Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Friday, May 31, 2013

Play Ball!

Contemporary culture offers many reasons for the discerning geezer to be concerned: politics is toxic, the national deficit is monstrous, and,of course, there’s global warming.  We geezers must resist the impulse to play Chicken Little and declare that the sky is at risk.  We’ve been around for awhile now, and it behooves us to project a certain calm stoicism.   Which is all fine until news comes along to confirm what we’ve been suspecting but denying all along:
Children are not playing baseball anymore. 

More precisely, they are playing the game in ever-decreasing numbers relative to other organized games.  Over the last ten years, participation in organized baseball by children is down 31%.  During that same time period, children participating in soccer have increased over 15%.  In community after community, official and unofficial “little league” programs are shrinking or folding.  Summer camps are converting their baseball/softball fields to soccer fields. 
The Professor has learned his lessons well

OK, you might say,,but is this a crisis?  The basic, careful and rational response to this question is…..yes, of course it is!!!  Baseball is losing popularity precisely for those same qualities which make it such a virtue to the process of growing up.  Baseball teaches a young person many lessons, but—like most valuable lessons—they are tough ones. And let’s face it— tough lessons are not exactly in vogue these days.  Now, it must be admitted that in our geezer youth we were often guilty of  trying to avoid hard lessons in life, but in those distant days, our parents were usually somewhere about to insist that we learn such lessons. Our parents were tough, and they did us a great service by passing that toughness on to us.

But the impulse of many parents today is to exempt their children from the tough lessons of life, for fear that a little self-esteem might be eroded.   (Just the New Testament for us, please; don’t bother with that pesky Old Testament with all of its demands and judgements. ) 

Among the many things we learned through playing baseball, here are a few of the most useful:

THINGS TAKE AS LONG AS THEY TAKE.   One of the qualities of baseball that children and parents alike  now seem to struggle with  is that it takes time—sometimes a lot of time.  (Sometimes it takes very little time, of course; it all depends.)  But generally you need to plan to invest a good amount of time, and then hope for the best.   If people took the same approach with their driving plans, road rage would be reduced  by at least 50% .  Harried drivers expect traffic to behave in predictable ways, but of course it doesn’t.  It’s unpredictable—just like baseball.  The right attitude toward this unpredictability can be the difference between life and death on the road.

Or take the notorious DMV. We all deal with bureaucracy, and it drives us crazy.  But we know going in that it might take a ridiculous amount of time to renew our driver’s license….but we’re just not sure.  Geezers who have grown up with baseball find it much easier to accommodate both the predictable two hour wait in line and the once-in-a-blue-moon occasion in which the person “helping” us actually helps us.  Baseball players are at peace with the fact that many things in life take as long as they take.

...though in his very young years, he threw like a girl. 
WAITING IS A SKILL WE SHOULD GET GOOD AT.  One of the most amusing events  to witness during a little league baseball is when the ball (finally) is hit by the batter, and the ball rolls out into the field and right past the little-leaguer second baseman who is dreamily oblivious to the ball scooting past him about ten inches to his or her right.  They are gazing away thinking about who knows what (or who knows whom?)  The demands that baseball places on young attention spans just got to be too much for them.  For this young geezer-in-training, baseball offers a way to experience patience while at the same time developing observant attention.

On the other hand, another little league phenomenon to observe (and address, if a coach) is the kid who just wants to “get on with it.”  This kid just can’t wait to bat again; just can’t wait for the ball to come to him/her in the field.  These kids certainly pay attention, but they are impatient with their teammates , they are restless on the bench, will ask fifteen times each game if they can be the pitcher.  They want action, they want their action steady, and they want to be the center of that action.  This is the youngster who need to learn about waiting.  As much as it drives themselves and everyone else around them nuts, it’s good that they’re playing baseball.  It slowly, patiently teaches them how to wait.

To be comfortable with waiting, but not so comfortable that when your opportunity is presented you miss it—that is the timeless body/mind wisdom that playing baseball imparts.

 people who have played baseball while disliking it, again and again you hear about the trauma of getting up to the plate all alone, and having everyone look at you as you face a kid pitcher who for some reason is 4 inches taller than you and has the start of a ten-year-old version of a beard who throws a pitch impressive in both its speed and in its unpredictability of flight path. One stands there—risking life and limb—and inevitably is paid back for this gallant stand by hearing those immortal words (always shouted with what seemed like glee by the umpire) "Stee-rike three...You're Out!" 
....soon, he found his natural position in the field. 

It might seem like a bit of an overstatement to describe this ever-repeating moment as “humiliation,” but that is exactly what it is.  That’s why baseball is such a good teacher.  It is essentially a series of one-on-one encounters with the ball, each one offering an opportunity to make a mistake.  (Does this sound familiar…It sounds a lot like life as I’ve encountered it.)  The pitcher can’t get the ball over the plate; if he DOES get it over the plate, the batter can’t hit it.  If by some miracle the ball is thrown over the plate and the batter hits it, the fielder will likely miss  the ball (or not even realize the ball had been hit—see above.)  If the fielder DOES field the ball, they inevitably throw over the head of the first baseman.  If the throw DOES reach target, the first baseman will drop the ball (if, in fact, he even realizes that ball is coming toward him.) Is there any other 5-second event in life that offers more opportunity for failure and humiliation?

