Deep Dive on a 'Deep Space Nine' Baseball-focused Episode
By Tammy Rainey
October 2st marks a little known and lightly regarded anniversary. Rightly so, if I’m being honest. Nevertheless, if you're looking for odd intersections between baseball and pop culture, it’s certainly one of the odder you'll find. Also, given that it’s situated at the crossroads of two of my very favorite things, when asked for articles for the “Pop” feature, I found the subject irresistible. And once you get past the admittedly cheesy episode in question, there’s actually something much more profound at the heart of this intersection.
In 1998, on the same night that the juggernaut New York Yankees completed their sweep of the underdog Padres, the fourth episode of the final season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine aired, entitled “Take me Out To the Holosuite.” Every one of you readers who are not Star Trek fans surely just said to yourself “what the heck is a holosuite?” so perhaps i should offer a brief primer on the series in question for those unfamiliar.
Unlike every other Star Trek series, DS9 is not set on a starship but rather on a space station. Therefore it has, typically, plot arcs (both in a given episode and over the course of a season or more) more given to political and military machinations, and interpersonal drama. Enabling this storytelling was a larger ensemble than the other Trek series but one in which all the regular characters were much more well developed than any but the top leads in other the shows. The commander of the station was a widower, Ben Sisko, raising a teen son alone and the crew and other station residents was an eclectic mix of several alien races rather than being overwhelmingly human. In the Star Trek universe of the 24th century, people used highly developed holographic technology capable of replicating almost any environment to a convincing approximation of reality. On DS9 there were “holosuites,” where one could rent time for a mini-vacation taking you anywhere from a romantic beach, to Victorian London. It is here that our episode’s baseball game takes place.
While the last four or five seasons of DS9 can be fairly ranked among the best TV science fiction ever produced, if I’m being honest this particular episode is not one that helped them earn that regard.
It has a fair share of fun character moments, but it's also padded ith every trope of baseball on film that you could cram into a television episode. The plot concerns a Vulcan (Trek fans will be aware that Vulcans are notorious for a passive but obvious arrogance as well as physical superiority to humans) who has been a decades long rival of Sisko, one who’d bested him in every previous contest and therefore provokes more than a little irrationality in our captain. The Vulcan captain, Solok, knowing that Sisko is an obsessive baseball fan has trained his command crew to be highly skilled at the game and takes the occasion to challenge Sisko and his crew (almost none of whom have ever even seen the game played) to a game. Sisko, naturally, accepts. Notwithstanding only Sisko, his son, and his currently absent girlfriend have ever played the sport.
You can imagine how the rest of the episode plays out, in terms of employing the standard tropes, even if you don’t know the characters at all. The only mildly creative twist is that the rag-tag team does not, in fact, find a way to beat the juggernaut Vulcan team but rather, Sisko learns to make peace with never having bested Solok and still enjoy the game for the friendship and camaraderie. Fans of the series enjoy the chance to see some of the characters out of their typical element, but the casual viewer will find it mostly predictable. There are a couple of fun bits of trivia, however. Sisko’s son Jake is played by Cirroc Lofton, who turns out to be a nephew of Indians great Kenny Lofton, and the Ferengi (alien) Rom, who’s mostly a comic relief character and who’s written as by far the worst player on the team, was actually played by the best ballplayer in the cast. Max Grodénchik considered pro ball before becoming an actor and is said to have played his part left handed in order to be as bad as the script required.
But this isn’t the only reference to baseball in Star Trek. Several of the modern series made reference to the game, usually with “historical” allusions that included “predictive” comments about baseball in the 21st century that were inevitably horribly wrong. The closest the get to anything that looks even a little right is a player described as “one of the greats” who was Japanese, debuted in the majors (in 2015) as a young man, and hit a lot of homers. All of this is so much background noise, except for one major scene - and that’s found in the premiere episode of DS9 in which Sisko’s intimate relationship with the sport provides a metaphorical framework for one of the best written scenes in all of Trek.
