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Take Me Out To The Ballgame: Finding Respite In America's Pastime

Here comes opening day, not a moment too soon. (Kai Oberhäuser/Unsplash)
Here comes opening day, not a moment too soon. (Kai Oberhäuser/Unsplash)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Baseball is the comfort food of the sporting world, the old slippers you put on at the end of the day. After a long winter break, the 2016 season begins this Sunday. The Red Sox play their first the next day and open at home a week later. With 162 games scheduled between opening day and Oct. 2, we will soon fall into the almost-daily routine of listening to the familiar (and some not so familiar) voices calling balls and strikes as the crowd murmurs away in the background.

It is a sport that many think out of step to our age. We are an ever-more frenetic and driven culture, seeking instant gratification and minute-by-minute thrills. Most popular sports follow suit: They are fast-paced and exciting, rapid high-energy, high-adrenaline contests that drive their participants near the point of exhaustion. Bodies slam again the boards in hockey, sweat slicks basketball courts, and football players pull each other to the ground.

Baseball soothes and comforts while football, basketball, hockey and the rest inflame.

Baseball is their antithesis. The pace is slow, measured and unhurried. If there is sweat on the brow, it’s from the sun or nervous anticipation. No clock drives the action forward. Most of the game consists of players standing at the plate, taking a few swings and then sitting down. Action on the field is sporadic; indeed, the best-fought of games — the no-hitters — are admired precisely for the fact that almost nothing happened at all. A friend to these shores, brought up on soccer and rugby, allows that baseball is “absorbing.” It’s meant as praise but it is faint praise indeed. Sports, one thinks, should offer more than the contemplative pleasure of a good book.

It is still called “America’s pastime,” but the numbers lend credence to those who think baseball really may just be past time. Professional football is now in ascendance, generating annual revenues of $13 billion. Baseball is a quarter less at $9.5 billion. Those figures are particularly striking because baseball’s season is 10 times as long as the NFL’s, meaning that, measured on a per-game basis, baseball does even more poorly. One wonders whether baseball’s survival to date has merely been because other major sports have traditionally given the summer a wide berth. As soccer increasingly comes into its own in America, that deference may be coming to an end.

perhaps it is baseball’s iconoclasm that saves it. ... As a software designer might claim of his product, the bugs are actually features.

But perhaps it is baseball’s iconoclasm that saves it. It is (except for cricket, I suppose) a game like no other. As a software designer might claim of his product, the bugs are actually features. The very routine of baseball, its lack of excitement, its meditative, chess-like nature, its refusal to tie itself to a clock, its long and enduring history — all of these become its virtues. Baseball soothes and comforts while football, basketball, hockey and the rest inflame. Here in Boston we saw that most remarkably in 2013, when the Red Sox helped a city recover from the carnage of Marathon Day. Baseball doesn’t make everything all right, of course, but it does seem to offer the hope that, perhaps, everything could be alright. As James Earl Jones said in “Field of Dreams,” it’s the “one constant through all the years.” In a time of Trump and terror and Bernie and Benghazi, when it feels sometimes as if the great American experiment is coming off at the wheels, when we desperately need respite from all the craziness around us, the 2016 season comes not a moment too soon.

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Tom Keane Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Tom Keane is a Boston-based writer.

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