Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Baseball Has Been Very, Very Good...and it Still Is

This isn't going to be one of those cranky "get off of my lawn!" posts by some (not-quite) middle-aged guy lamenting the way things are now and how they were so much better back in his day. First, you wouldn't want to read that (and I wouldn't want to write that!), and second, I'm only 36 so I'm not old enough to act that way. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, I'll be upfront and say that I am going to talk about how things are different now than they were when I was growing up 20-30 years ago, but only as it pertains to baseball (which you had probably already guessed from the title of this post...you're clever, you!). 

The seed idea for this post was planted a few weeks ago when I was talking baseball with some of the guys at work. As the lone New Englander in my building, I was talking about the current Major League season with some coworkers. I'm a Red Sox fan, one of them is a Yankees fan, another is a Pirates fan, and another is a Mets fan. One day when we were speaking, something struck me and it was so obvious that I was doubly shocked I hadn't noticed it sooner...I was the only one in the group who was under sixty years old. That got me thinking some more and I realized that even outside of work, it's very rare for me to talk baseball with anyone around my own age. Even on those occasions when the other person is closer in age to me, they're always older. That got the wheels in my head turning, the full idea for this post began to germinate, and so here we are discussing it now.

Thinking back to my childhood in the 1980s and 1990s, baseball was almost an obsession for me and my friends. I grew up watching, playing, and loving the game from as far back as I can remember. I played Little League baseball from age five until I was 12 and I played on the junior high team until I went to high school...I was a catcher for all of those seasons. I even played a season in college on my university club team as an outfielder. I didn't play in high school, though, which has been a regret of mine ever since. When my friends and I weren't playing baseball, we played whiffleball for hours. We collected baseball cards, watched baseball on TV, and talked about it all the time. The stats, the teams, the history, what was going on during the season...it was all consuming. Additionally, I grew up with a grandfather who was a lifelong and passionate baseball fan. Since he spent the first sixteen or so years of his life in the Bronx, he was a lifelong Yankees fan, but I was able to give him a pass for that! He passed away seven years ago and I still miss him terribly. He was my pal and I loved spending time with him, and one of the reasons was baseball. We used to watch baseball on TV, we'd talk about it, he'd tell me stories of all of the Yankees greats he got to watch play (many of them in person), and he would always come watch me play baseball when he could. It was a real bonding thing between us and even now when I enjoy baseball I always think of him and the time we spent together with the game. My own dad taught me all about the rules of the game, how to throw and catch, how to hit, and about a lot of the game's history. It just seemed during my life and even into my early twenties that baseball was still hugely popular. I also had the good fortune to grow up in a baseball-crazy region of the country where the Red Sox are almost a religion and everyone, old and young, lives and dies with the team. That passion, along with a whole lot of heartache, was finally rewarded in 2004 when the Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. Additional wins in 2007 and 2013 solidified them as one of the dominant teams of the decade, although for long time fans like myself and others who had followed the team through all of the shocking defeats and losing years, it also brought along some problems.  These were (and still are) mainly the huge swaths of new fans who were attracted not necessarily by the game of baseball, but by the success of the Red Sox and the fact that Fenway Park is now a "cool" place to go. This, and the pricing out of the real fans in order to pack in more of the new fair-weather fans, has rankled many longtime fans (myself included) who remember the bad old days. This is the same problem fans of the other pro teams in town, especially the Patriots, are also having. It's not unique to the Red Sox, but unfortunately attracting all of these new non-fans hasn't resulted in an uptick of creating a huge new block of true baseball fans, which leads me to my next point...

