It’s October, and as all good sports fans know, that means it’s time for post-season baseball. I’ve been watching the Yankees play over the past couple of weeks, and now that they were just eliminated by the Angels, it seems a good time to answer a question that several friends have asked me over the years: what is that you find so compelling about baseball?
"There is a cathartic pleasure in caring very much about something that matters very little." I jotted that note down during a game last week, and I think that’s part of what I like about the game. It’s amazing to watch the expressions of fans as they watch the game –the arms pumping in victory, as if they’d actually accomplished something themselves, the free-flowing tears when a team loses an important game, the heads bowed in earnest prayer with the intensity they’d reserve for praying over a loved ones life. It’s amazing to see how readily such emotions are provoked in me too –the tight stomach during a close play, the heart pounding in anticipation, and the pure, pure joy when my team does good.
But that’s probably the case for any sport –or really, for any form of entertainment, so it doesn’t answer the question of why I like baseball. And I think it’s precisely what drives baseball-haters nuts about the game that I like the best.
First, even though I don’t go out of my way to watch the regular-season games, I like that there’s a long, long season — from the beginning of April to the end of September. That’s 162 games, plenty of time for characters to emerge –plot lines to develop, track records to be built, statistics to be gathered. It’s enough time that it erases the importance of a single mistake, enough time for a player or a team to have problems, work through them, and emerge out the other side. The long season allows the possibility of drama and the chance to witness redemption. And all of this drama marinates for months, and then, in the post-season, it emerges in concentrated form, where single mistakes do matter, everything counts, and there’s no time to work out long-term problems. I love the high-stakes of post-season baseball.
Second, I love the slow, deliberate pace of the game. (This is not just because I can combine watching baseball with my other favorite activity, reading, which I always do.) The length of an average baseball game allows an unusual focus on the individual player for a team sport. In football, basketball and hockey, the action is chaotic and with many focal points, and you can’t really understand what’s happened until it’s untangled on the replay. But in baseball, there’s a clear line of action: the pitcher throws, the hitter hits, the fielders field, and it happens in that order. And that means that the individual player’s strengths and weaknesses are assessed, accomplishments and failings cataloged– and that a player’s opponent is constantly attempting to exploit weaknesses and avoid the strengths. It seems to me that this is a very honest portrayal of what happens in the real world, although we don’t often admit it. I like watching the strategy unfold –communicated by secret hand signals that involve much tapping of noses and caps and pulling of ears. I think it’s funny that the pitcher learns what he should throw by staring at the catcher’s crotch. And I like the accountability that every player has to take on themselves for their own performance. I find that inspiring, actually.
Third, I like how little things matter very much –another life-truth that I think we often miss. In the final game of the Red Sox/White Sox match-up, in the sixth inning of the game, seven pitchers worked, threw 73 pitches, and the inning lasted 58 minutes. (This is an awful lot, for my non-baseball fan readers.) The inning came down to this: the Red Sox were at-bat, and they needed to score one run to tie the game. If they didn’t win this game, their season would be over. They had the best chance they’d probably every get — the bases were loaded. But there were two outs, the count was 3-2 on Johnny Damon. If the pitcher threw one more ball, he’d walk Damon, and walk the tying run in. If he threw a strike, the inning was over, and the White Sox would probably go on to win the game. The pitcher throws a ball, Damon starts to swing, but thinks better of it, and tries to stop his bat. If he stops it effectively, he walks. But the umpire rules that his bat moved just an inch too far, and strikes Damon out. One inch! It came down to one inch. And the White Sox went on to won that game, and the series.
It is this clarity of the rules of the game that are also very soothing to me. It is the opposite of chaos: three strikes, and you’re out. There are three outs. There are umpires, and their rulings are final. There will be a winning pitcher and a losing pitcher, no matter how long it takes. There will be a clear, and unambiguous outcome.
This is why I like to combine watching baseball with watching politics. Indeed, I follow post-season baseball with the same intensity that I follow the political world, both of which often peak in the autumn.
For example, last week, still nursing my ongoing respiratory illness, I watched playoffs and politics from my couch. I watched President Bush give what was billed as a "major speech on terrorism", in which he said that the people who say that the war in Iraq has made us more vulnerable to Al Quaeda should remember that we were attacked on 9/11 and we hadn’t invaded Iraq yet.
In politics, blatantly false statements like this are greeted with applause, and perhaps criticism, but no clear consequences. (It is well established that there was no meaningful connection between Iraq and Al Quaeda prior to the US invasion.) In baseball, an equivalent error in strategy and skill would be swiftly punished. A pitcher that misses his mark is hit out of the park. A manager that argues too strenuously with the arbiter of reality, the Umpire, is ejected. In baseball, every action brings an unambiguous, and a just reaction. Politics –and life –are so much more bewildering.