Last season, I retired as a baseball fan. After two decades of watching pretty much every Braves game of the Bobby Cox era, and then writing a book about the experience, I was a bit burned out on the Bravos. With Fredi Gonzalez taking over, I thought it was the responsible thing to do to take a step back, to allow the Braves to find their own way without Bobby, and myself, around to provide guidance and support. As it turned out, stepping back was easier than I suspected it would be. I still kept up with box scores and highlights, and I watched the Braves when they were on national broadcasts, but I didn’t subscribe to MLB Extra Innings, and as the weeks went past, as much as I loved baseball, I realized I didn’t miss devoting three hours a night to watching games.
Yet this season, I have returned to baseball and the Braves with a vengeance, mainly because of a video game. MLB 12: The Show was released on March 6, a few weeks before the regular season began, and I started painstakingly playing my way through a Braves season. I played one game a day, usually late at night just before going to bed, each game requiring about half an hour of my time and giving me fleeting moments of Zen when I don’t have to be plugged in to Twitter or email or the rest of the world.
While on some level video games can provide an escape from reality, every time I turn on MLB 12: The Show, I have to sit through the game’s opening scene, rehashing the improbable way the 2011 MLB season ended, when the Braves and Red Sox each choked their leads in the race for the Wild Card over the season’s final month. Each time I am able to dismiss that horrible reminder of our nightmare finish with just a simple click of the “x” button, I say a quiet thanks. It’s not much, but it’s something.
MLB 12: The Show is not the greatest video game ever made, and it’s probably not even the best baseball game of all-time. (For my money, the most fun baseball game of all-time was born out of necessity, when EA lost the right to make an MLB game and instead produced MVP 06: NCAA Baseball, with aluminum bats and dozens of college stadiums.) So while it may not be amazing, MLB 12: The Show is a perfectly capable and above-average baseball game. I have played The Show for years, usually playing in the Road To The Show mode as an invented player working my way toward the majors. In MLB 12: The Show, there have been obligatory changes to the hitting and pitching systems, as we see every year, though as a The Show traditionalist, I appreciate the option to regress to just using buttons, like back in the Nintendo days. And I’ve been more admiring of some smaller visual tweaks this year that blew me away, like when I drilled a ball down the left field line into my bullpen, and the pitchers seated along the bench scattered to avoid getting hit.
By the time the actual MLB season started, I was up to playing two games a day and simulating entire home series so I could play games in new and different parks. Going on the road with the Braves was invigorating: I was thrilled to gets some ABs at Fenway Park, to see the setting sun at Dodger Stadium, to find out if I could hit a ball further than usual while visiting Coors Field. I even played a game in Marlins Park before the actual Marlins had.
For me, the strangest part of playing MLB 12: The Show is that I find my virtual managing style mimicking the approach of my managing mentor, Bobby Cox. To be clear, I never actually took managerial lessons from Cox, but I seem to have unwittingly absorbed his ethos, believing it to be the best way to win games over the course of any season, virtual or real. For instance, I give my starting catcher an automatic day off when there’s a day game after a night game, regardless of his energy level. I also find myself trusting pitchers perhaps a batter or two longer than I should, believing they (or, rather, I) can work their (or, rather, my) way out of a jam instead of replacing them with a fresh arm from the bullpen. Cox historically went with his pitchers for too long, and whenever one of my pitchers gives up a run after I try to leave him in and squeeze another batter out of him, I hear the sound of my father in his study, yelling, “Take him out, Cox!” at his television. Only now I feel like he’s yelling at me, which he isn’t, although in a way he is. I suppose I should bring all this up with my shrink.
Maybe this is the most literal gift a video game can offer, helping connect the lines between a virtual world and real life. I had always watched baseball as an escape, and when it became a job, the fun dissipated. Now that baseball is an escape once again, I’m finding myself all in with the actual Braves, watching nearly every game in this, Chipper Jones’ final season. Particularly because, thanks to MLB 12: The Show, I already know the Braves are capable of sweeping the Yankees in the 2012 World Series.
And yeah, I fully realize that in order to escape from my real world and the real digital traps that accompany it, I had to lose myself in an unreal digital world, which in turn helped me rediscover something I enjoy very much about the real world. Hey, whatever works.