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Why baseball lives on                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Apr/24/2013 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Historical Insights, Perspectives, Sports, Watching America,

It’s April and the start of another baseball season. As with any new baseball season we are inundated with the predictions by experts; who’ll win the divisions, the pennants and ultimately the World Series? I am a big fan of history and through history I have learned these predictions by experts will not go away, and that they are invariably wrong….How do these guys get away with being perceived as experts?

There is also something else that the predictors of the future have expounded on, namely that baseball is dying. There are all the normal argument, the game is too slow, it doesn’t appeal to young people, tickets cost too much, the season drags on forever, it is no longer the American pastime and there is no parity. I have been hearing these arguments for 30 years, and yet baseball persists.

I have to admit, I am not a baseball fan, and probably for many of the reasons listed above. I grew up in Portland Oregon. One of my recurring childhood memories was of the many baseball games I saw with my uncles at Multnomah Field. My uncles lived walking distance from this old ballpark (new in 1926) and watching the Beavers play was almost a religious event for them, enhanced further anytime they could take their nephew with them to a game. I don’t recall ever really looking forward to the games, but I have great memories of going to these recurring events with my uncles (might have been the hot dogs).

Yes, it’s true that baseball is too slow for its own good. Baseball is a game without a clock. We know when the game will start, but have no idea when it will end. This is not just a function of extra innings; some pitchers have very deliberate and agonizing routines before the ball leaves their hand while others throw their next pitch within seconds of getting the ball back from the catcher. A friend of mine refers to this as the “pastoral nature of baseball.” In the back and forth sports such as football, basketball, hockey and soccer there is always something going on and the clock matters. These same sports have a struggle continuously unfolding, unlike baseball. Clearly, baseball is more cerebral and the spectator must patiently wait for something interesting to happen. I remember when one of my sons at a young age tried little league, he was so incredibly bored we had to promise not to register him the following year. Does my son have an issue with attention deficit disorder, or has our society become fixated on instant gratification and continuous activity?

Baseball has 30 teams spread across North America. There are a few things we can predict each season. Despite a few skilled and motivated rookies; the teams with the lowest overall salaries will finish poorly. The teams will larger salaries such as the Red Sox’s, Yankees and Braves will be near the top of the standings. Most of the other major sports have created some form of salary cap or revenue sharing which has resulted in near parity across the league. Without even a modest attempt at team parity, more than half of teams in baseball begin the season knowing they will not finish well. I’m sure the owners know this, but for the “have’s,” creating a level field would mean giving something up to the “have not’s.” Even with this imbalance, the average baseball team is worth three-quarters of a billion dollars, so maybe providing good competition is not really important to the owners.

Years ago baseball was referred to as “America’s game” or the “national pastime.” I doubt that baseball was more entertaining 40-60 years ago, but it was more affordable. Fathers, sons and families would go to the ballpark and be part of an event for pocket change, being part of a crowd can be fun. There were fewer sports programs and options in America 50 years ago and baseball appealed to a slower paced society. At the conclusion of World War II, many countries wanted to be more like America. As part of their post war reconstruction, ball parks started appearing in the Philippine’s, Japan and Spain to name a few. In recent decades football has risen to the peak of American sports. Football is fast, hard hitting, things change quickly, and the phrase “on any given Sunday” unfolds every weekend. Some pundits argue that watching football on a Sunday afternoon is like going to the coliseum to watch the carnage of the gladiators. Whether true or not, carnage and battle are terms that are seldom used to describe how a baseball game unfolds. I am confident that under all that speed and clashing pads is plenty of strategy.

Young people clearly need a high activity level to capture their attention. I don’t know if I was driven by my childhood memories, or some socially programmed behavior from a Norman Rockwell image; nevertheless, as a father I felt it was my duty to take my sons to a baseball game. I bought them hotdogs and crackerjacks, but the game never captured their attention. My sons did enjoy tormenting the ushers. Kids live in the present and there is probably a point there, draw your own conclusion.

Despite these challenges, baseball persists. I suspect that the reason baseball remains is its timelessness. Baseball is a game without a clock because it has defeated time. The people who love baseball – the bleacher bums, second-guessers, collector of memorabilia all thrive on the stats and history of the game. Baseball has attempted interleague play and a host of other minor efforts to find new audiences, but its real legacy is measured three digits to the right of the decimal point. In what other sport is an all-star of the preeminent skill successful only 1/3 of the time? Before the US Open golf tournament and before vinyl records, baseball connects us as far back as 1891. It has been over 120 years and bare knuckles’ fighting is long gone, but baseball has changed very little.

It is the lack of change that makes baseball relevant to so many. An instant after Derek Jeter hit a hanging curveball over the leftfield wall at Yankee Stadium for his 3,000th hit, while he was still rounding the bases to the sound 48,000 Yankee fans, someone in the press box asked the trivia question to the television audience: “Who are the four shortstops to reach 3,000 hits?”

Baseball is at its best when the present dovetails seamlessly with the past. Real baseball fans are always connecting the past to the present. I suspect this is the reason there is such an outrage in baseball when a star is caught and admits to using performance-enhancing drugs. In baseball, history is a living and breathing part of the game. When Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs and Barry Bonds hit 73, they both later admitted publicly or tacitly to the use of steroids. This was not just an unhappy moment for baseball fans; it was a fracture in baseball’s timeline. It broke the once hallowed connection to Babe Ruth, Roger Maris and Hank Aaron.

Football is different. Football lives in the present and is always looking into the future beginning with the draft and finishing with the Super Bowl. If football’s history was erased tomorrow, the game would march forward as popular as ever. Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit rocked the house at Yankee stadium even though it only brought the game to a 1-1 tie. Why would anyone care….because it connected Jeter to baseballs history. Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio were all great Yankee stars, but Jeter’s hit that day meant he was the first Yankee to ever get 3000 hits. Baseball has really changed very little in the past 100 years making it easy to compare players, teams and stats across the century.

In case you’re interested, the four shortstops to reach 3000 hits are Honus Wagner (retired 1917), Robin Yount (retired 1993), Cal Ripken Jr. (retired 2001), and Derek Jeter (still playing in 2013). As esoteric as this sound, this is what makes baseball unique; being able to realistically compare a player accomplishment in 2011 to a player who retired 94 years earlier.

Like many things that are old, trying to make them look young seldom work. The home run derby, interleague play, making the all-star game relevant for World Series home field advantage has not brought in new audiences. Baseball is a pastoral game, to appreciate it you have to immerse yourself in its history and culture rather than just the events on the field. The statisticians in the announcer’s booth understand this and use the history to fill in the voids and educate viewers and fans. In football it is very difficult to compare the accomplishments of a player in 2012 with those of the 1950 season; the game has changed a lot making comparisons unrealistic. Baseballs charm is its ability to connect the present with the past in a nearly straight line. As long as we can preserve this connection, baseball will continue to be a part of the American culture.

I heard an announcer the other day predict the Dodgers and Angels would be in the World Series. I suspect he will be wrong, but it will take over 6 months to be certain. I also heard someone else say baseball was dying. Baseball may no longer be America’s national pastime, but like so many early season predictions, I suspect this one is wrong as well.

Lisa Simpson once told Bart Simpson; “You made me love baseball … Not as a collection of numbers, but as an unpredictable, passionate game beaten in excitement only by every other sport.”

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