Contributed by Michael Levin, BusinessGhost
I don’t mean to criticize my sons. They know an awful lot about things that I’ll never know. One is an expert juggler, and last week, on a family trip to Las Vegas, magician Nathan Burton pulled him out of the audience and he juggled for an audience of 400 people at the Flamingo. My other son is a few months away from his black belt in TaeKwon-Do. I certainly wasn’t doing TaeKwon-Do when I was 10. And they are both world class at both origami and magic, and have begun to do shows at senior centers and birthday parties here in Orange County. I couldn’t do that if my life depended on it.
But the one thing I knew about when I was their age was baseball. I grew up in New York in the 1960s, and I came of age with the Gil Hodges’ led Mets teams of that era. So a couple of trips to the ballpark with my sons this week – they each got their own game – brought me back to my own childhood and shed a light on just how different things are today from back then.
For one thing, when my dad took me to games in the late sixties, the men had the tattoos and the women had the earrings. But that’s a different story. The fundamental difference between my boys and me is that I grew up playing in Little League (however badly – I went oh-for-childhood). They are much happier pursuing individual sports -running or martial arts – or even learning new magic tricks and origami skills on YouTube. As a result, they haven’t developed the habits of following pennant races, living and dying with the results of games the day before, and constructing their schedules around watching professional sports on TV.
Obviously, there were far fewer entertainment options back in the sixties, and there were far fewer screens in each home. You might have had one color TV and then an old black-and-white somewhere in the house. No computer, no computer games, no consoles, no iPhones. The Internet? It was barely a gleam in the eye of Al Gore.
We also kept score of the games, both at home and at the stadium, in scorecards or in scoring books. I’d be hard-pressed to tell you exactly why we did so, but we did. The first purchase upon arrival at the stadium was always a program for a quarter, and a golf pencil for 10 cents. Learning the art of keeping a meticulous scorecard was a bonding experience between father and son. It also was a cause for conversation with one’s neighbors in the seats around you. Was that double play 6-4-3 or 4-6-3? Hey, I wasn’t looking – did the guy fly out to center or right field? And if a guy got caught in a rundown? Forget about it. Every section of the ballpark would be transformed into small groups arguing with the intensity of Talmudic scholars over the exact route that the ball had taken before the put-out was made.
I still have my scorecards from the late sixties into the mid-eighties. It would appear that I stopped keeping score around 1986. I remember feeling like a bit of a slacker back then, being at a game without a golf pencil at the ready, to notate every action on the field, along with the attendance, and my best guess as to which three hitters would combine for five hits. Or other games that scorekeepers played. And you preserved those scorecards forever, without ever questioning why.
Today, it doesn’t even occur to me to keep score. It doesn’t occur to anyone else, either. I looked around the stands at Angels Stadium and I couldn’t find a single person keeping score. Whatever happened to those lonely older guys who went to games by themselves, nursing a beer and keeping perfect scorecards? Are they home watching LeBron on a widescreen? Or have they all gone to that great stadium in the sky?
You could make a case that today’s version of baseball isn’t worth scoring, that you’re watching Double A-quality ball at major league prices. Not just parity on the field but mediocrity, in a world where every team has incredibly accurate scouting reports and almost no team can win sixty percent of its games. No dynasties; no dominance. No rivalries that actually turn into results. Yankees-Red Sox? Overhyped. Cubs-Cards? Irrelevant in the standings. So why keep score if the game isn’t the same?
There also are fewer and fewer stars. Yes, there are great baseball players – Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Alex Rodriguez. But how many of today’s baseball luminaries, with the possible exception of Derek Jeter, transcend the game and are known to the non-fan, or even the casual fan, the way Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Willie Mays were known to all Americans? If you want to feel depressed, glance at the most recent All-Star squads and ask how many names you recognize, and then ask yourself whether there’s a single name on either team that anyone who doesn’t do Fantasy Baseball might even recognize.
