Here are some things I think about baseball in no particular order:
1. There is far too much baseball, and for that reason there is exactly the correct amount of baseball.
An MLB game clocks in in the neighbourhood of three hours, the longest individual game time of any of the four major North American professional sports organizations. On top of this, each MLB team plays 162 games in a season. There are probably people who watch every game played by their favourite team in its entirety, in the way that one would follow, say, football (American, that is; I’m not certain how one follows association football because I am not a Communist). Retirees might be able to do so; idle billionaires might be able to do so, but you and I are not able to do so.* You’ll probably want to watch maybe a complete game per week, more if your team’s good that year. If you are not a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, you might occasionally have the pleasure of being glued to your screen every single day in the waning weeks of September as a close division race burns through the end of the season.
But most of the time, you won’t have time to watch most of most games. Baseball players are considerate enough to accommodate this reality by ensuring that, for the vast majority of time in any given baseball game, absolutely nothing is happening (the exception to this rule is no-hitters, in which absolutely nothing is happening for 100% of the game, but, for this reason, something historically important is happening for 100% of the game). Of the four major North American professional sports organizations, only baseball is played through the summer. Historically, this is because baseball dates back to the 19th century, before buildings were invented, and it cannot be played in the snow. Nowadays, by some mix of accident and design, baseball is the perfect spectator sport for the time of year it’s played through. You’re not going to grill chicken and corn on the cob in the backyard while the football or hockey game plays through a screen door 20 feet behind you on your living room TV — you’d miss like 70% of the game and at that point you may as well have not watched it at all.
Baseball’s not like that, though. There are times that baseball is heart-stoppingly exciting, but these are concentrated toward the end of the season or in the postseason. They are the exception. The rule is baseball is a batter asking for time after a pitcher throws to first to check the runner, and then the pitcher delivers an 88 mph change-up that misses just outside and the batter doesn’t even swing so now the count is 2–1, and the batter takes a few paces outside of the box, and the pitcher shakes off two suggestions from the catcher before finally nodding, but then he throws to first to check the runner again (the runner dives back safe), and the crowd boos the visiting pitcher for having the temerity to try to win, and then the pitcher hurls a 95 mph fastball through the upper outside corner, and the batter still doesn’t swing so now the count is 2–2 and did I mention it’s quarter past 8:00 on a Thursday evening in July?
I say this with all the affection of a devout follower of the game: Baseball is mostly background noise. It’s a radio broadcast you have on while you read after work, so you can grin and pump your fist when your DH doubles in a run from first. It’s a stream you keep open in another tab so you can flick to it while you wait for that lady you met in the waiting room at the dentist’s office to respond. It is for the most part deliberate and slow, and, more importantly, it’s always there. No matter what team you like, in a given season there’ll be multiple days your team loses 12–1 and multiple days your team wins 12–1, and either way it really wasn’t that important anyway because it’s one tick in the win or loss column out of 162 and there’s another game tomorrow.
*I have this one friend who plain looks like a model — lean, little over six feet, perfect hair, ethnically ambiguous, the whole shebang. One evening, he and his roommate had some people over to watch a movie. At one point, he remarked in passing to another guest “You and I will never look like that,” speaking about movie stars in a context and for a reason that I can’t recall now. I cherish dearly my friendship with this person, but he is also the worst and I hate him.
2. You gotta see it in person.
I haven’t been to a non-baseball live sporting event** since I was 10, so I think I have enough information to make this statement confidently: No sport gains more in the screen-to-live transition than baseball. During a baseball broadcast, the camera spends most of its time centred on the pitcher and batter. During the seconds between pitches, pretty much nothing happens on screen. When you’re at the park in person, though, there’s so much else to see. Your eyes can sweep the field, examining other players. You can watch the belligerently drunk large white man two rows in front and a little to the right of you try in vain to start a wave. You can check and re-check the batter’s stats on screen. You can shoot the shit with your buds.
