My circle-changeup zipped off the batter’s check-swing and into left field. It should have been a routine out — Rex Hudler even said so — but the left fielder was clearly dogging it, because it landed along the line in shallow left. The runner on third, crafty bastard, sprinted home, taking my one-run lead with him.
Anyone who’s ever gone even a single inning in any baseball video game can feel the pain. This one was different, however — not only was the game on the line, but so was my future as the Braves’ rookie pitching phenom.
Unlike Ben Sheets, Joe Mauer, and Grady Sizemore, I’ve never actually camped in the cleats of a baseball player who had to scratch and claw their way through a rookie Grapefruit League season, trying to prove their worth to a major league roster and avoid the ignominy of a trip to the minors … or a trip to nowhere.
Traditionally, baseball video games have avoided trying to capture this aspect of baseball the way National League pitchers avoid Barry Bonds. Sony’s first baseball offering on the PlayStation 3, puts it in the leadoff slot. (Given Sony’s reputation as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays of first-party baseball game development, this is even bigger news than the revelation that Jason Giambi is a king-sized hypocrite.)
In MLB 07′s new Road to the Show mode, you create a player, pick a position, and then, in a radical departure that takes some serious getting used to, you only get to play and control the parts of the game in which you’re directly involved, fast-forwarding through everything else. If you’re a pitcher, that means 3-4 innings of hurling — assuming things go well — and bam! The game’s over and you’re checking your box score. If you’re a fielder, you get even fewer chances to affect the game — you’ll bat 3-4 times and only field the balls that are hit your way. During each game, the game gives you specific goals you need to meet. Succeed, and you’ll get points to improve your stats — and your chance of being offered a contract.
In the typical franchise and single-game modes of sports games, you’re controlling everybody on the field, so it’s basically your fault if you misjudge a fly ball that turns into the double off the wall that turns into the winning run. There’s a fundamental, critical shift in perspective when huge aspects of the game are out of your hands. Your mistakes are magnified. You’re faced, like me, with the prospect of resenting a teammate whose error may have just cost you a contract. You begin to understand why Roger Clemens grew to hate the ridiculous lack of run support he got from his Astro teammates last year. And suddenly, the concept of “baseball sim” takes on a much deeper, interesting meaning.
I’ve been clamoring for story modes in sports games for several years, but too often, the developer’s notion of “story” has been tied to the celebrity lifestyle of the professional athlete — the bling, the fashionable wardrobe and haircuts, the demanding e-mails from agents and would-be groupies. That’s part of it, sure — the sexy part — but to me, it’s not nearly as compelling as being the star of that old feel-good story. You know, the one about the rookie who beats the odds, surprises the coaches, and makes the squad.
Like most rookies, the experience is far from perfect. The goals the game assigns you don’t always feel realistic or fair — it’s tough to think you’ve “failed” when you just got Albert Pujols to chase strike three instead of inducing the ground ball the computer/manager requested. But like most rookies, there’s opportunity to polish and refine. MLB 08 is probably only nine months away.
Now that my ERA has swelled like David Wells’ gut, I need to head to the stadium to bolster my control. My slot in the rotation for this year is safe … but dude, there’s a contract year coming up.