May 27, 2008, 05:51AM

The National Pastime is Stronger Than Ever

Let the baseball whiners and chronic complainers switch to cricket if they’re so perturbed.

Fans.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Photo by Jim Epler

Memorial Day weekend is the one of the laziest times of the year, a mini-reprise of the black hole of time between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and if you’re a baseball fan it’s pretty perfect. More so this time around, since my in-laws Rudy and Daisy are visiting the family from Los Angeles, on a trip that’s sandwiching our homestead in Baltimore in between jam-packed itineraries in Washington and Manhattan. Rudy’s got a number of years on me—at M.I.T. in the late 50s he saw Ted Williams play at Fenway, which leaves one his grandsons, a Bosox booster like his dad, speechless—and it’s one of my great pleasures to watch games on the tube with him or, better yet, take in a contest at Camden Yards.

Rudy’s a lifelong White Sox fan—he got his long-awaited reward in ’05, even if Nellie Fox wasn’t on the team—but more than that, he’s an old-school baseball guy. The kind that still watches with pencil in hand, scoring a game with the (now) arcane symbols that my kids find nonsensical, gripes about bad rock music at stadiums and fireworks displays after home runs, an overabundance of “curtain calls,” and, it goes without saying, the slow pace of what is still, no arguments please, the national pastime. But he still loves the game. As someone who appreciates the time that Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz, among other Sox, take at the plate, wearing out pitchers, I’m not really in a position to complain about three-and-a-half hour games (unless they’re on the West Coast), although I’ll admit that excessive pick-off attempts tend to drive me nuts. At some point, the pitcher just has to throw the damn ball to his catcher.

Anyway, as fans from three generations watched several games over the weekend, including seeing the Orioles wallop the Yanks from great upper-deck seats on Monday, the chatter was all baseball, with a particular emphasis on dumbo Commissioner Bud Selig’s newly enforced edict that umpires speed the game up. I think that umps might be better advised to work on a consistent strike zone and calling shortstops for the “phantom tags” of second base during double plays, but maybe they don’t get paid enough. It’s a point that’s been made repeatedly recently, so I’ll be brief on this one: the surfeit of television advertisements are more to blame for the sometimes lethargic pace than, say, Tony LaRussa (can someone get that dolt some new shades?) changing pitchers for every batter in the seventh and eighth innings.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Ray Ratto captured an exquisite rant from Tigers manager Jim Leyland about Selig’s current hobbyhorse (which probably won’t last) over the weekend. Leyland: “Obviously (television) pays the bills, so you can’t fight city hall… I understand that… But if you’re really talking about it, it’s a lot of shit [Ratto used the word “detritus”]. I don’t think the fans really give a shit. If the Tigers win today, they don’t give a shit how long they stay here. If the Tigers lose, they’re going to leave early or be ticked off when they leave… My job is to try and win the game. I’m not on a time scale. We don’t have a clock, like football and basketball… That’s as simple as it is.”

We were also gabbing about one of my pet peeves about the sport today: the frequent visits to the DL (say hey, J.D. Drew) for minor aches and pains. I’m not a Derek Jeter fan at all—the awe he inspires not only from third-string ESPN broadcast teams as well as almost every other commentator is nauseating—but I do believe he’d conceal a busted finger just so he could suit up and play the game for which he’s getting paid about 20 million bucks every year. That led to a conversation about the scarcity of complete games by pitchers today, a real bugaboo among older fans and former players. Me too, although as Rudy and I eventually arrived at a mixed verdict. Obviously, today MLB teams have invested a lot of money in young talent and don’t want to get burned by shoulder injuries and recurring back spasms. So that makes business sense, even if it’s infuriating that pitch counts are so closely watched, even when a guy’s throwing a three-hitter and has a chance for a shutout.

It does seem inconceivable, by today’s standards, that great pitchers like Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer would end the year with a double-digit number of complete games, and that wasn’t deemed extraordinary. Seaver, in ’71, finished 21 games; Jack Morris was there from beginning to end 20 times in ’83; and Palmer went the distance a (now) astonishing 25 times in ’75. We needn’t even go back to guys like Warren Spahn. By comparison, the Blue Jays’ Roy Halladay, had nine completions in 2003, which gave him the reputation as a latter-day Ironman. In fact, as David Pinto wrote on his invaluable website baseballmusings.com on May 24, the Jays had back-to-back complete games last week, and Halladay’s five are more than the total of any other American League team.

On the other hand, when my son Booker and I riffle through a baseball card collection that dates back to the early 50s and, with a gap in the 70s, goes up to this year, it’s amazing to see how many players are lost to memory. “Who’s Greg Booker?” my son will ask, pointing to a card from ’86, and I’ll have no idea. Which got me thinking about how until recently so many players, after being groomed in high school, maybe college, and the minors, probably blew out their arms a few years into big-league careers and were tossed aside by owners and general managers. You gamble on a $5000 bonus signing and it’s no big deal: today, with upper echelon draft picks drawing an immediate million dollar check, no wonder there aren’t more complete games.

