Baseball: Past American Time

As society becomes more and more beholden to instant gratification, what becomes of a sport that is timeless?

Anthony Rendon, all of 24 years old, plays third base for the Washington Nationals. By most accounts, he does so very well, thanks to the accumulation of skills harnessed over what likely is thousands of games, practices and training sessions he’s already completed since he was a kid.

Rendon’s been a solid contributor for the surging Nats. (AP)

The thing is, Rendon admitted recently that he doesn’t actually watch baseball on television because he considers the game “too long and boring.” These days, it is a serious commitment for anyone to sit in front of the TV for more than three hours, but if baseball players can’t commit to it, what does it say about the sport still being “the great American pastime?”

Does the game still speak to who we are today?

On August 5, 1921, Pittsburgh radio station KDKA offered the first radio broadcast of a baseball game, marking a pivotal moment in American history. The hometown Pirates beat the Phillies 8-5 that day, and while the details of that game are largely forgotten, the importance of the event to the United States culture is hard to overstate. No longer did fans have to wait for accounts of baseball games to be written and published in their local newspapers the next day. Nor did fans have to buy their tickets and travel to the ballpark to take in the unfolding drama. It all must have seemed rather fast and immediate to the people of 1921.

It’s also important to remember that baseball is a rural game, a game of grass and dirt, of wood and chalk and pine tar. Baseball is a game of wide open spaces. We call the playing space a park, in contrast to courts, rinks, and gridirons. The sport itself also is the essence of timelessness, which fits with its rustic mores. The clock is an urbanizing technology, one of synchronization and uniformity, time being measured precisely to produce regularity in our routines.

Baseball comes from simpler times and environments, like Hilltop Park, the early-1900s home of the now New York Yankees. (AP)

Baseball is unburdened by that form of precision, or at least it used to be. Nowadays, we flit and dart from second to second through digital environments on our smartphones and wearable technology. Nothing escapes the speed of electricity, and therefore we learn to accept constant change, but baseball is anything but constant change. The game has been compared to chess. Each pitch is crucial and the game frequently hangs in the balance of one red-hot moment that punctuates long minutes of study, plotting and measurement. It’s the intervals between the short spurts of action where the interesting stuff usually takes place.

Over time, though, our leisure has become faster and less, well, leisurely. People read shorter, less complicated literature, if they read at all. The radio is something to play in the background, to keep us company while we’re busy doing other things. Television is “on demand,” so we can watch in marathons, without commercials, in order to maximize the enjoyment of a series in a fraction of the time. Whatever happens on our digital devices happens in a blink as we quickly move between tabs, and dip in and out of apps. Work, play, play, work … the difference today is often negligible as we blur the definition of time and no longer value the distinction in roles we once relied upon in our social order. “Work You” isn’t all that different than “Play You,” and we reflect this blurred set of definitions in our increasing casualness in language, dress and behavior.

In essence, the entire order of the industrial world has been rearranged over a very short period of time, at least as compared to prior periods of history. We were primarily oral cultures for thousands of years before writing came along. Print was our preferred mass medium for hundreds of years before we harnessed electricity to transform our world. The electrification of most American and European cities occurred between the 1880s and 1950s, which is remarkable if you pause to think about it. The last Major League ballpark to install electric lights was Wrigley Field, which did so 26 years ago. I was 17 years old, and I remember it very well. August 8, 1988. 8/8/88.

Electricity brought the game into our living rooms, first by radio and later by television. Most of the people who began to listen and watch the game during those pivotal moments were people of a bygone era. They knew the world without complete electrification. They certainly knew the world without ubiquitous mass media.

Rendon would rather rip doubles than watch a doubleheader. Or even a singleheader. (AP)

On the other hand, Anthony Rendon was born in 1990. The year before he was born, Tim Berners-Lee introduced the World Wide Web. By the time Rendon was six years old, tens of millions of people were using the Web in the United States and around the world. Around the time of his eighth birthday, Google was established. Around his 10th birthday, AOL purchased Time Warner. At 15, he witnessed the birth of YouTube. It’s no wonder the Nats third baseman finds this rural game of intervals too long and boring to sit through. His entire life has coincided with our dramatic digital shift.

This is the dilemma facing the sport, both at the amateur and professional levels. My son is seven years old and just finished his Little League season a few weeks ago. His teammates’ parents often talk to me about their older children’s love for other sports — soccer, in particular — and the broad abandonment of baseball beyond eight years old or so. It’s not only video games that steal the attention of the children, it’s the silent imperative of the clock, and the promise of time spent in the flow of a game constantly in motion. Other games resemble the life we lead off the field, and therefore children are responding intuitively to them.

Baseball definitely has a problem, but I’m tempted to think of the situation in different terms. As a fan of the game, and a fan of the intervals, I see baseball as a potential antidote to our hurried digital pace. What do we need more than to slow ourselves down and concentrate on a single thing at a time? Books used to provide that secret lesson to us before they were marginalized by the bells and whistles of electronic toys.

Baseball is a beautiful game. It’s a slow game, but it’s a thoughtful game. It teaches us to think through contingencies and to stay in the moment. It teaches us to think deeply, but also to use the intervals to talk to the people around us. There’s nothing more enjoyable, to me, than to strike up a conversation with my stadium neighbors about the game. Public sporting events have always been staged to make communities coherent, whether in the stands or by the proverbial water cooler.

Baseball’s promise is the promise of leisure as it has always been constituted. America’s pastime may have slipped into America’s past time, but preserving the values of the game is critical for a better future as well.