Give up? It was the San Francisco Giants. Okay, who’d they beat? Answer: the Kansas City Royals. (I had to look up both answers on the Internet.) But I’m not alone. I’d wager that less than ten percent of the people you know could have answered those questions. “But,” you ask, “isn’t baseball supposed to be our National Pastime?” Heck, when I was a kid, everybody would have who had won the World Series. They probably could have told you the scores of each game, too. So what’s changed?
Let’s start with a look at the length of the games themselves. In the 1950s, the average Major League baseball game took two hours and twenty five minutes to complete. Today it’s about three hours and ten minutes. That’s an increase of just over 31 percent. Back then, most games were played in the daytime. Today, they are contested primarily at night. Double headers were commonplace; today they are a rarity. But for me, the biggest change (aside from the outrageous cost to attend a game) has been the constant shuffling of players from team to team. Today, you literally “can’t tell the players without a scorecard.” Teams shed players as often as a snake sheds its skin. Imagine a kid today attempting to acquire a meaningful collection of baseball cards. It would be obsolete in a year or two. (Do they even have baseball cards anymore?)
Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, I was, first and foremost, a baseball fan—and a Dodgers fan at that. “Da Bums” played at Ebbetts Field, a “bandbox” of a stadium that never held more than 35,000 spectators. We almost never went to a single game, but saved our money for those double headers I mentioned earlier. There was a more relaxed atmosphere at the ballpark, with quiet interludes between innings and during those rare pitching changes. That’s when you could discuss the ongoing game with your dad or friend. Now, there’s instant replay. Today, there is a frenetic atmosphere that pervades the games. We are bombarded relentlessly with sound effects, commercial announcements, and “boom box” style music that causes our hearts to palpate. Even the scoreboards are a source of entertainment. Player pictures and statistics flash on the scoreboard screen, and TV-style commercials urge us to buy this or that product. Back in the day, the scoreboard was just what its name implied. We would consult it mostly to learn what the Giants, our crosstown rivals, were doing, or to see who the Yankees were demolishing at the time. If we wanted to learn about the players, we looked in the scorebook, in which we kept score—another lost art.
Not much has changed about the game itself, except that it has become more technical, primarily in the area of pitching. Whereas in the old days, you had left-handed starters and relievers, and right-handed starters and relievers, today that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are relievers who may be brought in to pitch to just one batter, before being lifted for another “specialist,” who might pitch to just one or two more. It’s not unusual for teams to use as many as five or six different pitchers in a single game. And while we wait for them to warm up (like they haven’t already been warming up for twenty minutes in the bullpen), we are treated to more noise, music, commercials, ad nausea.
One other noteworthy change (in my humble opinion) is the lessening of basic skills possessed by position players. With the increasing emphasis on power hitting, basic fielding and base-running skills have diminished over the years. Often I have observed outfielders jumping in the air to catch fly balls that crash off the wall at their waists, or base runners failing to capitalize on miscued base hits to the outfield. They either don’t know how to take an extra base, or are too lazy. Likewise, outfielders rarely make consistently good throws to home or cutoff men. Oh, and can anyone lay down a good drag bunt anymore? I doubt it.
So, there you have it: my take on the “National Pastime.” We’ll talk football another time.
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