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Converting Haters to Believers: The 2011 MLB Season Begins Thursday

On Thursday, the 2011 Major League Baseball season is expected to commence. Baseball is often divisive: love it or leave it. But it doesn’t take a diehard to appreciate the sport. On occasion, I’ve heard people voice their displeasure for the game of baseball to me, citing the game’s methodical pace, extended season and stagnant activity.

I prefer to spin these features as positives. Although baseball lulls many to sleep with continuous pickoff attempts, 10-pitch at-bats, pitching changes and mound visits, the game’s unpredictability and uniqueness make it worthwhile.

Each season in MLB, records are broken, precedents are pounded and defending champions are upstaged.

I’ve been to countless baseball games, but last year I saw something I’d never seen before at a college baseball game, here at UC Irvine’s Cicerone Field. Head Coach Mike Gillespie acknowledged the percentages against an opposing team’s left-handed pull hitter, and decided to abandon half of the left side of his infield to throw his third baseman in left field and play with four outfielders.

In the 90s, I remember witnessing the Anaheim Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia bring centerfielder Darren Erstad in to form a five-man infield in an attempt to cut a runner down at the plate in the game’s late stages, but never had I seen a manager at such a high level experiment with four outfielders. The major leagues originated in 1869, yet every year, novelty can be found in all levels of baseball.

Baseball has no timer and wouldn’t dare allow two teams to disperse without deciding a winner. Nine, 11 or 25 innings, it doesn’t matter how long it takes, supporters are never shortchanged by a draw.  This guarantees bragging rights for players, coaches and fans.

Imagine a Yankees fan hollering, “Ay forget about it! At least we had more hits than you chumps tonight!” at a Red Sox fan after a 4-4 tie in a nine-inning game.

As the proverbial saying goes, a tie is like kissing your sister. Soccer and hockey may allow such an atrocious termination of a contest, but an MLB game never ends because of length. Call it old-fashioned, call it boring, but don’t you dare call it lame.

I’ll never forget the day my dad taught me how to keep an official baseball scorebook as I shared an armchair with him during game seven of the 1997 World Series. The symbols “K, 6-3 and F-8” might not mean anything to many, but it reminds me of that fall night in October in which I found out that K stood for strikeout swinging, 6-3 meant a groundout to the shortstop who threw it across the diamond to the first baseman for a force out and F-8 was a flyout to the centerfielder.

The Florida Marlins narrowly emerged with a game-seven victory in the 1997 World Series, and I emerged from my family’s living room with a new appreciation for baseball. Knocking off the Cleveland Indians 3-2 in 11 innings, Florida won its first World Series in just their fifth year of existence. The Marlins won their second title in 2003. Compare that to their opponent, the Cleveland Indians, who has won two titles in their entire existence with their last coming in 1948, a bitter realization for a town that has recently been trampled on by LeBron.

Many argue that 162 games of buildup to the playoffs is too much to handle. I say, nay. My roommates can’t stand when the Lakers lose one of their 82 games in the National Basketball Association. Baseball fans seem to place less weight on an urge to win every game. Life goes on when the Tampa Bay Rays fall to the Detroit Tigers, because an MLB team that loses 60 games is practically guaranteed a playoff berth.

The regular season may drag on and it may take a baseball extremist to watch every game of their team’s season, but knowing that there’s always a game to cure boredom during spring, summer or fall is what makes baseball so beautiful. From April to September, there’s always an opportunity to catch a game on TV or, better yet, in person.

But once October rolls around, it gets personal. As an Angels fan, I still have nightmares of David Ortiz poking an opposite field home run over the Green Monster off Jarrod Washburn in game three of the 2004 Divisional Series to knock the Halos out of the playoffs. And I’ll never forget the ecstasy of celebrating Anaheim’s 2002 World Series as Erstad camped under Kenny Lofton’s fly ball and recorded the most important F-8 in Angels’ history.

California is fortunate to host five professional baseball teams, the most of all 50 states. Chavez Ravine will host the Los Angeles Dodgers versus the defending champion San Francisco Giants at 5 p.m. on March 31. Southern California’s own San Diego Padres will start their season on Thursday at 1:15 p.m. in St. Louis and Northern California’s Oakland A’s face the Seattle Mariners on April Fools’ Day at 7:15 p.m.

The baseball team formerly known as the Anaheim Angels is now the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (from Orange County, in California, which happens to be 30 miles south of Dodgers’ stadium). They will start their 162 game campaign off in Kansas City at 1:10 p.m.

I might not jump out of bed like Jimmy Fallon’s Boston Red Sox fanatic character in the movie Fever Pitch, slapping an Angels alarm clock and sprinting down to the street in my skivvies to retrieve season tickets from a FedEx driver, but it doesn’t take a loon to love the game.

For those baseball haters, hang around the game for more than five minutes before popping off. Attend a game at Anteater Ballpark; after all, students get in free. Sit with someone who knows the game and can explain what’s going on to avoid confusion. It takes a true, knowledgeable and patient sports fan to appreciate the intricacies of a game that may take a few hours to complete, but always keeps enthusiasts on our toes. And if the unpredictability of a nine-inning game continues to bore you, go watch a definite sport, have fun looking yourself in the mirror when your team ties and make sure to use mouthwash after kissing your sister.