Sunday, September 07, 2008

Not making an out

Although I cannot attribute it to any specific source, I get the impression there is a general impression in American society that baseball is a sport which should no longer exist. I don't know whether attendance and TV ratings really are down, but I recall hearing or reading (or perhaps merely imagining) that it is accused of being too slow, of not having anything to capture the attention of a generation who (it is glibly alleged) can barely focus on this sentence all the way to the end.

While its popularity does not put it above football, or necessarily even basketball (sports with more inherent violence or a faster pace of action), baseball persists. Player salaries continue to rise, new stadiums (stadia?) continue to be built. Ticket prices continue to go up and make it difficult for families to afford to bring children to games—which is true of all sports, but baseball is the least interesting to watch on TV, and therefore should rely on attendance in person—and seemingly the game should be pricing itself out of business, but clearly it is not.

In the sidebar article to his latest Esquire column, Chuck Klosterman attributes the continued existence of the American pastime to the way baseball allows for variable scoring. Unlike football or basketball (or even soccer), where after a team scores they must turn over possession of the ball to the other team (and therefore a team behind by more than the maximum number of points they can score in a single possession must take risks to try to get the ball back without allowing the leading team to score again or just kill time on the clock), baseball allows for a situation where, in a single swing of the bat, a team can score as many as four runs; a team can be behind by three—and in baseball it's not uncommon for three to be a sizable lead—and if they can load the bases and the batter gets a good pitch to drive over the fence, they take the lead (or win). In other sports, a score is worth a set number of points; football and basketball have variations in what a type of play can score, but that play always only counts for what it does. And there's the possession turnover thing.

What I'd first argue beyond that: Not only can one team score different point totals for the same play, baseball allows the team on offense to continue to score as long as they can do so without making three outs. Heck, they can score by doing nothing; the team on defense can, through poor pitching or errors, allow the team on offense to score through no specific effort on their part.

I realize what I suggested about baseball (following on Chuck's lead) essentially operates as a counter-argument to George Carlin's famous "Baseball and Football" routine, where he declares football's superiority by mocking more or less the exact reasons I touted as baseball's strengths.

He first did that routine back in the '70s. Baseball was already out of step with the pace of society back then. And yet it continues to exist. Maybe it's nostalgia that has yet to expire that explains that, but I'd further allege baseball better represents America.

Much of the effort is exerted by only two of the nine guys on the field. If one of those two, the pitcher, does his job really well and strikes out all the batters, the other seven players on defense can spend an entire inning just standing around, not having to run or catch or throw; their entire effort was spent trotting out to their position and warming up. Similarly, if that one guy does his job poorly and walks four batters in a row, the other team scores without having to even make contact with the bat.

It's a game whereby one can achieve victory simply by allowing the other side to screw up. On the other hand, it's a game where one gets no breaks; just because one team scored does not mean the other gets its turn to score; they have to keep trying to stop the other team three times before they get their chance.

Unlike any other major sport, baseball involves a peculiar combination of possible laziness and tenacious effort. What's about that would not appeal to the American sensibility, in this or any other era?


  1. The intrigue of baseball:

    Watching the imbeciles who fall over the wall trying to catch homeruns.

    Always entertaining.


  2. Jenji, you leave out the best part of that: Watching them get kicked out of the stadium for going on the field of play.


So, what do you think?