I’ve been watching October baseball these last few weeks. Now I will admit that I didn’t grow up playing the game or even watching it; I’m a cricket and soccer kind of guy. The first time I watched baseball was in 1985. I was in Bahrain and the World Series between the Cardinals and Royals was on Telly. I watched all seven games, trying to understand the difference between a walk and a single or a ball and a strike. Without the internet or Wikipedia there wasn’t any immediate resource available and of course TV commentators rightly assumed that their viewers knew the game (fortunately, there wasn’t an infield fly rule invoked or I might have smashed the Telly; or maybe there was one and I just didn’t notice).
I understood the controversies at second base that favored the Cards and the famous one at first that benefited the Royals and by the end of seven games I had a somewhat sketchy knowledge of the American pastime. I even remembered forever the name of Bret Saberhagen who pitched a shutout in Game 7 after his heroics in Game 3, I think it was; I didn’t remember any of the other players, but the names of the managers stayed with me—Whitey Herzog and Dick Howser (I forgot who was which team’s manager). I was intrigued by the fact that the managers played such an important role in the proceedings; cricket is managed by the captain on the field and soccer is all about the team on the field!!
Over the years I’ve grown to love the game, even as I’ve watched its popularity wane in favor of football. One can look for reasons why this is happening, but one never really knows—football’s immediate impact, the violence, speed, etc; baseball’s slow pace, its dominance by Latin Americans, etc. If I were to make a generalization my guess would center on that old cliché—immediate gratification; we want speedy, bang-bang games, filled with adrenaline and the promise of blood. Baseball is almost intellectual. As I’ve written elsewhere, the essential struggle in baseball is in the pitcher and batter trying to outwit each other as they try to guess what the other one’s thinking—curve or slider, high and tight or down and away; or maybe right down the middle to surprise him. And the catcher calling the game sets the stage. Then there’s the manager in the dugout signaling instructions—a whole committee of men determining each pitch, a fascinating choreography of hand gestures based on experience, statistics, past performances, and guesswork, all occurring within a few seconds—risk management in a microcosm. I wonder what an actuary would make of it. What’s not to like? But it is no longer the national game—even in October! What happened? I hesitate to draw an insulting inference here, but is the contemplative nature of baseball too tiresome for our modern sensibility? Are we becoming an anti-intellectual nation? And is this reflected in other ways as well? Txt msgs have replaced complex sentences, blogs are more read than novels, snap judgments instead of reasoned analysis, sound bites, video games, on and on…poetry? What’s that??!
But baseball does seem to be strangely un-American. We have always coveted winning more than anything (it’s everything, isn’t it?) and this game is predicated on failure (hitting 30 percent is the standard of excellence; unless of course we consider that a pitching victory)! Is there a coincidence that baseball’s great popularity occurred during the twenties and thirties and then in the fifties and sixties, those “hard times” characterized by the Depression and a post-war reconstruction when failure was woven into our country’s tapestry and introspection forced itself into our national consciousness? And these were the eras of great pitchers as well. Then declining sales brought in the Designated Hitter in the seventies, which led to more hits, which led to the steroid era in the eighties and nineties, the Age of Greed and Wealth, when batters dominated, home runs flowed aplenty, and modern baseball regained its popularity and lost its innocence! And I just don’t understand the DH rule, which reduces the game to an ordinary line-up of power hitters rather than a team, a series of players to pitch around or walk, thus banishing so much of what makes baseball fascinating—strategy, anticipation, and, yes, thoughtfulness.
Now football is the unquestioned king of American sports. Somehow, sadly, that makes sense—its inherent violence appears to resonate in our current evolving national ethos; its predictability, lack of complexity, and 10-second segments of brutality seem to reflect the tenor of the times. And yes, I do know that the play-book has several combinations of patterns and integrated routes, but from a spectator’s point of view very little of that matters. I am also not suggesting a lack of appeal; on the contrary, it can be very seductive, this fast and furious game of destruction. It requires no viewer patience and lends itself easily to video games. These are the times in which we live!