The Great American Pastime has passed away. I am here to announce it. You won’t find it on the obituary pages, but it is true all the same.
Yes, I know they still play baseball in Chicago, New York, St. Louis, and San Francisco. But, if the pastime lives anywhere, it is away from the great stadiums and the big cities. Indeed, perhaps only in more modest venues might an old-time baseball experience now exist.
But, you say, what am I talking about? The rules haven’t changed. It still takes three strikes for an out and three outs to end each team’s turn at bat. The bases are still 90 feet apart.
You are right, but I’m not talking about the game as it is played on the field. Rather, I mean the game as it is experienced by a fan in the stands.
In the baseball of my youth, the Great American “Pastime” was a leisurely way to “pass the time” on a summer afternoon. The lyrical pulse of the match drew your eyes to the field, except when the beer-man approached or your neighbor asked you a question. A day at the ball park was usually easeful. Moments of tension fueled by the drama of the contest were framed by many others that allowed you to relax; kind of like the rhythm of the tide, rushing in and then receding, rising and falling.
For much of the game, when nothing remarkable was happening on the field, one heard the low-frequency hum of the fans talking. As the play became animated — only then did the cheers and boos crowd out conversation. Other than that, the auditor heard barking vendors, with an occasional public address announcement about who was at bat; and perhaps the sound of the stadium organ from time to time. It was all relatively peaceful except when something exciting happened on the baseball diamond.
The fan is no longer safe. He is targeted for an electronic bombardment from the moment he enters the stadium, just as surely as Dresden was targeted for real (and equally unnecessary) bombs during World War II. The acoustic experience is one of non-stop, high volume noise. If it is not the loudspeaker’s musical blast that has replaced a simple stadium organ, it is the repeated announcements:
Jim Jones Jeep Dealership’s sales team is here along with Jim in Section 5. Let’s give them a hand. Now turn your attention to the scoreboard for a quiz on Cubs history. But before you do, check under your seat to see if you have won a Cadillac from Cathy’s Cadillac of Crown Point, Indiana.
Even so, the announcements are clearly insufficient for the fan who requires hyper-stimulation. He needs to keep his eye out for the dance moves of the paid customers that are being broadcast on the scoreboard screen, just in case he wants to exhibit a few of his own. He needs to keep a sharp eye for T-shirts of his favorite team being shot into the seats by stadium employees on the field between innings.
Most importantly, when the “kiss-cam” moment occurs, he must be sure to kiss whomever he is with, so that thousands of others attending the game can vicariously experience the thrill of his five seconds of relative fame as they watch that image on the Jumbotron. Then, when it is over, the “sausage race” begins, and several alleged adults dressed as a hot dog, a bratwurst, a Polish sausage, a chorizo, and an Italian sausage run around from foul-pole to foul-pole to the cheers of the Pavlov-trained fans who root them on. Surely, this is a comment on the extent to which baseball believes you can be easily entertained, and how desperate the “sausages” must be to make a living.
Before the Great American Pastime died, it was a game without a clock. You took your time and so did the game. Now watching a major league contest is fueled by the impatience of the audience for stimulation at every moment, useless information at every other moment, and blasting sonics without end. If you do try to bond with your little girl — the cutie you’ve brought to her first game — you just might find yourself hoarse before the end of the day. The most used phrase at your average big-league contest today has changed from “Hey, beer-man” to “What did you say?”
The only good thing about any of this is that you can probably use attendance at a Major League baseball game as a diagnostic tool to find out whether you are ADHD. If you love the multi-pronged assault on your senses, you should immediately call your doctor and get a prescription for Ritalin.
What has happened? I’ll tell you what I think. First, watch all the people in the grandstand whose heads are turning from side to side, from a blinking light to a dancing bear — from one call for their attention to another. But then look at those who tire even of this. And what are many of them doing? They are checking their iPhones, texting, tweeting, reading email, or surfing the web. The baseball moguls have decided that the game is not enough. Clearly, they believe that they must use every opportunity to gain advertising income from people like Jim Jones Jeep and Cathy’s Cadillac of Crown Point while, at the same time, drawing your eyeballs away from your cell phone.
If you were at a baseball game in my youth (aka the 1950s and ’60s) there was one thing you did in addition to watching the contest and talking to your neighbor: you kept a sharp eye on the pretty girls walking by. Nothing captures the grotesque deformation of the current experience of attending a ballgame better than the knowledge that healthy young men in their seats now spend more time looking at their hands (and the cell phone in them) than any anatomical feature of the highly attractive members of the opposite sex who are dressed to be seen.
If you are young enough, you probably think I’m foolish — old and foolish at that. And, if you are closer to my age, you might have hardly noticed the change in the game because it crept up on you and me gradually. But think back and you will not fail to agree with me. My buddies Ron and Jim and Rock and Tom and Jeff and Steve and Cliff will vouch for me.
Once upon a time there was nothing that I found more prospectively enjoyable than the idea of going to a ballgame, no matter how bad the home team was (which, as a Cubs fan, was normally quite bad, indeed). Now, unfortunately, my emotions are much more mixed. I’ve seen Major League Baseball played in 15 different arenas over a period of almost 60 years. The change has spread everywhere.
Something has been lost here, my friends. And I don’t think we are getting it back.
The top image is of a Typical Baseball Game played in 2005 in San Francisco. It was taken by Imageman and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The third photo was taken by Agne 27 and uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by User Kelly. It is the Beginning of a Sausage Race at Milwaukee’s Miller Park on April 30, 2007.