Our National Pastime
I have always been a big sports fan. I got that from my dad, saw it in my grandfathers, and found it in all my friends. Now I’m passing it on to my sons. Chicago-born, I’ve been a lifelong Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, and Sox fan. The rest of the extended DeYoung clan roots for the Cubs, but my dad had the good sense to switch loyalties with the Go-Go Sox of ’59, and now I’ll be a Sox fan for life. Likely my boys will be too, though they’ve grown up exclusively in Michigan and never lived a day in Illinois. I feel for them, taking the same road I did: living in Michigan and rooting for Chicago. I hated the Bad Boys, and my sons are learning to be righteously annoyed with the Tigers. Enmity is unspiritual in the rest of life, but not in sports. It’s a sign of respect reserved for perennial powerhouses. Nobody hates the Jacksonville Jaguars.
This week marks the beginning of baseball, for 150 years, our national pastime. Football may be the king of revenue and ratings, March Madness may be the most enjoyable three weeks of sports, the NHL may be the obsession north of the border, and the NBA may have bigger star power, but there is still no sport in this country better than baseball. I will never forget the ’85 Bears or MJ and the Bulls during the 90s. It’s been fun to watch the Blackhawks tear it up this year, and the longer I live in East Lansing the more I bleed green and white. But if I had just one sporting event to watch in person sometime in my life it would be a World Series game with the White Sox. Preferably a Game Seven winner, but I don’t want to be picky.
I know the many knocks on baseball: The games are too slow. The season is too long. The contracts are too big. I know about steroids and strike-shortened seasons. I know the players chew and spit and adjust themselves too much. I know every pitcher except for Mark Buerhle takes too much time in between pitches. I know that purists hate the DH rule and almost everyone hates the Yankees. I understand if baseball is not your thing. You don’t have to like our national pastime.
But you should.
I’ve taken my older kids to basketball games and football games–terrific experiences. But it’s not like your first baseball game: the wide open and immaculately kept spaces of green, the sharp diamond perfectly groomed, the organ bellowing out a kitschy tune. People sing the national anthem louder at baseball games. The hot dogs are better too. At most parks you can find seats cheap enough for families. And when you’re there, you’ll see an old man sitting by himself with a scorecard, just like he’s done for 40 years.
Baseball is unique in the pantheon of professional American sports. It’s the only one where time doesn’t end your game. It’s the only one where offense and defense are totally compartmentalized. And it’s the only sport that actually works on radio. Have you ever tried listening to football on the radio. It’s better than nothing, but you can’t picture the action. You only get updates as the action unfolds. It’s the same with basketball and hockey. There’s a lot of energy, but it’s too much to see in your head. Baseball, on the other hand, is the perfect sport for radio. It’s slow and it’s routine. You can picture a backdoor slider in your head. You know what a sharp single to right looks like. You can see the ball sailing deep into center field in a way you could never see a run up the middle on radio.
I love football, but I love baseball more because it’s football’s complete opposite. It’s pastoral instead of militant. You can get your first chance at 27, instead of being finished at 26. Every game doesn’t matter. The season stretches across three seasons instead of just one. Its pace is deliberate. The drama is subtle. The celebrations are understated. In football, every play is punctuated with some choreographed gesticulation. In baseball, the players honor the shortstop’s diving catch by throwing the ball to each other.
Baseball is the only sport where the players are not only doing things normal people can’t do nearly as well, they’re doing things normal people can’t do at all. I can make a basket. I can throw and catch a football. I can kick a soccer ball. I can’t hit Verlander’s fast ball (let alone his filthy curve). Baseball is more like real life where you fail more than you succeed. Two made shots a night in basketball means your terrible. Two hits per night in baseball makes you a legend.
Baseball has the best stats, the best trading cards, the best box scores, and the best announcers. Of the four major sports in America it’s the one with the smallest gap between the best teams and the worst teams. It’s the one where the regular season matters most. It’s the one sport that has the best season of the year all to itself. They’re not called the Boys of Summer for nothing.
Baseball lends itself to the best sports writing and the best sports movies. It has the richest history and the most romantic mythology. It’s the only sport that allows the fans the pleasure of seeing the umpires publicly berated. It has the most prestigious hall of fame. It has the most grueling minor leagues, where you can chase your dreams for ten years after school if you are willing to ride the bus. It has the best stadiums, where the dimensions are always different and the speed of the grass and the size of the foul territory determines the type of team you build.
More than any other sport, baseball is a companion. That’s why fans grow to love their announcers. For the past few years, I’ve listened to the majority of Sox games over the summer. I don’t often listen or watch an entire game, and I certainly can’t catch all 162 of them. But if I’m driving or mowing the lawn , paying the bills, or puttzing around the house, I’ll find a way to tune in. And if they lose, it’s no big deal. It’s not like the BCS is on the line every game. The Sox can lose five in a row or stink up the place for two months and still end up on top. It’s a long season. It’s a slow season. It’s a game of strategy and finely-honed skill more than brute force and raw athleticism. It’s everything fans aren’t supposed to want in their sports anymore.
Which makes it just perfect.