While fall is my favorite time of year and I love the start of football season, nothing is more welcome in the springtime than visions of baseball on green grass. And though many of the things I loved as a youngster have lost their allure, the sights, sounds, and smells of baseball still exert their powerful pull.
The love I have for the game is in direct opposition to both current trends and the efforts of the people who run the game. An ESPN survey last week ranked the top fifty professional athletes and none of them were baseball players. Among young fans, the game consistently ranks as a third choice among favorite sports and sometimes even lower.
The reasons for the decline are many for a sport whose nickname of “American Pastime” seems like a cruel joke at this point. The game is slow and (to the untrained eye) somewhat boring. The time between pitches is too long, batters still take forever to get into the box and trips to the mound by coaches and catchers happen with far more regularity than what modern analytics call a “quality start.”
Most postseason games are played at night, meaning that a generation of East Coast kids have grown up watching morning highlights on SportsCenter or You Tube rather than catching the game as it happens. The steroid era may have spurred interest in the game briefly, with comic book characters making a mockery of the most revered statistics, but the aftermath of that is a situation where a decade’s worth of players are suspect and their accomplishments tainted.
I’ll confess I watch differently than when I was a kid. I’m often multi-tasking when a game is on and the chances of me sitting down and watching all nine innings decrease as the weather gets warmer. But none of that does anything to detract from my love of the sport.
I love looking for the subtle movements of players in the field, that unspoken communication where an infielder lets an outfielder know what pitch is coming. I enjoy the cat and mouse game of a batter sitting on a pitch he can’t handle or even fouling off one that isn’t quite right. I love the second-guessing of the manager, complaining about the use of the bullpen and bench, and the pure joy of watching great young talent like the collection the Red Sox trot out every night.
Football is a better television game. The pure, freakish athleticism of basketball is incredible to behold. And playoff hockey carries an excitement that might be unmatched in pro sports. But baseball will always be my first sports love. I’m not concerned with the length or pace of games, the disappearance of workhorse starting pitchers or the huge rise in strikeouts by free swinging hitters. The game brings the promise of spring, provides the soundtrack of summer and ushers in the glory of fall.
I’ll never cease welcoming its arrival and mourning its end each year.