In that episode, as one would expect from a pilot, we see Sisko and Jake arrive at DS9 where he is to, not too enthusiastically, set to take command of what he anticipates to be a rather backwater situation. Soon we are introduced to the key players and the setting, which eventually lead to Sisko being drawn into a series of interactions with previously unknown and highly advance aliens (described in local legends as “The Prophets” and thought to be mythological). The Prophets do not experience time in a linear fashion and therefore are suspicious of all these recent arrivals to their doorstep whose existence they cannot comprehend. They present him with a series of visions from his past, or drawn from his knowledge, and question him about the meaning of his existence and particularly the aspects of life that can only be understood in a linear fashion (which is unknown to them).
Their focus is on the moment in Sisko’s recent past in which he lost his wife in battle. The perceive in his mind that he “exists here” - that is that even though the event is past, his existence, as it were, is stuck there. From there the discussion is built up exploring the ideas of past and future, memories as experiences which inform choices, and so forth. These encounters are the heartbeat of the episode and lay the through-line plot for the entire series. As they touch on each inflection point they say about the subject at hand (for example, procreation) “What is this?” But the most brilliant moment comes when the aliens suddenly shift from Sisko’s memories of personal experiences with his late wife, and his son, to a scene that looks very much like the on-field scenes in “Field of Dreams.”
To this point, the Prophets have been speaking to him through the voices of the other characters in his memories - a scene involving his son sees the alien taking on the face and voice of Jake as he questions Sisko, for example. But here, while Jake and other faces known to him are involved, there are also “classic” ballplayers, and everyone save Sisko himself is uniformed in early 20th century style outfits and a softly lit slightly out of focus field that might have been carved out of a cornfield. The transition from the one on one conversation to this scene which is obviously not a memory of a past experience is slightly jarring, but so is the nature of the questioning. Jumping immediately from a thread about how humans (and by extension humanoid species) reconcile their ignorance of the future with taking responsibility for their choices, they jump back to their initial impression of humans. “Aggressive, adversarial” the alien says as they are suddenly standing on a baseball diamond. But Sisko, by now adjusted to the nature of the discussion, doesn’t miss a beat as he recognizes the aliens are using competitive sport as a sort of analog for the adversarial nature they perceive in their visitors and have drawn on the one sport Sisko loves most.
“Competition, for fun!” he responds. “It’s a game...called baseball”
“Baseball?” the alien that looks like Jake responds, “What is this?”
Sisko initially does what any of us would do and begins to try to explain the actual game of baseball but soon realizes that not only do the aliens not appear to understand but that learning the rules of the game is not why any of them are there. What follows is a brilliant monologue in which Sisko essentially defines the core of human existence with baseball as a metaphor.
Sisko: “The rules aren’t important, what’s important is - it’s linear! Every time I throw this ball, a hundred different things can happen in a game. He might swing and miss. He might hit it. The point is - you never know. You try to anticipate, set a strategy for all the possibilities as best you can, but in the end it comes down to throwing one pitch after another - and seeing what happens.With each new consequence, the game begins to take shape”
Prophet: “And you have no idea what that shape is until it is completed…”
Sisko: “That’s right! In fact, the game wouldn’t be worth playing if we knew what was going to happen.
Prophet: “You value your ignorance of what is to come?”
Sisko: “That may be the most important thing to understand about humans: it is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. We are explorers. We explore our lives, day by day, and we explore the galaxy trying to expand the boundaries of our knowledge, and that is why I am here. Not to conquer you with weapons, or with ideas but to co-exist, and to learn.
The aliens will go on to challenge Sisko that, if all he has told them is true then his persistence in living in that moment in the past when his wife died is not consistent with the purpose of his life. But that aside, as important as that is to the plot of the episode, the magic here is the drawing out of the game he loves, that we love as baseball fans, into something grander than the base machinations of personalities and payrolls into a hand-painted portrait of what our life is ultimately about. For all the pride or regret or rethinking of what has past, the ultimate question is “What comes next?” As often as not, we face that question with dread and fear instead of open-faced curiosity and wonder, and this too is part of our nature because, as Sisko explained, our past informs our vision of the future. But just as in any given game the ridiculously improbable can happen (I submit for your consideration Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS) so too in any given life, tomorrow may well see the ridiculously improbable happen. If we knew what was going to happen, the game wouldn’t be worth playing. All we can do is throw one pitch after another. And see what happens.