The main criticisms you hear about baseball, from fans and non-fans alike, is that it's too slow, the games are too long, and the sport itself is just too boring. I've discussed it before, but for me that's part of the beauty of the game. It's the only major American sport that doesn't run by a clock and while the games can be long or short depending on how the teams are doing, that unpredictability and tension is one of the things that makes the game unique. It's also been said for years that baseball is too slow-paced and doesn't have enough action to hold viewer attention, especially in today's hyperfast-paced world. This is almost always given as the main reason why fewer and fewer kids are drawn to the game when compared to years passed. But is that really an indictment on baseball? Or rather a comment on modern society and how we're raising our kids to always need stimulation and instant gratification in order to keep them from getting bored?  Watching a baseball game on TV, and especially going to the ballpark to watch a game, is totally unique in sports, from the feel of the game to the tension and excitement that hangs on every pitch, every hit, and every play in the field where things can change in the blink of an eye. The strategy, where managers manipulate the players on the field almost like pieces on a chessboard in order to counter the other team's moves, and the arcane and ancient traditions of the game, from the seventh inning stretch to players policing themselves...baseball has the longest and richest history of all the major sports to drawn from and this is but one of its many charms.

On a more personal level, all four of my kids now play the game. My two oldest daughters played softball a few years back but didn't play again until this year when they both played fast-pitch softball. My son played teeball last year and loved it, so we played him up a level this year so he could play real baseball, and my youngest daughter started with teeball. Besides the obvious parental pride in seeing them play, have fun, and improve as the season progressed, and as well as the enjoyment in watching the games (which were almost always very entertaining and exciting), the oldest three have all definitely caught the baseball/softball bug. My son was obsessed as soon as he started playing last year and is now at the point where he can't wait to get outside to practice or play. However, my two oldest girls really seemed to fall in love with the game this year. They ask questions about the rules and strategies, have improved immeasurably both hitting and in the field, and are really interested in watching baseball and softball games on TV and discussing what's going on. For a baseball junkie like me, it's really cool to see them so interested in the game and wanting to play. My youngest? She had fun at teeball (I was one of her coaches) and she definitely improved, especially at hitting,, but she's also extremely high energy so we'll see if she wants to continue on with it or not...she's only five, so she has time! My oldest three now want to play fall ball and my two oldest daughters want to do a softball camp at the local university this summer, so I think it's safe to say they well and truly enjoy the sport!

I guess what I'm finally trying to get at with all of this is that while baseball seems to be almost anachronistic in today's fast-paced society, it also can be seen to offer a respite from it. It offers a different kind of drama and excitement from the other three major American sports (all of which I love). It's so inextricably interwoven with our country's values, history, and culture that it not only reflects Americana, it is a part of the Americana. It was one of our greatest non-monetary gifts to Japan when we rebuilt that country after the war, and it's now played by millions of children and adults all over Asia, Latin America, and beyond. It's near and dear to my heart both as a fan, as someone who used to play the game, and for the connection I had with my grandfather through the game and that I know have with my own children. I also see that, at least where we now live in Pennsylvania, baseball is very popular in youth sports (although I'd still say that hockey is king around here). Maybe not at the level that it was when I was growing up, but enough for me to believe that a new generation of baseball fans and lovers will come of age to keep the cycle going. It's my strong belief that there will always be a place for the baseball and those who love it, no matter how hectic and breakneck our world becomes, and that the talk from pundits and journalists that baseball is dying or that it needs to change in order to fit the modern world are not only premature but flat out wrong. Baseball may not be king anymore (I'm looking at you, NFL), but it will always be America's pastime, it's still going strong, and I think (and hope) that it always will.

2 comments:

  1. I think playing the game at an early age is critical to raising a baseball fan. It's a wonderful game to relax and watch once you understand its rhythms, but that does require some background knowledge by the viewer that I don't think is needed to enjoy as much in football or basketball.

    Financially the game is doing better than ever, though ratings for the World Series and All-Star games have been on the decline. The sport is intensely regional in a way that the other national sports aren't.

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    1. All great points.

      I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of the rules and learning the game. I'm finding it much easier to reach my kids the finer details and rules since like me they started playing and watching it from an early age, whereas trying to teach my summer intern, in his mid-20s, is proving to be more a challenge even though he's from India and a massive cricket fan.

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