We also touched on the topic of fans booing—I have no problem with that, although I rarely indulge—while watching a great game between the Pale Hose and Angels on Sunday night. That morning, The New York Times’ Francis X. Clines had a very grumpy piece in the editorial columns complaining about what he perceived as a contemporary trend of fans expressing vocal displeasure at players on the team they’re ostensibly rooting for. I happen to think this is a load of baloney—catcalls, jeers, and drunken obscenities have been directed at the men on the field since I was a kid—but since this is the moralistic Times we’re considering, Clines’ crying in his beer is of a piece with the nonsense that’s usually printed in the paper’s editorial pages. He writes: “Such disloyalty [in this case, towards the Mets] is hard to witness, particularly as youngsters learn from Mom and Dad to condemn one of their own… Some trace this to a heightened demand for victory fed by the high price of ballgames, from tickets to programs [who even buys those anymore?] to popcorn. Others say Warhol solipsism has finally reached the bleachers, where bellowers compete to be seen and heard.”

Obnoxious booing isn’t attractive, especially when it comes from the section you’re sitting in, but it’s got nothing to with economics. I remember (and Clines probably does too) sitting in cheap Yankee Stadium seats in the early 60s and hearing Mickey Mantle—Mickey Mantle!—getting heckled.

Which brings me back to the original point here: baseball is continually evolving—once again, today’s PED brouhaha is yesterday’s cocaine scandal—and interest hasn’t diminished. As we were watching the Red Sox losing for the third time in a row against the A’s on Sunday, I predicted the outcome in the second inning, an instinctive reaction from a longtime Boston fan. Booker, a teenager, sort of set me straight: “Dad, it’s not 1986 anymore, so knock it off with the pessimism. The Red Sox have won two World Series in the past four years and since I wasn’t around to see Bucky Dent’s homer, I don’t have time for the doom and gloom.” It’s a valid point but old habits are hard to shake. And that makes for a lot of fun debates between baseball fans, whether you’re 70, 52 or 13.

  • You're telling me that Memorial Day is a really lazy holiday. Really interesting piece about baseball fans, although as a Yanks fan, I'm not too crazy about the '08 season.

    Responses to this comment
  • Good insight about protecting the investment in a pitcher, but I would dearly like to see pitch counts from the 70s. I think pitchers are throwing more pitches because they nibble, trying to avoid the Big Fly from today's giant batters.

    Responses to this comment
  • Baseball's definitely got one of the highest rates of attrition of any major sport, although that's possibly explained by the NFL's and NBA's reliance on "amateur" college teams for developing their players. But think about how few baseball players start off as professionals in the low minors and actually work their way through a 5 tiered system to the pros? It's a special kind of athlete that makes it that far.

    Responses to this comment
  • Maybe this is my problem as a younger baseball fan, but hearing drunk fans heckle opposing players and even my own players has always been one of my favorite parts about going to a ballgame. I'll never forget going to a Red Sox game as a kid when Derek Lowe was getting shelled, and having the guy behind me scream "Hey Lowe, your Mom called, she said you suck". It's the kind of thing you can't get at home.

    Responses to this comment
  • Well, Derek Lowe does suck, at least for the Dodgers. But while I can into some exuberance on the part of fans, it's a drag when a drunk barfs in the aisle or spills beer on you.

    Responses to this comment
  • I agree with (ahem) angelslut69. Heckling is more a part of baseball than any other sport because baseball is so boring. (You can substitute long and slow for boring if that's offensive.) Chatter is crucial for keeping things interesting.

    Responses to this comment
  • It is slow, especially between innings, but it's fun to talk to people you don't know sitting in your section and having temporary friendships. I don't think it needs to get raucous, like when the fan behind you shouts out obscenities inning after inning. That gets tiresome.

    Responses to this comment
  • Oh man you wanna talk heckling!?!?! GO to a minor league game man. Last Friday I went to a CLippers game and saw Bacsik pitch against the buffalo bison (PS if you want a laugh, go to Bufallo's baseball stadium, built for the MLB team that never came.) Anyway, yes part of baseball is knowing that when you shout the guys hear you. Although it was a close game and I am currently living in Columbus, I did my best to make Bascik cry over giving up Bond's 756th Homer. God, I love baseball......PS it was dollar beer night, I am sure that had nothing to do with it.

    Responses to this comment
  • I can't imagine living in Buffalo--too cold all the time, too many people out of work, too isolated--and I can't remember MLB even considering that city for a team. The Marlins should move to Brooklyn; they'd draw 3 million a year and wouldn't cut into the Mets or Yankees' attendance.

    Responses to this comment
  • booing will always be a staple of baseball, it's a fundamental.

    Responses to this comment
  • I like a little heckling, but when the guy is right behind screaming at the right fielder the entire game, it does get a little annoying.

    Responses to this comment
  • Hey, all this talk about heckling and not one word about the Yanks' savior this season, Mr. Joba Chamberlain?

    Responses to this comment
  • Russ Smith's piece suggests fans may get different types of stimulation from being at games.I'm with his in-law, Rudy, and really get into the thinking part of baseball - contually contemplating the game's possibilities which literally change with every pitch, whether from the perspective of the manager, pitcher, batter, fielder, etc. Your head should hurt a little if you're really into it. All the crowd noise, music, and promotional activiy is just background static which is only minorly distracting.

    Responses to this comment
  • Carreraman is more forgiving than me. When seeing a game at Yankee Stadium, I also like to think about the strategy of the game, wondering what a manager might do, but a bunch of drunks wearing Jeter jerseys--and really, how embarrassing is it that men over 25 wear baseball gear?--swearing and heckling is more than "minorly distracting."

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment