A Critical Analysis of the 2021 Baseball Season

We always seem to be at Lake Erie at the end of the season. That means that every year, I spend some time wandering around the city of Westlake trying to make sense of the summer that now has passed. It’s only this last week of the year that I start to realize that the summer has passed. I often talk about the time vortex that is the baseball season. I never realize that I’m in it until I’m almost out. And so, I take my walk, I watch the people getting ready for work and school instead of vacations and baseball games and I realize that soon enough, that’ll be me. I’ve come out the other side of the vortex and somehow I’ve taken summer with me.

This year was especially difficult to make sense of. Partly that’s because the summer really is over. Usually, the Frontier league season wraps up by Labor Day, but this year we continue for another week. Somehow, even with a slight chill in the air, the Lake Erie trip gave me one last dose of summer. I went to the beach, expecting to wander along the shores of Lake Erie in solitude but I couldn’t. The area was packed. But why wouldn’t it be? It’s a holiday weekend and I’m not the only one trying to get one last taste of the season.

“These are my favorite hot dogs,” one disappointed local told me as we stood outside The Noshery, Huntington Beach’s concession area. “I’m from New York and these are the first great hot dogs I’ve found in the area.” He told me this not with pride but with the lament that The Noshery was closed. It was a beautiful day and the last potential weekend for them to be open. Maybe it was just a late start.

I’m used to that, though. The entire Frontier League season got off to a late start. That’s why we’re still going into mid-September. It’s almost hard to remember back to May 27 now. When this season began, I hadn’t been to a big public event in over a year. It had been almost two years since my last pro baseball game, but the muscle memory kicked in immediately.

It’s amazing how easy it is to slide back into some routines even after going months or more without doing them. As baseball season approached this year, I found myself completely overwhelmed by life. I was teaching, broadcasting the busiest college season I’ll ever have and all the while trying to get myself ready for the ThunderBolts. By the time Opening Day arrived, I didn’t know which way was up. For the next six weeks or so, I scarcely took a pause to sleep, eat or breathe and, when I came up for air one day and realized the season was almost half over, I didn’t know what to make of it. It didn’t seem real. The season had just begun yesterday, hadn’t it?

From that point on, the pace slowed considerably. I think one day I may have slept the entire night. Maybe. That must have finally reset the calendar in my head. Now, as the season comes to a close, it isn’t with the feeling that I’ve only been here a day but with the sense that it’s been 1,000 years since that home opener less than four months ago.

The realization that the season is now over has caught me somewhat by surprise. This year, though, that thought packs more relief in it than it ever has before, and that’s because of the real reason this summer was difficult to make sense of. For ten years, I have been the broadcasting voice of the Windy City ThunderBolts. This year, my voice was heard by even more people in a more public setting but the whole thing felt a lot more empty. In my first day as the PA announcer at Ozinga Field, I learned that this was a fun job but it definitely didn’t scratch my play-by-play itch. It is much more redundant, with little flexibility, no space for storytelling and probably not well-suited for my voice or skillset to begin with. (I know, I know, “what skillset?” Let’s just assume I have one, though, shall we?)

Each day this summer, as I prepared the game notes that my broadcasting team would hopefully find useful during the evening’s skirmish, I unconsciously started to come up with the best ways to introduce each storyline before reminding myself that that’s not what I do anymore.

For years, I felt like the purpose of all my game prep was to do better at my real job: announcing the game. Now, that prep is my real job and I can only hope it’s making someone else better at theirs. I tell myself this is a more noble pursuit, trying to help others instead of myself, but who am I really kidding? I still feel ownership over the broadcasts and spend way too much time trying to make them better. Connor, Andrew and Alexa did a great job on the air this summer. They could have been better, but their presence was already most likely an improvement over anything I’ve done over the past decade and it was clear early on that they didn’t need me in their hair constantly (which didn’t stop me).

That’s the thing, though. Nobody within this organization has ever needed me. I have taken it upon myself over the years to try to become important doing an unimportant job. In the press box, no detail was too small to consider and nothing ever worked so well that it couldn’t be improved. I tried to carry that same mentality into this season but found it quite impossible. School prevented me from getting to the ballpark until sometimes just a few hours before first pitch. My attention was constantly split between getting my grades in on time, fighting traffic, finding time to run each day and making sure the visiting broadcaster’s room was clean.

Moving to PA was supposed to free up my time but it seemed to do the opposite. There were days when, coming off of three hours of sleep, I stumbled into the ballpark in the middle of the afternoon with only a vague idea of who we were playing that day. Routines had to be adjusted, details had to be ignored. There were many times this summer that I thought I was losing my mind until I realized that you can’t really lose something that you never had in the first place.

I’ve always claimed that my job was more nuanced than anyone realized. If I ever left the ThunderBolts, I reasoned, there are hundreds of little tasks that nobody even knew about that wouldn’t get done. My unstated concern, though, was that while those tasks weren’t getting done, nobody would notice their absence either. This year repeatedly confirmed that concern. All the hard work that I’ve put in to every detail over the years has proven to be superfluous at best. That doesn’t mean I regret doing any of it.

