The Big Inning: the Beginning

The Big Inning began in March 2016, with the goal to capture each day of baseball in the form of a single inning // Writing & sketches by Brendan Donley

The idea came in part from the last line of an Ernest Hemingway poem he wrote in high school, which ends like this:

 

He slams that ball upon the bean,

Almost seems to make it scream.

The center fielder nabs the ball;

It seems as if t’would make him fall.

But stop of this rank stuff,

Just one inning is enough.

 

/////

 

Thoughts about the “Inning”: 

 

I was reading an article recently, describing the big inning as when three or more runs score in a single frame, how an ideal lineup brings across the most possible runs in these innings. String enough of them together, and you have a few wins and eventually a winning season.

Nothing new here: Score more runs and you’ll win the game. The idea seemed like one of those huh? moments from an ESPN analyst at half-time toward the end of a long season, without much material left in the bank of original insight—The Dallas Cowboys need to score the football to win this game, it’s that simple.

But the idea of the big inning feels more lively than wide-ruled textbook strategy, the type of thing that can’t be constrained by anything statistical or even reasonable.

It walks and talks more like a prayer, a hopeful call to the gods of desperation that ties managers, bench players and broadcast crews together whispering under their breath: “Come on you [your team’s name], we need a big inning, here!”

And what is an inning anyway, “big” or not? Baseball has no quarters, halves, periods, sets or rounds. There are nine, often 10 or 11, sometimes 18. Our other great sports get sliced up and quartered like a sandwich made to perfection, but Inning, inning is like a jar of canned fruit that has no reliable size, taste or coloration. It doesn’t sound like math—it sounds like winning and beginning and sinning, like either a great stroke of sports invention or someone having let something faulty slip past the editors and stay embedded the original game design.

There are extra innings, 1-2-3 innings, clean innings, early innings, perfect innings, innings eaters and the tipsy joy of the seventh-inning stretch. We talk about pitching greatness by the inning: innings pitched, consecutive scoreless innings, perfect through seven innings.

An inning can scurry by in five minutes or take a detour and drag on for an hour like a big shameful smear on the team E.R.A. with the right combination of walks and slap singles.

With no regard to any sort of clock, the inning is two sides of the same coin, a top-and-bottom sports unit not found anywhere else (except cricket?). It’s the only game unit I’m aware of that can be written in decimals—Felix Hernandez with a dominant showing over 7.2 innings pitched today.

And in between innings, the ballpark fans get treated to something special—no cheerleaders, no half-time shows, but the simple pastime of watching the grounds crew re-water and rake the infield, the outfielders play long-toss and the new reliever come in and take his first few warm-up pitches.

We baseball fans have the many nightmare innings we don’t want to remember, the top or bottom of the ninth in a spoiled near-win or walk-off loss in a pennant race. As a Cub fan, the memorable big innings in my own life line up in a long and mostly depressing row, like a stubborn set of bowling pins I can never knock out of my memory.

You have the top of the 8th inning, Game 6 of the NLCS against the Marlins—October 14, 2003. Cubs start the inning up 3-0, end it down 8-3, heading home with the sad souvenir of making the nondescript infamous in Steve Bartman, the perfectly unfair mascot for 100 years of spite and misery. Then there’s pretty much every inning of the 2015 NLCS against the Mets (in which the new-look Cubs never once held the lead and Daniel Murphy sold his soul for total baseball-battering dominance). And every fan over a certain age well knows the bottom of the 7th in 1984 against the Padres, again in the NLCS, when an easy ground-ball rolled under Leon Durham’s glove—a moment of grief that feels almost inherited, a genetic curse of the hopeless Cub fan.

Despite the focus here, few fans attend games expecting to remember single innings. Same goes for hour, date, pitch count, markers other than the visuals of the scene and the feelings associated. We remember Matt Adams smashing Clayton Kershaw’s hanging curve into the right-field stands at Busch Stadium, breaking open the series. But when was that exactly?

Babe Ruth changing hands from the Sox to the Yanks didn’t occur over a single inning, or game even, nor did Hank Aaron’s resolution one day on the Atlanta Braves that he’d stride up to the plate and break Ruth’s own long-standing home run record. The moments are just sort of… there. Floating around, tied to a year and a team and a video clip—but an inning? Who ever talked about the inning? Bottom of the third, 1985, remember?? The back-to-back walks and then the ground-rule double to put us ahead??

So if for no other reason than to follow the league’s action in a new way, think of the inning as the new unit of highlight, the “bigger” the better, like a long reel of must-see moments, without the headlines or replays to back them up. We look for the big inning, the notable inning, the crazy inning, the fantastic inning, the unbelievable inning, the agonizing inning, the fill-in-the-blank-here inning that adds some little chunk to the weird and amazing story baseball keeps telling us every year.

—March 2016, sometime in the I-can-no-longer-wait-for-April days of Spring Training.

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