After last week’s novel two-game series in Japan that featured the retirement of Seattle Mariners ironman Ichiro Suzuki, Major League Baseball opens Thursday with a 15-game slate, an occasion marking the start of its sesquicentennial season.
In most cities, stadiums, festooned with bunting and filled with brass bands and military honor guards, will be near or at capacity. All but one of the games will be played in the daylight, a nod to either tradition or the reality of chilly March evenings – or maybe a little bit of both.
There was a time when baseball played an oversized role in this country, when “America’s Pastime,” as it’s known, garnered the interest, attention and affection of a vast swath of the nation’s citizens. Technology helped to spread and solidify its popularity in the public’s conscience. The telegraph enabled scores and highlights to be transmitted to distant places, and the advent of radio and the explosion of the newspaper only fed the frenzy of fans.
It’s easy to qualify days long ago as “simpler times” – because in comparison to modern-day stresses, many of the strains of a century ago may seem quaint. But every era contains its challenges and some of yesterday’s were far worse than today’s. Case in point: the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 claimed between 20 million and 50 million lives worldwide, including 675,000 people here in the United States.
Yet the sport of baseball has remained a constant through it all, a predictable and peaceful presence in a country that has endured its share of volatility. For the last 150 years, the game has survived and even thrived despite world wars, economic roller coasters, national emergencies and political scandals of every size and party.
In fact, in a day and age of hyper-political polarization, baseball strikes me as one of the last bastions of bipartisanship.
I noticed this the other day while scrolling thru my social media feed. Having grown up in New York, many of my friends, some of whom have moved far from Long Island, continue to follow and support the Yankees or Mets, as do I. Many of my friends are super liberal, too, yet we continue to connect and bond over our mutual appreciation for our hometown teams.
Politics plays no role in our love of the game, a very refreshing fact.
There have been exceptions, but Major League Baseball has seemed to largely avoid the political minefields that have ensnared other sport empires like the NFL, NBA or even the ESPN television network.
Like anything else, there are likely a constellation of factors contributing to baseball’s relative purity, from its management style to its player’s temperaments.
But I think it also has something to do with the nature of the game itself.
Hugh Fullerton, a sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune in the early part of the 20th century, once observed that baseball was “the most serious pleasure ever invented” – a seemingly contradictory comment, except to any of us who love and cherish the great game.
In recent years, officials have been looking for ways to speed up the sport, a response to the average time of a game increasing from under two hours a century ago to over three hours the last few years.
I’m all for eliminating inefficiencies, though much of the extra time is likely attributable to “profit-center timeouts” as Rush Limbaugh calls commercial breaks.
Yet, I’m leery at the prospect of fundamentally changing the laid-back nature and pace of the game, an attribute that contributes to the charm and allure of the sport. What’s the big hurry?
Whenever somebody tells me they think baseball is boring, I just smile. By “boring” they mean “slow” – and a lot of today’s problems wouldn’t blow up into full scale catastrophes if people would just slow down and take a big deep breath.
Growing up in the upper deck of Shea Stadium, I used to love watching the video highlights on the innovative (at the time) Diamond Vision out in left field. One of my favorites was an old black and white clip from the late Hollywood star, Humphrey Bogart.
“That’s baseball, and it’s my game,” he began in his trademark lisp. “Y’know, you take your worries to the game, and leave ‘em there. You yell like crazy for your guys. It’s good for your lungs, gives you a lift, and nobody calls the cops.”
I welcome the start of the 2019 baseball season and look forward to happily rooting for my team alongside my conservative and liberal friends. The first pitch every year always gives me a lift – and a renewed hope for the summer to come.