Baseball is so hidebound in its marketing that the World Series, an event for which time in America once stood still, is barely more relevant than the Stanley Cup. Yes, more teams are involved in the playoff hunt, but there’s something lost when losers can be winners. The Major Leagues have turned into a situation where there are ribbons for everyone, which is how the athletes themselves grew up. Come in third? No problem. You can still make the playoffs. Losing record? We’ll overlook it. What’s wrong with having clear demarcations between winners and losers, at least among adults?
Baseball’s greatest positive is its devotion to nuance and detail, two items that have little meaning in the slam-bang Internet era. The game-on any given night and over the course of a season-rewards patience and deep knowledge of traditions and rules. The vicarious thrill of watching a rookie pitcher, newly elevated from Triple A, striking out the side. Seeing a player come back after a terrible injury, or an undesired trade, or a bout with the bottle. It’s soap opera for men and boys. But all that detail is lost if all that matters is the home run that makes SportsCenter.
W. P. Kinsella, the author of Shoeless Joe, which became Field of Dreams, put it best. The action in an average three-hour baseball game could be compressed into five minutes, Kinsella wrote in Field of Dreams. The rest of the time is spent thinking about what might happen, what could happen, what should happen, what did happen, and what should have happened. A conversation with a friend at the ballpark, someone equally devoted to the nuances of the game, would be interspersed with an awareness of the small details that make the game so precious to those who love it. Where the centerfielder is stationing himself for a given batter. Whether you should ever swing away on the 3 and 0 count. How to lay down – or even recognize – a good bunt. When to get someone up in the bullpen, and when a visit to the mound should just be to steady the pitcher instead of to replace him.
I started to point out some of these matters, but there just wasn’t a lot of interest on the part of my sons. If anything, I was the man who knew too much about baseball. As if there were something wrong with that. Although today, maybe there is.
I said, “I’d like to point out some things about what’s going on in the game. Let me know when you want me to stop.”
To which my son responded, “You can stop right now,” he said, not unkindly, but meaning it.
And then there’s the matter of when to leave. Back in the day, it was a point of honor never to leave a game until the last out, no matter how one-sided the contest might have been. This provoked ongoing family debates, because my father never wanted to stay until the end. He wanted to leave in the eighth, to beat the traffic. But when you’re a kid, traffic means nothing. Marking the last out in your scorecard mattered most. It wasn’t until I was a little older and fought those Shea Stadium parking lots on my own that I recognized where he was coming from. But my boys were more than content to pack it in after five innings.
It didn’t bother me any. Both of the games we attended, interleague affairs with the Giants, were incredibly slow-paced. That’s another change from the sixties – just how long it takes to play nine innings. Pitchers seem to take forever to work now. Players are taught to be patient at the plate, to work the count, to foul off everything in sight instead of a more heroic style of gripping it and ripping it. And it’s not even as though all this patience at the plate is paying off. The pitching is far ahead of the hitting in these post-steroid seasons. Just get up there and take your cuts, fellas. I’ve got to get to work in the morning.
Leaving early, therefore, no longer indicates weak moral character. It’s more a reflection on the fact that baseball matters less to kids, or at least to my kids, than it did to kids of my generation. Kids today have broader interests. They have much more control over their entertainment choices, because pretty much every kid has his or her own device for communicating and for consuming culture. Today, you go to the baseball game, you get some snacks, you watch a little, you look around the park, you ell and scream for the dot race on the scoreboard, and that’s about it. If you aren’t alive to the subtle points of the game, there’s no real reason to stay after a couple of hours. It’s getting cold, you’re getting full, so what’s the point? You’ve been entertained. The outcome doesn’t matter.
And alas, the outcome today is seldom in the hands of the starting pitcher. It’s up to the setup man, the eighth inning guy, and the closer. There are a lot of holes in this strategy. First, there simply aren’t enough good relief pitchers to go around. So your starter puts in his “quality start” (a euphemism about as meaningful as “quality time”), and then the manager turns the game over to a parade of horribles, escapees from Double-A who aren’t going to make it as major league starters but can throw hard enough to get the ball for a smattering of at-bats. And who all too often undo in two thirds of an inning what the starter accomplished in the first six.
