Monday, May 9, 2011

Prospects and hope

Those who know me know (and anyone who doesn't can learn from the profile here) that I'm a baseball fan.  Rather maniacally so, one might say.  This produces behaviors in me that are not easily explainable otherwise.

Friday night, even with loads of stuff to do or pack or grade or read or what have you, an immutable inner compulsion drove me into the car, onto K-10 and then I-435, and eventually to Kaufmann Stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals, to witness the major league debut of a twenty-one-year-old kid I'll never know, by the name of Eric Hosmer.

I should point out that I'm not exactly a Royals fan, not really.  They are the closest team at the moment, and thus the "home" team (as described in the penultimate couplet of the chorus to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," which exhorts fans to "root, root, root for the home team"), but I've only lived around here four years, which hasn't been enough time to build ties that bind.  I spent enough time in Florida to have some affinity for both the Marlins and the Rays, the latter of which I was able to follow from its inception through some of the worst seasons in baseball history, only to have them make the World Series the season after I left the state.  I grew up in Georgia following the Braves.  But on the major-league level, I am primarily a baseball fan before a fan of any one team.

This actually explains the pilgrimage to Kaufmann Friday night.  For the non-baseball fans among you, Eric Hosmer is by virtually all accounts a good young player.  At least one expert on the subject projects Hosmer as the fifth best prospect in all of baseball, which is pretty impressive when one considers how many players toil in the minors waiting for their chance.  The experts say he can hit, hit with power, and field extremely well to boot.  And as silly as it sounds, the chance to catch his first big-league game, to be able to say that someday when he's making All-Star teams or winning batting titles or home-run titles, was too much to pass up.  "I saw him when..." is a powerful sentiment.

Considering the sad state of the Royals, the event became magnified in significance.  After drawing crowds less than 20,000 most nights since Opening Night, the team picked up a crowed over 30,000.  The team shop was making "Hosmer 35" replica jerseys by hand, and falling well behind demand (no, I didn't go that far).

For the record, the Royals lost, and Hosmer did not get a hit.  He walked twice and struck out twice (the second time on a dubious called third strike).  In the very first inning he picked a hard-hit ground ball cleanly and started a double play, first to second and back to first--not an easy play even for an experienced first baseman.  The 0-for-2 might not look like much, but having the discipline to wait out walks in his first two big-league plate appearances is actually pretty darned impressive.

So in the end, a satisfying trip.  Had I waited one more night I'd have seen the kid's first big-league hit, and the Sunday game would have rendered up a run-scoring double--first major-league run batted in.  But still, to someone who watches way too much baseball, it was a promising start.  One game is ultimately meaningless, of course (statisticians would lecture about "small sample size" here), except that it's not.  He arrived, he held his own, and now he can be about the business of having a big-league career, something that you and I and the vast majority of us will never do.

A Royals fan dares hope for what Hosmer might eventually do for the franchise.  A more generalist baseball fan like me simply gladdens to see another bright talent coming to The Show.  Maybe a non-fan can take pleasure in a talent being nurtured and developed and exercised at its highest level.  We can appreciate this, yes?

He's just one prospect, of course.  Right now the Royals are regarded as having the best minor-league talent in all the league, but even that is not a guarantee that the Royals will be printing playoff tickets anytime soon.  One might hurt his arm, one might get hit by a bus, one might simply fail to live up to expectations.  Any of those could still happen to Eric Hosmer (watch out for those buses, kid).  Still, for one night, fans of a sad-sack team had permission to dream about seasons with ninety wins instead of ninety losses, hitters who don't swing at bad pitches, teams with youth and energy and promise and that most elusive of all qualities, hope.

Hope.  It can be a terrible tease sometimes.  We allow our hopes to be raised, only to have them dashed or shattered.  It happens in our professional lives, our love lives, our political ideals, even our faith.  Often it's our own faults; we get caught striving for the wrong goal, the wrong person, misplacing our faith.  Sometimes our hopes don't turn out through no fault of our own.

The church, of course, has its own ideas about hope.  Hymnody exults in it: "my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus's blood and righteousness..." or "hope of the world, Thou Christ of great compassion," "O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come...".  It's a vital thing in that context, but it's not only among the faithful that hope is a needful thing.  It's a fierce human need.  We are highly prone to latch onto any occasion, any excuse for hope.  It may be more meaningful in most places than in regard to a baseball team, but the power of hope, and the power of the need for hope, are lessons I am well-advised to write fast upon my own heart as I go forward into this fool's errand.

And yes, for the next few years in Richmond, and then wherever the good Lord chooses to deposit me thereafter, I'll be checking out Eric Hosmer's stats now and then.

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