At the Ballpark, Live for Today

The beautiful uselessness of baseball in the present tense

lt32813.jpgTo invoke the romance of baseball, in the fashion of George Will or Ken Burns, is hopelessly unfashionable. This I will not blame on sabermetrics—the applied science of baseball statistics that Michael Lewis’ 2004 book Moneyball cast as the brainy yin to the blockheaded yang of baseball traditionalism. As any baseball fan knows, the numbers are an indispensable part of the romance. That those numbers have become more arcane—with on-base percentage and something called WHIP replacing batting average and earned-run average as indicators of greatness—does not decrease the essential beauty of baseball’s measurability.

Rather, I think the end of baseball romance is a symptom of a culture that has given up on looking at things for what they are and instead insists on looking at them for what they could be. Baseball journalism once was poetry, and then it was storytelling. Now it is sheer punditry: What can we expect next—next game, next month, next year—from our team, our front office, our TV contract, our bottom line? By April of Year X, the discussion already turns to the free-agent market of Year X+1.

This obsession with the future is oddly symbiotic with an unhealthy preoccupation with the immediately passed past. What I have in mind is not the customary—and, for nonfans of Billy Crystal and Bob Costas, sometimes off-putting—nostalgia about Willie, Mickey and the Duke. Rather, it’s the bizarre preoccupation with Five Seconds Ago, in which—to deploy a bit more math—Moment X is forever being replaced with Moment X-1. Turn on a game at any given moment and chances are you’ll be hearing a technical and highly educational dissection of a missed call.

The hallowed field of baseball broadcasting, once the outpost of fine-grain describers, tellers of tall tales and moderately intelligible folk heroes (respectively, Vin Scully, Phil Rizzuto and Harry Caray) has willingly indentured itself to the same cult of analysis that brought us Fox News: Each play—and every pause between plays—must be parsed by the color man, who explains to us exactly why what just happened happened, even if he doesn’t exactly know. The whole exercise reeks of a courtroom procedural.

But in this case, we’ve just witnessed the murder; there’s no need to prove to us that Captain Jeter dunnit in the vestibule with a hardball. For our discussion here, what’s interesting is not Captain J’s motive, but the motivation of the broadcasters for bringing the previous play to trial: Why do we care so deeply about Moment X-1 when, somewhere in the stadium, behind the broadcast veil of a five-angle instant replay, Moment X, in all its uncertain glory, is taking place? This is where the obsession with the recent past marries our obsession with the future: Each moment must be recast and rendered useful to us. The moment must not be appreciated simply for what we’ve seen with our own eyes, because in that case we will not have learned important lessons for our … for our what, exactly—for our futures as baseball fans?

In accordance with the post-millennial zeitgeist, we must become better-informed consumers. Our selves must be improved.

So, if my 12-year-old son—who, bless him, actually loves being educated by Joe Morgan—will join me, I’m going to limit my baseball media diet this spring. I’m going to shut off the TV, close the sports page and head out to Cashman Field. I am not going to worry about the doomy fog that has hung over the Las Vegas 51s franchise since the Dodgers broke off their affiliation in 2008. I’m not going to worry that the Toronto Blue Jays bailed on Las Vegas last year and that the New York Mets are almost certain to do the same when their contract expires in two years.

I am not going to fret about whether Cashman—30 years ago the gem of the Pacific Coast League and today, so I’m told, a relic—will be improved or replaced or abandoned. I am not going to worry about the shabbiness of its locker rooms or its lack of a first-rate training room. I am not going to obsess about the absence of instant replay or the flawed humanity of umpires. I am going to the ballpark not in order to “watch tomorrow’s stars today”—as the Minor League Baseball marketing pitch requests—but to watch today’s baseball today. I may even ignore an inning or two and look out at Frenchman Mountain beyond the right-field fence.

And, what the heck, if the kid and I leave early we’ll go ahead and flip on the radio, where Russ Langer still calls ’em the old-fashioned way.

Is it just baseball that has abandoned immediacy, or is it symptomatic of modern sports fandom in general? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

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