Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Writer and Baseball

Last night I watched a bit of the Reds-Pirates game, one of the first of the 2017 season. I am not much of a sports fan. But I do make an exception for baseball, the only spectator sport I follow with any regularity.

Why not basketball? College basketball is wildly popular in the Cincinnati area; and it’s practically a cult in nearby Indiana and Kentucky. 

Each spring I listen, patient but bored, as locker room conversations turn to March Madness, talk of the Sweet Sixteen and the Final Four. I’ve tried, but I just can’t get excited about NCAA basketball.

Maybe it's a matter of height envy on my part. At 5'10", I cannot relate to a game played almost exclusively by people who are seven feet tall. There is no way I will ever be able to touch the rim—let alone dunk a basketball—without a ladder.

Football, on the hand, strikes me as simultaneously brutal and slow-paced, with its constant starts and stops. I read an article last year describing how the playing time in the average NFL game has declined over the last decade. Why? They want to squeeze in more TV commercial time.

Soccer is the game that every other American under the age of forty plays, or has played. But almost none of us watch it, unless the players are eight-year-olds, and at least one of them is your kid. Based on the televised soccer matches that I have seen, soccer is not a bad spectator sport. But it somehow seems like a game you can only really watch faithfully if you're a European, preferably a Brit, and preferably in a working-class pub in an English town that ends in -ham or -shire. Pass me another pint mate, so I can finish me fish 'n chips while we watch the end of this sodding match!

I was born in Wisconsin, where hockey is popular; but I spent most of the 1968 season crying and soiling my diapers. My parents moved to Cincinnati the following year, before I could acquire an interest in hockey. Several hockey teams have existed in Cincinnati over the years, but virtually all of them have either left the city or simply folded. No one in Cincinnati, with the exception of sports trivia buffs, can even remember the teams' names. Hockey doesn't catch on in any American city that is located more than four hours, by car, from the Canadian border.

But ah, baseball. 

Baseball was the first sport I played during my childhood, and for much of my childhood, it was the only one. Growing up in the 1970s, there was no select-this, select-that. I look at the prodigious amount of time and resources that parents nowadays expend on their children’s pay-for-play “select” sporting activities, and I try to imagine the sputtering fit my father would have had if pressed for such sacrifices. Over kids’ sports, of all things. Back then, you had school sports, and informal backyard sports, and that was more or less it. Maybe a month or two of Little League, if you were lucky.

Throughout the summers of 1978, 1979, and 1980, the kids in my neighborhood played backyard baseball everyday—often all day. Sometimes there were as few as three of us, rarely more than six or seven in total. When the roster was so low that we needed to maximize the bodycount on the field, we propped up a loose sheet of plywood behind home plate, in lieu of a catcher. That was improvisation.

I also grew up in a time and place that predisposed me to be a spectator of baseball. Cincinnati's “Big Red Machine” coincided with my childhood years. Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan—I saw them all play on the championship Reds lineup of the 1970s. During that era in Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Reds and their logo were everywhere—not only on hats and tee shirts, but even on ice cream and hot dogs. I remember hanging out with my grandfather in mid-summer, as he puttered around in his garage, listening to the Cincinnati Reds game on AM radio. In the wider world, the United States was struggling with the aftermaths of Watergate and Vietnam, surging oil prices, and stagflation. But in my little world, it was a fine, fine time indeed.

If my childhood didn't cement my romanticization of baseball, then Kevin Costner’s 1989 film, Field of Dreams, sealed the deal. In the film, Costner’s character plays a round of catch with his long-deceased father. I am both romantic and hopeful enough to believe that someday we’ll all be reunited with our deceased love ones, maybe with baseball, and maybe without. The movie also had much to say about baseball as a constant factor in a constantly changing world. Trends, public mores, politics, the latest technology—they all come and go. Baseball stays the same. 

Then there is the quality of the men who play the game. A stupendous number of NBA players have been sent to prison. Professional football players of recent years have been involved in dog fighting and other criminal activities, enough to fill online databases. And then there were Colin Kaepernick’s self-aggrandizing political displays of last year. Baseball, meanwhile, is still mostly a gentleman’s game. 

Baseball is played slowly, with lots of pauses; but baseball makes no pretense of trying to be fast-paced. It is a contemplative game, more similar to golf than to football or basketball. Perhaps for this reason, baseball tends to attract a lot of writers as fans. Stephen King is a baseball fan, as is Stuart O’Nan.

Anyway, the 2017 baseball season is just beginning. Between now and October, baseball will be a part of my life. I’m looking forward to it—not only the game, but what the game represents. And what it helps me to remember.