On Star Wars Day, may the force be with these MLB players, teams
Today is May 4, which thanks to the power of pun-fueled geekdom has become known in certain corners of the Internet at Star Wars Day, a phenomenon that coalesced in Toronto in 2011 based on a pun ("May the Fourth be with you") that is almost as old as the multi-billion-dollar movie franchise itself and has surprising roots in conservative British politics. MLB, another multi-billion-dollar industry, is no stranger to celebrating Star Wars, as promotional ballpark events featuring Star Wars characters have become increasingly common in recent years at both the major and minor league level (particularly in San Francisco, home to Lucasfilm Ltd., the production company of the saga’s creator, George Lucas). None of those tie-ins, however, really connect baseball to the movies in any direct way.
With that in mind, here’s my attempt to find the baseball equivalent to the titles of each of the seven Star Wars films (oh, and spoiler alerts follow, just in case there are actually people out there who still haven’t seen these movies).
Episode I: The Phantom Menace (release date: 1999)
In the first of George Lucas’s prequels to his original trilogy, the titular Phantom Menace is Senator Palpatine, a.k.a Darth Sidious, an alter-ego literally cloaked in secrecy and the man who will eventually rise to overthrow the Republic and become the evil Emperor himself. In baseball, the phantom menace is performance-enhancing drugs, an insidious threat to the integrity of the game that lurks in the shadows and has already undermined large swaths of the game’s history.
Already this season, we have seen Dee Gordon, the defending NL batting champion, and Chris Colabello, a key member of the defending AL East champions, receive 80-game suspensions, and former Mets closer Jenrry Mejia became the first player ever to receive a lifetime ban for a third positive test. According to Outside The Lines’ T.J. Quinn, there are still more suspensions to come, with at least one likely to be announced this week. Much like the prequel trilogy, fans would like to pretend that PEDs don’t exist, but they do, and they continue to menace the game.
Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
By Attack of the Clones, Palpatine has risen to become Supreme Chancellor and has ordered the creation of an army of clones with the intent of destroying the Jedi, the elite class of knights who were the defenders of the Republic. This year, baseball’s army of clones are the multiple rebuilding teams in the NL: the Braves, Brewers, Phillies, Reds and, to a slightly lesser degree, the Padres and Rockies.
Regularly pitted in battle against the elite teams in the league, the clones have been accused by some of destroying the competitiveness of the game by “tanking.” Whereas Palpatine’s clone army was a genuine and ultimately successful threat to the Republic and the Jedi Order, however, the NL’s clones are actually reaffirming the competitiveness of the game by dedicating themselves to a long-term return to contention rather than perpetual second-division status. It’s not tanking, it’s rebuilding, and it’s a time-honored method of restoring a franchise’s former glory, much like how the nearly unwatchable prequels ultimately birthed the series' glorious rebirth with The Force Awakens.
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Widely considered the best of the prequels, Revenge of the Sith largely exists to put everything in place for the start of the original trilogy. The Republic falls, Palpatine establishes the Galactic Empire, Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader, Luke and Leia are born and are placed with foster parents, their mother dies, and Obi-Wan Kenobi swipes Vader’s lightsaber and hides out on Tatooine. It’s all misery and sadness made palatable only by the knowledge of what is to come. If that doesn’t describe the 2016 Braves, currently the worst team in baseball with a 7–19 (.269) record but looking forward to opening their new ball park next season and to the arrival of top prospects Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies, I don’t know what does.
Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
The first Star Wars movie remains the best, and not just because it is the only one to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s so good, in fact, that J.J. Abrams largely remade it to begin the third trilogy last year. Though it takes place in the shadow of the Empire, A New Hope sees heroes rise from the ashes of the events of Revenge of the Sith. Those heroes mount a rebellion that will ultimately overthrow the Empire and reestablish the Republic.
That story weaves in nicely with that of the Royals. Once one of the most successful expansion teams in major league history, Kansas City made the playoffs seven times in its first 17 years of existence, a run capped by a World Series win in 1985. The team quickly fell into darkness, however. Over the next 28 seasons, the Royals had just eight winning records and never made the postseason, as rising salaries created a financial inequity in the game that buried many smaller-market teams like Kansas City at the bottom of the standings. Finally dedicated to rebuilding in the early 21st century, the Royals saw the emergence of a new generation of heroes, breaking a string of nine-straight losing seasons in 2013, before winning the pennant in '14 and the World Series in '15. In the process, they provided an example to other long-suffering teams and proved that the days of the Evil Empire were over, and that parity had returned to the Galaxy.
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Of course, before the rebellion could achieve its ultimate victory over the Empire, Lucas let the bad guys get in a few blows. Darth Vader is at his most evil in The Empire Strikes Back, freezing Han Solo in carbonite and handing him over to Boba Fett for delivery to Jaba the Hutt, then lopping off Luke’s right hand and crushing his entire worldview by telling Luke that he is his father. Oh, and a stormtrooper blows up C-3PO just for good measure.
Baseball's current Evil Empire? Lucas’s hometown Giants, who had already won championships in 2010 and '12 when they stopped the Royals 90 feet short of tying Game 7 in the '14 World Series to win their third title in five years. With the Yankees floundering, the Red Sox see-sawing and the Dodgers still looking for their first World Series appearance since 1988, the Giants may be striking back yet again in another even year, as they enter Wednesday’s action in first place in the NL West.
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
This is the long-awaited moment of the triumph of good over evil. An apprentice in Empire, Luke emerges as a full-blown Jedi Knight in this film and is able to reach deep into Vader’s soul to find the last vestige of good in his heart. Faced with a choice between his son and his master, Vader saves Luke and kills the Emperor as the rebel fleet blows up the second Death Star, destroying the Empire. It is the promise of A New Hope realized.
Who better to stand in for the hope of Return than the 2016 Cubs, who are not only reaping the fruits of a long rebuild but are also looking to destroy 108 years of oppressive futility by reaching the World Series for the first time since 1945 and winning it for the first time since 1908. They’re off to a tremendous start, leading the majors with a 19–6 (.831) record entering Wednesday’s action. Clearly, team president Theo Epstein and reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta are full-fledged Jedi Knights, with Epstein having already pulled off this trick once before in Boston (thus the “return” part of the title). I’d say reserve infielder Munenori Kawasaki is the Ewok in this analogy, but people like Muni.
Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)
Set 30 years later at a time when the restored Republic is being threatened by an Empire-like movement called the First Order, The Force Awakens is in equal measure a sequel to Return of the Jedi and a reboot of A New Hope. It succeeds on both fronts, capturing the excitement of the original film through similar story beats and moving the plot forward through a new generation of heroes every bit as compelling as those from the original trilogy. As a Star Wars fan thoroughly disenchanted by the prequel trilogy, I didn’t think Star Wars could ever again be as fun and compelling as The Force Awakens proved to be.
That successful new chapter is best represented by the current crop of young superstars in the game: Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, Giancarlo Stanton, the young fireballers in the Mets’ rotation, much of the Cubs’ lineup, last year’s top rookies (Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Kris Bryant, Miguel Sano), and the prospects who continue to emerge on an annual basis. Baseball is in a constant state of renewal, and this generation of young talent is as exciting as any I can remember in my lifetime. Harper is on a mission to make baseball fun again, and he and his contemporaries are doing exactly that, both with their on-field performances this season and the promise they hold for the future.