Monday, April 28, 2014

Why I Love Baseball and Why I Ask: Is America's Pastime Dying?




This is something I've been thinking about for several years, but I was spurred on to write this by something I heard on the local sports talk radio show I was listening to last week. The two radio hosts were talking about how late the previous night's Red Sox game ended (it went into extra innings and after 5 1/2 hours, finally ended with the Red Sox winning). One of the hosts mentioned how he's loved baseball his entire life but has a hard time with such long games starting so late in the evening (usually between 7 and 8pm) and ending close to midnight, especially on work nights. The other host then mentioned how he couldn't imagine how he could have stayed up to watch games that late when he was a kid, and that his own son has no interest in baseball. That began their discussion into why kids don't like baseball as much these days.

Now, both of these hosts are roughly the same age as me (34), so I can completely relate. Some of the topics they touched on were:

- That most kids today don't play baseball, or even whiffleball;
- That the game is not as fast and exciting as other sports like football, hockey, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, and others;
- The games are long;
- The games start too late;
- No one in inner cities plays baseball any more;
- Kids would rather play video games or some other form of electronic entertainment than watch/attend a baseball game.

These are all valid concerns and I'll touch on them as I go along, so bear with me.

As I get into my feelings on this matter, let me give some background on where I'm coming from. I'm a huge sports fan, especially of my four local sports teams: the Boston Red Sox, Boston Bruins, Boston Celtics, and New England Patriots. I love all of those sports and as a kid played pick-up football and hockey with friends and played competitive basketball and baseball for many years. Even as an adult, I remain passionate about sports and my teams. However, if I had to pick one of these sports as my favorite, the one I like just a little bit more than the others, it would be baseball. There are many reasons for this.

First and foremost is that I played it the longest: I played tee-ball when I was 5 and moved on to play Little League from the age of 6 until I was 12 (the upper age limit). I also played on my junior high team for three years (ages 10-13). Lastly, I played on my university's club baseball team for a season when I was 20. In addition, my friends and I played a LOT of wiffleball and pick-up baseball over the years when we were growing up. We always had a gang of guys who we could round up to play whiffleball games and, in the rare instances when we couldn't, we had homerun derbies. We figured out how to pitch a whiffleball so that we could strike guys out (ever try throwing a curveball with a whiffleball?), we taped our whifflebats to give them extra weight so that we could hit farther, and generally had a blast. I have extremely fond memories of those countless games and I'm smiling as I reminisce and type this. We obsessed over all of the baseball stats, collected baseball cards like crazy, wore our favorite team's hats, played catch, watched all of the games on TV, and were generally obsessed with the game.

On a more personal level, my beloved late grandfather on my dad's side was a massive, lifelong baseball fan. Even though he'd moved to New Hampshire (which is where my parents and I are all from) as a teenager, he was born and raised in the Bronx, New York City, and was thus a lifelong New York Yankees fan. Growing up a Red Sox fan, it made for a lot of fun banter since the two teams are historical rivals. But more than that, baseball was one of the many ways that brought us close together. Whenever I'd go visit my grandparents, if it was baseball season, he had a game on the TV in his den. Most of the time, it was the Red Sox since that's all we got on the local channel (and living all but the first 16 years of his life in New Hampshire, my grandfather always made it a point to tell people that the Sox were his second-favorite team, after his Yankees, of course!). We used to watch games together, talk about them, talk about players current and old, stats, etc. He always came to watch me play when my grandparents would be visiting us and I had games, and it was just a lot of fun to have baseball as something special in our relationship (among other things...he was a great man in so many ways; he's been gone 5 years and there isn't a day that goes by when I don't think about him...I miss him terribly). Also, it's a rite of passage for just about every American boy my age and older to have played catch with their dad and that is no exception. My dad taught me how to throw a baseball, how to catch, how to hit, and always tried to make time to toss the ball around with me outside after he got home from work, no matter how tired he was.

Beyond the personal importance of baseball in my life, there is just something about the game that has affected me and millions of people my age and older that seems to be missing in younger people these days.  True, it's not the fast-paced game that hockey, basketball, and football are (all three of which I also love). There aren't big hits, slam dunks, fights, or high scores. But that's part of its charm. While all of the sports mentioned above involve a lot of strategy, baseball is more like a chess match than the other sports. Also, you are hanging on every pitch, every at bat, every hit...there will be a lull in the action and then BANG! something incredibly exciting may happen. Especially late in games, and most definitely during crucial games (whether in the midst of a pennant race or in the World Series), the tension will be almost unbearable and then in an instant, there is the thrill of a strikeout, a play in the field, or a long fly ball that is going, going, going...  It may sound crazy, but a 1-0 game can be the most exciting thing of all (if you don't believe me and you didn't see game 7 of the 1991 World Series, then you missed out!). 

