Commentary

Baseball: 'The last gasp of the pastoral'

How can we write about the slowest season in sports at a 21st-century pace?

Originally Published: June 1, 2010
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

A few quick words this week about the slow, slower, slowest season in sports. Likewise some fast talk about lightning minds and feet of clay, about the inexpressible depth and breadth of our inattentions, about glaciers and popguns and wishful thinking, and about the great cosmic squeezebox of Time itself.

[+] EnlargeCiti Field
AP Photo/Mark LennihanCan baseball be played in a new stadium in Queens and still be pastoral?

Rounders and modernity, then, and the last gasp of the pastoral. Can baseball and baseball writing be made to fit the Infotainment Age?

A question in service of which a couple of Fridays ago I rode the sunset 7 train out to Queens for the first game of a three-night interleague homestand between the hometown Mets and the not-quite-so-hometown Yankees. Way out past all the rooftop ventilators and all that Krylon® vandalart, past all that curry and queso, past the chop suey and the chop shops stands Citi Field -- a postmodern mash-up of a ballpark that seems like the kind of brick pastiche you'd get if you hired an architect who over many years had read and learned everything there was to read and learn about big league baseball without ever actually attending a game.

Understand I'm not complaining (yet; or only) about the average length of the average baseball game. We'll save a detailed rant about that for some other day.

(I have my theories, of course. Before television arrived in the 1950s, the average length of a major league ball game was said to be one hour, 58 minutes. Since then, the league average has ballooned to a near scientific-constant at two hours, 50 minutes and change. Commercials, 'natch -- but also proof that the six most ruinous words in the English language are "Hey! I saw you on television!" when it comes to turning people into performers and performance into parody and self-awareness into shtick. Go ahead! Step out of the box/off the mound and scratch and spit again, Mr. Ballplayer! Because half a century of teevee teaches us all that that's how it's done! Step! Grab! Scratch! Spit!

[+] EnlargeRoy Halladay
Ronald C. Modra/Getty ImagesOne way to speed up games: Let Roy Halladay keep the other team off the bases.

Just know that three hours and 19 minutes to sit through what was characterized in the New York papers the next day as a "pitcher's duel" is excessive by any reasonable standard. And a total of nine pitching changes is not a "duel" -- it's a botched gangland rub-out. Fouling off lots of pitches or working a count full is not always synonymous with great hitting or great pitching. Sometimes everything about a game is clumsy and wearying and everyone on the field looks handcuffed. This was one of those nights. In stark and happy contrast, Mr. Halladay's perfect game last week clocked a brisk and graceful two hours and 13 minutes.)

So I'm not writing about game length. Nor am I saying that baseball produces insufficient data in a data-crazy age. Fact is, the opposite is true. Data -- and new ways to chop it up -- seems to be all baseball is producing lately. This, to the game's detriment and likely leading to its demise as our mainstream American signifier. I'm at work on some more substantial thoughts along these lines, but baseball's signature product for its first century and a half has been mythology. Has been metaphor. The numbers were a footnote to the poetry and the iconography and the Transcendentalist folklore. The bright imaginings of our Emersonian collective is what made the game so big.

By fixating on the numbers for your rotisserie league, baseball now insists on making itself very small. Which likewise creates a deformity in sports writing. For example, it is weirdly possible for a casual fan to know all about Albert Pujols and his statistical greatness these days without really knowing which team he plays for.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesHere's a hint: Albert Pujols plays in the city that has a big arch.

Anyway, it might be wise to remember at this point that the most popular sport in the history of the world generates almost no statistics at all. So, no. This is not about a sea of numbers in an age of numbers. I'm not even writing about your crippled attention span, or my own; or your horribly attenuated sense of story, which now -- thanks to Internet v2.1 -- relies almost entirely on arch commentary instead of the simple procession of event.

Rather, this: Can a game once written about only in the past tense survive the transition to our fortune-telling, 140-character future?

What was once the most ruminative and reflective of our stick 'n ball pastimes is now just another Ouija board for our hair-trigger, nitwit predictions. Twitter, blog or column; essay or app, mobile upload or download, can baseball -- and its glacial pace and its patient fans and its impatient writers and its slow-to-boil stories -- survive the Age of the Instantaneous?

Space must be filled! Airtime yammered into! Content provided! Arguments provoked!

A tall, exhausting order to carry out 24/7 from February to November.

162 games.

30 teams.

1,000-plus players facing tens of thousands of pitches.

And every pitch the little magic key to unlock some infinite new array of futures -- futures into which popgun Nostradamus must now squint, divining from the press box every possible, incremental outcome.

The Mets have been really bad this year -- until the very day a week ago they became not bad at all! Now they're right back in it! Unless they're not! They could win the World Series! Or miss the playoffs! Same with the Red Sox! Who were many games back until the very moment they weren't! Who might fail! Or yet succeed!

[+] EnlargeLionel Messi
Jorge Guerrero/Getty ImagesAnybody know Lionel Messi's OPS? Maybe there's a reason soccer, not baseball, rules the world.

And weren't those Yankees terrible last year when we all wrote them off in May because of A-Rod and that scandal and the weak hitting and the bad pitching and the new stadium and those bogus wind tunnel home runs? Who could've guessed they'd win the World Series?

Everyone!

Except the ones who didn't guess that at all! Which was also everyone!

Rust, and unsubstantiated opinion, never sleep!

(This is the same creaking mechanism by which the Celtics "baffled" the "experts." Dead for the year as matter of conventional dotcom wisdom and imagined weak character -- until the heroic instant they fought their way into the Finals.)

Hooray!

The very thing we so love about sports -- the unpredictability of the physical gesture at the heart of it -- is also the one thing we can't abide. Hooray for not knowing!

In a business with a lower forecasting IQ than any Magic 8-Ball or government intelligence agency, do we really want more predictions? How is it possible to crave more projections from such a grasping, inexpert press?

And if you don't think we'll all soon be revising and reformulating our season-long forecasts in baseball, pitch-by-agonizing-pitch and in real time, you're crazy.

[+] EnlargeWaldo Emerson
Getty ImagesImagine if Ralph Waldo Emerson had to tweet Stephen Strasburg's major league debut next week.

Poor Stephen Strasburg's big league debut will generate 10 million words tweet by tweet by tweet before he ever toes the rubber on June 8. Each pitch thereafter will open or foreclose an infinite number of futures for him and for the Washington Nationals. And for the National League. And for Major League Baseball. And for Bud Selig. And for America. Boom! Bust! Hooray!

Packaged thus, as science fiction and sentence fragments, each Twittered non sequitur will rattle around a sports fan's skull like a BB in an empty soup can until you manage to shake it out one ear.

Should baseball writers and baseball fans think and write and read in "real time?" Or only across the long, slow arc of baseball's geologic time? Maybe we should declare a moratorium on this kind of empty guesswork until after the All-Star break. Or September. Or embargo it altogether.

These are my thoughts on the train ride home, as the cars rattle and heave and balk, one banging into the next and the next in sequence, speeding and slowing, Newtonian, like the folds of a bellows, coming together and coming apart, like the knucklehead accordion of Time itself.

Future tense, indeed.

Pity baseball.

Drowning in the data stream.

A long-form sport in a short-form world.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.

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