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A Baseball Fan's Lament

It’s March, which typically means (at least) one thing: spring training—that hopeful sign spring is nearing, whatever Punxsutawny Phil may have proclaimed in February. But as I write, pitchers and catchers are still home, Arizona’s and Florida’s dugouts are empty, and players and management are at another stand-off. At this point, it looks like we are unlikely to have much spring training and Opening Day may be delayed. But rest assured, the two sides are making progress: MLB Commissioner Manfred announced last week pitchers in the National League will no longer bat.

It’s worth acknowledging first there are far starker realities currently confronting the world, particularly in Eastern Europe as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues. There is, sadly, never a shortage of tragedies in our fallen world, and my daily prayers are ardently with the Ukrainian people. But I would humbly submit that the calamities that befall us are precisely why baseball matters: Without glimmers of light—faith, family, sport, art, music, etc.—it’s easy to feel the darkness is prevailing.

And so it is particularly against a backdrop of grim global realities that baseball’s ongoing lockout is a disappointing development, as is the league’s apparent decision to institute a designated hitter (DH) in the National League (NL). But to longstanding fans, neither should be surprising: Baseball has seemed to be its own worst enemy and has targeted some of its loveliest aspects for a long time—a misguided attempt, presumably, to make it hipper. But here’s a newsflash for Manfred and the rest of baseball management: Baseball isn’t hip—it’s wonderfully the opposite.

Pitchers admittedly generally aren’t great hitters. But that doesn’t preclude their periodic heroic moments at the plate—laying down a perfect bunt to execute a late-innings suicide squeeze or swinging for the fences and reaching them. One of the most thrilling pitchers I’ve been lucky enough to watch in person is Madison Bumgarner. I will never forget watching him dig in at home, brazenly staring down the opposing pitcher, daring him to put a ball anywhere near the plate. Nor will I forget the instances in which the pitcher did dare … and Bum put the ball over the fence. In an attempt to make baseball sexier, Manfred has robbed future generations of the opportunity to witness such feats which, though rare, are equally unforgettable.

As a card-carrying capitalist, I certainly understand—commend—the instinct to ensure baseball remains relevant in a world that often seems to be leaving America’s national pastime behind. I believe players who number among the tiny fraction of humans who can successfully hit a ball flung some 100 miles per hour at their heads should be paid. Lots. As should the pitchers who can hurl a ball in the vicinity of a batter’s head without (the vast majority of the time) threatening his life. I believe the owners who take risks on players—heck, on owning a team—should be richly rewarded, too.

But I resent the attempts to overly (and overtly) modernize a game that practically defines old-fashioned. Nearly every aspect of our lives feels like it’s accelerating beyond our control—but that contrast to baseball’s pace makes the game all the more appealing. Time slows down at a baseball game. Technically speaking, there is no time—a game takes however long it takes. That’s a feature, not a bug—one worth cherishing. Roger Angell, patron saint of baseball writers, put all this more eloquently than I:

Within the ballpark, time moves differently, marked by no clock except the events of the game. This is the unique, unchangeable feature of baseball, and perhaps explains why this sport, for all the enormous changes it has undergone in the past decade or two, remains somehow rustic, unviolent, and introspective. Baseball’s time is seamless and invisible, a bubble within which players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors. This is the way the game was played in our youth and in our fathers’ youth, and even back then—back in the country days—there must have been the same feeling that time could be stopped. Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young. Sitting in the stands, we sense this, if only dimly.[1]

Perhaps one of the reasons I love baseball so much is it has prompted such beautiful writing as Angell’s. Or Ed Condon’s recent evaluation in The Wall Street Journal of the DH’s addition to the NL: “[T]hat’s the thing about losing your soul: It happens only when you forget why you need it.” Indeed.

[1] Angell, Roger, The Summer Game, p. 303.


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