By Ryan Masters
Tom Verducci recently wrote an article about the World Series which wasn’t really about the World Series. It was actually about how the game might improve if certain offense-favorable changes were made. And, really, the article’s message was even simpler than that: it was a cry for mercy from a fan who seemed just incredibly bored with a sport that hasn’t had a significant rule change since the DH was put in place—in the 70s!
Verducci writes, “As scoring declines and pitching has come to dominate the game over the past decade, every pitch carries an intensity that prompts hitters into deep bouts of concentration and routine, as if they’re preparing to dive off the cliffs of Acapulco 292 times, which is the average number of pitches in a major league game in 2013.” One might mistake this as praise, given the phrase “every pitch carries an intensity.” That is, until one reads, “dive off the cliffs of Acapulco 292 times,” which Verducci parallels with each “intense” pitch. Though I would not make the effort to drive to Acapulco (the gas, the dry heat, the coyotes) the thought of enduring an entire season of Major League Baseball makes me want to dive off our local Blue Ridge Mountains 162 times. And even then there are potential cliff dives reserved for a playoff run. Verducci goes on to point out that the first 36 postseason games of this season’s Series (the article was written before Games 5 & 6) have produced offensive statistics that have been truly offensive, comparable to the run production of the early 1900s Dead Ball era—but with even lower batting average numbers.
The author suggests installing a new rule he calls a “Bonus at Bat,” which sounds like something you pay a dollar for to get another try at winning a giant stuffed animal. He is serious too, and the idea seems really fun, if a bit improbable. But all that madness aside (and it may just be the type of happy, beautiful madness that can make the game fun again), I would like to point out again what the article is not about: the World Series. Though this year’s series produced great ratings (relative to previous World Series), matching two teams from incredibly supportive fan-bases in an intriguing-by-baseball-standards 6 game dazzler, SI ran an article essentially about how to make the sport watchable for the near and distant future. Why? Because the game itself is not that interesting. At least, not anymore.
Baseball was the sport I grew up with, and the Red Sox were my Dad and I’s team. My father, who grew up in a suburb about 45 minutes from Boston, passed along to me the heavy anguish of the pre-2004 Red Sox fan. If the Sox’s recent dominance has made you forget, 10 years ago Red Sox fans had been waiting literally generations to be able to watch the Red Sox finally clinch a World Series title. After their 6th championship win in 1918 (!), they hadn’t won a single World Series. In 2004 the first championship came, and not only that, but came on the heels of an epic, record-breaking comeback in the ALCS against the hated Yankees. Even Aristotle could not have anticipated the powerful catharsis that resulted. But Dad passed along to me a different Red Sox team.
According to my parents’ divorce agreement, I would spend summers with Dad and school years with Mom. So, each summer I learned how to be a Red Sox fan from my quiet, reserved father who would smoke slowly and mutter under his breath as we watched the Sox fall apart season after season. All their memorable moments pointed to the disappointment of almost winning it all, from Bill Buckner’s famous fielding blunder in the 1986 World Series, to Carlton Fisk’s famous Game 6 walk-off homerun in ‘75, which gave them the opportunity to lose in the 9th inning of Game 7 to the Big Red Machine. They never could gain the momentum they needed to push through to a championship—every time they developed a star, he would run away to the Yankees for a better paycheck. This was the pre-2004 Red Sox, remember, little sister to the Bullies from the Bronx, hapless inheritors of the curse of baseball’s legendary fat man prima-donna, Babe Ruth. Every season was like waiting for Aslan to return to Narnia to break the endless winter of the Curse of the Bambino. And yet, every year we watched. The anticipation, the drama, the history—it was fun. Plus, it was ours. I loved every second of it.
I loved, first of all, that Dad and I could talk and joke and he could tell me stories of the Red Sox’s past. I loved that we had time to heat up Bagel Bites in the oven, eat them, play two games of Yahtzee, and still have our attention free for the final innings. I loved learning the language of baseball, the double switch and the screwball, the hit-and-run and the pitch out. I loved that the game had a history of unwritten rules, as if it were some sort of secret society: like for instance the surprisingly complex rules guiding how to properly hit a player with a pitch intentionally (for more on the seriousness of breaking this secret code, consider the A-Rod/Ryan Dempster incident from earlier this season). But maybe most of all, and I hate being sentimental but here it goes: I loved it because Dad loved it. Red Sox fandom is probably the only Masters family heirloom I will ever own, so it is—was—very precious to me.
