Baseball was very, very good to me.

I grew up in the golden era of baseball. At least it was golden for me. The L.A. Dodgers and N.Y. Yankees met in three out of five World Series (1977, 1978, and 1981). My team, the Dodgers, beat the Yanks only once, but just getting there was a thrill.

In college I gradually drifted away from following baseball except in 1988 when the Dodgers were in the Series once again. They beat the A’s in five. But the Series really ended after the first game. That was when Kirk Gibson “the gimp” (he had pulled both hamstrings, hurt both knees and could barely walk) hit a two-run shot off of ace reliever Dennis Eckersley in the bottom of the 9th with two outs and a full count. That was a great moment.

After the ‛88 season, my interest in baseball flagged. Studies and other interests account for much of this, but not all. I may have been changing, but so was baseball. It was fast becoming a game quite different from the one I grew up with.

Some of the changes were relatively minor. The league has more teams than it did when I was a kid. This has been a mixed bag. The new franchises allow more people to have their own home team. The down side is that talent has been diluted, especially in pitching, and the traditional rivalries are not what they used to be.

In my day baseball was already being watered down by the designated hitter, a smaller strike zone, artificial turf, indoor stadiums (all changes were to the advantage of the hitter, of course). But now there is inter-league play and realignment. This further takes away from traditional rivalries and diminishes the mystique of the World Series. The National and American Leagues teams never faced each other before the very last series of the season. Now there is a good chance that the teams in the championship have game have already played in the regular season. To add insult to injury, there are six divisions instead of the traditional four and “wild card” spots are open to teams that have not won their races. Because of this, the season has lost much of its significance.

Even going to the ballpark is not the same. The game on the field now vies with the constant din and imagery of giant video screens. Add to this monitors at the concession stands, waterfalls in centerfield, raucous inter-inning entertainment, fireworks after the home team hits a home run and the game itself becomes just a part of the scenery and not the central attraction.

Female sportscasters and commentators are another problem. The Apostle Paul did not allow women to speak in the church; Commissioner Bud Selig should not allow women to speak in the broadcast booth. As Dr. Johnson said, “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

I expect that many baseball fans share at least some of these criticisms. But the problems go deeper.

It is normal and necessary for a society to observe class distinctions. But baseball games, like church, should not cater to the upperclass. Fans at the stadium represent a true democracy. But now the rich are hermetically sealed off from the riffraff in their “VIP” boxes with plexiglass-glass windows, air-conditioning, padded seats and a wet bar. The ballpark for them has become an extension of their office where they conduct business and wine and dine their clients. If the rich do not take enough pleasure in the game itself (which includes the wholesome experience of sitting next to plumbers and auto mechanics) they should watch the game at home on their “entertainment centers.” Fans are equal in the sight of the baseball gods, at least when at the ballpark.

While segregation has harmed baseball from one direction, the yuppie factor has damaged it from another. Hot dogs, peanuts, frozen malts, beer and coke was the typical fare when I was a boy. Now there are specialty stands that serve chicken sandwiches with Dijon mustard in “low carb” lettuce wraps. This has no place at the ballpark. Neither do Starbucks Coffee and green tea. Yuppies already have enough fast food and cookie-cutter franchise restaurants to serve their trendy palates. Baseball fans should demand baseball food.

But baseball has been damaged from below as well as from upper and middle classes. The yahoo factor has taken as much away from the experience of the game as the sequestering of the monied nobility and the banality of bourgeoisie taste. Fans have become ostentatious, rude and disorderly. They put on face paint, toss beach balls, and make deafening noise with horns and whistles. Many are vulgar and crude. Some look and act like thugs. Sitting near such people is unbearable.

The three social classes have given us segregation, insipidity and crassness. But worse things have happened to baseball. Witness the cult of celebrity. Few things are more absurd than grown men making idols out of multi-millionaire athletes who have trouble stringing together two sentences of English.

Then there is the reign of statistical terror. It has been said that baseball is a game of numbers. There may be some truth to this, but the number crunching has gotten out of hand. A few statistics enhance the game of baseball. Batting average, RBI’s, home runs, stolen bases help the fan understand the line-up. Jones leads off because he can steal, Smith bats clean up because he can hit the ball over the fence. For pitchers, wins and losses and ERA’s give some help in predicting whether he has good chance of leading the team to a “w.” More importantly, these numbers build expectations that often are not realized on the field. The mighty Casey with 45 homers should be able to pull the ball against the no-name long reliever, but when he strikes out, there is either elation or stunned silence – depending on whether the game is played at Mudville.