Bill handles all of our in-game promotions and one day early in the season, after a particularly rough day on the field, he wondered aloud why he cared so much. Why did he put so much effort into something as silly as holding up a giant playing card or catching a fake hamburger in a net. It was a fair question but an easy one to answer: we do these things because it’s what we do. And if that doesn’t seem good enough, well then maybe this isn’t the right industry to be working in. But the fact is that all of what we do is meaningless. From the players to the concession workers to the front office, if any of us stopped doing our job, the world would go on turning, no one would lose their life, none of us would be on the 6:00 news. It just doesn’t matter.

But try telling that to the kid whose face lights up when he gets an autograph from Boomer, or the parent who gets to see their son playing professional baseball for the first time, or the gang of shirtless whippersnappers behind home plate chanting, “Pitcher’s got a big butt!” right before a dramatic walk-off home run.

All of this might be small potatoes, but they’re the only potatoes we have, so we might as well make sure they’re cooked right. If you can’t take pride in the little things you do each day, then what’s the point of getting out of bed in the morning?

The ThunderBolts haven’t made the playoffs in 11 years. In the Frontier League, that might as well be an eternity. I’ve been here for all 11 years, and that kind of thing can make you cynical. As the team was heading towards elimination again this year, I found myself at first disappointed, then grateful that the season would be ending sooner. I was ready to get back to my offseason schedule and leave this summer behind. But as I watched my interns leave in mid-August, I was ashamed for ever having felt this way. Alexa came up from Florida just for this opportunity. Andrew repeatedly called this the best summer of his life. As all of the other ballpark interns departed at the end of the season, I saw the same thing. Some of them left with the determination of getting as far away as possible, as quickly as possible. Others lingered, teary-eyed at the prospect of never working another ThunderBolts game. But none of them will ever forget this summer. Just like when I was an intern 12 years ago, it will stick with them forever because it’s a special job. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but there are not many who get to work in sports. Those who do, even for just a few months, have lived out the dream of millions.

For me, this was just another summer, and maybe one of the most unpleasant I’ve had working for the Bolts. For others, it was a life-changing ride. I can’t forget that while I grouse about putting together another day’s stat pack. It may have been a while since the team made the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean anything to this year’s group. Some of them have been playing organized baseball since they were five years old and after this season, will never put on the uniform or be part of a team again. Others are just getting their first taste of pro ball and are settling in for a long stay. In any case, they’re giving it their all. And they’re not doing it for me. It’s selfish of me to have any other expectations for them.

This summer, I’ve learned two things for sure:

  1. It’s advisable to get some sleep, sometime.
  2. A summer with a full baseball season is much better than one without it.

Whether or not these two truths are related in any way, I don’t know, but that’s what I’ve learned. I’ll admit that there were times I thought about what I was missing out on from last year, when there was no baseball. Yes, I missed my daily lunches at the Art Institute or the freedom to tackle a big project without the dread of having to make a last-second roster move or clear the press box countertop in the midst of a rainstorm, but those sacrifices are minor in order to get back to the ballpark. I’d rather be miserable here than happy anywhere else.

As I sat in the Lake Erie press box before game four of our last road trip of the year – even though it was my first – I found it hard to concentrate on the game. Every time I looked down at the starting pitchers’ stats or started to transcribe the lineup, my mind would wander, and finally I figured out why. This wasn’t a business trip; it was a vacation. After going the entire summer without traveling, I had lost my edge. My routine was no longer tight. Game one against the Crushers, I was full of stories, stats, background information. The game took three and a half hours but it felt like it went by in a snap. As each successive game lasted well over three hours, it became progressively more difficult to fill all that time. I was well-prepared for one game, but maybe not three. In between, I had spent time at the lake, gone to see a movie, gotten a full night of sleep. Yes, this was most definitely a vacation, and as game four approached, it was coming to an end, and I was reverting back to my ‘at home’ mindset. All of that made it more clear than ever that I was no longer a baseball broadcaster. Sure, I can still do the job, but working for a baseball team requires more commitment than that. I’m sure that I could commit to it and get that skill back if I tried, but the transformation seems to be complete for now.

Trying to find normalcy in baseball is the ultimate quixotic pursuit. I’m beginning to understand that I shouldn’t keep trying to find logic in each summer. I work in the most nonsensical industry in the country. This isn’t real life; it’s not supposed to be. So no, I didn’t make any sense of this season wandering the streets of Westlake or Bay Village, but I did seem to strike on something in that Avon press box. 2021 was far from my favorite summer working in baseball. The new job I made up for myself didn’t go as smoothly as I wanted it to and by the end of the year, my sanity, barely there in the best of times, seems to be hanging by a thread, but for four months, I got to spend every day in my press box, my favorite place in the world, and watch a group of determined and talented people, some playing on the field and some laboring off of it, working hard and chasing their dreams. On top of that, I watched over 500 innings of baseball up close. It’s safe to say this summer wasn’t a total loss.