This episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine represents, for me, one of those happy little coincidences that can convince you, if you’re susceptible to them, that the world maybe does revolve around you a little bit. I have been a Trekkie for as long as I can remember, but I actually didn’t get into baseball until 1998 (which is an entirely separate story.) This episode aired that fall, during the World Series, if you can believe it, and because it combined one of my oldest favorite things with one of my newest favorite things; it was, as they say, must-watch TV.
This episode has always been near and dear to my heart for those reasons, as I’m sure it is for many of you here since I know I’m far from the only Trekkie around these parts.
The first thing I realized about this episode was that it starred two terrific actors who have both since passed away. Rene Auberjonois did an amazing job conveying oceans of emotion despite having his face plastered with makeup specifically to mute his facial expressions and features. Aron Eisenberg was given one of the most well-developed characters in Star Trek history. Nog’s arc starts with him just being a teenage hooligan with no goals and plans; he knows he doesn’t want to grow up to be his easily-used father, but he lacks the hard edge to be the tough businessman his uncle represents. He wanders - full of ambition but entirely lacking a goal - for a while, mostly serving to get the station commander’s son in trouble before eventually deciding he wants to find his own way and he’ll do it by applying to Starfleet. When he comes back, he’s completely different, stiff as a board and very rules-minded. But as the series continues, he relaxes and finds within himself the ability to have fun and accomplish goals. It’s something to behold.
Anyway, you came here to read about this specific episode, not character arcs across the entire series. Though, we’re not entirely done with those yet. Let’s go ahead and tell the story that everyone who writes about this episode must tell. Max Grodénchik, who plays Rom, was the best baseball player among the Deep Space Nine actors playing in the game. The problem was that the script called for him to be the worst. So he was required to play left-handed despite being a natural righty in order to get the authentic look of someone who is hopelessly unathletic. As a baseball fan, it seems pretty obvious that he’s still over-selling it quite a bit. I’m not a particularly athletic individual, but I still managed to switch hit as a kid without completely embarrassing myself.
Anyway, let’s get to the meat of the matter, shall we? For those unfamiliar with the story, Captain Solo is a Vulcan who believes all Vulcans are superior to humans (and didn’t that little bit of racism play very differently in 1998 than in 2020?) He has been tormenting Captain Benjamin Sisko about how much more superior he is for decades. Solok’s ship is forced to dock at Deep Space Nine for repairs after six months of fighting on the front lines. Solok takes this opportunity to perform one final act of, dare I say, hatred and bullying. He wants to beat Sisko at his own game, baseball.
Sisko has two weeks to train up his senior staff and other hangers-on to play a sport most of them would never have heard of without him, and he hopes to defeat a team of physically stronger and faster opponents with more practice time. It’s your traditional underdog story! After this point, there is a lot of yadda-yaddaing and montaging to the actual game. The only thing of true importance that happens from the moment Sisko announces the baseball game to his team and the moment they start playing is that Sisko gets so frustrated with Rom’s incompetence that he angrily berates him and kicks him off of the team.
The second thing I noticed about this episode was how very much it reminded me of an extremely condensed version of The Bad News Bears. Basically, this is what would happen if the movie skipped right over the part where the team was any good. And watching this episode, I wonder if the movie could have been better, if significantly shorter, without that part. In this episode, we still get all the drama and frustration and intrigue of a team that desperately wants to win. But unlike Bad News Bears, everyone here except for Captain Sisko, and perhaps his son Jake, remembers the entire time that they still want to have fun, too. When Sisko has the same change of heart as Buttermaker late in their respective stories, Sisko feels more genuine in his.
In Bears, Buttermaker throws the championship because the other team isn’t having fun either. And, under certain circumstances, that kind of motivation might work. But I don’t think it makes sense that it reaches someone who wants to win and is as close to succeeding as Buttermaker is at that moment. I could see him possibly telling them to stop doing some of the more aggressive things, but not completely throwing in the towel like that.
In Deep Space Nine, however, we see Sisko realize that most of his team is still having fun despite being mercilessly beaten by their opponents. And at that moment, they teach him the value of having fun. Or, at least, they remind him about it. And so, as part of his redemption from being an a-hole earlier, he convinces Rom to suit back up and join the team.
Another way this episode differs from both versions of Bad News Bears is that, after the game is over, Sisko follows up his apologetic gesture with an actual apology. He uses words to name the bad thing he did and everything. I get that it’s more in Buttermaker’s character to not apologize directly, but as a person who almost always deals with Buttermakers rather than Siskos, it was a very touching moment that honestly almost made me tear up. Words matter, y’all.
Annnnnd this is where I admit that I didn’t get the rest of it when I watched this episode back in the day. Sisko and the crew are in Quark’s bar drinking and celebrating after their 10-1 loss. And I was with Solok, “Why are you doing this? What is the point? You’re being weird!” But on this rewatch, I realized a third thing: having Rom enter the game was the expected sports payoff, but the bar scene does more than just fill out the runtime. It’s the bigger payoff that follows the payoff.
Sisko has now completely internalized that having fun is its own reward. And now that he’s allowing himself to enjoy his time spent with his friends instead of focusing on how angry he is at Solok, he undercuts everything Solok is trying to do to him and finally wins the war they have been waging for so long. I would be remiss to suggest that the moral, “Completely ignore your bullies and they’ll go away!” works for all situations. Still, it’s a tool you want to keep in the kit for similar situations with needling peers that otherwise have no power over you.
All in all, this was a fun little one-off episode to take some heat off the audience still in the throes of the multi-season war arc. Worf’s attempts at heckling continue to make me cackle no matter how many times I watch the episode. Watching Odo practice his moves reminds me of when I’ve done the same thing. This episode is a surefire win for baseball fans and fans of breaks during immense conflict in serialized stories.
P.S. I’m pretty sure that after Odo ejected Solok, the Vulcans couldn’t field a complete team, and they should have been required to forfeit. It would have been a completely different story to have Solok entirely undone by his emotional reaction of grabbing the umpire instead of more subtly undone by it in the bar later. However, I think it still would have been ultimately as satisfying.