments in my memory of playing baseball in elementary school. The first is the moment that I saw a kid catch a line drive to the face. I was in the right field (more on that soon), and this batter swings for the dinky fences. Instead of the ball hitting those fences, it hits this tiny little kid standing on the pitcher’s mound right beside the pitching machine. This kid went down so quickly that I had a flash of unidentifiable panic, and when I reminisce on the good old days, I realize that it was because my child brain couldn’t quite come to the conclusion that I might be watching a kid die in front of me.
Everyone on the team rushed the mound, and by the time I got there he was standing up. His coach/dad was evaluating the injury, and seared into my mind is the image of this kid standing there with the impression of the stitches on the ball neatly stamped into his face. The image is brutal to talk about, and it was just as terrible then. Worse, and I hope to God that this is just a weird false memory, I think he played the rest of the game.
The second memory is a little less traumatizing. I’m back in right field, and a very powerful batting kid who had been held back a year whacks the ball in the strongest fashion I had ever seen. It whiffs down the field, I hold up my hand, and I catch it. It makes me hand hurt and I fall down, but then I stand up with the ball held aloft and I’m like heck yes I did it. When I got back to the dugout, some kid tells me that I should have thrown the ball in so that we could have prevented them from scoring some runs or something. I was bad at baseball.
All of that is to say that I went into MLB 15: The Show with a lot of thoughts and feelings about baseball. I find the activity terminally boring, but there are some moments of excitement that always seem to puncture that shell and make it worth watching or playing.
My avatar for this adventure is Joehhhhh Galuhroga, pronounced “Jhonny,” and he’s just like me. He’s a right fielder. He’s terrible at batting. His reaction time to basically anything is much longer than you would believe to be possible for a professional player, let alone optimal. Unlike me, he’s 5’ 8” and 157 pounds, putting him right at “this cannot be true” territory for Major League Baseball play. And yet, the gaming magic lets me create him, and so he must fit into the world.
The last baseball videogame that I played was World Series Baseball ‘98 for the Sega Saturn, so saying that I had a little bit to learn might be an understatement. The benefit of Galuhroga’s position, however, is that there wasn’t much complexity to all the stuff that I did need to learn. Being an outfielder in the game is much like being an outfielder in real life: you stand there, hands on hips, and wait impatiently while the ball inevitably comes right to you. I run at it, hope that my guy doesn’t commit some kind of terrible error, and sometimes he catches it.
The inevitability of the ball coming at me isn’t some kind of divinity of the random generation. MLB 15 has a gameplay feature where you only have to play the experiences that your character has, and it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. Every play that I see centers me, and in a sport that is very often about random locations and players, it’s a welcome thing. There’s some design beauty in the sport of baseball’s decision to create big spaces where random things can happen, but watching the infield play a lot while I stand around was the apex of terrible in the physical game. Thankfully the videogame understands that.
Joehhhhh isn’t the best outfielder, but he might actually be the worst batter. His performance in the new player showings that determine draft prospects were what we could call “embarrassingly bad,” but that didn’t seem to hurt him too badly since he was drafted by the Colorado Rockies to play in their minor league team, the New England Rock Cats.
It was a match made in heaven. The Rock Cats weren’t a great team, and Galuhroga’s play perfectly fit in with a team that just never quite got there. His play, and my play, in the outfield got marginally better, but the batting never did.
Let me explain batting to you. There’s a pitcher, and that pitcher can throw a ball at a batter like five hundred different ways. While batting in this game, it is your job to attempt to predict what that pitch could be while also trying to figure out if it will be a pitch in the strike zone or a ball. The former means that you will receive a strike whether you swing or not, and the latter means that the pitcher did a big ole mess up [they often mean to throw balls, actually—Ed.] and after four balls you can just stroll on up to first base. You have to do all of this on the fly, and if you mess up and get three strikes, you’re out.
In my real-life and videogame experience, I honestly never before realized that batting is kind of a game all by itself. It’s about forcing that pitcher to do stuff they don’t want to while playing around the strategies that they devise. It’s a hard game, and it’s made even harder when you have no idea what the hell you’re doing. Joehhhhh Galuhroga’s style for the first two seasons of his career was generally “swing three times and strike out,” with a few exceptions.
He learned, though, and even though he was a contract player through his first two seasons for New Britain, their third season run at the playoffs secured him a two-year deal. They were eliminated ASAP, of course, but it was the strength of the run that mattered. His fourth season was spent training, playing hard, and trying to move his batting stats from the hard “10” they were at to something closer to the “100” that they could be. He did, however, max out his Speed score, making it so that he could often beat a ball that landed in the dirt to first base.
The fifth season that Galuhroga played was the most important one. I played quite a few games before giving in and simulating the interminable season, and as luck would have it the Rock Cats made it to the postseason tournament again. I took control of Joehhhhh. I caught balls. I batted decently. I stole a base or two (and was out multiple times because of botched steals).
The New Britain Rock Cats won the minor league championship for their region. It was glorious. I had finally lived my dream of being the worst player on a decent team, and despite playing five seasons without scoring a single run, Joehhhhh Galuhroga finally hit the history books.
There were no traumas in this digital baseball game. Nothing that happened will be seared into my brain. Likewise, nothing great happened. The win was not because of Joehhhhh. In fact, it was in spite of him. My MLB 15 career was much like my real experience of baseball: fruitless, yet pleasant.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.