Still America’s Pastime

I like Michael Wilbon’s measured good humor in responding to what are meant to be inflammatory subjects. Here’s his take on the introduction of American football in Europe:

Italy doesn’t need American football. For what? I’ve been. Wine, women, song, shopping, unbelievable vistas and landscapes… You need Titans vs. Panthers? Uh, no.

Fair enough, and a response that leaves room for rebuttal or affirmation. Yesterday, however, in responding to a curious incident in which Astros’ slugger, Yordan Alvarez, stayed at the plate after having been struck out, hitting the next pitch into an easy infield out, Wilbon waxed hyperbolic. How does it happen that no one on the field, in the stands, in the dugout noticed that Alvarez took an extra pitch?

To summarize the Wilbon argument:

Baseball is so boring that nobody gives a rat’s patootie about following the pitch count.

How far has baseball fallen in popularity? In a recent poll, baseball was named a favorite sport by 11% of sports fans, barely nudging out soccer and “something else”, which seemed to include esports and competitive gaming.

Wilbon is not alone in his criticism of the sport. Traditionalists may long for the abolition of the designated hitter, now in place in both leagues, but most critics fix on other more pressing issues. Twins Hines in an article in “Bleacher Report” identified the need for a replay system, unguaranteed contracts, and a salary cap. The fourth issue for Hines is stadium food. Apparently there are hot dog buns pulled from moldy bags.

It has been suggested that baseball’s fan base is aging out; as my generation moves on to the big diamond in the sky, attachment to baseball, they suggest, will go the way of fondness for Gidget, Bosco, and the Monster Mash.

Baseball, America’s national pastime, is a dying sport. The kids of this generation find it boring; its fanbase is dwindling with each passing season and networks like ESPN have begun to focus their coverage almost exclusively on other sports.

Ryan Cole, Copy Editor of the “Yorktown Sentry Online”, the paper of record published by Yorktown (Virginia) High School, identifies several issues facing baseball in an article published in March of 2021. Actually, Cole suggests that the number of issues is “infinite”, a judgment that leaves little room for easy improvement.

Meanwhile, here in August, 2022, a baseball season filled with compelling stories, a copy of Baseball Digest’s 80th Anniversary Issue landed in my mailbox. The magazine celebrated the players who had made its eight decades memorable, recognizing 80 remarkable athletes, from Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, and Stan Musial to the brightest of contemporary stars. Each generation brought to mind the magic of the game when played at the highest level. Mantle, Koufax, Clemente, Mays, Suzuki, Griffey, Jeter — 80 players whose play was frequently breathtaking.

As I read the magazine, Juan Soto had just won the Home Run Derby, and, at the age of 23 landed the biggest (and probably most entirely well deserved) contract in the history of the sport, tracking as he does a career most closely related to Ted Williams’, Shohei (Shotime) Ohtani had hit 21 home runs and had an e.r.a of 2.8, and Aaron Judge was on pace to hit 67 home runs this season. The conversation about the best players in the game includes talented young players and steady veterans: Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Freddie Freeman, Fernando Tatis, Vlad Guerrero, Jr, Jacob deGrom, Nolan Arenado, Jose Ramirez, Max Scherzer, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper — some of whom had been recognized by Baseball Digest, and some whose legends have not yet matured.

Will the Dodgers meet the Yankees in October/November?

Will the Padres reconstitute themselves as the most dangerous emerging franchise?

If the average attendance at a Marlins home game is roughly seven to ten thousand, where did the extra 20,000 come from when Ohtani pitched in Miami?

Yes, the games are too long, and yes, the shift is an ugly defensive maneuver, and, yes, the specialization of pitchers inning-by-inning is annoying, and yes, replays are long overdue, and yes, some uniform choices are more than unfortunate, and, yes, it will be awkward to have the same team in Los Vegas and Oakland, but baseball is still a game that George Will called “Heaven’s gift to mortals”, and a game uniquely appropriate to the length and pace of summer days and nights.

This week the Cubs and Reds will play on the Field of Dreams in Iowa. The teams will walk through the storied corn stalks to take their place in the field and at bat. The Reds won their first game in 1869, thumping the Great Western Team of Cincinnati 45–9. The Cubs, then known as the Chicago White Stockings, first took the field in 1876, winning the National League’s first 11 championships. By any other name (White Stockings, Colts, Orphans) the Cubs have faced the Reds since 1880.

The Field of Dreams. See you there, Wilbon.

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Peter Arango

I’m the author of four novels and America’s Best Kept College Secrets, a retired teacher of the humanities, eclectic reader, and prisoner of popular culture.