IF, BECAUSE OF an unintended loophole in the collective bargaining agreement, the Miami Marlins discovered they could save $1 million by letting you play an entire major league game, on the condition that you actually had to play, that you must start the game (at any position) and you must not leave the game (under any condition), would you play?
YOU WILL GET paid the same wages you get at your current job. You will be kind of very famous. You will have a page on Baseball-Reference. You will get to watch a major league baseball game from left field. You might get a hit. And you will know something about baseball that very, very few humans ever know.
All you have to do is get to the park five hours early, hang out awkwardly in a clubhouse where the players all try to avoid acknowledging you (your presence is actually quite shameful to them), feebly take batting practice in front of those same major leaguers, wear a uniform that looks wrong on you, strike out three or four times — once or twice with runners on base — against a major league pitcher in a game that counts, run out to left field nine times and stand out there while strangers yell weird insults in a melted gummy mess at you, attempt to catch a couple of cans of corn, periodically sprint (while trying to track incomprehensibly high fly balls) in front of a television audience, try to throw a baseball farther than you actually can, and perhaps cower at a line drive hit directly at you that at the last second you dive away from. You will have to turn and chase after the ball, and you will think about how television viewers are looking at your butt; after the play ends, the camera will focus on the face you are making, and this face will forever be the first return on a Google Images search of your name. Would you play?
Do you think you’d catch those cans of corn? Does whether you think you’d catch those cans of corn affect whether you’d play? If I told you that you definitely wouldn’t catch the cans of corn, would you still play?
(For what it’s worth, I think you’d definitely catch the cans of corn.)
If you played, would you swing? If I told you that you have about a 4 percent chance of drawing a walk just by taking every pitch — that you’d have a 1-in-25 chance of reaching base in a major league game as long as you don’t do something stupid, like swing — would you swing?
Would you tell your friends you were going to be on TV, or would you hope nobody found out about this?
Pal, they’ll obviously find out about this! It will be the most-watched regular-season game of the year. We’ll all want to see how awkward a regular person (you) look against major leaguers. I’d rather watch you bail out of the way of a major league curveball than watch Giancarlo Stanton chase 61 homers. You will be on SportsCenter, and the anchors will laugh the entire way through. You will be so nervous you won’t make a normal-human face the entire night. Your weird faces will be meme lighter fluid. Do you realize how funny all of us normal people look when we run? Your most awkward physical moments will be turned into GIFs and loop eternally on browser tabs left open overnight. But you’d definitely play, right?
If your team lost the game, 9-2, would you blame yourself? Your teammates would definitely blame you. But I would reassure you that you are not to blame: A normal person who plays baseball like a normal person would bat ninth and almost certainly go 0-for-3 or 0-for-4 with nothing but strikeouts, but even Mike Trout does that from time to time (and his team still wins). Those at-bats only cost your team about one run, relative to an average hitter.
Your defense, meanwhile — how bad could you be? The average American League left fielder last year recorded fewer than two outs per game, so worst case you’d turn two outs into hits. But the worst case isn’t likely. There were about 10,000 balls hit to left fielders last year that were plausibly “catchable,” including those that were extremely unlikely to be caught, according to the scouting service Inside Edge. Of those, more than 80 percent were classified by Inside Edge to be “certain” catches, and sure enough, major league left fielders caught 99.2 percent of those. You played baseball/softball/kickball/catch once. You can surely handle some of those “certain” fly balls. (Home Run Derby kids catch a lot of fly balls, and they’re often way out of position and fighting with one another.) Would you catch half of them? I bet at least half of them.
So you miss the rest. But even if we don’t assume that the center fielder — whose coverage range overlaps a bit with the left fielder’s, and who would presumably be shading way over toward you — can bail you out, that’s about one dropped ball, turned into a double, per game. About one more run you cost your team.
And, I guess, you’d turn most singles into doubles (lol your arm) or triples (whoopsie-daisy there the ball goes). Maybe every single one, in fact. That’s still manageable: Only a quarter of hits inside the park go to left field, and after removing infield hits, that’s less than 1.7 hits per game to the left fielder: 1.2 singles, 0.4 doubles and a smidgen of triples. Upgrade every single one of those by one extra base, and it’ll only cost your team about four-tenths of a run per game.
