Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Eternity of Baseball

I told my Composition students that I'd post my essay draft here. It follows:

People complain that baseball is a slow game. At least too slow for television. So, a few years ago, professional baseball adopted “hurry up rules” to answer this criticism. Yet while the average game in 1960 lasted 2 hours 20 minutes, the average game today is 3 hours. Baseball, it appears, resists time limits.
            One might say baseball is beyond time. The game is not played against a clock, which makes basketball and football – along with their rectangular fields of play – more suitable for television. Those games feel faster with their start-stop, left-right action. But baseball is played in innings which theoretically can go on forever. Baseball is potentially eternal.
            I learned this while playing baseball as a boy in a sandy field next to a cemetery in northern Massachusetts. The field lay below a grassy hill which was fenced around the top and filled with headstones. An asphalt road, veined with cracks, ran up the field’s middle past low scrub and clumps of grass. At one end was a chain link fence and gate and at the other end, a sharp curve up into the cemetery itself. At the elbow of the curve we dropped home plate, a spare roof shingle from Eddie’s garage, and we hit toward the fence, the home-run line.
            In a way, our field resembled Fenway Park in Boston: the pines on the hill to the left resembled the infamous Green Monster. The low, lumpy shrubs made right field as unpredictable as Fenway’s nooks and crannies. And in our twelve-year-old minds, we were the Bosox pursuing the pennant that year in 1967, the 100-to-1 shot Cinderella team of Yaz, Conigliaro, Petrocelli, and Lonborg. We took turns being Yaz. Eddie did a good imitation of announcer Mel Parnell and called the play-by-play. He hung his transistor radio on his bike’s banana seat so we could hear the real game while we played.
            At Cemetery Field, since there were only three or four of us playing at any time, we used “ghost runners” (though I wouldn’t want to press the cemetery imagery too far). We ignored innings and games; we played from dawn to dark for what seemed a timeless forever (again, not to push the cemetery idea too much). We only stopped for lightning storms and funerals, Acts of God (OK, so I am pushing the cemetery idea). If my Mom heard us stomping in early, kicking off our sneakers and snapping open Cokes, she asked “Another parade, boys?” That’s what the funerals looked like. A line of cars driving with their brights behind a hearse processed up the pavement while we stood aside, caps off. The cars curved up and right into the cemetery, like Eddie’s bad pitches. And when the last car crossed over home plate, it was easy to see that baseball, and life, and death had one thing in common: going home.

* * *

            Baseball is played in a “park” or a “field,” never a “stadium,” (sorry, Yankee Stadium) for historical reasons.
            When the game developed during the late 19th Century, before lights and broadcast contracts, it was played under the sun in a green oasis in the middle of America’s smoky cities. For factory workers, the “park” provided an escape from the tyranny of the punch-clock. For just a little while, men who had left the pastures and fields of rural America in search of a future returned to their unhurried past and to a place of fresh-cut grass, open sky, and time measured by shadows and stars.
            Today, however, urgency and noise have overwhelmed the once-peaceful parks. Monstrous “Jumbotrons” flash highlights and tell fans when to cheer. Raucous music blares between innings. Cell phones twitter like starlings beneath the bleachers, showing instant replays in streaming video.
            Is this necessary? How did we come to this?
            Baseball’s television ratings steadily declined over the 1990’s, losing young viewers to faster back-and-forth games played against an urgent clock. Fox broadcasters tried bringing video-game graphics and sound effects to the rescue, but viewers kept leaking away until 2003 when it seemed possible the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox might meet in the World Series, which surely would have signaled the apocalypse.
            It didn’t happen.
            But miracles still do. In the next season, the Sox routed the mighty Yanks against impossible odds, and then swept the Cardinals to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years.
            For Boston fans, the time mattered – even though the game itself is an escape from time.
            Plato said “Time is the image of eternity.” He was wrong. Baseball is. Strangely, with instant replay, we can now travel in time, back-and-forth, as many times as we want. We can slow time, stop it, reverse it. As in eternity, time in baseball is non-linear and doesn’t truly exist.

Just don’t be late for the first pitch.