There has been one durably unifying complaint about baseball in its history: It’s boring. This is not as serious a criticism as, say, banning people with a certain skin color or heritage from the sport until after two World Wars, but it’s one that transcends time and demographics.
Lack of action has long been the Achilles’ bunion of baseball, even before sports like football and basketball emerged from their primordial muck with sprightly feet. Sure, those sports have their own pace-of-play issues — the gridiron is the longtime home of 30-second huddles interrupted by a few moments of fury — but baseball boasts the most obvious perpetual pregnant pause.
Traditionally, the fault line of baseball ennui has been bridged by fans who dismiss the complaints as a lack of sophistication among the complainers. (Translated: “If you’re too dumb to appreciate the greatness, I can’t help you.”) But lately, the uprising has come from within. The loudest cries against the state of baseball have come from some of its most diehard fans or reporters, legions of whom have testified to the lack of action, as Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated described the final game of the 2020 World Series.
Over the final 26 minutes of play, viewers saw only two balls put into play. Over the three hours, 28 minutes it took to play the 8 ½-inning game, they saw 32 balls in play, or one every 6 ½ minutes. They saw more pitchers (12) than hits (10). They saw 27 batters strike out, or 42% of all plate appearances. That is, if they saw anything at all.
I can’t argue the numbers, nor would I argue that the baseball we see today is baseball at its all-time best. If your lifelong devotion to the sport is in jeopardy, I don’t know if I can talk you off the ledge.
But hey, let me try.
An improbable, impossible Kirk Gibson walkoff or a leaping and diving Mookie Betts might be the pinnacle, but overall, the brilliance of baseball has always been in its process — in the battle, not the result. In the suspended animation of a single pitch or a sequence of pitches. How will the pitcher beat this batter? How will the batter beat this pitcher? That’s the glorious essence of the sport, that binds every level and every era.
Even during drier, duller games, the time passing from one batter to the next ain’t all bad. That time allows for conversation, allows for reading (yes, even in pre-cellphone olden times, I used to bring a book or newspaper to Dodger Stadium), allows for relaxation. Look, I know what it’s like to be mired in an endless slog of a ballgame — try covering junior college baseball in windy, 45-degree weather sometime. They can’t all be gems. But even if there is more time between balls in play, there’s virtue in that vice.
Put simply: When I sit down for a game, how many other things would I rather be doing?
And when the stakes rise, such as in the Fall Classic game that Verducci wrote about, am I supposed to feel like the added suspense is a problem? No way. When I’m invested in the outcome, I’m riveted in the process. The longer the inhale, the bigger the exhale … or the cheer … or the scream.
Of course, it’s not only the time between at-bats that upsets people but also the fact that so many at-bats end with a strikeout or walk. That’s another point taken, but a walk increases the possibility of more offense, and I also think people tend to overrate the excitement of a first-pitch grounder to second base or a fly out to left compared with a dramatic 3-2 strikeout.
Even in its brightest days, baseball has never been perfect. Baseball has always been flawed. Baseball, ultimately, is human. A grand experiment, worthy of judicious tinkering. And yet, somehow, it always comes together, in its characters and its character.
We have much to fear about baseball in 2021, including whether owner-labor strife will allow for baseball in 2022. But when I pull up a chair at this Opening Day, I won’t be concerned with the length of my stay. Set me up, barkeep. Line up that first pitch, and then the next one, and the one after that. Keep ’em coming.