I get asked this question a lot, mostly by those much younger than I – students, my children, nieces, nephews. It’s usually accompanied by an expression of pity that one would normally reserve for viewing the fossilized remains of extinct species. What they’re really wondering is “How could anybody in their right mind like baseball?”, or “Are you really that boring?”
I’ve often wondered myself, and have come to realize that, like most relationships, it’s complex and ever evolving. My grandfather got me started. He had two great passions beyond his family – opera and baseball. I remember visiting his sanctum – a small, dark, wood-paneled den filled with swirling pipe smoke where, settled in his overstuffed leather throne, he would watch a baseball game with the sound turned off while simultaneously listening to a recording of Pagliacci. I was never sure if the occasional tear in his eye related to the game or lyrics.
He immigrated from Italy in the 1920’s and settled initially with his wife and five daughters in Chicago. The opera he brought with him; the baseball he acquired as part of his new life. He loved to tell, with equal enthusiasm, of hearing Enrico Caruso perform and attending ball games at Wrigley. By the time he moved and settled in Huntsville, Ontario he had nine daughters (yes, NINE but that’s another story). I’ve often thought there was poetic symmetry in the number of daughters, the number of players on a baseball team and the number of innings in a baseball game, but he never claimed credit for the coincidence.
The daughters never intruded into the den while he was watching games but I was allowed to join him. At that time, I never really understood either interest. The grainy black and white images on the television screen didn’t hold much interest for me and seemed monotonous and slow compared to hockey games. The old phonograph recordings were scratchy and the lyrics didn’t make sense. The pipe smoke made my eyes water although I liked and can still vividly recall the smell of the tobacco. It was being with him that made it all worthwhile.
I was a reluctant recruit to both interests but, over the years have found myself, without deliberate intention, drawn to them. The opera might be considered a genetic inevitability. The baseball is acquired and harder to understand. On the surface, the young people have a point. Compared to other big league team sports, it’s slow and stuttering – monotony occasionally interrupted by moments of activity. Detractors love to note that during a complete baseball game, the actual active play only comprises about 10 minutes, but I’ve come to find that you have to scratch deeper to discover the charm and true depth of the game. It doesn’t give up its personality easily but, to the persistent observer, it reveals a character quite different than that of other so-called “major” sports. For instance:
There’s no clock. Baseball refuses to be governed by time. It’s over when it’s over, regardless of the hour. It eschews the concept of “clock management”, thank you very much.
It’s nerd friendly. No sport embraces statistics and relentless documentation of each and every event like baseball. There is an accounting and assigned acronym for every action and nuance in the game. True aficionados love to wallow in the numbers. And these statistics are not without meaning. “Moneyball: The art of winning an unfair game” by Michael Lewis is a fascinating account of how statistical analysis is being used effectively to change how players are selected and teams constructed. What all this means is that even those of us who aren’t gifted enough to play the game can understand what’s happening and comment with some validity. It brings together the athlete and the nerd and puts them on a more-or-less equal footing.
Personalities matter. In no game are individuals so much on display. Whether they’re pitching, batting, fielding or managing, there are moments in the game where attention is entirely focused on the actions of a single player, and there the outcomes are entirely dichotomous – success or failure. What becomes interesting is not whether they succeed or fail at whatever they’re doing, but how they respond to the moment. They become people with quirks and human reactions, not unlike those watching. And there’s the bound. Performer and spectator are brought together in this singularly human moment.
It’s quirky. The best nicknames: bar none. Consider: Catfish, Dizzy, Satchel, Pops, Smokey, Hammer, Sparky, Oil Can, Whitey, Yogi, Campy, Crabs, Eck, Gibby, Goose, Bambino, Mr. October, The Georgia Peach, The Say-Hey Kid, The Kentucky Colonel, The Splendid Splinter. And that’s just Hall of Famers. And the ballparks refuse to engage conformity. The Green Monster. The ivy at Wrigley. The brewery walls in the background of many outfields. Compare that to the obsessive conformity of football fields or hockey rinks. It all translates to personality and thumbing a nose at convention.
You don’t have to listen to it and watch it; either will do just fine, as my grandfather taught me so long ago. It’s also ideally suited to radio. In fact, it’s almost better.
It’s the most democratic of sports. Virtually anybody can play, and the game can be adapted and modified to fit the skills and energies of the participants.
It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Hope springs eternal in baseball. Until the final batter makes the final out, there is always the potential for a team to come back from a deficit and snatch victory from defeat. In most other sports, points of hopelessness can develop where play becomes meaningless, but players are nonetheless required to go through the actions. An abomination.
It overcomes adversity. More than any other team sport, professional baseball has had its share of tragedies and miseries, all played out under public scrutiny. Segregation, corruption, betting scandals, the performance enhancing drugs debacle, have all tarnished its reputation and challenged the assumption of inherent innocence. In every case, the game has been the vehicle by which deep societal flaws have found expression and come to attention. As such, perhaps the game has served a purpose, reaffirming that the innocent are not immune from evil, but need not be defeated by it. Incredibly, improbably, it endures, scared but not broken, and arguably better for the experience. A metaphor for us all.
In the end, there’s a beguiling charm about a game that’s so quirky, unpretentious and stubbornly enduring. It survives despite the changes the world tries to impose. So, in answer to my young inquisitors, that’s why I like baseball. That, and memories of tobacco smoke, and Pagliacci.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education