My high school was so small, baseball tryouts were really more of a first practice, because everyone would make the team. That’s a good thing, because in the spring of 1988 I was up there missing every pitch, terribly. In my mind’s eye, I was trying to replicate the swings I saw in Hardball! on the Commodore 64, which was one of the first sports video games to have a broadcast-like depiction.
Coach Dillon rolled his eyes when I blamed video games for my terrible swings, and gently asked that I stop playing them during the season. I chuckled at this memory when I stood on first base last weekend in Cooperstown, N.Y., — the mythological home of the sport and site of its very real Hall of Fame. I honestly believe I got my hits there thanks to buckling down and playing MLB The Show 19 as a hitter, like I haven’t in almost a decade.
I wasn’t patterning my swing on my created superstar, who bats left-handed (I’m a righty). But I was using all of the anticipation, guesswork and patience I had developed in batting .400, on Hall-of-Fame difficulty, during his rookie season. Sure, there were a few restarts of some pretty bad games. But I still had to hit the ball, and this year, I applied myself at the plate, feeling as though I had been neglecting half of the game by focusing so much on pitching in past career modes.
The truth of it is I was scared. Honest to God fear of failure, as raw sitting alone in my living room as it was standing in the batter’s box in 1987. “It actually brings back bad memories,” I told my father, when I was reviewing The Show 19 back in March, even though this series is always a favorite. Dad’s gentle laugh reminded me he had some bad memories, too; he took a lot of work afternoons off to politely clap and encourage me through a lot of gruesome, three-pitch whiffs.
My created star in AAA ball in MLB The Show 19.
I kind of wish Dad could have seen me in Cooperstown, playing three games on an adult-league team with a buddy from graduate school. Not because it’s Cooperstown, but because even in my hitless at-bats I was working the count deep and getting out on solid contact, which would have validated all the hang-in-theres and anything-closes and get-em-next-times from high school. My only explanation for my newfound courage is The Show 19, because I hadn’t been working out or taking live batting practice before my trip north.
Whether it’s in a video game or real life, hitting is about taking advantage of a pitch the guy on the mound does not want to throw. Could be a mistake pitch, could be a weaker pitch meant to set up a better one, could be the offspeed coming after fouling off his bread-and-butter fastball. It will not shock you to learn that amateur pitchers in their 40s and 50s don’t have much of a breaking ball or confidence in it, and their command is limited to generalities of high or low rather than nicking corners on purpose. I went to the plate looking to pick on those weaknesses, and I would pull it out by battling the way I do in The Show.
Sure, MLB The Show 19’s systems for guessing pitches are specific to that game. It’s not like, in real life, I can see a batting reticle that slightly expands to tip me off that the offspeed is on the way. But it does place me in the mindset of just looking for a pitch I can handle, which is a simple approach that I could never take as a scared, scrawny teenager. The Show 19 has several ways to guess at hitting; the one I use encourages the player to guess broadly. Correctly anticipating either the pitch type or its location (in one of eight areas) will provide a tip off before the delivery arrives. If you try to guess both the pitch and the location, you have to get both right for any tipoff. And then, of course, you still have to swing and hit it.
Well, in Cooperstown, I visualized my at-bats in much the same way, looking more for hunches and broad characteristics in a pitch rather than a specific type or location. Batting with the bases loaded in the first game, I let the hurler, a man in his early 50s from Philadelphia, throw the first pitch anywhere, purposefully not swinging even if he grooved one. He missed high, and I figured I would start seeing low pitches if he overcompensated in his delivery, and sure enough that happened for the next two, one of which I took for a strike.
Behind in the count, I figured that he wouldn’t throw a breaking pitch because he needed more confidence in hitting the zone. I fouled off some marginal fastballs and took others that were plainly wide, getting to 3-and-2. At this point, he’d gone so long throwing me nothing but straightballs that he seemed compelled to try out his slider just for variety’s sake. And I jumped all over it, for what seemed like the first time in my life.
It had enough of a humpack to qualify as a hanging breaking ball and it drifted enough to cause me to slow my swing as it was starting. But there was no doubt I was getting the pitch I wanted, where I wanted it, and I blasted it straight back through the center of the infield, a line drive that was just a little too squared up to beat the center fielder to the gap. Not that either I or anyone else on the team would be taking extra bases anyway. But the tying run came in on my hit, and I would later score the winning run on a sacrifice fly.
It really did feel like all of my practice in a video game had paid off in real life, which is nothing I can say about any other sports video game. This is largely because the batting view closely resembles what you’d be seeing in real life at the plate, whereas the cameras in Madden NFL 20 or FIFA 20 have a kind of omniscience that greatly informs where you should pass the ball or look for a teammate, for example. I went up to the plate in Cooperstown mindful that the decision to swing means you have to be comfortable with ending an at-bat on that pitch, for good or bad. That seems like a simple attitude but it’s half of the planning that goes into my virtual at-bats with a more powerful avatar, too.
But more important than where I was hitting, or who I was with, I was enjoying the game of baseball, thanks to a video game.The best sports video games are the ones that honestly teach players something about how the sport is played, and go on to expand their enjoyment far beyond the fun and vicarious thrills found inside a PlayStation 4. Likewise, a coach or manager’s job is to create opportunities for their players to gain a greater understanding of their talents.
Well, if that was Coach Dillon for me 32 years ago, it’s Sony San Diego and MLB The Show 19 for me today.
Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on sports and video games.
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