All that button-pushing on the part of managers elongates the game. The first six innings go by with some sense of rhythm, but after that, it’s yet another trip to the bullpen, three more minutes of commercials, eight more warm-up pitches, and a lot of standing around. The last three innings of a game seem to take longer than the first six. Typically, the new guy can’t find home plate with Google Maps and walks in a run or two before he gets yanked for someone else. As Casey Stengel once moaned, can’t anyone here play this game?
Fewer and fewer starting pitchers get to finish what they start. Ron Darling, in his book The Perfect Game, pointed out that the number of Major League pitchers who had ten complete games or more in any season in the first decade of the twenty-first century was…zero. No wonder the NFL, the NBA, and even NASCAR have all eaten baseball’s lunch. Eli Manning, LeBron James, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. don’t get replaced when the outcome of the contest is on the line. With all the training and nutrition advances today, why are pitchers slaves to pitch counts? Why can’t they go eight or nine or ten innings, as the average pitcher did back in the day, when they trained on red meat, white flour, and beer?
The other big change is that when I was growing up, baseball was still a sport. So were the other major athletic endeavors – football, basketball, and in the Northeast where I grew up, even hockey. Today, what was sport is now entertainment. If you go to a game to be entertained, sticking around for the outcome is meaningless. That’s especially true if you don’t have a particular allegiance to a team. In the 1960s, kids my age were devoted to one team and knew not just the starting lineup of their favorite team but the starting lineups of every team in both leagues. There were fewer teams, to be sure, but there was more passion. Cool kids were the ones who could tell you who played third base for the White Sox. And had the baseball cards to back it up. Everybody knew how many games out, or in front, their team was. My sons and their generation by and large don’t know how to read the standings and seldom consult baseball-oriented websites. And fewer parents – us included – subscribe to newspapers, so you don’t have the thrill of waking up to last night’s results. It really comes down to the question, why care?
The only thing that’s really grown at ballparks, aside from ticket prices and the length of games, is the sheer size of the concession items. Pretzels are the size of wedding cakes. A bag of popcorn contains enough salt to prepare a mummy for burial. Drinks are gynormous. It makes sense – it’s a fatter world than the one I knew growing up. A couple of years ago, Disney had to replace the boats in the It’s a Small World ride to take into account the larger derrieres of the voyagers. And a buddy of mine who sells men’s suits tells me that twenty years ago, the average man bought a size 40 suit. Today, that same guy wears a 48. Judging by the crowd at the Angels games we attended, if Michelle Obama is serious about taming the obesity problem in the United States, she’ll have her work cut out for her. And this is Southern California, where people are allegedly more body conscious. Allegedly.
I won’t lie. It’s frustrating. I want my sons to notice the pace of a home run trot and the pitcher busying himself with the webbing of his glove after someone’s gone yard on him, instead of watching the fireworks display. I want my sons to know when to hit and run, when to sacrifice, and how to tell a wild pitch from a passed ball. But this is lore that may never enter their consciousness in a meaningful way.
When I was in law school, I clerked for two law professors, and one of them, Marshall Shapo, a renowned torts professor, entered the office one day bearing an expression of rapture. He and his fourteen-year-old son had enjoyed an entire conversation in the car consisting solely of names of old ballplayers. Van Lingle Mungo. Dazzy Vance. Stan Musial. Pee Wee Reese. I always dreamt of having a similar shared moment with a son, but it would appear that that’s not on the horizon.
Baseball lacks the glamour of the NBA, the swagger of the NFL, and the thunder of NASCAR. Baseball once placed fathers and sons in a continuum of memory, statistics, observation, and shared experience. Unless something extraordinary happens, and I find my boys poring over the MLB website, or asking for a subscription to Sports Illustrated, they’ll never know what it’s like to participate in that continuum. Sure, we’ll keep on going to games. But it’s not the same thing.
I’m sure we’ll find something else to connect over. It doesn’t look like it’ll be Van Lingle Mungo anytime soon. But before I go, does anybody know what the Red Sox did last night?
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