What is going on today goes far beyond this. Analysts have statistics for everything. How somebody could spent their life crunching baseball numbers is beyond me. What a complete waste of time. I don’t give a fig about a hitter’s slugging percentage against left-handed screw-ball pitchers with runners in scoring position during late innings where the game is on the line. How is this relevant to the present at-bat and how does this increase my pleasure in viewing the game?

Statistic-mongering and the celebrity fetish are only symptoms of the disease. On a deeper level, baseball, like all sports, is taken too seriously. Patton once said, “I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed.” In the heat of the game, this is true. It would be an impertenence for a pitcher to laugh as the opposing hitter was doing a lap around the bases after the game-winning home run. But time heals some wounds. In a few days or weeks or perhaps years, the same pitcher should be able to look back and have a good laugh at himself. At that point, pace Patton, I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and kept crying about it.

Baseball should be taken seriously, but only when the teams are on the field. Winning is everything during the game. Afterwards, its value greatly diminishes. Met’s center fielder Kevin McReynolds said in an interview during the pennant: “If we win we get to go to the World Series. If we lose, I get to go fishing.” He hits just the right note.

While the modern free agent is usually free of this vice (and some are possesses of the opposite vice, indifference), many fans are not. Fans take the game seriously not only during the game, but before and after it as well. This vice is understandable in young boys and may even be a good thing. They become overly elated when their team wins and overly upset when it loses. They will have learned a good lesson in life when they move beyond this. But when the grown-up fails to do away with childish things, it becomes a profanation of adulthood.

The seriousness of the modern fan is evidenced by the proliferation of sports programming on the television and sports talk on the radio. There is non-stop talk about tomorrow’s game and yesterday’s loss and so and so’s contract negotiations. There is the talk during the game, talk about the game when it is over, and then talk about the talk. (“We have Sammy Jones on the line who is going to comment on the recent controversial statements made by his teammate, Bobby Smith.”) The levels of iteration is sometimes incredible.

But so what if baseball has become an obsession to many people, how does the affect the game? It affects the game a good deal since baseball is a community sport, a communal activity. If many or most of the community are obsessive about it, then to a certain degree the ball game ceases to be a sporting event. It has become more like a religious festival. And for those who place their religious commitments elsewhere, the whole business become too obnoxious to bear.

Even this does not capture what is the fundamental issue is. At bottom, baseball’s trouble is that it is trying to be something it is not. Due to short attention spans and competition from other sports such as football and basketball, it has tried to become more flashy and exciting. To accomplish this, time has to be made an element of the game. The game must move faster in order to maintain the interest of easily distracted fans. And when there is a lull on in the field, some other form of entertainment is quickly substituted.

Football and basketball are like this already. Both are non-stop action. The clock keeps things moving. And when it stops, the cheerleaders and band come out. There is never a quiet moment. They both reflect the fast-paced pulse of the modern world.

Baseball is different. It has no time constraints. The flow of the game is determined by the pitcher, the hitter, and umpire and not by the imposition of an artificial time metric. It is a game of rhythm, of human rhythm. A single at-bat can take ten seconds or ten minutes. And the rhythm of the at-bat reflects the rhythm of the game, which in turn reflects the rhythm of the entire baseball season. Each are slow and lazy at times, but then are suddenly punctuated with moments of high intensity and drama. As such baseball is much like life. Or much like what life should be. Life that is unhurried. Life that values the human over the artificial.

Now that baseball is being refashioned after the image of other sports, it is losing the very thing that makes it what it is. Yes, tempora mutantur. But while most will say, nos et mutamur in illis, I will not. Baseball has left me. When it returns I will be waiting for it.

6 thoughts on “Baseball was very, very good to me.

  1. No. It is a twist on a line from a Garrett Morris skit on Saturday Night Live.  Garrett plays a hapless Puerto Rican baseball player who has had much more success on the field than off.  Hence, “baseball’s been bery, bery good to me.”

  2. //Female sportscasters and commentators are another problem. The Apostle Paul did not allow women to speak in the church; Commissioner Bud Selig should not allow women to speak in the broadcast booth. As Dr. Johnson said, “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”//

    Please tell me this is a joke.

  3. Orel Hershizer pulled off one of the greatest pitching feats in 1988 – talk about being in the zone. And what a great testimoney for Christ. His favorite verse? John 3:16 – he told me so in Chicago when I bought two of his books, one for me and one for my dad.

  4. This whole post is just amazing!

    Im pretty sure he is serious…which is scary too because other people share his views!

  5. Well, I mean… isn’t there something in between “serious” and “joke”? Like, opening up an area of concern, over-stating for the sake of brevity and focus, and compensating with a tone of levity?

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