After a frigid winter, baseball’s return is most welcome. In the high summer months, it’s hard to have a bad time at a ballgame. Winning or losing is almost immaterial. There are a 162 games in a season; no contest feels like life or death. At worst, a day at the ballpark is an overlong picnic—you return home a little burnt from the sun, your stomach heavier and your pocket lighter from overpriced junk food, but really no worse off from the experience.
Well-played baseball is a simple aesthetic pleasure: a circus of long arcing throws, and of swift line drives. It is a game of detail, where the little things—hitting the cutoff man, working the count, bunting the runner over—add up. Like a Japanese tea ceremony, it is a meticulous ritual: “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch, and an arcane lexicon which would seem silly were it not so deeply embedded in the American mind.
Baseball is a beautiful game. Which makes it such a shame that it is dying.
Let’s dispel all illusions—baseball is aging as fast as the Republican Party. The median age for a viewer of a nationally broadcast baseball game is 54, higher than for football, hockey, and basketball; only 6 percent of people who watched the 2013 World Series were under 18. The result will be a whole generation that grew up not watching baseball.
Much of this is a self-inflicted wound. More and more teams are walling themselves behind regional cable networks, which promise lucrative subscription revenues but limit access to all but the most diehard fans.
But I think the cause of this decline is more fundamental. The root of the problem is that baseball remains a nineteenth-century game stuck in the twenty-first century.
Baseball’s Golden Age coincided with a period of rapid urbanization in America. The ballpark was a small slice of the country’s recent rural past, transplanted into the heart of the bustling new cities. The leisurely pace, the picnic-like occasion of going to a ballgame, evoked a simpler time.
But for a younger generation, the game is far too slow. There are highlight reel plays and astonishing feats of athleticism, but these merely punctuate long stretches of routine—pitch, hit, pitch, hit, double play, infield fly. The fan sees every event as part of a larger story: Ortiz is hitless with runners on second and third; Ortiz has a grudge against this pitcher after being beaned last season. But for the non-fan, this tension is invisible. The game is merely boring.
Major League Baseball has made some recent concessions towards shortening games, like reducing dead time between breaks, and forcing batters to keep a foot in the box between pitches. But these changes are at most marginal; the sport has stubbornly stuck to tradition. And I would not have it any other way.
To abandon baseball’s peculiarities in an attempt to boost its popular appeal would be disastrous. Baseball speaks to old-time values of fair play and equality. Pitch clocks and time limits are antithetical to its spirit—there’s no running out the clock; you have to give the other team a chance to bat. The philosopher Jacques Barzun once said that to know baseball was to know the “heart and mind” of America. Barzun wrote this in the 1950s, baseball’s high watermark. Today, if TV ratings were your only guide, football’s ritualized violence would reflect America’s soul.
There is a sad beauty to a fading thing. But, for the moment, summer is here—the ballparks are still filling up, and the smell of peanuts and hot dogs beckons. It may be the 9th inning, but there’s still plenty of baseball left to play.