Still the National Pastime: Seven Reasons Why You Should Watch Baseball

 

 

 

“Baseball was, is and always will be to me the best game in the world.”

– Babe Ruth

 

We’re only a few weeks away from Major League Baseball season, and I haven’t been this excited about Opening Day since I was a kid.

Growing up, baseball was my life. From buying packs of Upper Deck baseball cards at the local convenience store, Brown’s Grocery, to card shows, to watching the New York Mets on station WOR, baseball ran through my pores. I slurped up the game like the cherry slushes that cured the heat of an unmerciful summer. 

While most of my memories remain fond, my first introduction to the harshness of the game occurred my eighth grade year, when I developed a curious condition called the “Yips.” One day during Little League practice, I was warming up with Kendrick, the best player in the league. As we were tossing the ball back and forth, a normally benign exercise, one of my throws went straight into the ground.

“What was that?” I asked.

Kendrick laughed and tossed the ball back to me. Thinking the previous throw was an outlier, I hurled the ball back, but mysteriously the throw sailed over his head. These artless exercises went on for the rest of warm-ups. I was dumfounded.

I battled the yips for the next three years. And after my eleventh grade year, I left the game to never return. My dreams of becoming a professional baseball player were gone. I would have to find something else to do with my life.

Ten years went by without so much as a thought of returning to the game I once loved.

But in 2002, I took a coaching and teaching job at a high school just north of Birmingham, AL. During the interview, the principal asked me if I could coach JV boys’ baseball. I reluctantly agreed. That spring, when I stepped on the practice field for the first time, I hardly recognized the game.

Over the next two months, my love for baseball was resurrected. I remember thinking how cool it was to sit on an upturned bucket, spitting sunflower seeds and calling pitches. We had a pretty good season, too.

At that time in my life, I had dreams of becoming a college basketball coach. I pursued that dream and stepped away from baseball once again. Seven years later, I retired from coaching. I now write stories about sports legends I admired in my youth.

Honestly, I wasn’t that interested in baseball until a couple of years ago. College football dominated my attention, and I was also enjoying the NFL. But something magnetic, something mystical, something magical, brought me back to the game of baseball. For the last two seasons, I have been interested again.

In 2016, my fiancé (now my wife) and I went to Cincinnati to catch a Reds game at Great American Ballpark. Later that summer, we went to an Atlanta Braves game at Turner Field. My love for baseball has returned.

My best friend is a Yankees fan, but over the past few years, he’s lost a bit of interest in professional baseball. Whenever we talk on the phone, I find myself lobbying to get him interested in the game. From time to time, I’ll alert him that the Yankees are on, hoping he’ll tune in. I haven’t got him hooked yet, but one day, I will.

I’ve gone around the barn to get to this salient point: You should watch baseball. Why should you watch baseball? Here are seven reasons:

Ty Cobb sliding into third. Photo credit: Wikipedia

1. It’s Slow

“Baseball is essentially a 19th century sport that is no longer congruent with contemporary American cultural dynamics and thus seems terribly slow and boring to many people. Baseball games are now events at which to drink beer and relax, and the ambience at baseball games is considerably different from what one finds at football games–especially crucial games, where ancient antagonisms or bowl bids hang in the balance.”

-Arthur Asa Berger

Even baseball admits it. Last month, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred issued a decree that baseball intends to speed up by limiting mounds visits and commercial breaks. Let’s face it: the game has never been lightning-quick.

But it seems that only recently, people started complaining that it’s slow (ahem, Mr. Berger). Odd, isn’t it, that we are just now coming to the realization that something must be done to hasten this molasses-like game. Which begs the question: has baseball gotten intolerably slower or has our toleration for slow things lessened? I’d say the mostly the latter.

Why does baseball even feel the need to try to speed up? We need to adjust to it, not the converse. 

Because we live in a microwave, I’ve-got-to-have-it-now society, we like fast things. Much of our newfound technology is geared toward making things faster—faster downloads, faster cars, faster access to information. As a result, our patience has worn thin, eroded like a tide-lapped cliff. We need to slow down.

A baseball game forces you to slow down. To relax. There’s nothing like sitting on the couch after a hard day’s work and taking in nine innings of slow, methodical baseball. As you watch, you’ll notice yourself relaxing. Your blood pressure will go down. Your anxiety will drift away. You might even take a little nap around the 5th inning. Trust me, you need it.

Baseball, good for the soul, is the most calming game in the world.

 

2. The Playoffs

Out of the three major professional sports, the baseball playoffs are not only the most fun to watch, they are the most historically significant. October baseball is when excitement meets history. Every year, the playoffs engender memories of the Miracle Mets, the Called Shot, the San Francisco quake, Bill Mazeroski’s home run, Pudge Fisk’s Green Monster theatrics, and Kirk Gibson’s bases-trotting lawnmower-cranking clout. No other professional sport ushers in such memories.

Like the NBA, the MLB postseason is structured in a series format, so fans get a better sample of the matchup between two clubs. But unlike the NBA, the baseball playoffs do not drag out for two or three overlong months.

In case you are unfamiliar, the baseball playoffs start with a one-game wildcard game, which often serves up tremendous drama as one team’s postseason dreams are dashed in an instant while the other moves on rapidly to the next round. The second round, the divisional playoffs, consist of only a five-game series, which seems to work well in terms of moving the playoffs along at a proper pace. The League Championship Series then shifts to a 7-game affair, and the World Series, well, is still the World Series.

