It's been 24 years since I last played baseball. Organized baseball, in a uniform, for a result reported to a league office and a newspaper. And it's been 24 years since I've felt that cold feeling in the pit of my stomach before a game, of being caught up in something I could not stop, with no turning back.
Sure, I enjoyed getting out of class early, going down to the gym, and pulling on the stirrups. I loved walking bowlegged down to the field, pretending to ignore the girls on the softball team, hearing my spikes ring off the concrete like a gunfighter's spurs. But it got library quiet when I stepped on the infield grass. Then there was an inexorable tension, like climbing the first big hill on a roller coaster, strapped in, no way to bail out. Click-clack, click-clack, click-click.
No matter what they do today to impersonate the lifestyle, glamour or spectacle of their leagues, many sports video games, particularly licensed ones, are still more about putting on the uniform rather than getting any dirt on it. With a reset button always available, any ugly result or bad beginning can be undone.
This isn't the case in Super Mega Baseball, which remains a personal obsession two months after Samit Sarkar and I gave it our sports game of the year honors. If you begin a game, even one against the computer, you must see it through to the end or you will be slapped with a loss. No excuses.
Pressing the X button to begin a game in Super Mega Baseball is an ultimate act
While it's true that online multiplayer modes for games such as Madden NFL, or Pro Evolution Soccer, or MLB The Show, will punish you with a loss (if not other sanctions) for quitting against human opponents, I can't remember this kind of unavoidable penalty in an offline career mode.
Why? Super Mega Baseball scores its games with "Starpoints" which are awarded for things like home runs and diving catches, and multiplied by the difficulty rating you select for the game. These Starpoint totals go on the game's leaderboards, and there's a leaderboard for the total Starpoints earned over a season (16, 32 or 48 games). The only way those scores and leaderboards have integrity is if each game played counts once and only once.
Otherwise, players could quit out and restart their bid at a no-hitter, or even just a 10-0 wipeout, to rack up a huge score and stay atop the boards.
Pressing the X button to begin a game in Super Mega Baseball is an ultimate act, not unlike the times I pulled on the stirrups in the gymnasium before a game against East Wilkes, or Allegheny, or Starmount. Whatever happens after that, you have to cope with it and overcome it. If you get out to a 3-0 lead, great. If that's vaporized by errors, bloop hits and bad luck, suck it up. That live-without-a-net feeling has led to some of the most sensational moments I've had in sports video gaming over the past year.
My team began its second season 13-9 and sat 5 games out of first place at midpoint of the schedule. All nine of those losses came because, well, I couldn't replay them. I then set a goal for the team of winning nine in a row, because we'd meet the first-place incumbent in ninth game, and I believed we'd catch them in the standings if we could pull off that winning streak.
Here's the ninth game.
We got into this jam in the fourth inning. In a video game where I can restart, the choices made while pitching in a bases-loaded situation are almost meaningless, because if it goes to hell, you can always try again, same team, same circumstances in the standings. Super Mega Baseball forced me into this, something I’d be proud to put on my tombstone. You can see the thinking behind each pitch. The catcher's decision not to throw down to second on the sacrifice is because the runner on third would absolutely come home.
We still gave up a run later. Again, my only option was to soldier through it or accept defeat. Here's the conclusion to this game, which tied us for first.
Here we are later, down 5 runs in the fourth inning — instant ragequit territory. The Crocodons are our most hated rivals. Yet two walks (one with the bases loaded) and a hit batsman set up one of the most cathartic home runs I’ve ever hit in a video game.
Here we are, trailing 1-0 in the fourth inning with an 11-game winning streak going. Runners at second and third. Look at this catch!
The moment is robbed of its meaning if I can simply quit out of this game and restart it if the ball lands for a home run. After this sensational catch, the right fielder then pounded a two-run home run to take a lead we would not surrender. I have never seen any player objectively swing five runs on her (or his) own in both halves of an inning, live or video game. I threw a fit.
And then there's this:
I closed out the season winning 24 of my last 25 on a very high difficulty setting. This last one came after my team had clinched the division, but it utterly wrecked my opponents’ hopes for their own playoff berth. That’s three runs in the 10th inning. I don’t get into that kind of a situation unless I know that quitting means an instant loss.
Yet the high drama of these games foreshadowed nothing in the playoffs. I didn't win the championship. I swept the divisional round of the playoffs and then got blown out in the final series, four games to two, going 32 straight innings without a run at one point. It was legitimately painful. Many times I had the urge to quit, and the only reason I didn't is because I knew that would eliminate any chance of victory while I still clung to the remote hope of one. I simply had to sit there and take it, and take responsibility for my poor pitching decisions, and my misplayed fly balls, and bad at-bats, that combined to wreck such a magnificent season.
I still reached the end of that season prouder of what I had done than anything I'd done in baseball since high school. I still have nightmares about that time, my legs kicking out the covers as I dream of running like hell after a line drive. I can hear myself, with runners on base and one out, hissing "walk me" through clenched teeth, terrified of having to put a ball in play. I remember the incomprehensible feeling of power in meeting a ball flush, no resistance, no sting in the hands, and driving it for a double to the gap, my father clapping his ass off wildly.
The fear and the joy of baseball is hard to relate to those who haven't been out in front of others, on a team, playing for an honest result. In stirrups. The oh-my-god-I'm-really-doing this, as you launch into a sliding catch, and the bursting pride when you come up with it, is anchored in the reality that two runs will score if you miss it, and there's no going back. Sports video games still have a long way to go before they can truly deliver that feeling. If they ever do, it will be by requiring everyone to finish everything they start, the moment they begin it.
Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears weekends.