You get the idea.  Unlike a sport like soccer—where you can hide within a gaggle of twenty two  manic kids kicking a ball up and down an enormous field  (with few—parents or children included—knowing the rules), in baseball you are out there on your own, and everyone knows that three strikes and you're out is how it works.  You do your best and you take your lumps;  a tough but important lesson.

The Professor was always envious of
Dr. Golf's natural skill. 
SUCCESS IS  RARE:  APPRECIATE IT AND REMEMBER IT.  Some people have the luxury of serialized success in life.  Good for them.  Most of us, though, experience life as a series of well-meaning attempts punctuated by a rare instance of progress or success.  And those of us lucky enough to have played baseball know that those rare successes are moments that can be savoured for a lifetime.  I’m almost embarrassed to admit how vividly I remember the few times when I really got  hold of a baseball in an important game.  I can still almost feel the sweet tingle of a ball solidly hit by 34 ounces of ash.  Good vibrations indeed.  The vividness of these memories are—of course—inextricably related to the many, many failures at the plate which so out-numbered (but were a necessary prelude to) the rare visitation of victory. 

YOGI WAS RIGHT—IT REALLY ISN’T OVER UNTIL IT’S OVER.  It’s such a cliché, but really—there just isn’t that much of a point in giving up in life before the game is up.  But, alas for the poor souls who have only played basketball or football,  that is exactly what is taught by those games (wonderful as they might be in other respects.)  There comes a time in every game played under the strict autocracy of the clock when there simply isn’t any chance…the only thing to be gained from further intense effort is an injury. 

Not baseball.  There is always a chance.  This assertion is often greeted with a condescending smile by those who don’t know the game well.  Their smile says: “oh, sure TECHNICALLY there can be a comeback, but you know it isn’t going to happen.”  To them, I tell the tale of The Curious Incident of Dave Winfield in Omaha.  In the final game of the College World Series in 1973, future hall of famer (and all-around great guy—he learned the lessons of baseball very well) David Winfield brought a one-hit, fifteen strikeout game into the ninth inning, pitching for the University of Minnesota against the Trojans of Southern Cal.  He had a 7-0 lead.  7 runs!  A one-hitter going!  Suffice to say, it wasn’t over, and the Golden Gophers did not become NCAA champions.  We thought it was over.  It wasn’t over. 

Until it was over.

And finally, of course:

IT’S ONLY A GAME.  It’s a bizarre game, with hard-to-fathom rules—a game that is arbitrary, harsh

and many times unfair.  We have to cooperate with teammates, some of whom we may not even like.  It can drive you crazy.  But in the end, baseball ‘s ability to reflect life is best seen in the example of two children—a boy and a girl—from far upstate New York whom I sat behind during a twi-night double
The four Geezers, and some kid
we eventually shunned. 
header when the Twins played the Yankees at Yankee Stadium.  The first game started at five o-‘clock…the second a little before nine.  In about the eighth inning of the close second game, one kid turns to the other and says: “wouldn’t it be great if it went extra innings?” Even at near-midnight with a long drive ahead, even with jokers like Bud Selig in charge of the professional game, even with the indignity of being born in New York and having to root for the Yankees; despite all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that baseball and life bring our way, we still don’t want the game to end.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Pastime? Who Needs a Pastime?

—this article comes to you courtesy of our esteemed Professor—

It’s spring, and spring is a time when a geezer’s thoughts turn to….baseball.  Even when living over in England, it is very difficult to look out upon the spectre of a beautiful, crisp May afternoon and not think “what a great day to be at the ballpark.”  Or even better, “what a great day to be out on the field.” 

But we few are a dying breed, I’m afraid.  With each spring comes a renewed—and tedious—discussion of whether baseball deserves it’s moniker of “National Pastime.”  The argument generally goes: football is much more popular than baseball, so shouldn’t it now be considered our National Pastime?  This argument becomes tedious year after year because it is based on a faulty premise; it equates the idea of “pastime” with popularity—if something is popular, it should be considered a pastime.  But being popular does not necessarily make a sport a pastime.  In football’s case, how can a sport that is played once a week (and even then, played under strict time restrictions imposed by the “clock”) be considered a pastime?

To examine this, we first need to get a handle on what a pastime is.  I contend (and etymologists agree) that a pastime is just that—a way to pass the time.  In terms of this definition, baseball was and is superb—unmatched among Americas’ major sports.  I learned this as a youngster  in two vivid ways.  First, you can play baseball it all day long…and I mean all day. Literally, you can pass lots and lots of time.  Growing up in a small city just down the street from a disused golf course, our typical summer recreation schedule was: baseball from about 9:30 until lunch at noon; baseball from about one until supper at five or six; baseball from 6:30 until sunset.   Five six, or seven days a week.  After describing this to my children their question is: “wasn’t it boring?”  To which I reply: compared to what?  Our families didn’t have the means to take “vacations”; we weren’t allowed to watch TV through the day; and we didn’t have money to go hang out at the mall (in fact, come to think of it, there was no such thing as a “Mall.”) 

