At some point, after 6:07 p.m. Central Time, Framber Valdez will wind back and throw the first pitch of the 2023 season. In less than a half-second, it will reach home plate, where Tim Anderson will have already made the decision to swing or not.
Before Valdez winds up, before he takes that deep breath and puts the ball in his glove with a shrugging sigh, before he begins the long inning and the long game and the long, long season, there will have been pomp and circumstance. There will be what comes before he grips the ball for the first real time this year, a ball that’s the same as in spring and the exact same one with which he was warming up, now transformed by circumstance into a soon-to-be stat.
What came before? ESPN, with their usual bloated solemnity, with its clanging circus of guest stars and analysts and puff pieces and musical breaks, with its store-bought stewardship of the game, with its on-whole erasure of the 2005 season, will have treated us to an endless tribute to its own self-importance. As the flags raise in Houston, as stirring theme music plays to slow-mo stills of the Astros whitewashed struggles, Eduardo Perez will tell us, with childlike wonder and a showman’s transformation of cliché into, well, still a cliché, but louder, that “This … this is what it’s all about.”
The general ESPN-ness of the affair reminds you that this is all a business. The players make money for playing, the networks make more money for showing it to us, and the owners make impossible money for having had the money to make the networks pay them to show it. Stadium deals threaten towns and the game tries to ignore horrible behavior, all in the name of some romanticized Field of Dreams that they can package on the cheap and sell high. We know that.
(Also, Roger Clemens will be there, if you want more proof on how time heals all wounds and rarely wounds the heels. Whatever you feel about the use of steroids in baseball, we can generally all agree that Rocket is a pretty unlikable hump. But he got his hump beaten in during that ’05 forever lost, yeah, so bring your worst, Rajah.)
Before all this, both chronologically and emotionally, there was Spring Training. There was the pointless importance of the games, the languid press conferences, the players rounding into shape, the hope of the season shaking off the rust off the past. There was the calm rhythm of spring, slowly accelerating into the first pitch, snapping into the sudden present, snapping off of Valdez’s fingertips, reaching toward home.
And like that, the season will start. Everything that came before it will vanish in that impossibly short time frame. But there’s something wonderful and magical that happens in that four-tenths of a second. Time warps a bit for all of us watching. Like Jaromir Hladík in Borge’s The Secret Miracle, we see all possibilities stretching out before us.
Within a quarter-second, less time than it takes you to read a word or two of this sentence, Tim will have to decide whether to swing or not. It’s just the first moment of a six-month season. But if you’re like me, even though you know baseball is made up of a million moments — if, like life itself, it is an accretion of time — those moments matter.
If he watches a ball go by, with coiled stillness? It’s a new approach to the plate this year, Pedro Grifol’s squad is different. Going to be a whole new year.
A swing-and-a-miss? Pressing. Trying to make up for a whole lost year. A gulping fear that this season will go down the drain.
Contact? That opens up a whole new world of possibilities. A foul ball goes either way, a bad swing or an unlucky break. A gapper creates visions of extra bases. A solid single bring stolidity to a shaky offseason. An out? Let’s not think of it. Let’s see where the ball goes first. Let’s see what happens.
That’s the beauty of that first pitch. Everything that came before, at least for the moment, doesn’t matter. It’s all in the past and has no impact on the next quarter-second. Everything that comes after, like every moment for the rest of your life, hasn’t happened yet. Nothing has rounded into its final form. And there’s no set path, everything that will happen is based on a thousand decisions, visions and revisions, before you finish your newly-drawn breath.
The ball will spin rapidly across the spinning planet, careening through a dark universe at inhuman breakneck speed. A human being will make a decision. Muscle memory will snap to attention, reflexes will pulse, our pulses will quicken in half a heartbeat. We don’t know what the future will bring, none of do, save for one ultimate truth.
But we don’t have to wait more than the space of a thought to know what this pitch will bring.