Despite being currently mired in a slump with no end in sight, I’m tickled pink with this game as of late. The game’s inherent frustrations (in that it accurately models a sport where succeeding a mere three times out of ten can grant you All-Star status) can be maddening while packed in amongst the hordes on a crowded, jostling subway car, but last night as I returned home from my level one Spanish class on a largely empty F train, the enormity of what I held in my hands took root. A burgeoning baseball world, beautifully rendered, creating a portable bubble of alternate reality (I know that’s just a flowery description for any successful handheld game, so sue me).

After the jump, all thumbs

I had a really good stretch in early May of 2013 where my average soared over .300 and I met all four of my advancement goals. It turns out there are indeed limited but explanatory missives from the management (thanks to forum member Triggercut for showing me how to access them), and that particular round of achievements led them to express their belief that I was indeed ready for the majors, but that there was no room for me at this time on the 40-man roster. Still, I was flattered, if disbelieving, as I still feel woefully outmatched at the plate, a perhaps self-fulfilling prophecy as I entered a tailspin shortly thereafter, my average sinking into the low .250’s where it currently stands. I still managed to meet three of my four most recently prescribed advancement goals (they involved inflating two particular stats and striking out no more than twenty times in that period), but they’re asking me to hit a home run again, and gosh darn it I just don’t seem to have the strength at this time, despite the one I somehow poked over the fence at the tail end of last year. For now I’ve got to grind, and hope I can catch hold of a mistake, maybe a slider that doesn’t slide. Management said if it were based on talent alone, they’d promote me (aw, blush) but that I’m just not putting up the stats to justify it at this time. I can’t argue with that.

I’ve had fielding turned off entirely in the name of both expediency and the avoidance of boredom, but a sudden desire to spend more time in the same space as my teammates (by way of an ever-deepening understanding of fellow Indianapolis Indians like Chase D’Arnaud) has led me to turn it back on, choosing to partake in only ‘some’ fielding opportunities as opposed to ‘all’ (a welcome option). It adds back an immediate layer of culpability, for example if you muff the throw to first base in a scoreless game and allow the runner to get on board, then they fast-forward to your player’s next moment and you’re still on the field but suddenly down three to zip? You feel the weight of that error on your shoulders.

The problem is that video game fielding often involves lining yourself up with a small white blob traveling in a straight line, then pressing a button to throw to a base. On a pop-up or fly ball, you might run to an icon on the field denoting the ball’s eventual landing place, then wait and admire the realistic animations of your player waving off other fielders or shielding his eyes from the sun as the ball eventually falls into his glove. If you’re lucky, it’ll be hit far enough away from you to necessitate a dive, which is all well and good and exciting. Otherwise, fielding can be a stultifying experience.

In real life, it’s nothing of the sort, at least for me. I’m sure for more experienced ball-players it’s all routine, but when I’m in the field, I’m generally so nervous that I have to fake it until I make it, telling myself that I want every single ball to come my way. When it does, it’s such an odd confluence of snap judgements made on very limited information (a far off gray dot hit with a certain sound along a certain trajectory) that I’m amazed at how regularly we as people manage to pull it off. Our pre-game practices are some of my favorite times, as tracking down low-pressure fly balls, especially tough to reach ones, is one of my favorite activities.

This bodily terror and instinctual mobilization doesn’t exactly translate to video games. I’ve tried turning off all visual aids and icons throughout the years, which has an edge-of-your-seat quality but usually leads to far too many outfield errors, since the camera views and unadorned action don’t quite provide the necessary depth cues to field successfully.

Notable attempts over the years to spice up the fielding experience include the stellar Baseball Stars on the Nintendo Entertainment System which, apart from being ahead of its time in allowing you to train and edit your team, featured a throwing system that granted maximum velocity contingent upon your pressing the base direction and the throw button at precisely the same time. There was a lot of diving to and fro on the field, and for such a simple game and simple controller, it all had palpable ‘oomph.’

All-Star Baseball introduced the “behind the fielder” view that Road to the Show employs, the better to put you in the shoes of the fielder you’re controlling. The fundamentals of icon-chasing and button-pressing remained the same though, albeit with dramatic views of the stadium stretching out before you. They even made the ball glow red one year, to help compensate for the limited ball visibility that sometimes came along with the new viewpoint.

MVP Baseball broke ground with its risk-reward ‘meter’ throwing system, enabling you to chance inaccuracy in exchange for added zip, and made headway in modeling players who felt less like ice-skating balloons and more like humans with two legs and actual bodily momentum. That sense of momentum is well-implemented in The Show, as a poor directional read of the ball off the bat can be impossible to recover from. Sony’s recent contribution to fielding, however, arrived last year in the form of ‘full analog control,’ which in this case maps the bases to perfect north, south, east and west on the right thumbstick, coupled with a risk-reward throwing meter, and making accuracy contingent on the player’s ability to navigate all three-hundred sixty possible degrees on an analog stick, with accuracy, under duress.

I didn’t like it.

I mean, I liked it, because it placed the onus for success more heavily on the accuracy of your input, but I was terrible at it. In normal game modes that use a broadcast-simulating camera, throwing to first meant flicking my right thumb due east, and I found said thumb especially unreliable when coupled with a controller that more often than not lay askew in my lap. Unless I made a great effort to sit straight and hold the controller level while keeping my eyes on the screen, due east proved a crapshoot, and throws regularly went high and wide.

The Vita proves an altogether more pleasant environment for these mechanics, as with screen and controller bound as one, it’s nearly always level (at least on the axis that matters) which, coupled with the behind-the-fielder view of Road to the Show that maps throwing to first to due west on the thumbstick (a far more natural move for my thumb, it turns out) creates somewhat novel fielding that can still go very wrong… just at a more realistic and less maddening clip.

Hey, my father’s birthday present just arrived in the mail… a wool replica of the 1970 Indianapolis (his hometown) Indians away jersey. I hope he likes it.

I wonder if my older brother Dirk got him anything?

Up next, the merits of inaction
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Seth Berkowitz is a film restorationist and musician living and working in New York City. He makes music with his wife and friends in the band Lucky Ghost, wakes up early to watch Japanese baseball, and is constantly reminding his cats to be patient because it’s not time to eat yet.