There’s more poetry in loss than there is in victory. With a victory, you know exactly what you’ve won: whatever contest it was you entered. A war, the All-Valley Karate Tournament, a spelling bee, and so on. There’s no need for poetry, because the rewards are obvious to anyone paying attention. Stories about loss need to be reframed. The key is finding the victory hidden inside the defeat, whether it’s Rocky going the distance against the champ, three hundred Spartans dying in a lonely mountain pass against impossible odds, or John Henry giving up his life to prove a man’s heart can’t be mechanized.
This is a reoccurring theme in sports movies. Good thing, too, as the trope is used so much we, as the audience, can never be assured our heroes will win the big game. Oh, they’ll win, learning some valuable lesson about friendship, or teamwork, or giving it your all, but they might not have the most points at the end of the game. It reflects reality pretty well, as sports fans have to learn that the “good guys” (meaning the arbitrary collection of players wearing the jerseys you’ve decided to cheer for) can’t always win. It’s baked right in there. Hell, Sisko was able to explain the very concept of time to the Prophets by using sports-based uncertainty as a selling point.
I’ve talked a lot about how science fiction gives the writers a chance to play in any genre they can think of, so long as they slap a veneer of space and lasers over the top. This week’s episode, “Take Me Out to the Holosuite” just might be the strangest. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun, and welcome after the grim sixth season and the coming darkness of the seventh. The crew of DS9 is playing a baseball game against a team of smug, arrogant Vulcans. Yep, it’s a slobs vs. snobs sports comedy starring our favorite space badasses as the slobs.
When the T’Kumbra, an all-Vulcan Federation vessel returns from deployment at the front lines, Sisko is on edge. He greets the captain, Solok, with all the eagerness of an elderly man welcoming a doctor’s hand in his rectum. Sisko’s entire posture radiates the kind of pure loathing he generally reserves only for Michael Eddington, only this time with less shouting and no threats to virus bomb a colony. Although you can kind of tell he’d like to.
Solok wastes no time running Sisko down either, making snide references to Sisko’s Pike Medal (Solok has two.), DS9 being behind the lines (The T’Kumbra has been in combat for months.), and the inefficiency of the repair schedule. (So help me, you do not diss the Chief.) Sisko handles Solok a bit like he handles Kai Winn -- with kid gloves and many silent, fervent prayers that the other person will turn into a Jem’Hadar and Sisko can do what he does best.
Solok’s final insult is this: He’s built a baseball holoprogram, formed a team from his crew, and challenges Sisko to a game. This final bit of pettiness really puts Solok over the top in terms of smug assholes. This Vulcan couldn’t care less about baseball. He’s only doing it to best Sisko at his game. Which is really kind of sad when you think about it. Sisko hasn’t mentioned Solok once in the duration of the show, yet Solok is still seething with their one-sided and two-decade-old rivalry that he puts this whole program and team together out of obsession.
We learn the origin story of the animosity much later in the episode after Sisko gets more and more on edge about the game. Basically, Solok is an arrogant, racist prick who thinks Vulcans are better than everyone else. Back in Starfleet Academy, Sisko disagreed and decided to wrestle Solok to prove a point. In Sisko’s defense, he was drunk and in his twenties. That was back when drinking and wrestling legitimately were the top two tactics to solve any problem. Solok beat the hell out of Sisko and proceeded to write five psych papers on the subject, proving that Solok is the one having trouble letting stuff go, and maybe, just maybe, has more emotions than he would admit to.
Sisko’s team, though they’ve all watched baseball games with their captain, most have never played, and it shows. Bashir and Worf have raw athletic talent, but that only goes so far. Chief has the kind of lumpy physique that makes good players, but suffers a rotator cuff injury in practice and becomes the team manager. Only Jake, Sisko himself, and Kasidy (who he pulls some strings to bring in as a ringer) have both talent and skill.
It’s funny, because though the camera tries to hide it in some cases, it’s obvious which members of the cast know what they’re doing and which don’t. Watch the ease with which Cirroc Lofton plucks a ball out of the air (His uncle was a player on the Atlanta Braves at the time.) or the way he believably uses his lanky frame as a pitcher. Aron Eisenberg is similarly comfortable behind the plate, and it’s a nice nod to his friendship with Jake that the two of them would be paired as pitcher and catcher. Nana Visitor and Nicole de Boer, though, are hopeless.
Which brings me to Rom. Every team sports movie needs its Timmy Lupus -- you know, the lovable screw up -- and that’s Rom. Hilariously, Max Grodénchik is such a good baseball player in real life, he seriously considered going pro. To believably fake Rom’s incompetence, he played left-handed (and in Ferengi make up, which can’t help visibility much). Rom is so bad, Sisko kicks him off the team after a brutal rant. There’s a brief revolt (underlining how much Rom is liked by the rest of the crew), but Rom convinces everyone to play. He’s the one who truly gets that the team is bigger than any one of them.
The game finally rolls around and it’s a rout. A complete massacre. Our heroes are completely shut out as the Vulcan team -- called the Logicians because of course they are -- hammers in run after run. Sisko loses his mind over a blown call, and in the argument, touches the umpire (Odo, because Sisko wanted someone completely impartial but also wanted a living being) and is tossed from the game. He sits down near Rom, and this distance from the contest gives him what he needs to appreciate what’s happening. He remembers something important: This is a game, and the team is the most important thing.
In the 9th inning, with Nog on third, he calls Chief over to pull the batter and send in Rom. Rom bunts (accidentally, of course) allowing Nog to score. If there’s a better metaphor for the father-son relationship, I haven’t heard it. It’s an entirely symbolic victory, but the good guys go absolutely nuts, celebrating like they just won the World Series. They kind of did: Their sole RBI of the afternoon came off the bat of their worst player, who gets a moment of redemption that also helps his son. In this moment, they get more joy out of the game than the Vulcans ever did. And isn’t joy what games are all about?
Solok, of course, can’t handle it, and when he confronts Odo over the celebration, he slips for just a moment and touches the Changeling. Odo takes real pleasure in throwing Solok out of the game for that one.
While the crew celebrates their not-quite victory in Quark’s afterwards, Solok once again makes an attempt to piss on their parade. This reveals another of the themes of the episodes. Solok dismisses emotions as “human,” and the crew is quick to correct him. “Did I forget to wear my spots today?” Ezri muses. “All that intelligence and he doesn’t know what a human looks like,” snarks Quark. It’s a subtle point about the value of diversity and the importance of identity. DS9 isn’t a crew of humans. They’re humans, and Bajorans, and Trill, and Klingons, and Changelings, and Ferengi, and so forth and so on, and they work together as a team, elevating one another by virtue of that diversity.
This episode is a trifle, but it’s a fun trifle. Little character moments pull it together, from the Chief’s scotch-flavored gum, to Worf’s delightfully deranged baseball chatter, to Odo’s gusto-filled umpire calls. It’s a gift to the fans, something that’s telegraphed by the name of our heroes’ team: The Niners.
Next up: The Jack Pack is back.