Tuesday, February 21, 2012
The Persistence of Baseball
Until about four years ago or so, I was an extremely close follower of the sporting scene. I listened to the radio shows, watched the highlight reels, and was aware of all the ups, downs, and scandals, from professional golf to college football. My interest in athletics did not match any real talent on my part. During the same youthful years that I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated, diagrammed my own football plays, and collected baseball cards, I found myself picked last in gym class with depressing regularity. It did not matter that I could recite the winners of all of the Super Bowls or the full line-up of the 1927 Yankees. Perhaps my interest in sports saved me from being a complete and total misfit, I could still hold my own in a sports conversation with my peers. (This did not always get me respect, however. Back in 1991 there was a bullying jerk in my science class who claimed the Bills would wipe the floor with the Giants in the Super Bowl. I thought he was wrong and bet him two bucks. When I asked to collect the day after the game, he punched me in the stomach instead of paying up.)
Since I have passed the age of thirty, my priorities in sports, as in many things, have shifted. I rarely watch ESPN, check the college football polls, or even take the time to watch my once beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers when they have a game on TV. I certainly get a kick out of the occasional game, and I greatly enjoyed seeing my first NBA game in person two weeks ago, but I am not "up" on most of the doings in the world of sports. Only two things truly remain vital to me, World Cup soccer and baseball. The World Cup is easy to explain, since it is the most important single sporting event in the world, and combines nationalism, history, identity, and global talent in a way that nothing else can match. Baseball might be harder to explain, since it has earned a reputation for being "slow" and "old fashioned." Professional football has overtaken it as America's premier spectator sport. Of all the team sports, I could actually play basketball reasonably well, and my playing experience allows me to understand the game with real depth. In fact, I probably get more enjoyment out of a well-played basketball game than any other. Why is it, then, that when I hear that pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training this week, my soul is lifted and I feel as if all is right in the world again?
I have liked baseball for a long time, but it is only in the last five years or so that this particular emotion has bubbled up inside of me. I delight in much of the game, from a well-thrown curve to a bang-bang play at the plate. Then again, I still marvel at a tight spiral, a quick drive to the hoop, and a bicycle kick goal. Perhaps my emotional connection is because now that my youth has ended, I appreciate and am more aware of my own mortality. Baseball's season, unlike that of other sports, mimics the human life cycle. It begins in spring, when flowers bloom and trees bud, reaches its pinnacle in the summer sun, and comes to an end as the leaves fall and the grass turns brown. The coming of baseball is a reminder that I am still alive, and that after winter's cold and dark, spring will come. It's a rather comforting thought.
Baseball is also something that I have to link me with ancestors. Both of my grandfathers loved baseball, and regaled me with stories in my youth of the 1930s "Gashouse Gang" Cardinals. My Dad and I still cherish our memories of playing catch in the backyard. Sure, we also shot "horse" and played one-on-one, but my father had never done that with his father, and not at such a young age.
This speaks to baseball's sense of history, the same attribute that leads to charges that it is retrograde, stuck in the past, un-modern. As a historian who has never felt comfortable in his own time, even as a child, baseball's immersion in the past (much more so than other sports) makes me feel more comfortable. Baseball connects more to the past because the rules and players have changed less than in other sports. Think about basketball before and after the three point line, and the innumerable rules changes regarding the forward pass in the NFL. With baseball, you can compare players more readily across eras, (at least after 1947) in ways that are impossible in other sports.
I also relish baseball's dailiness. Unlike other sports, even basketball and hockey, with their 82 game seasons, baseball goes on every day for six months solid, except for the day before and the day after the All-Star Game. Each team plays six days a week, their players coming to work to do their jobs much like the rest of us. The older I get and more removed I am from youth's freedom, the more my life has become a daily affair. I must get up early, walk the dog, catch the train, and do my job, and do the same the next day. Now that I am removed from the ivory tower of academe, and must plug away like the rest of working stiffs of this country, I have an even greater appreciation of a ball player's job.
Most of all, baseball is just much more fun to experience in person than the other major sports. I have greatly enjoyed myself at baseball games that were far from close or exciting. It's one of the most relaxing things for me to take a seat with the emerald diamond laid out before me, the sun shining, pennants blowing in the breeze, a beer in hand and that wonderful low buzzing chatter of the ball park in my ears. I can think of few things I would rather do on a summer day. Those summer days in our short lives are precious and few, and my heart leaps with the knowledge that they are soon to come again.