Once again, the game that takes its time
Against all odds, against logic and the basic rules of love affairs, America this week once more embraces one of its durable heartthrobs, Major League Baseball.
It can be argued that baseball has done its blundering best to wreck the relationship.
Just six months ago, it was trying to turn the guillotine on two of its ball clubs. This was baseball's ungainly strategy, downsizing to compensate for its own mismanagement and lopsided distribution of power. The scheme was halted by the courts of one its intended victims, Minnesota, where judges decided that the public that posted the first 3-million-ticket year deserved more than a ticket to oblivion.
Only a month ago, the billionaire owners and millionaire players were skewering each other with threats of lockouts and lawsuits.
But this is April. With the American public, the politics and chaotic economics of baseball have never provoked lasting grudges among the ticket buyers, even in the year when a shutdown wiped out the World Series.
With tens of millions of Americans, the game is the thing, simple and timeless and fundamentally unchanging.
It is the confrontation of pitcher against hitter, uncomplicated but always resolved, good or bad, a kind of rough mirror on life, if you need metaphors at the ballpark. But the millions who return to ballparks this week aren't likely to bother with the psychology of it. The chummy environment, the permission the game gives them to be relaxed and sociable and totally cornball about seventh-inning stretches, is too good for profundity.
For them, for most of us, the allure is partly the sudsy heritage of the game, reaching back to the era of quilting bees and horse-drawn carriages. Yes, Americans have accepted the courtship of glitzier suitors for their money and loyalties. They have thronged Super Bowls and the Final Fours and professional basketball circuses. They are mesmerized by the glamour of professional football and the mania of college basketball tournaments. For years, the superman heroics of His Airness, Michael Jordan, has left them awed. They have even assigned pro football a substantially higher rating than baseball in their preference of major league sports. Those are the games soaked with TV appeal. They produce minute-by-minute action, collision, and raw passion.
Baseball gives you reasonable suspense but also a lot of serviceable tedium. Is that a blight on a night at the ball game for the average bleacherite? Well, no. There truly is a psychology to explain all of this, David Teschler tells us. Mr. Teschler is a Minnesota psychologist and a ballpark habitué. He explains the unflagging affection so many feel for the game, despite the annual multimillion-dollar auction that uproots some of the biggest stars from their fans and dumps them into George Steinbrenner's Yankee Stadium.
"People grow up with it," he said. "Every fan has played this game sometime. The rules are simple. Fans don't have to know inside baseball. They know fair or foul, ball or strike, hit or out, the pace of the game, and the conviviality of the stands. So when they come into the ballpark, they're involved. It's actually part of their life in some form, this game. It comes to a decision, but there's always hope to the end. They may live in a gray, muddled world, but baseball gives them a win or lose. And at the ballpark they somehow find their own people, their world."
Baseball brings the neighborhood block party and the union picnic into the ballpark. Suddenly the world slows down. The game often seems to go nowhere. So what? Here comes Ernie the Vendor with his overpriced Nachos. "Ernie, you need a shave. Get with the program!" You don't get that repartee in the concussive, nail-biting sports.
Lasting friendships and a few permanent enmities have been forged in the time it takes some pitchers to get past the lead-off man. In Minneapolis during the Twins' last World Series, a wedding party in full regalia entered the stands a few minutes after the ceremony. Within three innings the bride and groom were being happily smothered under blizzards of rice from perfect strangers in the upper decks. No one has ever discovered where those bags of rice came from.
And you have to love the very language of baseball original, slangy, cryptic, and vivid.
Here's another relief pitcher talking about the Yankee closing marvel, Mariano Rivera. "He's got one pitch, a cut fastball. But when he throws it, he's throwing 98 [m.p.h]. 98, with late movement!" Oof.
That's a breaking pitch, not a fastball. The players once called the fastball "smoke." Good. Then "high heat." Better.
And now? They call it "dead red." Dead red means the pitch is coming right down the chute, with all the power the pitcher can deliver. It is raw speed, unequivocal and predictable. It screams at the hitter, "be ready." It is baseball in one blur of the ball and the flashing bat.
There just isn't much about baseball that is ambiguous.