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The Simpsons (Classic): "Homer At The Bat"

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“Homer At The Bat” holds a few distinctions within The Simpsons universe. It represents the first time The Simpsons beat The Cosby Show in the ratings, but it also represents the first time the show had a large roster of big-name guest voices instead of one or two.

This made the show controversial among the cast. In the audio commentary, the writers and producers acknowledge that Harry Shearer and Julie Kavner hated the episode because it shoved the family deep into the background, so it could focus on big-name guest stars that were a huge draw at the time and would be a huge draw today.

In an interview a while back, Louis CK said one of the reasons sitcoms and dramas end up so muddled and homogenized is because they have to “service” every member of their cast: The lead needs a certain number of funny lines or close-ups or whatever the fuck it is he or she wants, and the supporting players will feel insulted or left out if they’re not prominently featured or if someone else gets the better lines.

The term “service” has a perhaps deliberate sexual connotation: You service a supporting player the same way a hooker would service a john. You sure service a star the way a hooker would service a john, and “Homer At The Bat” is filthy with star-power. On “Homer At The Bat,” the show needed to “service” nine huge baseball stars, or at least eight huge baseball stars and Mike Scioscia, so they understandably get all of the funniest lines, or at least the funniest lines not spoken by Mr. Burns.

“Homer At The Bat” is all about the guest stars, but it’s also about expanding the show’s universe into strange, surreal directions. As the writers and producers acknowledge, this presaged the direction the show was taking overall. Over the course of three seasons The Simpsons evolved or devolved, depending on your perspective, from a working-class family sitcom that regularly delved into the hazards and complications of being poor to a show where guest star Ozzie Smith could get stuck inside some crazy alternate dimension.

Much was gained when The Simpsons radically expanded its satirical scope to include everything in the known universe. But much was lost as well. As the show got bigger and bigger and bigger (and this episode was about as big as you could get in the early going), it began to pay less and less attention to the little things.

The zaniness kicks off at the very beginning, with an uncharacteristically engaged Homer habitually choking on a donut before he’s distracted by something much more important: the softball sign-up sheet. For the sake of the episode at least, Homer is obsessed with the plant’s perpetually unsuccessful softball team. 

The sequence that follows would be impossible to reproduce in a live-action sitcom: When Homer crows that he has a “secret weapon,” we’re treated to a machine-gun string of cut-away gags riffing on just what Homer’s “secret weapon” might be. Each fantasy is more ridiculous than the last. First, Homer has a giant glove able to snare anything in its path. Then, he’s able to bound from base to base on crazy spring-loaded shoes, before he ultimately simply zaps the opposite team with a laser. It’s a funny sequence, but it also establishes a precedent for combining baseball with surreal, non-sequitur gags.

Then we’re off into the more familiar territory of the film parody. “Homer At The Bat” takes its spine from The Natural, right down to the seemingly magical bat that transforms a never-was into a hitting dynamo. In a league where the “players” are primarily concerned with seeing how much beer they can chug without falling down, Homer’s magic bat gives him a distinct advantage. One might even argue it gives him an unfair advantage.

When it comes to advantages, however, nothing is unfair as far as Mr. Burns is concerned. So rather than risk going up against a competing plant with actual employees, Mr. Burns decides to temporarily populate the plant with the finest baseballers in all the land. And also Mike Scioscia.

In the spirit of overkill, Mr. Burns doesn’t just get one ringer or two. He gets an entire team of ringers recruited entirely from the world of Major League Baseball, though he’s forced to nix his original team of ringers when he discovers they’re all dead. The right fielder, in particular, has been dead for 136 years.

Of course nobody really knows baseball players as human beings, least of all themselves (got a little deep there for you, eh?), so the show has a lot of fun dreaming up unlikely preoccupations for them: In The Simpsons’ cartoon universe, Steve Sax plays stand-up bass in a jazz combo, Mike Scioscia yearns to work in a hydroelectric plant, Ozzie Smith is the ultimate tourist, and Don Mattingly is insanely domestic.

The baseball setting gives writers like John Swartzwelder free reign to indulge their love of baseball history at its most arcane, whether that means referencing “Three Finger” Brown or having Mr. Burns give his team Brain & Nerve tonic instead of tedious old beer or Gatorade. “Homer At The Bat” is an episode with a deep, irreverent love of baseball history. At this point, it’s also part of baseball history: It’s an unforgettable snapshot of what baseball royalty looked like circa 1992.

“Homer At The Bat” is burned so indelibly in the minds of Simpsons and baseball fans that to this day I think of Daryl Strawberry as the kiss-ass who tells Mr. Burns, “Some of these guys have a bad attitude, Skip,” rather than the famously troubled addict he is in real life. I suspect part of the reason this episode is so beloved is because we want to believe that guys like Strawberry could be their whimsical alter-egos, instead of the sometimes tormented and complicated figures they actually are.

The writers have a blast thinking up colorful ways for nearly the entire roster of ringers to get waylaid: Steve Sax is arrested on suspicion of being responsible for all the unsolved crimes in New York, Scioscia comes down with radiation poisoning that renders him incapable of speaking normally, Ken Griffey Jr. overdoses on nerve tonic, Jose Canseco gets smoke inhalation behaving in an uncharacteristically non-douchebag fashion, Wade Boggs gets clocked in an argument over British political history, Ozzie Smith gets sucked into a strange alternate-universe wormhole, Roger Clemens thinks he’s a chicken, and Don Mattingly simply won’t trim his damn sideburns.

Homer ends up winning the game as only he can—by standing still and getting hit in the head with a baseball. Just as I now think of Daryl Strawberry as a kiss-ass, the parody of “Talkin’ Baseball” that runs over the end credits has supplanted the original in my mind, perhaps because the original contains not a single reference to Ken Griffey’s jaw being horrifically swollen. That it runs alongside sepia-toned, artificially aged footage of the show we just saw (a brilliant meditation on the nature of instant nostalgia that doubles as powerful instant nostalgia) is the icing on the cake, further proof that during its peak years the show went to insane lengths to get everything not just right but perfect.

Stray observations:

  • “Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness made us smile”
  • I’m a little disappointed they didn’t get “Weird Al” to do the closing parody, but they got the singer of the original song, which is none too shabby.
  • I love how Strawberry cries a single perfect tear when he’s heckled.
  • “Still like him better than Steinbrenner.”
  • “By tomorrow, you’ll barely be able to breathe.”
  • “Something was lacking. Let’s call it heart.”
  • “No hustle either, Skip”
  • I would love it if there was an alternate-universe Simpsons where Smithers’ place as Burns’ favored suck-up has been usurped by Darryl Strawberry
  • “One more outburst like that, and I’ll send you back to the big leagues!”
  • “And there he goes off in that direction. And everyone is happy!”—I wish Marge called every game.
  • “Scour all the leagues. The American leagues. The National Leagues. The Negro Leagues.”