It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
No, I’m not talking about Christmas, even if some stores are already setting out Santa stuff. October remains a very special time for baseball fans.
You remember baseball. A man in a strange outfit, known as the “pitcher,” stands on a small mound on a green field and throws a small white ball at another guy holding a stick. This “batter” tries to hit it in such a way that the “fielders” wearing leather devices on one hand cannot quickly retrieve it. The two teams play for about three hours, and a typical score is 5-4 or so.
I offered that cursory explanation because it seems most of you are not paying attention to baseball anymore. The Nation’s Pastime seems past its time.
There are several theories for this decline.
The baseball season lasts too long. It now wraps up in late October. This year’s World Series Game 7 is scheduled for Halloween night, and there have been some games played in November.
That’s absurd for the Summer Game. Listen, I truly love baseball, but it’s ridiculous to watch games played as snow floats down on fans wearing parkas while players in the dugouts wear a very different kind of gloves.
The fact that almost all postseason games, including every World Series game, is played at night to benefit TV, means kids are missing part or all of the games. That’s a poor way to build a fan base.
The games are too slow. Baseball used to be a two-hour event, maybe two-and-a-half hours. Now, with the vastly increased use of relief pitchers that bring games to a crawl just as they should be more exciting, with hitters taking more and more pitches, games often edge past three hours.
Fans, conditioned to get twitchy if they are not instantly entertained, get bored. They turn to football, where they can cheer a high-speed collision every few minutes.
Some feel baseball is perceived as an old-fashioned event that has lost the culture’s attention.
Southern fans, once a mainstay for hardball, are devoted to football and NASCAR. More women are watching both those sports, too. Rural areas love high school football on Friday nights, college football on Saturdays and the NFL on Sundays and Monday nights.
Basketball is in the city game, and a favorite of urban hipsters and young people who find the tattooed giants who dunk and pose far more interesting than the nearly normal-sized men who wear caps and spend a good deal of the game seated on a bench.
It’s not very popular with black people, despite the repeated celebration of Jackie Roosevelt. There are fewer black players than at any time in the past 40 years, and the crowds are almost lily-white.
It may be that baseball has become the game of the educated and literate, who appreciate its colorful past and measured pace. That seems quaint in this dumbed-down era of political shouting, deep cultural divides and crude would-be “artists” who writhe and stick out their tongues on stage and on TV.
In this new age, baseball’s TV ratings have plummeted.
The highest-rated game of all time broke my heart, as the great Kansas City Royals fell to the lucky Philadelphia Phillies 4-1 in Game 6 of the 1980 World Series. I still suspect chicanery. Almost 55 million people watched that game, and similar TV audiences were common in the 1970s and ’80s.
Last year, when the San Francisco Giants won their second title in three years, only about 12 million ardent fans watched the four-game sweep. And this is while the nation’s population has greatly expanded.
Sure, there are more TV options today, but that doesn’t seem to have prevented the Super Bowl from continuing to set viewing records.
Baseball still sells tickets, however.
Per-game attendance has more than doubled since 1950, when less than 15,000 bought tickets for games held in often vast parks. More than 30,000 people pack into well-designed, smaller stadiums today. Baseball continues to set records, and around 75 million people attended games this season.
Baseball is like Congress. People express great disdain for it, but they insist on re-electing their own representatives, and they keep following the local team. But once their team falls from contention, they lose interest.
Football is a weekly party, a celebration of food, fun and point spreads. Baseball is a daily experience, a long novel that lasts 162 games plus a month of playoffs. Football is a short story, with one-tenth as many regular season games, and one-and-out playoffs.
Still, it’s October. The climax of the baseball season. The highlight of the long chase that began in the chill of February and concludes on brisk fall nights. Why aren’t more people watching?
The great American philosopher George Carlin died five years ago. Carlin, an avid sports fan, hosted the first-ever episode of ” Saturday Night Live” 39 years ago this month, and on that show he performed his great and insightful routine “Baseball and Football.”
He said the roots of the two sports indicate the reasons they are so different, noting that baseball is a “nineteenth-century pastoral game” while football is a “20th-century technological struggle.” The contrast is even more stark in the 21st century, George.
At the conclusion of the routine, Carlin offered a wonderful summary on the vast differences between the games: “… finally, the objectives of the two games are completely different:
“In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.”
Carlin summed up the games with this classic close to his bit: “In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! — I hope I’ll be safe at home!”
I know I will be safe at home most of this month, watching the 10 teams that qualified for the postseason compete to see who claims the World Series. I would say the Red Sox are the favorite but keep an eye on the Cardinals.
If you can find time to tear yourself away from football, texting and reality TV, give baseball a try. It’s a wonderful way to pass the time.