The Great American Sedative
The way I hear it, the doctor advised his patient, “Having trouble getting to sleep? Take two aspirins, turn on a baseball game, and call me in the morning.”
I am convinced that major league baseball, while indeed as purely American as mom, apple pie, and the coronary by—pass, has nevertheless outlived it’s wholesome attraction as a compelling spectator sport. It is a lackluster and lackadaisical diversion, let’s say, from cleaning the garage. Not much more than that, really.
This assessment was “driven home” to me not long ago- mid-September, I think- when I reluctantly reexposed myself to baseball’s sporting inertia (yawn) while awaiting a late—arriving friend in the dayroom, slowly filling with avid baseball fans. The telecast of a crucial baseball game was the sole entertainment. The run for the World Series was underway.
From a half—hour of broadcast boredom, I salvaged a treasure of about three minutes of action; of notion—with—a—meaning. What I viewed for the most part was a bunch of guys who spit a lot. Quite a few of them looked too fat. One guy was up at the plate for more than twelve minutes. He eventually struck out, looking. He gets paid $206,000 per- season. A pittance. He also gets a truckload of benefits and perks- and all those endorsement opportunities. He spits a lot, too.
During the corpulent batter’s dismal, wooden exhibition at the plate, another less-than-exhilarating drama unfolded before my eyes. I viewed the ancestral “Sermon on the Mound”, the inevitable pitcher’s parley where third base, catcher and manager converge and confer-end spit- out there on the hurler’s rise. It appeared to go something like this…
Well—Upholstered Manager: “How ya feelin, Bucky? Gettin tired?” (Spits)
Paunchy Pitcher: “Naw, Lester, I’m feelin fine.”
Manager: “Well, you sure as hell ain’t pitchin fine. We’re in a box. (Puts hands in back pockets, turns head, and spits.)
Catcher: “You got that signal wrong, Bucky. Twice. 01’ Pedro just eats up that inside curve. No problem, baby. Just settle down.” (He does not spit. He forgot.)
Third Baseman: Says nothing. Flips ball back to pitcher after the somber deliberation breaks up and the conferees disperse.
It is an intoxicating spectacle.
Throughout this quartets’ traditional litany, the audio is relentlessly flooded with the multiloquent prattle of the announcers up there in the booth. Those of us at the TV are blown away by a verbal ventilation full of ERAs, home vs. on-the-road percentages, blah, blah…
Color Announcer: “And you know, Lefty, the last time the Jayhawks won a game at home in the rain while the moon was full during September during an even—numbered year was way back in 1946 when…
Sportscaster Lefty: “Well, Joe, that just goes to show that you can never tell in baseball. The game isn’t over until the last out…
The cliff—hanger resumed. The second baseman bungled a double—play. Then he spit. Then came the gripping drama of an intentional walk. The next man was thrown out on a routine grounder to third. The announcers are quite correct in employing the word routine. At the moment of that hair—raising finale, I was rescued with the arrival of my friend. We escaped from the dayroom quietly.
I am convinced that major league baseball has been worn out by its own rusty machinery, and by its hum—drum, antiquated orthodoxy. It’s cast of characters includes guys drawing a near—million in salary and seasonings while hitting .196. Their defensive roles include a sun—basking vegetation in the distant, green, bucolic reaches of the outfield. (Yawn)
There are pitchers who cannot, and will not hit, and who smugly hold dear the belief that they are above such pedestrian foolishness. There is too much predictable “strategy” which triggers inordinate and undue attention toward puffy and disdainful managers; on coaches whose signals suggest an outbreak of’ rash; on excuses and injuries and spitting, and on players receiving the ultimate accolade, the “high five”, for being driven home by someone else.
It is a game riddled with meaningless statistics, of extravagant broadcast babble that produces little more than small—change, Mickey Mouse meanderings. And as much as I respect the knowledge and savvy Of Vin and Joe and their sports casting colleagues, I am one of a growing number of sports enthusiasts who respond to such garrulousness with, “So what”
There are too many participants for such a trifling amount of action. The game has been smothered by bureaucracy and big business, and swollen with money. Far too much money, in fact, for organized indolence. The season is overly—long, with too many weeks occupied by nine men, waiting around, spitting.
