Where videogames meet real life…
It has been a weird year for baseball. While pro leagues in Japan, South Korea and Japan have been playing safely since late spring, Major League Baseball didn’t start its truncated 60-game 2020 campaign until July 23, after acrimonious negotiations around player pay and safety were settled enough to move forward. We’ve since been treated to games with virtual fans, multiple teams suffering COVID-19 outbreaks and the unsettling feeling that the season shouldn’t be happening and could get shut down at any minute. In fact, by the time this piece is published, it may well have been canceled.
Whatever happens, at least we’ll still be able to engage in the cultural activity of Blaseball.
Described as an “absurdist, player-driven, online baseball league,” the browser-based simulator from The Game Band (who, apparently, may or may not remember creating it) skewers the sport with razor-sharp wit complemented by an ever-evolving social media-driven meta-narrative. Games take place as a series of play-by-play text updates, with players using fake currency to bet on the results and vote on what happens next. While the design is simple (without getting too far into the weeds, this primer covers everything you need to know), the more you dive into its alternate baseball universe, the more it reveals itself as an ingenious reflection of the bizarreness of real-world baseball.
Anyone who has played fantasy sports or follows baseball online will at least vaguely understand the Blaseball experience. Word about the game has spread thanks to an elaborate Twitter presence that spans an official league account (written by the league’s commissioner, who insists they’re doing a good job), along with accounts for each team, the #Blasistence (who think the commissioner is not doing a good job), a mock sports blog and at least one unofficial fan profile providing commentary. It has the feel of following fantasy sports online (and it does scratch that itch remarkably well) but with the absurdity sliders constantly cranked all the way up.
[pullquote]Baseball is weird even on its best day.[/pullquote]
Blaseball never breaks character either, committing to the bit whether you’re reading tweets about the game, getting email updates from the commissioner or visiting its Patreon page. The more people join the discourse on Twitter, the more it blurs the line between fiction and reality in a way that adds to the immersion. Topics of discussion run the gamut from news updates around the league, to reports of rogue umpires incinerating players (often followed with a sponsor call-out), to the commissioner calling for the day’s league-wide siesta when all players are ordered to go to sleep.
If this all sounds weird, it’s in part because baseball is weird even on its best day. This season in particular might be its weirdest on record too. So far, we’ve seen Minnesota Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz’s head pass through a virtual crowd on live TV. The Philly Phanatic, one of the game’s most beloved mascots, has been forced to dance by himself. The Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals both had multiple players test positive for COVID-19, in the latter’s case allegedly after hitting up a casino (could have just bet on Blaseball, guys). An Oakland A’s bench coach is under fire for issuing what looked like a Nazi salute during a game, claiming he was trying to do some kind of socially-distanced handshake.
Very normal stuff.
[pullquote] The only reason this didn’t result in punches getting thrown is because of an extremely contagious virus discouraging unnecessary contact.[/pullquote]
While weeks of social isolation have been hard on us all, teams seem to be taking out their frustrations in all manner of weird ways as well. For example, the Atlanta Braves organist played “Beat It” to taunt Toronto Blue Jays baserunner Reese McGuire, who was arrested earlier this year for public masturbation (no one needs to know the details). A bench-clearing “fight” broke out after Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly tried to hit several Houston Astros batters in retaliation for a sign-stealing scandal that tilted the 2017 World Series. The only reason this didn’t result in punches getting thrown is because of an extremely contagious virus discouraging unnecessary contact.
Even under “normal” circumstances, baseball has always been weirdly accepting of grown-ass dudes acting in ways that would be socially unacceptable in any other sport (or basic social setting). Until recently, it was common practice for players to chew tobacco on the field. Babe Ruth, one of the best players in the history of the game, was famously unhealthy and rumored to have downed beer and hot dogs at a bar across the street from Chicago’s Comisky Park between at-bats. In more recent history, the legend that Wade Boggs (a professional athlete) drank 107 beers in a day is based on some kernel of truth (and inspired an entire episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).
[pullquote]America’s favorite past time is ripe for satire and Blaseball might be the first piece of media in history to satirize baseball better than baseball satirizes itself. [/pullquote]
In short, America’s favorite past time is ripe for satire and Blaseball might be the first piece of media in history to satirize baseball better than baseball satirizes itself. When it says its players never tire, consider the fact that MLB teams ordinarily play 163-game seasons with few breaks between game days. When it mocks the commissioner’s lack of regard for player safety, consider the fact that baseball is being played during a global pandemic that’s not slowing down. Everything about it works precisely because it amplifies what’s already weird about baseball to begin with, rather than mocking the sport from a place of detached condescension or being over-the-top for its own sake.
While the return of baseball has ironically brought sense of normalcy to 2020, Blaseball could not have arrived at a more perfect time to show us that baseball was never normal in the first place. If the MLB fails to finish its season this year due its own greed and incompetence, at least we’ll still get to hang onto America’s pastime in some form, even if the action is reduced to watching stats go up and down while following increasingly impenetrable Internet banter that’s sometimes surprisingly difficult to distinguish between baseball fact and fiction. In fact, for something so absurd, it might actually be the most honest rendition of the sport we get this year.
Ben Sailer is a writer based out of Fargo, ND, where he survives the cold with his wife and dog. His writing also regularly appears in New Noise Magazine.