Randall Beach: Talkin’ baseball on Opening Day
Yes, and hallelujah: I’m writing this on Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season, a day we’ve hungered for through those nasty winter months of nor’easters, 5 p.m. darkness and other cruelties.
It’s raining around here but somewhere the sun is shining and the games are on. My Yankees are playing in Toronto, in a domed stadium, so a rain-out appears unlikely.
Yankee fans have a lot to be excited about this year, especially the acquisition of slugger Giancarlo Stanton (homered in his first at bat!) and a new manager, Aaron Boone. He seems like a breath of cheery fresh air after those years of dour Joe Girardi.
Simon Rosenthal of New Haven, who periodically calls me to sound off on such pivotal matters, said: “I think Boone’s going to be a heck of a manager. Girardi was so incompetent! Put this in your column: the Yankees are going all the way this year! Look at who we’ve got: (Aaron) Judge! Stanton! Look at the Red Sox, they’ve got nothing! How can they possibly beat us? The Red Sox are finished!”
But I must tell you, sports fans, that I’m worried about baseball and its future.
I’ve been thinking about this while reading a new book published by Yale University Press, Susan Jacoby’s “Why Baseball Matters.”
Jacoby is a New Yorker but long ago chose to be a Mets fan. I will try to forgive her. She explains in her book that the Yankees were “the fiercest enemies of my Chicago White Sox” throughout the 1950s when she was growing up in that region. OK, so it’s primal.
Jacoby became a passionate baseball fan because her grandfather owned a bar and bowling alley in Harvey, Ill., just south of Chicago. “Until I was 10 years old, I spent the better part of my summer Saturday afternoons knocking back Shirley Temples while Gramps’ customers explained the inside game to the little girl sitting on a bar stool.” She notes her grandpa had shrewdly invested in the first color TV set in that neighborhood.
What’s striking about that last paragraph? She was able to watch baseball games in the afternoon! Today, that’s often impossible for kids or adults, especially in October when the games matter the most.
“Day games should be the rule, not the exception, on weekends — during the regular season and the postseason,” Jacoby writes. She admits this will never happen again because of pressure from greedy advertisers “but it certainly would expand the school-age audience for baseball.” (It’s a gift that the Yankees’ first game of the season was scheduled for the afternoon.)
Yes, and as Jacoby notes, baseball desperately needs to attract younger fans: “The greatest problem baseball confronts in the 21st century is that it derives much of its enduring appeal from a style of play and adherence to tradition very much at odds with our current culture...The demographic makeup of baseball’s typical television audience delineates the challenge: it has the oldest, whitest fan base of any major sport.”
She attributes the aging of baseball’s audience primarily to “the profound dissonance between a culture saturated with devices that offer instant gratification and a sport that requires intense, sustained concentration from its fans.”
If you’ve been to see a game at a ballpark in recent years, you’ve probably noticed what Jacoby points out and what I too have observed: many fans under age 50 and nearly all fans under 30 are “scrolling continually through their iPhone screens as play proceeds in front of them.”
Those proceedings on the field are complex, intricate. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss it. Jacoby notes, “You’re not going to appreciate a shutout if you’re texting your friends or standing in line for pizza.” (And they don’t serve New Haven pizza at the ballparks, so why bother?)
The next time you watch a game on TV, check out the fans and where their eyes are. Many of them have their heads down because they’re on their devices. That’s why more fans are getting hurt by foul balls and thrown bats: they’re not watching the action at the plate! As a result, all teams have now installed netting to the far ends of the dugouts.
Here’s a novel thought: instead of scrolling and texting, how about talking with the person sitting next to you? (Even if he or she is a stranger!) You can discuss everything that’s happening in front of you on the field.
Jacoby focuses on this too: “Conversation, for every serious fan, is a part of the game itself.” She adds that talking “is what fills the ‘silences’ between pitches for those watching the game among friends.”
Sure, we all know the games are longer than they used to be. Jacoby tells us the average MLB game in 2016 was three hours, four minutes. But she asserts a baseball fan will not reject the game because it takes 10-15 minutes longer to play than it did in 1994. Nor does she think that proposed rule changes, such as a pitch clock, will lure younger fans. She predicts it would likely be as big a failure as when Coca-Cola experimented with New Coke.
Take them out to the ball game! That’s what Jacoby believes is our “patriotic duty” as American adults: take a kid to the ballpark. She says this is how we can help assure that “baseball continues to matter.”
When my daughters were young, you bet I got them out to Yankee Stadium. And we talked about the game happening in front of us. The result: my grown daughters, living in Los Angeles, regularly go out to see the Dodgers play.
Why does baseball matter? Jacoby points to its great history and timelessness, how it is “a thinking person’s game.”
“Baseball matters because it provides genuine nourishment rather than junk food,” she writes.
In an interview provided by Yale University Press, Jacoby said, “Baseball matters precisely because it stands out as an alternative to our digitally obsessed culture of distraction. In this book, I celebrate the joys of the long game in an impatient world.”