But now, I don’t care that the Red Sox just won the Series. Sure, I keep an eye on them—mostly so that Dad and I will have something to talk about when our monthly phone conversation runs dry—but I feel none of the catharsis or nostalgia or whatever one is supposed to feel when one’s team wins the Big One (Alas, as a lifetime, bleeding-heart Redskins fan, I’m afraid I may never actually experience such feelings). I, like most, feel like the game is boring and old. I feel like “pastime” is a meaningless modifier, the only significant syllable of which is “past.” Baseball feels like my father’s game: simple, deliberate, entirely resistant to change, content to allow the past to roll lazily into the future.
The continuing cultural relevance of our “national pastime” is now questioned as a matter of course by bloggers and broadcasters who would rather be talking about the NFL. Some question if the game has a future at all. Jonathan Mahler points out in his New York Times article entitled “Is the game dead?” that “to the game’s early poets, baseball’s fast pace was what made it distinctly American. Mark Twain called it a symbol of ‘the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming 19th century!’ The 21st century, not so much.” Baseball itself has not changed (which, of course, is a bulk of the problem); rather, America has changed and baseball has not. As a result, we view baseball as a curious specimen trapped in amber, the same way I view my father.
When Dad gets on the internet, he uses a dial-up internet connection and logs in via an America Online subscription. He has had the same job, habits, movie tastes and sense of humor for the last 25 years. He comes from a world where pensions were possible because people actually stayed on with companies long enough to earn them. My world is fast and integrated. I have fast access to millions of sports articles a mere Google-command away. I have instant streaming access to hundreds of television shows from across several decades. I can afford to be discriminating with my cultural intake, and those parts of our culture that don’t go the speed of my world feel alien to me. Baseball and my father literally belong to another era than my own. Baseball is dial-up, pensions, and Mark Twain. Think about it: can you imagine Bud Selig tweeting? There’s a reason for that.
Those who, like my father and like Major League Baseball, refuse to grow and be renewed by the changing times become alienated by them. They get stuck in an endless winter of traditions that no longer make sense. And yet it is so difficult to grow and change while still maintaining a deep and sincere memory and loyalty to the past. Witness the spectacle of contemporary baseball: as stat-geeks struggle to transform the way the game is analyzed and experienced, MLB’s leaders reluctantly hash out the reasons why utilizing instant replay might spoil the integrity of the game. Because the nation’s pastime is past its time, the game is always, as Mahler puts it, “forever straining to live up to its own mythology.” Baseball is still loyal to its Moses’s: to the Babe, the Bronx Bombers, to Kirk Gibson’s gimpy, fist-pumping homerun trot. Baseball still uses dial-up because dial-up was fine just a few years ago. But who of my generation can bear another season crawling across our ever-shortening summers at 256 kbps? Even cricket has made radical changes to speed up with the times! Why does baseball feel so much like it doesn’t care about Millenials who live in a high-speed, global universe?
I am a father now, and I wondered the other day, while rice cereal rolled down my son Nehemiah’s chin, what role sports would play in our relationship. I get nostalgic about little league baseball, and so I imagined Nehemiah waiting in proper fielding stance for the ball to be put into play, smacking his glove, adjusting his little hat. Then I clicked on Netflix to Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, set him on the couch, and flipped through my iPad to 1-click-order the new Elizabeth Gilbert book from Amazon. I checked a few emails, scanned Facebook, read a movie review filled with hyperlinks that spread me across the internet. Then I pressed another app to check the latest sports news and, lo and behold, the Red Sox had won the World Series earlier that week. Fenway’s first World Series-clinching game since 1918, one story mentioned, a factoid older than me, my father, and my father’s father. And the news didn’t make me think for one moment of calling my father to enjoy the moment with him; I only thought of writing an essay where I would wonder why I didn’t care about baseball anymore.
And while Tom Verducci is thinking up ways to save the sport I used to love with my Dad, Nehemiah is growing and changing fast. One day soon he’ll be standing and looking up at me, and he’ll have a ball in his hand and he’ll ask if we can go outside. And I wonder if I’ll still be able to teach him how to throw a fastball, after all these years have gone by. Or if I’ll want to.
Ryan Masters was an avid reader of literary essays and short stories, like those of David Foster Wallace and George Saunders, before he and his wife had their amazing yet high-maintenance little boy, Nehemiah, this summer. Now he picks up scraps of culture from Netflix, streaming highlights, and whatever fun, short pieces of writing he is willing to get rice cereal all over.
Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.