How an episode of 'Hey Arnold!' is a perfect love letter to baseball and its beauty, power and simplicity

Sporting News

Nostalgia can be a gift and a curse.

Oftentimes, nostalgia operates as nothing more than beer goggles — distorting the view of something from afar while we slam Natty Light after Natty Light. Then, the sensation passes, and we're reminded of our jobs, our stresses, our bills, or that idiot that blocked you into your parking spot.

Sometimes, though, nostalgia can be a good thing, introducing us to feelings, memories and emotions that laid long dormant. It can reconnect us with what we once were, or what we once believed, offering some sense of warmth and giving us a needed wake-up call.

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On Oct. 16, 1996, Nickeloden aired "The Baseball," the second half of an episode of "Hey Arnold!," a cartoon whose main character had a football-shaped head. His best friend Gerald had a flat top that put early '90s Will Smith to shame, and Helga, Arnold's secret admirer, obsessed over Arnold so much that she formed a shrine out of chewed gum in her closet.

On its surface, it was saccharine — it was about the misadventures of a couple of oddly shaped fourth-graders, whose stakes never really rose higher than a potential grounding. But "The Baseball" was a bit different. The episode surrounded Mickey Kaline (a clever portmanteau of Hall of Famers Al Kaline and Mickey Mantle), an aging all-time-great baseball player and Arnold's favorite, and viewed the game through the eyes of a 9-year-old.

In a lot of ways, the opening sequence captured so much of the youthful exuberance of many baseball fans: Arnold and friends, playing in a game of pickup baseball in the middle of the street, using garbage can lids as bases. The scene is perfectly set:

"Oooh, Arnold, who do you think you are? Mickey Kaline or something?!" Harold, the series' on-again-off-again bully jests.

"Yeah, that's right," Arnold says, intimidatingly, squatting down into his batting stance. "I'm Mickey Kaline."

Then, Arnold mashes an absolute moonshot, a righteous dinger, sending Harold's pitch into the next area code.

Arnold admits to pretending he was Kaline, motivating him to wallop the ball. But really, who of us isn't Arnold? Which of us didn't swing out of our untied shoes in the park, or the backyard, or on the street, dreaming of not only wanting to play, but being our favorite player?

Arnold goes on to explain who Kaline is to the uninitiated and rattles off several stats that make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer: .299 batting average, 533 career home runs, and, in Arnold's eyes, the greatest baseball player who ever lived. (Kaline's WAR didn't make it into the script, apparently.)

But cleverly juxtaposed to Arnold waxing poetic about Kaline and his achievements, just down the street, a couple of adults scream, "Kaline's a bum!"

Arnold learns that Kaline, a member of the Hillwood Black Sox, will soon retire. This leaves him distraught, and his disappointment grows when he discovers he doesn't have enough money to buy tickets to Kaline's last game.

Video is courtesy of Nickelodeon.

The episode is an emotional rollercoaster — well, as much as a cartoon on Nickelodeon can be. Arnold's grandpa somewhat mistakenly slips Arnold some money so Short Man can get out to the stadium and see his hero one final time. After a series of hijinks — buying limited-view seats from a ticket scalper and dropping his peanuts into a drainage grate — Arnold ends up with a Kaline home run ball, Kaline's last hurrah before retirement. Arnold escapes the stadium with the ball and later sees Kaline on the post-game interview.

Arnold catches Mickey Kaline's last homer

"Mickey, your last at-bat in the major leagues and you hit a home run. How do you feel?" the reporter asks.

"Well, uh, to tell you the truth, Fritz. I got real mixed feelings. I feel great about hitting the home run, but baseball's been my whole life, and I'm gonna miss it a lot," Kaline says as he starts to cry. "A whole lot."

Kaline, heartbroken, with tears streaming down his face, is joined in tears by the sideline reporter.

Video is courtesy of Nickelodeon.