If you missed the 2016 Series between the Cubs and the Indians, you missed the most compelling sports narrative in the last decade. Down 3 games to 1, the Cubs, who hadn’t won a World Series in 108 years, the Cubs who seemed to be cursed by a goat and an unfortunate spectator named Steve Bartman, rallied to beat the Indians, 4 games to 3. The 7th Game was chock-full of elation and melodrama. With the score tied 6-6, a 17-minute deluge resulted in stoppage of action. As the Cubs collected in a weight room, outfielder Jayson Heyward told his teammates, “We’re the best team in baseball. . . for a reason. . . Stick together and we’re going to win this game.”

The rest is history. 

Yankee Stadium. Photo credit: Wikipedia

3. The Stadiums

“The most beautiful thing in the world is a ballpark filled with people.”

– Bill Veeck

From the clever architectural additions to the varying outfield grass art to the bold facades, baseball stadiums are the prettiest in all of sport. I think about the Cleveland skyscrapers behind Progressive Field or the Pittsburgh skyline framing PNC Park. I think about the Gateway Arch towering above Busch Stadium in St. Louis. I think about the history of Wrigley and Fenway, the Green Monster and the Ivy. I think Chavez Ravine’s wavy roof, behind which the San Gabriel Mountains roll unceasingly. I think about the steamboat smokestacks at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, the boats trolling the bay at AT&T Park in San Fran. I think about the convertible roof at Miller Park in Milwaukee and the sheer majesty of Yankee Stadium. The baseball stadium is where nature, fans, and city collide. A slice of Americana.

Like cathedrals, baseball stadiums should be revered. After all, pitcher Bill Lee once said, “You should enter a ballpark the way you enter a church.”

Inside of Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, you’ll find a unique slice of Americana. Photo by Al Blanton

4. Civility 

“As a tonic, an exercise, a safety valve, baseball is second only to death as a leveler. So long as it remains our national game, America will abide no monarchy, and anarchy will be slow.” 

-Allen Sangree

Generally speaking, baseball fans are a passionate lot, but often this passion does not bleed over to insanity. I’ve noticed that I don’t get near as angry at baseball as I do college football. Sure, I don’t have the same affinity for a MLB team as I do my beloved Alabama Crimson Tide, but even if I did, I arrive at the season with the understanding that my team is probably going to lose at least sixty times a year. Even die-hard fans know this. So you have to pace yourself. You can’t get livid after every loss. You can’t let one game ruin Memorial Day or the Fourth of July with the family.

Normally a person can watch a baseball game without the burden of the game having superimportance or the possibility of having myocardial infarction by game’s end.

Because baseball is still the national pastime, fans understand that the ball game may furnish a hodgepodge of individuals wearing a variety of garb. Thus fans are generally cordial to opposing fans who wear their T-shirts or jerseys into the game.

In baseball, there simply isn’t as much vitriol as, say, an Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. This is not to say that the sport is devoid of enmity. But when you have to meet your archrival eighteen or so times during the regular season, you simply do not have the energy to remain acerbic.

 

5. The Walk-Off is the Greatest Moment in Sports 

“Somebody once asked me if I ever went up to the plate trying to hit a home run. I said, ‘Sure, every time.’”

– Mickey Mantle

Say what you want about 70-yard touchdown bombs, hole-in-ones, and thunderous windmill jams— the Walk-Off is the greatest moment in sports.

In the life of the American child, there is no greater moment than hitting a home run, and it is during a home run that professionals act most like children. The anticipation of the small white sphere arcing through the sky, the pure elation as the ball is deposited in the outfield bleachers, the jubilant fans, hopping and screaming as the opposing pitcher walks off the field in disgust. Then the benches emptying. The ceremonial gathering around home plate to congratulate said smasher of the seamed ball. More hopping and screaming. Then the walk-off master being interviewed. The pie to the face. The glory. The pageantry.

 

6. A Mental and Statistical Game

“Guessing what the pitcher is going to throw is eighty percent of being a successful hitter. The other twenty percent is just execution.”

– Hank Aaron

Perhaps those who think baseball is slow are missing out on the details. When you watch baseball, look closely. Every at-bat is a game within itself.

Over the years, as pitching has become more dominant, the duel between the pitcher and the batter has leveled somewhat. Great pitching has made the game more intriguing, at-bats more cerebral, a mental war. Watching the gangly Dodgers’ southpaw, Clayton Kershaw, square off against the Astros diminutive slugger, Jose Altuve, in the World Series was like watching a poker match between Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson.

The immortal Hank Aaron

Baseball is a mental game. From the batter’s mindset to infield shifts to hit-and-runs, baseball is a game of strategy. Ty Cobb, taking every advantage to out-smart, out-hustle, and out-think his opponents, seemed to realize this best. Now teams understand the mental aspect of the game, understand that strategy is as, if not more, important than the physical. Often, stats and percentages are relied upon as managers and players make crucial, in-game decisions. Pull the pitcher? Don’t pull the pitcher? Double steal? Slider or fastball?

 

  1. The Players

“Next to religion, baseball has had a greater impact on our American way of life than any other American institution.”

– Herbert Hoover

Today’s game affords as many talented players as there have ever been in the league. Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Charlie Blackmon, Justin Verlander, Anthony Rizzo, Miguel Cabrera, Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, Cody Bellenger, Justin Turner, Albert Pujols, Bryce Harper, Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Francisco Lindor, Nolan Arenado, Andrew McCutcheon, Freddie Freeman, Daniel Murphy.

Power hitting, power pitching. Athleticism. Diving outfield grabs, diving stops in the infield. Headfirst slides. Throw-downs to second base. Walk-offs. 

This is baseball. HA

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