What It Is, Is Still Baseball
I've written before about my love for baseball. It became a bit more difficult to follow things once I junked my TV, Channel Five dumped their coverage and MLB.com nixed the only technology I could use to keep up from day to day.
I'd also become disillusioned with all professional sports - considering in each case that they had too much money floating around which all seemed to land in the wrong places. Baseball had its particular problems concerning performance-enhancing substances and other dubious practices.
So, apart from occasionally looking to see how the Twins were getting on, I drifted right away from it.
It was around about the end of June last year when I decided to see if any of the old affection, the old magic, could be re-kindled...and almost immediately found that I was hooked again.
Major League Baseball seemed to have got to grips with the sport's various demons and tightened things up so that the spectre of unsportsmanlike behaviour which had led me to distance myself had - at the very least - receded.
And I was once more reminded that - compared to 'football' (which in its ethos is little more than the ambulatory equivalent of NASCAR), basketball (which, as I've said before, is too many guys in too small a space and with too few different ways of scoring), and 'hockey' (in which, as the legend has it, good fights are often disrupted by periods of play) - baseball is the most human-scaled of US sports. It is played by recognisably human beings, not gangly Watusis or steroid-inflated meatheads. It is played - as the journalist David Taylor put it - on a human scale. There is something expansive about the dimensions of the field of play, fanning out as it does from home plate to four hundred feet or more away. This - alongside the very nature of the game itself, of course - provides for a far more open game and a far greater variety of ways in which players can excel or fail.
The nature of the places in which the game is played is usually different too: this was true in the olden days and it has become as much so again in an era when the almost sterile 'multi-sport facilities' of the seventies through to the turn of the century have been abandoned in favour of purpose-built ballparks which are suited to the nature of the game rather than the game having to adapt to their confines; I mean, just look at Oakland - still playing in the unpleasing fifty-odd-year-old hulk of the Coliseum - and compare it to San Francisco's AT&&T Park across the bay.
The ethos of the sport also puts it above its rivals, too. It is - far more than the others - a more 'down home', a more 'family' game. Yes, there is beer (or what Americans flatter themselves is same) drunk at ballparks, but the rowdiness associated with booze consumption at NFL games is - at worst - muted. Baseball fans are a bit too classy for that.
Baseball fans will usually appreciate a great play by a member of the other side, preferring instead to vent their wrath on their own team.
They're classy in other ways too. Baseball fans, whichever team they follow, do view themselves as part of a wider family to such a degree that - when some misfortune or outright tragedy befalls someone else's team - the whole of baseball fanhood closes in in solidarity. This was seen at its sharpest when the St. Louis Cardinals' pitcher Darryl Kile died on the morning of a game in Chicago in June 2002.
One also gets the general impression that the players are less aggressive towards each other in a personal way than in other sports. After all, a lot of professional players have had a personal itinerary which has taken them to a number of teams, so connections are made which are in some way maintained when they face each other later. This doesn't prevent the occasional flare-up, of course, but the spirit of professional honour usually outranks any personal animus and most such contretemps are the equivalent of 'handbags at ten paces'. Besides which, violence by players against one another is treated with strong disapproval and firm sanction.
So, I've fallen in love with the game once more. What have I noticed since my return?
- I don't know the statistics on this (and baseball - again far more than its rivals - is obsessed with stats), but I get the distinct impression that far more games are going to extra innings than I remember from before.
- The general standard of fielding seems higher too, especially from second base, shortstop and centre field. I recognise that the highlights I see will tend to emphasise the spectacular plays, but the athleticism shown nowadays seems to be a level above what I'd been used to.
- The pitching seems to be faster. Up to about ten, fifteen years ago, there were very few pitchers who could throw - and throw with consistent accuracy, which is important - at 95mph or above over the course of six or seven innings. Now it seems that there are a number of pitchers - not necessarily the 'aces' of their teams, either - who are capable of doing that at around 99-103mph.
- Joe Mauer is not only still playing, he's still playing for the same team.
- Speaking of players loyal to one club: Tony Gwynn died!? Sh-i-i-i-t!
- And finally: where the hell have all those beards come from? I remember the players' beards of previous times as being generally trim things (think Mark McGuire), but the first visual impression I got when I came back was that there must have been a huge player recruitment drive in either Appalachia or Afghanistan; when the players line up along the first- and third-base lines for The Anthem™, it must look like a combination of an Al-Qaeda training camp, an audition for a reboot of Duck Dynasty and the most over-manned ZZ Top tribute act imaginable. They can't be very aerodynamic, so it can't be to help the players scoot around the bases or track down fly balls, so what's with the face-fungus?
Hey baseball, I'm back and enjoying the game again! Even though it's impossible for me to listen to a game without paying up-front for it. And even with my own team scuffling once more this year, demonstrating once again that you'll never get anywhere without strong pitching.
So, with about forty games left in the regular season...let's "Play ball!".
File under: Sport