If you asked me to pick a single piece of writing that ignited my young imagination more than any other, I’d name “Sports in the Year 2001
,” a fantastic bit of first-person futurism done by the staff of Sports Illustrated
back in July 1991. My not-quite-ten-year-old brain’s circuits blew out on practically every sentence: eight-foot-wide high-definition TVs, President Dan Quayle, the Florida Marlins as a concept.
So when the editors of The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball offered me a review copy, my not-quite-40-year-old brain’s circuits blew out.
The Society for American Baseball Research (or “SABR,” as in “Sabermetrics
”) usually themes its annual journal
around the region where their annual convention is being held. But this year’s The National Pastime
is a collection of articles, essays, and flash-fiction stories exploring what baseball will, or could, look like in 2040 and beyond—with epistolary press releases from future Major League Baseball commissioners mixed in.
Edited by Marty Resnick
, a futurist and analyst, and Cecelia M. Tan
, an SFF author and SABR’s publications director, The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball
boasts a table of contents with names that will catch the eye of both baseball and science-fiction diehards (although the Dusty Baker cited here is a young TV sports anchor
who was named after that
The journal starts as you’d expect: with the data. Having polled SABR members with 16 wisdom-of-crowds style questions about what issues and technologies might impact baseball by 2040, they set the table for a smorgasbord of future possibilities.
A plurality of respondees, 34 percent, named “climate change” as the most significant factor impacting baseball over the next two decades, and the theme runs through the anthology. From the opening piece on futuristic uniforms to casual mentions of overhead weather shields and Dr. Lawrence Rocks
‘s rigorous examinations of how climate will impact every aspect of the game, there’s no escaping the environment reality that’s already forcing MLB to adapt
On the field is a different story, and that’s where the stories come in.
Tan’s “Signs of the Times” was a delight, a flash-fiction peice from the first-person perspective of a female relief pitcher making her big-league debut. Clever worldbuilding of future baseball tech and believable personal relationships between the players combine for a punchy ending.
In a futurist anthology, a focus on firsts (first woman, first trans person, first MLB team in Europe, etc.) is impossible to avoid. But Tan wisely makes protagonist Sally the first woman to pitch in the AL, including a throwaway line about the majors’ gender barrier having been broken in the National League years before. It keeps the story’s edge internal—and more about the action on first than the hoopla around first.
When I saw alt-history titan Harry Turtledove
‘s name under “Under Coogan’s Bluff,” I knew we’d be looking back as well as forward. Turtledove didn’t disappoint, offering the REAL answer to Internet-prompt questions about what we’d do with a time machine: put our sports teams up against history’s greats.
The 2040 World Series-champion Kansas City Royals lose a coin toss against the 1905 New York Giants, and so have to go back in time to a smoggy, dirty New York City. They play with giant wooden bats and tiny leather gloves, and face fans and competitors hurling epithets we don’t say in 2040 (thankfully, Turtledove elides them in 2021). The sense of time and place is excellent, as is the first-person description of the action. When the protagonist steps into the batter’s box against Christy Mathewson, we know he knows what it means, too.
Resnick’s “The 'Natural’” gave us a very quick taste of what it would be like to play the game with artificial limbs; I was hoping for a little bit more on that front. Questions around prosthetics, anti-aging tech and pre-emptive surgeries (let’s just go ahead and give every 19-year-old pitcher an unbreakable ulnar collateral ligament
, yes?) seem very close to needing answers.
Several pieces dove deep into VR, exploring current uses for training, future uses for broadcasting games, and even simulating playing baseball anywhere, against anyone. Cathy Hackl
and Nate Nelson
‘s closing piece shows how we might not be able to put a slugger from 2040 up in a 1905 hotel with strict anti-butterfly-effect rules—but you or I might be able to step into the batter’s box against any Hall of Famer there’s pitch-tracking data for.
Futurism is hard, of course, and projecting how quick technology will progress down any given path necessarily means getting stuff wrong. The first future press release from the future Commissioner of baseball (which were broadly delightful, and packed full of easter eggs for baseball nerds) mentioned that the Cleveland Indians changed their name to the Cleveland Commodores in 2022. Except, well, they changed their name to the Cleveland Guardians
a couple weeks ago [ALSO: I sure hope my Detroit Tigers won’t get realigned into a division with the Texas Rangers, what a gross road trip
]. I also loved that James Breaux went there
with his novel excerpt about playing on Mars, but I’m currently quite pessimistic that we’ll have that level of functional society there any time soon.
The greatest strength of this book, for me, was how all the pieces were kept tight. That futurist issue of Sports Illustrated had only the one feature article, plus a kids-these-days column griping about declining stadium attendance. The Future According to Baseball is packed with great pieces in a variety of forms, from imagining future baseball cards to a meditation on baseball’s connection to mid-20th-century Space Age excitement. Unlike some fiction anthologies anchored by one big, meaty piece, there’s plenty of everything for everyone in here.
Well, everyone who was enough of a sports geek to read Sports Illustrated when they were nine, I guess.
If you fit in to that slice of Venn diagram where “sports” and “imagination” overlap, I know you’ll love this book.