The Beauty of Early-Season Baseball
It's hard to believe that one-tenth of the Major League Baseball season has already slipped into the past. Fans pay almost no attention to the standings until around Memorial Day. Baseball plays the longest season of any major sport, and is, for that reason, an excellent counterpoint to the gotta-know-right-now bustle of our world. To take baseball seriously, you have to slow down.
The first weeks of the baseball season are completely ridiculous and completely delightful. There's always some surprise hitter tearing up the early pitching. (Chase Utley is supposed to be washed up. And who, exactly, is Alexei Ramirez?) The fan's imagination is teased by some truly dreadful team that wins 10 of its first 12 games, and then, just as the home city allows itself to grow excited about the prospects for October, tumbles into a slump from which it never recovers. Some preseason championship favorite will dwell in the cellar for the first month or so and never really begin to play well (get untracked, as sportswriters mysteriously call it) until July.
None of it means anything. Baseball, as John Updike once wrote, "is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging out." Baseball's long season carries lessons. The schedule is patient and forgiving, and the measured, almost gentle changes in the standings match the murmuring and reflective character of democracy at its best.
And the long season, in the words of Roger Angell, "perfectly matches the slow, tension-building pace of the game on the field." The long byplay as pitcher and catcher agree what to throw next, the cautious duel with the batter, the gradual build of the game's momentum, the true direction of which is often not apparent until late innings: All of these call upon reserves of patience, in player and fan alike.
Basketball and hockey are constant blurs of motion, and football is a series of violent clashes. Only in baseball is the crowd forced by the nature of the game to wait ... and wait ... and wait. We should celebrate this as one of the sport's virtues. In my youth, when few ballparks ever seemed more than half full, you could sit in the bleachers for an hour or two in near solitude, even as the game unfolded below. Alas, the owners believe the national character has changed for the worse, and no modern stadium is complete without a scoreboard that explodes with images, blaring commercials and the general plastic noisiness intended to make an evening at the game no different from any other event in our cacophonous lives.
That's a shame. The ballparks of my youth always felt old. D.C. Stadium, opened in 1961 and later renamed for Robert F. Kennedy, was ugly precisely because it was new -- new, that is, by the standards of the era. But I loved its vast, hideous echoing caverns. And silences: Washington, in those days, couldn't even sell out for the Yankees.
The long season has another virtue: It provides an excuse to keep watching, long after your team has fallen from contention. There are always things to keep track of. On the most dreadful of teams, there will be a player chasing some record or challenging for the batting title. My hometown Senators were terrible, but we could root for Frank Howard as he led the league in home runs.
Baseball is a sport for fans who care about statistics -- "the language," as George Will writes, "baseball aficionados like to speak." There are the traditional categories of batting average and home runs and earned run average, and there are the advanced metrics that have created an entire industry of happily calculating sabremetricians, whose computers produce numbers the fans can occasionally understand but never duplicate.
The traditional categories were accessible. Fans could do the math themselves, and sometimes had to, because there was no source, back in the day, to tell you authoritatively how far Snively's batting average had fallen after Smedley struck him out swinging. Amateur calculation was half the fun. Back in the early 1960s, the novelist William Price Fox wrote a short story about one Leroy Jeffcoat, a house painter and small-time ballplayer who every day studied the batting and pitching averages in the newspaper: "And if he didn't like them he'd divide and do the multiplication and check them over. And if they were wrong he'd be on the telephone to the Columbia Record or else he'd write a letter."
The baseball of my youth is now mere memory, but the memories themselves are worth cherishing. Once, I think in 1966, I was present at the stadium when the aging but still dangerous Mickey Mantle hit two home runs in a game against my beloved Washington Senators. Mantle was always tormenting us.
So was everyone else. Late one night in 1969, I was listening to a late broadcast of a game out in Seattle between the Senators and the woeful Pilots, then a brand-new franchise. (The next year the Pilots would become the Milwaukee Brewers.) In the sixth inning, with Washington leading by something like 11-3, I turned off the radio and went to sleep. According to the win expectancy calculators so popular these days, a visiting team with an eight-run lead in the sixth inning has something like a 99 percent likelihood of winning. But of course when I rose early the next morning for school and turned on the radio, I discovered that the Senators had contrived to lose.
My ideal baseball game is played in a half empty stadium on a lazy afternoon (even though nowadays the games are almost all at night), clouds scudding across an eggshell sky, the sun dipping low as the final batter works the count full, and the potential tying runner takes his lead off second, the potential winning runner takes his lead off first, and the entire ballpark manages, in that way only a baseball crowd can, to cheer its collective lungs out and, at the same time, hold its collective breath, as the pitcher's arm comes up and the ball streaks toward the plate and the bat whips around in a mighty arc --
And that's baseball, the most beautiful sport in the world.
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