And that’s really the heart of the matter. A baseball game is an event, but it’s not an Event. For the price of two movie tickets each, you and a friend can spend an evening watching men in pyjamas try to hit a ball with a club and run 360 feet around a rhombus. With good company at your side and the sun beaming down on you, the sport seems not slow, but leisurely. $10 beer in one of those cool ballpark plastic cups in hand, you have time to talk about work and relationship problems and LIFE in between jumping out of your seat and screaming because your team’s centre fielder just jumped three stories in the air to catch a long fly to rob a three-run homer and end the inning to preserve a 4–3 lead (there may be 162 games a season, but, when you’re in the stands, it somehow becomes the easiest thing in the world to believe you’re at the only one that counts). There’s nothing else in sports like it. There may be nothing else in the world like it. I’ve smithed a word or two in my time, but I’m honestly struggling to accurately paint a picture of how perfect it is being at a ballgame with friends.
**This isn’t strictly true. I’ve been to a rugby game once. I’m not counting it for reasons that I’m sure are clear.
3. Pitchers should bat.
4. People write real good things about baseball.
Something about baseball really brings out the most literary parts of the soul. Or being a baseball fan in the 21st century correlates strongly with being an insufferable hipster who holds or is working toward a useless liberal arts degree. In our defence, though, STEM students and professionals are drawn to the wealth of salient numbers unmatched by games in which events have too many variables for given acts to be confidently distilled into a single figure. The exceptionally comparmentalizable nature of baseball plays makes it easier to meaningfully statistically analyze than any other sport. What I’m saying is baseball leads the world’s spectator sports in followership by people who never developed past the ‘being afraid of the ball’ stage of athletic accomplishment, whether that’s because they were too busy reading six books a week, or because they were too busy… doing math? What the hell did science kids do?
Where was I.
There are beautiful things written about hockey, and about basketball. Football doesn’t have as much, but does have Friday Night Lights, which is kind of cheating because it’s about high school football, but is not cheating because it’s the most wonderful and wonderfully American words on paper since at least Fitzgerald and maybe ever. None of them come close to the artistic achievement of baseball’s corpus, though. I think this is because, in addition to the whole insufferable hipster thing, baseball has such a long and storied history that even the most staid, factual sports page reporting on it can’t quite avoid sounding like an attempt at an addition to a Great Canon. The greats of contemporary baseball compete against more than a hundred years of ghosts. Where basketball has Jordan and hockey has Gretzky, baseball has a Pantheon of gods, invincible until you’ve been gone long enough for deification yourself. For how can a living man compare himself to titanic Ruth, as vital an American legend as Washington? How can he compare himself to indomitable Clemente, whose skill in right was matched only by his grace, by his goodness?
And of Robinson, the greatest man ever to play professional sports, the question isn’t even worth asking.
When you watch baseball, the game you see is in tension with so much history. It’s Union soldiers spreading their favourite game through the south and west of a young nation on the brink of destruction. It’s American jingoism and eventual dominance giving a bat and a ball and a plate and three bases to Central America and Japan. It’s Ruth’s bombast on and off the field epitomizing the roaring ’20s and the courage of Robinson in the face of evil in the 1940’s and ’50s as a microcosm of the fight for freedom by black Americans. It’s Maris’s 61 home runs in ’61 and Clemente’s exactly 3000 hits before that plane went down with him in it in 1972 because it wasn’t enough for him to be a hero on the field he had to save the world too. It’s Rose’s unbreakable record 4256 hits and Ripken’s unbreakable record 2632 consecutive games and Ryan’s unbreakable record 7 no-hitters.
Today you can turn on the TV and see Clayton Kershaw try to improve his 2.36 career ERA, the lowest for a starting pitcher since rule changes in the 1920’s sparked the dawn of the ‘Live Ball’ era almost a century ago. You can see Mike Trout dazzle old fashioned fans and statheads alike with his play meriting 59.8 bWAR since his career began in 2011, putting him on track (according to an inscrutable but very scientific number) to be possibly the greatest player of all time when all is said and done. It is seeing Shohei Ohtani, new to MLB just this year, pitch to a 3.10 ERA and bat to a .907 OPS in a display of two-way skill not seen since Ruth. You can see the young and infuriatingly spectacular 2018 Yankees, with that devilish Yankee smile, start on the road that will be their bid to be the best incarnation of the best sports team ever. It’s almost incredible that, in some small way, every one of us can be a part of the efforts of people alive and breathing today as they strive to knock down the gates of that Pantheon. It’s almost awe-inspiring that we may be a part of history being made in a pastime whose history is so long.
At least when it’s not boring you out of your skull because the pitcher just checked the runner AGAIN! BOOOOOOOOOOOOO!