Recently, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik posted on the magazine’s sports blog a Dear John letter to baseball, entitled “Why Baseball?” Here is my (admittedly lengthy) reply …
It’s true, so let’s admit it: It’s easy to fall away from baseball. It doesn’t really matter if the game is 2-1/2 or 3 or 3-1/2 hours – it’s a distinctly paced game that is nothing like basketball or hockey. (Although is there really any more speed or action in football? Not so I can tell.) And many aspects of what makes the game beautiful are actually due to that pace. The ever-changing battle between batter and pitcher, which alters with every pitch, which unfolds after every series of signs that ricochet around the diamond, in and out of dugouts, between coaches and players – none of that could happen if it wasn’t for that awful pacing.
I recently devoted one of my “Honest Liar” podcast commentaries about deception in baseball, and how all the subtleties of deception, which date back to the earliest days of the game – concealing signs, stealing signs, and so on – depend for their existence on the pace of the game. [My piece is typically the last five minutes of the podcast HERE.]
There have been scandals before and there will be scandals in the future. Steroids are terrible not so much because of players getting away with it, but because the owners – and Bud Selig – got away with it. But because baseball fans are by their nature fascinated by statistics and in love with history (and football game commentary always seems to me to be so dull and simple-minded by comparison to baseball commentary for the same reasons), steroids will become another subject on the endless list of fan fascinations. It’s something more to talk about in the stands. The reason we don’t have to put up asterisks – which is impossible for any number of reasons – but the ultimate reason is that 20 and 50 and 100 years from now, real fans will know where the asterisks are because of the statistics and history. When the wunderkind Ryan Howard flirted with breaking Roger Maris’s home- run record in 2006, the Maris family came out and said they would endorse it if he beat the record. The meaning was unmistakable: they don’t accept the Bonds, McGuire, and Sosa records, but they would accept this clean kid. And that is the way it will be.
That same history, continuity, and respect, has helped baseball survive all of its current ills, all of which have been experienced before, in slightly different garb, both figuratively and literally (i.e., in baggier uniforms).
True, free agency and the fluidity of team rosters is perhaps the most troubling of our contemporary complaints – and countless fans suffer them. But loyalty to a team has always been, first and last, a concept, an abstraction, a metaphor for loyalty. The current system tests our faith in that abstraction a bit more, and I admit that it tests mine too. But what is the alternative? Was it really better when baseball players (and actors) were indentured servants? I celebrate every dollar that baseball players receive, because it’s a dollar less for the owners. Nobody buys a ticket to see the owners.
So yes, for Yankee fans, this one included, it was sad to see Hideki Matsui go, and unarguably odd under the circumstances of his being World Series MVP. (Although I understand the logic – with aging players like Posada, the only way to rest them is to not have a full-time designated hitter.)
But … I went to the season home opener, on April 13th, and watched as Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford handed out the 2009 World Series rings to the Yankees. As each player received his ring, and shook hands with Yogi, Whitey, and Joe Girardi, he would then take his place in a line-up between first and second base.
And after all the rings had been handed out to the Yankees, the announcer (Bob Sheppard has finally retired) said that there was one more ring to be handed out. And we all knew whose it was – Hideki Matsui, by marvelous coincidence of the schedule, was crouched in the visitors dugout, all dressed out in his red Angels gear – and he came out to receive his ring, along with a stupendous ovation from the crowd. He would get another ovation at his first at bat (as soon as it dwindled I shouted, “Now strike him out!”, and got a laugh from my section), and even another a day or so later when he hit a home run against the Yanks. Imagine that!
He came out and received his ring (actually a phony ring, a joke by Jeter that Matsui never noticed because of what happened next), and then began to walk across the diamond toward his former teammates. And an astonishing thing happened that I shall never forget.
The Yankees spontaneously broke ranks and mobbed him. Utterly mobbed him, embracing, hugging, surrounding him in the center of the diamond. It was completely spontaneous, deeply emotional, and it brought tears to my eyes. I’ve seen some memorable things at Yankee Stadium, I’ve shed some tears – never more than when we clinched in 2001, not long after 9/11, and no one would leave, no one would sit down, and the stadium stood and sang along with St. Francis of Hoboken the entirety of two complete renditions of “New York, New York.”
But I have to tell you, this moment was up there on the list of memories. And what it said to me was that there are differences between fans and players – as if we didn’t know that. I’ve watched Red Sox and Yankee players joke together on the bases, and that always reminds me of those differences. These guys are pros, and we’re the amateurs who pay their salaries, but there’s not much we have in common. And watching this outpouring of affection – and personal loyalty – made it clear to me that uniforms are for fans to be loyal to, but players have their own loyalties and relationships. There were three ex-Yankees on the Angels roster that day, including Bobby Abreu, a marvelous player, and I’m sure those ex-Yanks have plenty to talk about when they’re sitting in the dugout. Teams are abstractions. Fandom is an abstraction.
And so what?
The game has survived all of this because of its essential beauty and power and timelessness. Because of the ineffable magic of 90 feet. Because even though Bob Sheppard has retired, he lives on in a recording of his voice that continues to introduce Derek Jeter’s at-bats, which will be used until Jeter retires – how’s that for continuity? Hell, my dad saw DiMaggio play on the same outfield grass I watched Bernie Williams play on – and it kills me that they’re tearing down those grounds. But the next generation won’t care about that, and yet they’ll still remember Bernie and Joe.
Perhaps, just perhaps, you’ve fallen away from the game for other reasons – and because of the games inherent pace, it’s easy to do that with baseball, isn’t it? It’s hard to keep up with 162 three-hour games over six months when you’re raising kids and trying to make a living. Let me tell you – it’s even harder when the damn games start at 4:05 Pacific Time instead of 7:05 EST, smack in the midst of dinner prep and dinnertime. It’s easy to fall away.
But that’s not baseball’s fault, that’s just the fault of our lives, and the choices we make, and isn’t it a game for boys anyway, boys with more time on their hands, enough to memorize baseball cards? And it’s a shame if we forget, in the face of all those real demands, that baseball is important and beautiful and something worthy to find a little of our time for. Turn on the baseball news every night and there’s a good chance – an excellent chance – you’ll see something that happened that day in a baseball game that has never happened before in the history of the world. The Yankees got a triple play early in the season, and lost the game anyway. That’s just one game, just one day. I once saw Roger Clemens set a personal record for giving up eight runs in the top of the second inning. Then the Yanks came up in the bottom and put on eight runs of their own. A 16-run inning, a record.
It can happen any day in baseball, and that’s part of its grandeur. And these complaints of yours, they’re pale and puny by comparison. It’s not really anyone else’s fault if you’ve let your passion and attention wane – it’s not the owners, the players, the salaries or the steroids. It’s not baseball’s fault. It’s just your choice. And I do understand and I’m genuinely sympathetic to the forces at work, and it makes me sad when a real fan such as yourself, who understands and has loved the game, drifts from this church – but I don’t like to see you blaming the game. And I do wish you’d reconsider. And if you do, the game will be here for you. As beautiful, and constant, as ever. And then when we head out to Yankee Stadium for a few hours in the sun, we’ll have time to argue about all your complaints, and bitch about what a jerk Bud Selig is, and whether Bonds belongs in the Hall, and if that last pitch really was a strike or not …