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.

1 comment:

Brian I said...

I get giddy this time of year, too. Here are my thoughts, which are mostly unoriginal.

There are many things that make baseball both unique and enjoyable. First of all, while baseball requires athleticism, winning is based more on highly specialized skills than upon sheer force or talent. It is a game of talented workers, not just endowed bodies. Each player on the diamond has a very specific role to play and a specific space in which to play it, more so than in other sports like baseball or football. Physical size is less important in baseball than in those other sports, too, in large part because offense is not about taking an object to a specific part of the field of play. Rather, it is about directing that object to a place where your opponent has less chance of retrieving it and returning it to you. This limits the offensive team's ability to control scoring directly (except in the case of the home run, the one play based on sheer strength or force). Baseball is, therefore, a game of chance. While said chance can be minimized through dominant pitching or hitting, it is still there. No batter, practically speaking, can hit the ball every time up; no pitcher can get every batter out. (Football has a regulated form of chance, in the guise of the forward pass, which was introduced in 1906 in large part to reintroduce some risk to a game that had become overly monotonous and dangerous since downs were introduced in the 1880s). Baseball teams win not by dominating every time out, but by winning a complete game the most number of times over the greatest number of chances over the course of a long season. More so than other sports, baseball pits one player against another, with the rest of the team serving a supporting role; each player gets the chance to play defense and offense (which is why the DH is such a heinous crime). Baseball is also intriguing because it not only reflects natural rhythms of the seasons, but its structure mimics the urban society within which originated. The player needs to distract his opponents by hitting the ball past the crowded, urban infield, into the less crowded rural or semi-urban hinterland of the outfield--and do so well enough that he can circulate throughout the safe places surrounding the infield so he can get "home." And although the game is rationally split up into sections of time called innings, it is not hyper-rationalized by a clock the way basketball and American football (both late 1800s games) are. The game feels less artificial because its temporal boundaries are set by a number of actions, not by measured time.

Those are some of the reasons why I love baseball. That, and the fact that my dad and I played catch when I was a kid, we watched the Cubs on WGN just about every day, and I collected baseball cards maniacally. All very rational things, indeed.