“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game.” ~Jacques Barzun
Major League Baseball’s spring training is open for business. With all due disrespect to Punxsutawney Phil, that know it all buck toothed rodent, the news that pitchers are lobbing baseballs to catchers and batters are getting in their hacks down in the Arizona heat is the real signal, as true as the calendar on the wall, that spring is just around the bend (even for those who still wake up in the morning and groan over the sight of snow in the driveway).
It’s the rite of spring, when baseball fans begin the season with eternal, if often irrational, hope that their team will be vying for the World Series, months later when the first snow is just weeks away.
Peanuts, hotdogs, beer, a souvenir for the kids, and the hope of catching a ball that drifts into the stands on a warm, sunny afternoon. The season starts in earnest on March 30.
And I have zero fucks to give.
I used to have a nice relationship with baseball, going back to my childhood when I was a Los Angeles Dodger fan and my mom a San Francisco Giants fan. Giants – Dodgers? That’s Hatfield and McCoy stuff. Or for the more contemporary among us, Kanye West – Taylor Swift. At any given moment mom and I could launch into a screaming, insult laden, door slamming rhubarb.
Those were the days when my friends and I would go to the local drug store and buy a pack of baseball cards and then sort out the stars from the humpties while gnawing on the stick of old calcified bubble gum that came in the pack. We listened to the World Series on our transistor radios at school when the teacher wasn’t paying attention. You could walk down the street or into nearly any shop and hear the Giants radio broadcast. “How ‘bout them ______(fill in the appropriate team),” was how people started a conversation. Didn’t matter if it was an old friend or a stranger, baseball was the binding thread.
When I was an adult I got a season ticket plan for the Oakland Athletics and managed to attend two World Series. The World Series was my dream sporting event. Nevermind the Olympics and all its corruption and forget the Super Bowl and all the over the top commercialism and hype.
Football has, for me, always been the crasser of the two sports. It’s an angry sport that fails to honor its roots, craves attention even during its offseason, and gives the cold shoulder to tradition. It’s always comes off as overly corporate. Yeah I know, all sports are business, but football screams megacorp and big bucks. Football was Amazon while baseball was the brick and mortar independent.
I had a love affair with baseball. Before the season, I would check out the schedule and pencil in games that I’d want to buy tickets for. Some of my favorite sports movies are about baseball and some of the best sports writing that I’ve read over the years has been about baseball.
That’s all done now. Baseball has changed. The whole beauty of baseball used to be in its constancy. It was trustworthy, always there. Through wars and natural disasters and national crises, you could always count on baseball to cure the national ills. Baseball was the loyal partner who left for a short while in late autumn but could always be counted on to return in spring. I could trust that the friend who went on the long winter sabbatical would return largely unaltered.
In hindsight, I guess the divorce was inevitable. For years the relationship has been strained as my lifelong partner has been going through mood swings.
Maybe it started when the American League instituted the designated hitter (DH) in 1973. The National League (the league that I’ve followed) kept that monstrosity at bay until last year. The relationship continued to fray with a frequent league expansion that diluted the talent pool. The steroid era definitely put me off. I broke up with baseball entirely until I was relatively certain that the game was not completely dirty.
Maybe it was the two most recent commissioners, Bud Selig and his successor Rob Manfred.
Selig? He was a bungler, a buffoon, a caricature of a commissioner. Whatever damage he did, could, for the most part, be undone (though the steroid era statistics fucked up the record books beyond any possible repair).
Manfred? He’s Satan. He presided over the wrist slap of the Houston Astros, who cheated their way to a World Series title. It was a blemish that wouldn’t affect the future of the game itself but it cast Manfred as a feckless empty suit. Manfred’s greatest sin has been to preside over a series of rules changes that will alter the game forever.
I suppose I could’ve learned to live with the National League’s adoption of the DH. It would be sort of like sleeping on the couch for a while before getting over the indignation and going back to the conjugal bed.
The league has made the bases bigger. Okay, seems silly but I could tolerate it like one could get around the snoring spouse. Get rid of the shift? Fine, I guess. That’s the husband who belches loudly at the dinner table. But baseball couldn’t leave it at that. Baseball had to institute a pitch clock and a rule regulating pickoffs..
The pitch clock rule stipulates that a pitcher has 15 seconds to throw a pitch if the bases are empty. He’s given an extra 5 seconds if there’s a runner on base. Hitters must settle into the batters box by the time eight seconds remain on the pitch clock.
The pickoff rule has driven a stake through the heart of gamesmanship between the pitcher, the catcher, the managers, the base coach and a fleet footed baserunner.
All of this put together is the wife going full on Q-anon. She’s donned the Q shirt, she’s joined the Marjorie Taylor Greene fan club and she keeps calling the cops on the Democrat next door because she thinks he’s sucking the blood of children. Here’s where you pack your bags, find a lawyer and part ways for good – and you make sure you keep custody of the dog.
Most of these rules changes have to do with speeding up the game. MLB will spin it differently and try to peddle random gobbledygook about player safety but it’s all about speeding up the game.