Baseball also has a deep sense of history and as the oldest professional sports league in America, that history stretches back into the 19th century. Even casual fans and non-fans knew about the Red Sox' Curse of the Bambino (which we vanquished in 2004), the Cubs' 100-year curse that continues to the present, as well as cultural figures that are known immediately by just their names: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Pete Rose, etc.  Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium are instantly recognizable and revered landmarks, and defunct parks like Ebbets Field, Tigers Stadium, the Polo Grounds are still remembered fondly and mythologized in their own way.

There have been so many great moments in the history of the game and I feel fortunate to have witnessed so many of them even in my (relatively) short lifetime, from the heartbreak of the 1986 World Series to the exhilaration of the 1991 NLCS and World Series to the thrilling 2004 ALCS and eventual ending of my Red Sox' 86-year World Series drought, and everything in between. So many of these moments carry lifelong "where were you when..." status in a way no other sport does...this is not to say the NBA, NFL, and NHL don't. They do and I've been lucky to witness so many of those, too, but with a history as long and rich as baseball's, this is one I think MLB is a clear winner on.

 Here's but one example, from the 2004 ALCS...what drama!

Baseball fans are passionate about the integrity of the game and its unwritten rules and ostracize players like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, and all others who sullied the game and made a mockery of the record book with their chemically enhanced statistics; we rest easy knowing that, while their pre-steroid careers in most cases would have rendered them Hall of Famers anyway, they will never be enshrined in Cooperstown now that their cheating has been exposed.

Finally, on this tangent, it is the most iconic and American of the four major sports...case in point, the photograph at the top of this post, which just screams Americana and is so rooted in our cultural history that not a single person would look at it and not understand what it meant, whether they were a baseball fan or not.

Baseball offers the most unique game viewing experience, especially in person. I'm only speaking from my own experience here, and I'm lucky enough to be a Boston fan and have the ability to watch home Red Sox games at Fenway Park which is, for those who don't know, the oldest ballpark in the country. While it has been slightly renovated in recent years, it is still almost wholly original and retains the same quirks and charms that it did decades and decades ago. Going to a baseball game just feels different...the smell of the grass, the sounds of the crowd and the vendors hawking their food and drinks up and down the aisles, being outside in the fresh air, the sunshine of a day game or the bright lights of a night game, maybe being at the mercy of the elements (okay, that can be a whole lot of NO fun...I've been to many cold and rainy games that were downright miserable).  It's a very relaxing yet exciting time watching a game and it offers a special time to bond with whoever you go with. To a lesser extent, the same holds true when watching a game on TV, but there is nothing like the experience of going to the ballpark and spending the time watching a game.

As far as playing baseball, of all of the team sports I played, either on an organized team or in an intramural or pick-up league, it was always my favorite, for many of the same reasons that I love to watch it: everything can end up hanging on one pitch, one hit, one play in the field, one out. Also, there's a different type of atmosphere that comes with being a part of a baseball team. Practices, games, travel...it was all quite different on the baseball teams I was a part of when compared to other sports. There is something special about the feeling when you're carrying your equipment to the field, the smell of the grass, the crack of the bat, the sound the ball makes as it smacks into your glove, the grass and dirt stains on your uniform...even siting in the dugout cheering your team on, chewing gum, spitting sunflower seeds or not (gross, I know, but a part of the game)...anyone who has ever played baseball will know exactly what I mean by all of this.

However, it seems that more and more kids (and adults) are either abandoning baseball or not getting into it in the first place. The slower pace of the game when compared to other sports is a factor, as is the needlessly late starting times...this is especially detrimental during the playoffs and World Series, when even East Coast games start after 8pm, which is ridiculous! There are also fewer kids playing baseball, certainly in cities as well as the type of mid-sized towns where I've lived my entire life. Other sports like football and soccer (especially) take up more interest from kids, and especially in northern climes where you're only able to play baseball outside for 6 months of the year (if you're lucky!) the number of kids playing and sticking with it for many years seems to be dwindling. I don't think baseball will ever die out and go away forever, but I think there should be some effort to introduce kids to it in order to try and capture their passion at a young age in order so that they may nurture a lifelong love of the game. As for adults, most that I talk to who used to like it have lost interest due to over-expansion of the game (too many teams and playoffs, which I do agree with), and whether they've ever liked the game or not, the length of the games in an increasingly busy and stressful life are always cited as reasons why many are not interested.

There are many ideas that have been bandied about amongst fans and the media to try and improve the game, attract new fans (or previous fans who left), and increase interest to get it back to the passionate levels that it enjoyed before the NFL took over the mantle of America's (unofficial) pastime in the 2000s, but those are not the intention of my piece and I'm not going to address them here (although if you'd like to discuss them, let's do so in the comments section below). However, I am happy that all of my kids so far seem to really enjoy baseball...we watch it on TV, sometimes we toss the ball around or have batting practice, and they want to go to some games at Fenway Park. I hope this love for the game continues into adulthood and beyond for them, because in a crazy, hyperfast-paced world, baseball is still a uniquely American sport with a one-of-a-kind viewing experience and sense of wonder unlike any other. It's a part of the American fabric and a part of our culture and for my children's generation to lose that would be a very sad thing indeed.

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