by Paul West
Capitalism, and ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’ does funny things to one’s perspective. Every year since the post-strike doldrums of the 90s, baseball’s decline has been lamented. No longer locked in as “America’s pastime,” the sport’s executives have spent nearly a generation trying to chase down the NFL in terms of ratings, merchandise, and ticket sales…and for a while, when the game began to seem increasingly suburbanized and expense-driven at the youth level, football seemed destined to crush it under its heel. The homer-happy (and misnomered) ‘steroid era’ helped generate both ratings and increased buzz; but really, it was grassroots programs like Harlem RBI which helped bring it back somewhat to life. It might never again sit atop America’s sports landscape, but baseball is once again a sport you’ll find kids playing all over the globe. This because all you need to play it, at its most basic level, is a small sphere you can throw and something stick-like to hit it. Whether it’s on a side street or in the boondocks, something as simple as a mop handle and a tennis ball can have you swinging for the fences, scrambling from base (or fire hydrant, or pothole cover) to base, and sliding to avoid tags.
Meanwhile, you know what’s in trouble, despite seemingly indestructible tv ratings? NFL football. America’s version of gladiatorial struggle is chess come to life, a strategy-laden orchestra with feats of grace and athleticism which appeal far and wide. It’s also a body-and-brain mangling endeavor, with methodology which hearkens back to grimmer elements of human history. It’s likely here to stay, even though (or because?) it’s been legislated more and more to favor its artistry and precision over its brute force; but America’s relationship with it feels like the troublesome fling who might raise your pulse or catch your eye but always seems like trouble waiting to happen. Meanwhile, baseball is the understated cutie you who wouldn’t be found on a runway or magazine cover, but whose absence always leaves you fondly reminiscing. That’s why “pitchers and catchers” is a commonly heard phrase around this time of year, and why no flurry of modifications or initiatives seems likely to bring baseball to its end.
Speaking of modifications: baseball will evolve, as should every healthy human pursuit. Defensive shifts might be regulated; the designated hitter might come to the NL; the “opener” might catch on for a while, or even generations; replay might expand further, and we’ll someday wonder how umpires got away with personalized strike zones for so long. But as long as there’s a sun in the sky, the boys and girls–and men and women–of summer will pick up bats, balls, and maybe gloves, and wander into open spaces to play baseball in some form or another.
Baseball is a game of spring, summer, bated breath, and sudden elation. Its integration didn’t just foreshadow that of American society; it helped usher it in. Literally and figuratively timeless, its underlying sense of possibility inspired the phrase it ain’t over til it’s over. It’s the only of our major sports in which literally no lead is insurmountable. And it’s here to stay.
Pitchers and catchers, by the way, report in less than a week.