Thank goodness there was baseball.  And what with Archie chasing around brother Ritchie with a baseball bat, constant argument about whether you were “out” or not, and a steady stream of taunting and bragging, the day fairly flew by.  And I defy anyone to play 70 hours a week of football, or soccer…or even half-court basketball.  You just can’t do it—the physical demands of
Young Dr. Golf, about to strike out from another fastball
delivered by the Professor. Looking on: Mercurious,
the Mathematician, and the kid nobody likes. 
the game (even for children, who back then would be horrified to hear themselves described by parents as “exhausted”) would stop you short.  Only baseball, with its batting/fielding/changing innings creates a kind of summer-friendly sluggish rhythm that is the sporting equivalent of Mark Twain’s slow, sprawling Mississippi river. Excellent analogy. If Twain lived today, he’d have season tickets. Either one is a perfect way to pass the time of summer; growing up along the upper Mississippi, we had both.  Heavenly.

At least once every two weeks through the summer, I had to skip the pick-up game of evening baseball, because I was a paperboy and needed to “collect” payment for the newspaper. The best time to do so was in the evening, when most of my customers were home.  And this is where I observed the second manifestation of baseball as a pastime.  I approached each customer’s house anxiously, hoping to find someone home (and with money handy to pay!)  In three out of four houses, my hopes were confirmed before I even arrived at the front door, for I could hear the sounds of Herb Carneal, Merle Harmon and Halsey Hall (Minnesota radio and television personalities) coming out of the
"Dammit," muttered Mr. Twain. "Got the porch.
Got the rocker. Got the cigar. Why the heck won't
somebody invent big-league baseball
and the portable radio?"
screened porch on the front of each house.  Our beloved Twins were on the radio, and my customer (usually, but not always, the man of the house) was settled in the coolest place in the house, passing the evening by listening as Harmon Killebrew either knocked one out of the park or struck out (these seemed to be the only choices with Harmon.)  Most of the people in our neighbourhood were working people, of limited means.  They didn’t really need “action,” they just needed a calm, restful way to spend the evening after a day of hard physical work Some played cards, a minority watched TV; most of them sat on the porch and listened to the Twins.

We don’t live in that world anymore.  If anything, there is too much diversion, and if you ask the typical person how they’re doing,nthe response is “busy,”  not “fine” as you once used to hear.  People don’t pass the time—they use every minute of it trying to hold it together.  And if they do have time to pass… well, first came multi-channel television, and now we have the most immensely effective time-waster (passer?) known to mankind—the Internet.  Do we need a quaint, traditional way to pass time?  Alas, it seems not.  When given the choice, people as a whole seem to prefer a “hot” medium that compels one’s conscious attention rather than more “cool” mediums that gently open up space through which the mind can wander, discovering it’s own path. 

The extent to which culture has moved away from baseball was brought home to me when I coached my children’s  little league baseball teams.  Harried parents would drop their children at the field with a quick, anxious question: when will little Jason be finished?   On practice days
"Seriously, Johnny," said the Professor to
his young protege. "All the big leaguers do it.
Shut up and swallow your steroids."
there was no problem answering this question, as we tried to keep on a firm schedule.  But as the season progressed and we had more and more game days, I’d have to say (with my best cheerful smile): “well, it’s baseball, so you can’t say for sure, but…” Though I gave my best estimate, you could tell by the exasperated reactions that this wasn’t enough for most parents; baseball—its rhythm, its rules, its very nature—just didn’t (and doesn’t ) fit with the world in which most Americans now live.  Parents don’t need to pass time, they need to manage time.

So, baseball may no longer be our national pastime—not because it is less popular than some other sport, but rather because we simply don’t recognize our need for pastimes anymore.  Does that mean baseball is destined for the competitive scrap heap?  By no means.  But the nature of those who watch, play and follow baseball is changing.  And so are the economics of baseball. 

Baseball is no longer woven into the fabric of summer (or the fabric of a community) the way it once was.  People will go to a few games a year, as more or less a special occasion.  Baseball is played by children who want to become baseball players, not by children of all kinds.  In summer camp after summer camp, baseball and softball fields are being converted into soccer fields (?)—a melancholy  sight if ever there was one.   Baseball is on its way to becoming somewhat of a novelty, a thing appreciated by afficianados, the sporting equivalent of wearing a bow tie. 

Perhaps that is all fine.  But there is something in me each spring that longs for baseball.  Perhaps the longing is not so much for baseball itself, but rather a longing for a vanished world in which an ability to pass the time was necessary and cherished.

 COMING SOON: Why Children Should Play Baseball