Say It Ain’t So

The above image shows a practice with a few members of the 1886 White River Base Ball Club of Conner Prairie Living History Museum. Pictured are, from left to right: "Thunderbolt," "Digger" (hitting), "Hay Wagon" (pitching), "Scooter" (catching), and "Steamboat."

The above image shows a practice with a few members of the 1886 White River Base Ball Club of Conner Prairie Living History Museum. Pictured are, from left to right: “Thunderbolt,” “Digger” (hitting), “Hay Wagon” (pitching), “Scooter” (catching), and “Steamboat.”

From a recent Sunday edition of The New York Times, just before this year’s baseball playoffs began, a comment followed by a quote from forever sportscaster Bob Costas:

Think for a moment about the very phrase, ‘national pastime’ now, in 2013. What sorts of images does it conjure? ‘It sounds like a guy sitting on a rocking chair on his porch listening to a game on the radio and maybe he’s whittling.”

Another concerning quote from the same article, this one from Mark Twain during the game’s early days, preceded and followed by the newspaper’s comment:

Mark Twain called (baseball) a symbol of  ‘the drive and push and rush and stubble of the raging, tearing, booming 19th century!’ (From the Times:) ‘The 21st century, not so much.”

What happened? Pro football, mostly. Certainly, football more closely matches Mark Twain’s description of thrilling competition.

One more thought, first from the Times and then, from Mr. Costas:

When the post season rolls around and it’s time for baseball to take the national stage–well, it doesn’t unless the Yankees or the Red Sox are involved. (From Costas:) ‘If Tampa bay plays Cincinnati in the World Series, I don’t care if the series goes seven games and every game goes into extra innings, baseball is screwed. That’s not fair to the Rays or the Reds, but it’s true.”

It’s not easy to reinvent a sport, or a religion (where numbers are also down, except, as you may have read, among  Mormons and  Muslims). Their value is deeply rooted in belief systems, legacy and traditions. Clearly, building a new church or a new ball field suggests modernism and causes a bump, but neither solves the problem. Digital distribution of Rosh Hashanah services and every local baseball game will get you only so far. Eventually, the “what happened to us?” question must be answered.

Violence is the new American Way (as a rule,  prime time dramas feature at least one violent act, a corpse, and a conversation in a morgue).

Football benefits from simulated (and, on occasion, actual) violence. Baseball is  thoughtful, careful, complex, complicated, and not often violent game. Individual contributions and team competition elegantly balanced.

Unfortunately (for baseball, fortunately for many of us), baseball contains less action, fewer pile-ons. We like action. Maybe baseball players should run all of the time, and knock one another down? Maybe priests and school teachers should rap their lessons. Maybe every sport has its day.

Seems unlikely. But how do you reinvent a part of America? How do you reinvent schools, or church, or baseball, or cars, or suburbs? The 21st century is such a strange place, particularly in  “we used to be king of the world” America.

So where do we start? (How do we get to first base?) Long ago in the America of Mark Twain, we did things bottoms-up: town hall meetings, neighbors helping neighbors. Now, we do things top down (this being the basis of CBS’s “Undercover Boss,” where gap between boss and working stiff is vast). Traveling to and from the U.S. from other countries, it’s striking to see just how big the houses, the corporations, the school systems, the baseball leagues, the salaries have become. Big government, now shut down, in part, because of its own enormity. Big generates its own expectations and ecosystems. Big forces a universal top-down approach to problem-solving.

Small struggles to survive. We underfund small because big is more powerful. We underfund simple because the neighborhood playground lacks a business plan. We fix the interstate (because its traffic numbers are, you know, big), but the local street’s potholes remain, and there aren’t enough cops on the local beats. We ignore our local newspapers, and local news, because we’ve been led to believe that what happens in big Washington is more important than what happens in small Indianapolis. We don’t bother to vote, in part, because elections are, by and large, boring. Small, for the most part, and boring.

So? Baseball? Yeah, it’s a slower game than baseball, and no, it doesn’t attract the big celebrities like basketball or football does. Baseball competitive without the rough contact. It’s a game of numbers where a smart guy like Billy Beane can, in the words of Wikipedia, do well because of “the team’s analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, despite Oakland’s disadvantaged revenue situation.” The joy of baseball is local, and small, even if the business of baseball is big. Perhaps the same could be said of high school football, where community is illuminated by the Friday night lights.

If the point of baseball is a pleasant sunny afternoon, not too far from home, scheduled so that I can grab a few games a year and, perhaps, revisit one of the 19th century’s better inventions, that’s going to be okay for a while, at least for me. Better, maybe, than calling a championship a “World Series” while failing to invite all but one other country to participate in the big competition.

Still, a pleasant afternoon in Status Quo Stadium won’t sustain baseball, not in the long-term. Maybe we’re willing to watch baseball go the way of Kodachrome, bookstores and schoolteachers (oh, sorry, that one doesn’t happen until 2027), that’s fine, I guess. But I sure want to see the game back up on its feet, not through easy gimmicks, but because it lives up to Yogi’s quote about being ninety percent mental and the other half physical.

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