So, worst case, you’ve added two or three runs to your team’s loss. The 9-2 loss is not your fault. Of course, your teammates think it is. The center fielder blames you for the ball he couldn’t catch in right-center because he had to play out of position in order to back you up. The pitcher blames you for the walks he issued, because he had to pitch away from the parts of the strike zone where a batter might hit the ball to you. Everybody agrees you were a distraction. So maybe it was your fault.
So, would you play the next day?
WHAT IF THE Marlins’ front office — what if Derek Jeter — tells you after the first game how grateful they are for you, that after another six weeks of this they’ll be able to afford to sign Manny Machado to play for them next year! What if stat-heads write articles arguing that for a negative million dollars per game on a tanking team you’re actually one of the best bargains in baseball. (“The difference between 65 wins and 50 wins means little to the last-place Marlins this year and will guarantee them the largest international bonus pools next July,” etc. etc.) Would it make you feel, dare I say, valuable? Could being the broken instrument in a janked-up system be a calling?
Is any action that is effectual by definition meaningful?
In a sport that exists only for competition, is any legal competitive act moral?
Do you, stranger, have any obligation to the integrity of the game?
What if the Marlins told you that, should you turn the offer down, they’ll just make the same offer to somebody else anyway? You can’t impose your morality on the Marlins. In fact, they’re talking to that dude Ben who used to bully you in middle school, and Ben is really excited about the opportunity. Would you play then?
If you do, now would you swing? Would you start to grow ambitions? Within a week you’d almost certainly have reached base by a walk, assuming you didn’t swing, which was rad. But it wasn’t a hit, and you didn’t get to keep the ball. Hmmm.
Pitchers are throwing you nothing but eased fastballs with middle-middle targets (although many of those pitches would miss their targets). You’ve started to time those fastballs up. You’re strong enough to get a line drive over the infielders.
You won’t hit .300. But who gets to define success for you? You do! And you know that a single hit in a major league game would be incredible — and that not getting one in a whole season on the Marlins will leave you permanently regretful. So you start to swing.
But have you thought this through? When you didn’t swing, there was a tacit harmony between you and the much larger men around you. When you swing, the truce is over. Pitchers start to throw hard again, just to embarrass you (and to avoid the faint possibility of being embarrassed by you). They throw curveballs to turn you into another GIF. They might even bean you, just to show you. Plus, if you swing, the defense will do that thing where one of the infielders yells, “Everybody in, way in,” while waving his arm dramatically in. There will be wide shots of the field, and the three outfielders will be 25 feet behind the outfield grass. It will be humiliating.
Meanwhile, your team — they know you’re not going to get a hit! Or, you might: You might get one hit every 300 at-bats, but at the expense of probably 10 walks. You’re out there ruining their season, turning their team into a farce, and the least you can do is take your walk a week and keep your ego out of it. Now here you are literally swinging against Clayton Kershaw! What are you doing? You think this is about you? You think this league exists for you to indulge some fantasy about having a batting average?
And the fans! We fans all liked you at first. Now we’re somewhere between bored and (because we haven’t really thought this through) jealous it’s you and not us. And here you are trying to get a hit off Noah Syndergaard like it would mean anything except that baseball is weird. Everything about this weird situation changes immediately upon you swinging: Before you swung, you were a good-natured avatar for us all, trying your best to avoid catastrophe in an overwhelming situation. We all feel that way. A lot of the time! But now, suddenly, you’re out there big-leaguing big leaguers. You’re ambitious and delusional, two of our most backlash-able qualities. When you make an error in the outfield before swinging, you’re consoled; when you make an error in the outfield after swinging, you’ll be savaged. The chances of you crying on TV increase sharply.
I’m sorry, you can’t swing. Maybe once, on 0-2, if you smile abashedly enough on your way back to the dugout.
This, I think, is why you wouldn’t play. One game, you’d play, just for the view. Five games, you’d play, because Derek Jeter asked you nicely. Six games, seven, maybe a dozen, you’d play, because you start to feel more comfortable — making a few more catches, making small talk with a couple of teammates during batting practice — and the seeds of self-confidence are starting to grow. But this is when it has to stop. You absolutely must get off the field before you do something stupid, like swing. Let middle school bully Ben make that mistake, and then dunk on him on Twitter.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you play the whole season, go 0-for-600, make 400 errors, get booed mercilessly every time you touch the ball. And, since it’s the Marlins, and Machado didn’t sign with them, and they still need the money, they invite you back for another year. Maybe it’s the greatest experience of your life, every day better than the one before. I don’t know. Maybe you’d get to play second base in Year 2. Would you play?