Arnold later admits that Mickey meant so much, and that he wished there was a way he could give back. The episode ends with Kaline and Arnold tossing around the home run ball, and while the credits roll, Kaline begins a story with how he faced Bob Gibson in the World Series.

There's a certain emotional punch to it, especially for fans of the game. We know from watching how many hours players put into playing the game, and for how long. How many buses they've ridden and double-headers they've played. It's a cartoon, after all, but a cartoon that packs some serious pop.

"The Baseball" was very on-brand for "Hey Arnold!" though, and 28-year-old me views the 15-minute segment in another light. The nostalgia surrounding the episode — the humor, the visuals, Arnold carrying around a safe in his backpack for some reason — is still there, but there's a lot of the episode mirrors fans of all ages.

In a way, all of us were Arnold, the football-headed, blue-cap wearing suave fourth grader who was unaware of the world of "First Take," hot takes and bad takes. Baseball when we were young was in its purest, most unadulterated form. It came at a time before we knew WAR or DRS or wRC+ or ISO or OAA. We viewed the sport through a simple lens: You watch the pitcher pitch, the hitter hit and the team win or lose.

As we grow older, the bastardization of baseball can wear on us all, and that's perfectly exemplified by the adults in the episode: not caring about the sentimental value of the home run ball to Arnold, outwardly criticizing Kaline, security guards chasing Arnold from the ballpark.

Video is courtesy of Nickelodeon.

Cartoons typically have no business getting this serious, and for those unfamiliar with the show, the criticisms may seem founded. But "Hey Arnold!" often conveyed emotions and situations that were at times way too heavy for the youngins'. The show alluded to real serious stuff fairly regularly with deep thematic references; Helga's mom, Miriam Pataki, was an alcoholic. One episode featuring a pigeon-loving social outcast had strong implications about depression and suicide. In another episode, Curly, a distraught student of P.S. 118, took the school principal hostage in what is viewed as a "family-friendly" version of a school shooting.

So, yeah, there were some pretty heavy topics that 6-year-old me didn't necessarily grasp at the time. I was in it for the slapstick cartoon humor, grandma's shenanigans — she freed a tortoise from an aquarium, and it was hilarious — and ridiculous-yet-believable low-scale adventures that Arnold and his fourth-grade friends had for 24 minutes after a school day.

In many ways, "The Baseball" is a perfect love letter to the Show and its fans. It captures all generations of lovers of the game: the kids, the adults, the players. It tackled ticket and concession prices — something still an issue today — with a surprisingly authentic take on a baseball player walking away from the game he loved.

All through the episode, Arnold and his "Catcher in the Rye"-type innocence wrestle with the adults and their views. Ernie and Mr. Green both tear down Kaline. Security guards try chasing Arnold out of the stadium after he catches the home run ball. A shady figure sells Arnold and Gerald two awful tickets. Adults try buying the home run ball from Arnold (was eBay a thing back then?). Even Arnold's grandpa, who was so pleased to give Arnold money for tickets, scoffed at the idea of giving his grandson a $50 bill to get out to the ballpark.

Still, Arnold overcame the curmudgeons from beginning to end. He loved Kaline, he loved being in the building, to his admission. He just wanted to be there, he didn't want to let the negativity of the day cloud his judgement or his view of purity for baseball. All through the episode, Arnold takes some of the worst that baseball fans have to offer but comes out on top, riding his youthful naivete to the highest of highs, getting to meet his favorite ballplayer.

Maybe "Hey Arnold!" was just some dumb cartoon that had no business exhibiting serious societal and personal issues. Maybe they were just trying to write a cutesy baseball story about some blonde-haired, wide-eyed (literally) kid and a player he idolized, not caring about the effects it would have on viewers 20 years later. Maybe we're too far gone and care more about sending that angry baseball tweet than we do about the innocence of the game.

Or maybe — just maybe — we all still have a little bit of Arnold in all of us.

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