Sitting there with my DualShock in my lap, I struggled to recall the last time a video game blindsided me this hard, much less at a point this early in playing it. I'd ranked up at a respectable rate, gained a fast understanding of my abilities and the situations in which they were useful. I was fearless and, I thought, indispensably valuable to the cause. The story of my success was playing out conventionally.
And then I was traded to the San Diego Padres.
How in the hell? My pitcher, in his first professional season, had gone from the bullpen to starting in the Eastern League all-star game in the span of three weeks in-game. A prospect showing that kind of overnight success would likely be untouchable in any baseball organization, or be part of a multi-player, trading-deadline deal designed to get a free agent to a contending ballclub.
Yet as soon as I made it back from the all-star game in Toronto, was packed up from Minnesota's double-A stop in New Britain, Conn., and sent to San Antonio in a 1-for-1 player exchange, pitcher for pitcher.
I've dashboard-quit and restarted for any number of petty reasons in this game. But I decided that if sports career modes, as I've argued, are really role-playing games with an open-ended, self-driven narrative, then I had to live the creed here.
"I'm just numb right now," I told a friend. "I'm on auto-pilot for this start."
MLB 11 The Show is proudly realistic, to the point that you are just as vulnerable to the business of the game as the next minor league player with a one-year contract, which is to say, you have no say. If you've always wanted to come up with your favorite team, play there for 20 years and go to Cooperstown wearing its cap on your plaque, you may choose that franchise when you create your prospect. But you'd better hope they don't find you more valuable as trade bait in the meantime.
MLB 2K11 deliberately does not permit your character to be traded in its singleplayer mode, called My Player. At a preview event in January, one of the game's designers explained that the Visual Concepts team had debated the idea rather deeply before deciding against it. The idea was, if some guy was a lifelong Cincinnati Reds fan, they didn't want their game - which he bought, of course - to kick that fantasy in the ass and potentially derail a fun experience.
Sony's San Diego studio, the makers of The Show, saw it differently.
"We feel protecting the user from the possibility of getting traded contradicts our approach to the game itself," Aaron Luke, a designer, told me. "We strive to create the most realistic baseball experience possible, and getting traded is another part of the game.
"Our emphasis with Road to the Show has always been to avoid scripting out the user's path through the mode, by keeping the flow organic and the possibilities limitless," Luke added, "thus ensuring each user has their own specific RTTS experience and career path."
I can respect both points of view. Had I been a Minneapolis native and a lifelong Twins fan, fired up about the chance to pitch to cover star Joe Mauer, I probably would have reloaded an earlier save and prayed that it didn't happen again. As it is, I grew up in North Carolina, back when the Atlanta Braves were terrible, so I don't really have that kind of attachment. I subjected my created player to the whim of the draft, and was content to be assigned to the Twins. By that attitude, I should also be fine with the PS3 sending me to San Diego, with no choice in the matter.
Still, I wasn't kidding when I said I was numbed. My teammates in New Britain were mostly bot characters, but I'd come to recognize their contributions and rely on them. As a knuckleball pitcher, each at-bat runs the risk that my trashball will get hit a mile. Mike Rixey, the third baseman, was a human vacuum cleaner at that corner, and saved many hits with his wide range. Brett Buffinton, the right fielder, likewise pulled down many mistakes. Tyler Steen, the first baseman, and I had connected on three pickoffs already.
Now I had to make friends with a new set of teammates. These, however, included actual past major leaguers down in double-A trying to get back. Guys like Chris Denorfia, an outfielder who was just as capable of stalking down my warning-track oopsies. And Kevin Frandsen. I lived in San Jose for three years; Frandsen was a standout at Bellarmine Prep and San Jose State. I was delighted to be in a lineup with him.
It turns out I thrived in the remainder of my AA stop with the Padres' San Antonio affiliate, just as much as I would have with Minnesota up in Connecticut. At one point I had a 25-inning scoreless streak, and later came within two outs of a perfect game. Down the stretch, we won 19 of our last 24 games, with me pitching eight scoreless innings in the finale, to force a one-game playoff against Midland for the second-half division title. We lost 4 to 2.
I scrolled through the other league standings before beginning the off-season sim. Sure enough, my old club, the New Britain Rock Cats, won their division. I smiled. Maybe I'll see Buffinton, Rixey, Steen and the others down the line someday.