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Batter Up

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The national pastime may be past its time. But those who think it’s boring need to think again.

Baseball, the national pastime, may be past its time. Evidence suggests that the game’s popularity is slipping. “Sunday Night Football” remains the highest-rated television sports program, while the ratings for “Fox Saturday Baseball” continue to drop. Over the past few decades, the number of kids playing Little League baseball has steadily declined. Last year’s World Series attracted a television audience of only 12 percent of U.S. viewers, well down from the 50 percent who watched it 25 years ago.

In the age of the Internet, computer games, cable, and on-demand television, my guess is that many now consider baseball to be too slow, and hence boring. A baseball game takes roughly two-and-a-half to three hours to watch, during which time the ball is probably in play for no more than 10 minutes. True, a chess match between grand masters doubtless doesn’t include more than three minutes of action; the rest is forethought. But let that pass.

In every baseball game, vast stretches of time are taken up by batters stepping in and out of the box adjusting gloves, helmets, and genitals; pitchers on the mound going through their strange, twitchy rituals; pitching changes; holding runners on base; arguments with umpires; time between innings; and so much — for some viewers so excruciatingly much — more.

As for other sports, as I grow older I find the tension of hockey not easily borne. With pro basketball, the not-so-dirty little secret is that in most games everything comes down to the last five or six minutes of play. I continue to find football — college and pro — watchable, though I do so with a slightly guilty conscience, as I like to think I might have done as a Roman watching gladiators go at each other in the Coliseum. I subscribe to the Tennis Channel, but only a limited number of matches truly hold my attention each year.

But baseball is something else again. Far from being bored by baseball, I grow more and more enamored of it. I usually watch it with a book or magazine on my lap. I appreciate its calm stretches — I luxuriate, even, in its dullness. The catcher takes a trip to the mound to settle down a pitcher losing control — fine by me. A relief pitcher trots in from the bullpen – take your time, kid, I want to tell him. A manager comes out to argue an ump’s call — I like a good argument, even if I can’t actually hear it. I use these breaks to read a few paragraphs of my book or magazine.

A baseball game takes roughly two-and-a-half to three hours to watch, during which time the ball is probably in play no more than 10 minutes.

Baseball is the only sport that I can bear to listen to on the radio. I used to joke that in my (non-existent) prenup with my wife, I am permitted to listen in bed to the broadcasts from the Cubs’ West Coast games. (Recommendation to insomniacs: no more efficient soporific exists than listening to baseball in bed in the dark.) I also enjoy listening to Cubs and White Sox radio broadcasts in my car. Radio calls for imagination, and the action of a baseball game is more easily seen in the mind’s eye than any other American sport.

I feel fortunate for having grown up before Little League came into being, before play for children became intensely organized. My friends and I used to meet every day in the summer at the Boone School playground to choose sides for a game. More often than not, we didn’t have 18 boys, so we played without first basemen, second basemen, or right fielders in a version of the game called “pitcher’s hands-out,” in which the pitcher also played the role of the first baseman on ground outs. We also used to play a game called line-ball, which required only two boys on each side.

I stopped playing what in Chicago we called “hardball” once out of grammar school. In my grammar-school days I was a shortstop, a position I played on a gravel field with a trapper’s mitt purchased at Montgomery-Ward. I was good but far from great. In high school, it never occurred to me to try out for the baseball team, because the glamor sports — that is, the sports where girls attended the games — were football and basketball. I played on the frosh-soph basketball team, though mostly I rode the bench. I also became interested in tennis, a warm weather sport that took me further away from baseball.

But in later years I came back to baseball, and now like it more than I ever did as a kid. Through the long and gloomy Chicago winters I await the magic words “pitchers and catchers report” announcing the beginning of spring training. In the off-season, I read about trades and the acquisitions of free agents. The length of baseball’s season is also part of its charm; it’s a sport where, in a three-game series, last-place teams can sweep first-place ones. Each season has its own rhythm, its ups and downs, with the drama of individual players on display.

Far from being bored by baseball, I grow more and more enamored of it.

Two years ago, the White Sox acquired Cincinnati Reds slugger Adam Dunn. He replaced Jim Thome, a much-beloved player, and had one of the most dismal seasons possible, hitting a measly 11 homers and driving in a pathetic (for a slugger) 42 runs, ending the season with a .159 batting average. Dunn rode out this disaster of a season without tantrum or complaint — I came to simultaneously feel sorry for and admire him — but came back the next year to hit 41 home runs and drive in 96 runs and, because of lots of walks, he had an impressive on-base percentage.

For the six months from April through September, one gets to enjoy what I think of as the everyday-ness of baseball. Most weeks, teams play six days out of seven, and some weeks they play every day. I have the good fortune to live in a city with two major-league teams. I begin my day checking to see whom the Cubs and White Sox are playing, at what time, and on what channel. The day feels a bit fuller for having a game in it, even if I am not always able to watch it.

Baseball is slower than other games because it is brainier, and more subtle and mysterious. The transaction between pitcher and batter, each with the other’s recent performance history in his head, each trying to outguess the other, can be more intricate than transactions on the commodities market. No one can explain why even excellent hitters go into slumps, or superior pitchers go off the rails and lose their effectiveness. Great speed, a strong arm, power at the plate — all gifts from the gods — are an immense advantage in baseball, but none will avail a player who does not also possess a high baseball intelligence. On and off the field, baseball remains the thinking man’s game, par excellence. Those who think it boring need to think again.

Joseph Epstein is THE AMERICAN’s couch potato and the author of the book Essays in Biography.

FURTHER READING: Epstein also writes “March Sanity,” “The Unnaturals,” and “The Artist Athlete.” David Archer discusses “Sports and the Market,” Gary J. Schmitt comments on “When a Cardinal Ruled the Roost,” and Mark J. Perry examines “Jackie Robinson’s Legacy.”


Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group


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