Baseball used to be the game without a clock. It went at its own pace and sometimes the pace took it to 15, 18 or 20 or more innings. Nobody who watched it will forget the playoff game in which the Giants Brandon Belt homered off Tanner Roark in the 18th inning to seal a 2-1 victory over the Washington Nationals. Cora and I were at a concert in Golden Gate Park that day. The performers would give us updates from the stage. When the concert ended, the game was still going. It was still tied when we got to the car. It was knotted up as we drove through heavy traffic in San Francisco. On pins and needles, we listened to the game on the drive home. We pulled into the driveway, rushed into the house and settled on the couch in time to watch Belt hit the game winning homer.
Speeding up the game. That’s what it’s all about. Is Manfred the only Satan? No. In the end society is Satan. Baseball is just one facet of life that’s been disfigured because in our society, we have places to go, people to see, a new thing to marvel at. Hell, people can’t stay off their phones long enough to watch a movie through to its end, to finish a meal or let a colleague, friend or family member finish a sentence. Who has time to loiter around a ballpark when the new iPhone is getting released in the morning and oh my god I have to get in line so I can be the first to get one and the first to show my friends and the first to tweet that I’m among the first to send a tweet from my phone that’s going to obsoleted in a year. We don’t own our own lives, we’re owned by a gang of contemporary robber barons made up of Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. I’m sure I’ve left somebody out.
Recently I was talking to my son and one of his friends about the length of ball games. I was going to offer a theory about why the games seem longer than in the past. Making the mistake of beginning with, “Back when …,” I was interrupted by the usual, “Oh here we go with the back in my day shit.” I’m surprised that they didn’t sink to ageism and call me “boomer.” Perish the thought that I would offer the notion that, yes, back when I was younger, every baseball game wasn’t televised as they are today, which meant shorter commercial breaks. You had one ad on the radio for the local bank instead of a long series of ads for pickup trucks, Pizza Hut or some other culinary abomination, a lizard selling insurance, and magic pills to turn your dick into a lead pipe.
I resent the fact that the game that I once loved has been mutated into something that panders to the distracted and the impatient. If you have the attention span of a gnat then find something to do but leave my game alone. Need a game that slaps you in the face? Try hockey.
When my friend Scott and I used to go to games together, we would chat between batters and between innings. It wasn’t just going to a game, it was a time to sit in the sun, sip on a beer, share a bag of peanuts, shoot the shit about the game, sports in general, the family, politics or whatever was important or, maybe more importantly, what was trivial. It was bonding.
Sure, accuse me of being the old, “get off my lawn,” codger. You don’t like my stodgy generation? Well, fuck the impatience of your generation that’s turning a good game bad. And while you’re at it, get off my fucking lawn. Oh yeah, I don’t have a lawn. Well then, get off my fucking patio.
Don’t like new things, old man? Go be a survivalist, you and your flip phone. You probably bang that blog out on an old Royal typewriter. Yeah, well, here’s a thought, not all change is good.
As I write this, the very physical celebration of baseball’s tradition and constancy is being degraded by a pursuit for the almighty buck.
In a previous post, I wrote about my visit to the Field of Dreams baseball field in Dyersville, Iowa. The little ballpark in a cornfield was built as a location for the filming of the movie, Field of Dreams, based on the novel Shoeless Joe, written by W. P. Kinsella. The book, the movie and the field are a celebration of the rich tradition of baseball.
My visit was for me, and those around me, a magical experience. People lingered and strangers exchanged stories. Friendships, albeit brief ones, were made and nobody was in a hurry to leave or to bounce from one sight to the next. There was no Disneyland rush to get to the next ride in order to get to the other next ride and the next and the next. The Field of Dreams went at the pace of baseball and if people were slowing down their usually frenetic pace, maybe without realizing it, they were okay with it.
I was saddened to learn that, like the game it’s supposed to celebrate, the Field of Dreams is losing its soul. After going through some ownership changes, the field was taken over by Go The Distance Baseball LLC, a company with deep pockets and a vision. Beware the LLC with a vision, at least this one.
The Field of Dreams site will be transformed (disfigured?) into a multi-field sports complex with dormitories, a hotel and a concert venue. There will be a 100,000 square foot field house, an R.V. park and jogging trails. The sports complex will be home to baseball and softball tournaments. Certainly, the easy entry I had getting into the site will also be replaced by gridlock, long waits for parking and frayed nerves.
A town that wanted to remain a small, corn country farm town with a unique little attraction will be given the Disneyland treatment. Go The Distance Baseball will have undoubtedly issued the standard assurances to a doubting local community that Dyersville will retain its small town flavor and dangled the carrot of more jobs for the community. Never mind that the jobs will mostly be low paying service jobs.
“Don’t worry,” said the oil company exec in the town hall meeting. “The pipeline we’re putting in under your water supply will be 100 percent safe.”
It’s ironic that one of the architects of this project is former player and Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, now the CEO of Go The Distance Baseball. One would have hoped that a former player would’ve been kind to the game that was kind to him. But what the hell, money talks. After his retirement Thomas shed his pride to become a shill for a snake oil testosterone booster that, according to him, will make the guys champions in the weight room and the bedroom.
A field that was built for dreamers will be a field for the rapacious. By 2025 it’s going to be unrecognizable just like the simple, perfect game that spawned it. I guess I lucked out when I visited Dyersville when I did.
“I don’t have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time while America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers. It is the same game that Moonlight Graham played in 1905. It is a living part of history, like calico dresses, stone crockery, and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian-head penny in a handful of new coins.” ~ From Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella.