The sort of baseball we deserve

October 27, 2010

I am looking forward to this evening’s match-up, to the probable pitching duel between Tim Lincecum of the (my) San Francisco Giants and (my neighbor) Cliff Lee, who, for the moment, pitches for the Texas Rangers.

It seems fitting that in this corrective season they are calling “The Year of the Pitcher,” that the final act begins this way, with a likely pitcher’s duel between a freakishly talented two-time Cy Young winner and an elegant left-hander with superb command and (so far) the best post-season pitching record ever.

And while I’m not in the business of picking winners — betting baseball is a superhighway to pauperhood — it might be fitting if the Giants, a mediocre offensive team (penance for their harboring of the chemically reconstructed Barry Bonds?), prevailed over the relatively slugging Rangers. But I’m OK either way. (For the record, I picked the Giants and the Yankees to be in the series; with the Yankees winning.) I just root for the game.

Baseball  is no longer the most popular sport in America, but it is still this nation’s First Sport, the one that college professors and newspaper columnists want to make into a metaphor for the times. Baseball is important in a way that other sports are not.

Tim Lincecumin

I confess I do observe its rites as well as I used to; these days there are too many games and not enough time, and I can hardly ever spare a whole Saturday afternoon or Wednesday night. I feel a little bad about this, but following sports intensely is really a boy’s pastime, at least it was before we started over-scheduling kids and hyper-parenting. In the old days some of us were happy waiting a week for The Sporting News to arrive in the mail (usually on a Monday afternoon), with all the box scores and compiled statistics—not just the leaders—from two weeks before.

In an age of Google and Twitter, when you can call up the career of a DiMaggio or a Big Ed Delahanty with a few keystrokes, it seems impossible we could have been genuinely appreciative of TSN, with its smell of ink and newsprint and grainy black and white photos, but we pored over it for hours, with the intensity of Talmudic scholars, until the names and numbers were branded deep in our brain. To this day, in odd moments I remember Ron Hunt and Matty Alou and Max Alvis, Jim Ray Hart and Felix Millan. I can name the starting line-ups of most Major League teams in 1969—fluff that no doubt crowds out more important information.

Most of the baseball I consume these days is concentrated in highlights shows, wherein the languid rhythms of the game are collapsed and jiggered, remixed into something flashy and made-for-TV.

You get the scores, along with diving catches and skyrocketing home runs, but not the antique pitch-by-pitch cadence of an at bat. Baseball rewards patience in the way more kinetic, continuous sports do not—the initiated can parse the accreting drama of a pitch count; there is richness in the artfully fouled ball.

There is a bait-and-switch aspect to the way the game is marketed; the genuine genius of baseball has less to do with occasional extraordinary athletic feats than the precision of the game’s design. Were the pitcher’s mound a few inches further away or closer, the very DNA of the game would be altered. A curve might not have time to break if not for the last two feet; thrown from 62 feet a 90 mile-an-hour fastball would serve as batting practice.

The same applies with the distance between bases; and even the outfield dimensions of the park. Shave a couple of inches off the mound and the pitcher’s mechanical advantage is reduced; allow white-shirted fans to fill the centerfield bleachers and batting averages will go down. In a way baseball is like one of those Japanese Pachinko machines, highly customizable, subject to adjustment in dozens of nearly invisible ways. You can have the kind of baseball you want, if you know how to trim the dials.

And so statistics are not the objective indicators we sometimes pretend they are—Rogers Hornsby would not have hit .358 for his career had he played in the 1960s. For most of baseball history, 50 home runs was a rare achievement, but home runs became cheaper in the 1990s and early 2000s, and while we know some of the reasons why that is so we cannot begin to imagine all the factors.

Like all successful spectator sports, baseball  has evolved in response to the market—the so-called steroid era is probably best understood as a reaction to the general decline in fan interest through the 1980s. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa brought baseball back after the crippling strike year of 1994 and most of us didn’t much care about their workout regimes.

We get the sort of baseball we deserve—or at least the sort of baseball that puts people in the bleachers. So even as baseball crowds—at least major league baseball crowds—have grown healthily in the past few years, fewer people seem to understand the nuances of the game, in part because those nuances have disappeared.

Sacrifice bunts aren’t as helpful as Leo Durocher’s faith held. As Earl Weaver instinctively knew, the odds favor playing for three-run home runs. Bating average is an overrated statistic in that, absent any other information, it tells us virtually nothing about a player’s worth. Not all the new ways are vulgar, some are just correctives to bad assumptions, antidotes to superstition.

The highlight shows don’t do it justice— my baseball requires quiet stretches, moments when the pitcher simply stares in to the plate, aimless throws to hold the runner at first base, called third strikes and generous expanses of grass. It is even important that baseball have its nonfans, people who profess to being left cold by the ritual of the game. It needs people who prefer the clash and clamor of football, or the naked athleticism of basketball’s elongated specimens, to its subtler, less sensational charms. Baseball needs its nonbelievers, for without them its believers would not feel as blessed.

And “blessed” is the word for it. Despite the abundance of Christian athletes willing to publicly acknowledge their faith, all sport is subversive of organized religion to the extent that it usurps the role of religion in the individual’s life. Sport burlesques the rituals of religion and induces in its fans the same kind of ecclesiastic sensation.

We all mourn our youth, and if we are baseball fans we invariably mourn the baseball of our youth. I learned the game in the pitcher-dominated ’60s. I’m glad to see it back for now.

But the game is oblivious, it rushes forward, adapting, eventually abandoning every mortal lover. The game is a vampire; it will outlive us all.


11 Comments

  • Comment by blind willie mctell — Oct 27,2010 at 1:10 pm

    I too looked forward to the Sporting News on Mondays. And it was produced in St. Louis, the greatest of the baseball towns and home to my team! It is absolutely uncanny how the distances you mention (and many others of course) are so critical to the game. Changes of even the most modest amounts would no doubt alter the game we have known. How was it all laid out so perfectly, with such balance and symmetry?? Divine intervention perhaps?

    Now that is a good sports column. But who the hell is Max Alvis??

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Oct 27,2010 at 1:18 pm

    Max Alvis:
    http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/a/alvisma01.shtml

  • Comment by blind willie mctell — Oct 27,2010 at 3:34 pm

    Interesting. He made two all-star teams and I did not even recall his name. But that was about the time older women starting throwing themselves at me so it was pretty chaotic for awhile.

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Oct 27,2010 at 4:01 pm

    It’s interesting that he could have been a minor star given his numbers. The ’60s were very different.

  • Comment by DLindsay — Oct 27,2010 at 6:18 pm

    TSN, and listening to games on the radio at night. I lived in Alabama, and used to pick up games from all over back in the 70’s. I know it’s probably silly, but, now, at forty-eight years old, I get very wistful remembering the drama not so much of would Johnny Bench drive in Joe Morgan, but would Joe Nuxhall’s voice fade out before JB finished the at bat.

  • Comment by donmccrmck — Oct 28,2010 at 1:29 pm

    I remember when Felix Millan had his first at bat, as s pinch hitter in Atlanta’s fist year in Atlanta. He was a good hitter, but my favorite Millan story is one from the late sixties, when Millan was a regular in the line-up and Joe Torre’s knees were showing the strain of a long career behind the plate, and he didn’t beat too many throws to first. Millan batted ahead of Torre. In one game, Millan got singles in three successive appearances and Torre batted into three successive double plays. Torre claimed in a recent interview that in his next at bat Millan hit a long fly that bounced off the wall for what would have been a stand-up double, but Millan stopped at first, then turned around and grinned at Torre, to give him the opportunity to hit into four straight double plays. Torrey, of course, famously did so, and in a post-game interview, when asked about setting a major league record for hitting into double plays in a single game, Torre said “I’d like to thank Felix Millan for making all this possible.”

    I was also listening to the broadcast on the radio the night Milo Hamilton started calling him “the Kitten,” surely the worst baseball nickname in history.

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Oct 28,2010 at 1:39 pm

    I remember those Braves teams well, Don. Millan, Gil Garrido, Ralph Garr … but I didn’t remember Millan being called “the Kitten.”

  • Comment by donmccrmck — Oct 30,2010 at 11:11 pm

    Milo Hamilton was the Braves radio announcer a the time. When Millan moved from being a pinch hitter to being a part of the lineup Milo decided he had to have a nickname, and because his name was Felix, Milo at first wanted to call him “the Cat.” But then the color announcer said somebody was already the Cat (can’t remember who) and since Millan was so young, they called him the Kitten.

    I just checked Millan’s Wikipedia entry, and whoever edited it must have been a Milo Hamilton listener too.

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Oct 31,2010 at 11:19 am

    Wonder who the other Cat was? Harry the Cat Brecchen? Surely his career didn’t overlap with Millan’s.

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Oct 31,2010 at 11:19 am

    Breechen …. sheesh

  • Comment by donmccrmck — Oct 31,2010 at 2:04 pm

    I hadmit I’d never heard of Brecheen, despite some great stats. Brecheen’s career didn’t overlap with Millan’s, but it looks it did overlap for one year with Milo Hamilton’s. Milo started broadcasting MLB games with the St. Louis Browns in 1953, where Brecheen played his last year.

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