And what about the color and spectacle of baseball? It seems to have faded with the time it takes to get off a pitch — — adjusting caps, scraping dirt, messing around. It has become blurred with batters stepping in and out off the box, adjusting, fidgeting . . . all the moves of the Major League Nambo. On the scene, it is blemished with expensive junk rood, and more expensive, unprotected parking spaces. On the tube, it has been overmixed with excessive yak and desperate stadium vignettes; a shot and blurb, for instance, of the grandma who has not missed a White Sox home game for thirty years. (Yawn.) I wish they could bring back the Spit—Ball. Spit fits. In brief, the color and spectacle has dissolved into something rather colorless and unspectacular.
And how about the fans? You must remember that I am trying to preserve a detachment from the lure of snobbism. Oh, yes, an aloof, quippy put-down would be fun to write, but also heavily subjective and not really on point. No, the spectator mix is not so much high blue collar as it is an assembly of the eclectic national mob- a cross section of sorts- and they are not getting their money’s worth. From the Sons of Pythias in the left field stands to the guys at the corner saloon with their beer and chips; from the doctors and lawyers to the gamblers and insomniacs; from the baseball fanatic- luminaries like Stephen King to the literary dramatists of the game like Mark (Bang The Drum Slowly) Harris; from the frenzied, home- town boosters in the bleachers to, well, just folks with nothing else to do. These are the fans, and nine out of ten are not even certain why they do it. You don’t believe me? Ask them.
It is a dumb game, really, with relatively little opportunity for promising youngsters and farm—clubbers — — and yet it’s a cinch bet that many of them could equal or surpass the desultory performances exhibited during the average game. (Yawn). The entrenchment of “experienced” players is traditional, and with the contract money involved, we are stuck with them. The system is rusty and outmoded, further burdening a curious sort of competition in which one man’s blunder can lose a game, just as one man’s fluke—accidental single can win it. So can a base—on—balls. These are hardly the criteria for action—packed, crackerjack entertainment.
Perhaps this is why many or most of my thinking acquaintances, despite the fear of Stephen King spooking them when least expected, have shifted their allegiances to other sports, and have thereby doubled their pleasure. There is the one-on-one, split-second strategy of tennis, a game characterized by pace, finesse, endurance, and guts and a world class competition that is fierce beyond imagination. And golf, perhaps the most difficult of’ popular sports to play well where in the big time there is no “next inning”, where every shot counts, where consumate skill and discipline evolves from years of’ hard work. Even Football, a/team sport, demands far greater degrees of’ precise execution and maneuver than does baseball; and certainly a more no-nonsense and visible approach to physical conditioning and athletic performance. Football moves — and any sustained period of poor individual performance is remedied swiftly for the good of the team. There are no full—season “slumps.” And there is hockey, and basketball. But baseball? Well, I’d rather read a bad book.
Why is this? Why does baseball, with its dubious merit and excessive acclaim, continue to generate avid, if dwindling, interest?
How does it persist, like a stubborn, aging actor consigned to game shows, as entertainment for some, a pacifier for others, and a real downer for the rest of us?
I suspect the reason be in the game’s contribution to the American collection of habits. Perhaps the dull performances and the worn—out traditions have fostered a perverted, but compelling attraction for an obliquely hip spectatorship: they tune in to watch the spitting. Then again, there is the chance that baseball is so deeply engraved in our national character that, like toothpaste, it is just there.
I like apple pie, and I loved my mother, but I think baseball stinks. As for stealing bases, I wish some crafty entrepreneur would steal ALL of them and sell them to Japan. As for its lofty regard as our national pastime, humbug! I would rather go downtown and watch the office irls on their lunch—break. Or watch the grass grow. But what I should do is catch up on my sleep. I’ll turn on baseball. It works every time. (Yawn).