Do Jeter and Ketchup Make Baseball America’s Favorite Sport?

October 29, 2014

Hot dog, tonight is game 7 of the World Series! By Thursday morning we’ll know if the San Francisco Giants or Kansas City Royals occupy the champion’s seat being vacated by the Boston Red Sox. After Derek Jeter’s last Yankee Stadium game, I had a thought about what makes baseball so great. Here’s a hint: It isn’t the condiment you put on your hot dog at the ballpark, but it does relate to the old Anticipation commercial. A lot has been written and discussed about the length of baseball games, and how its format and pace (not to mention commercial delays and ticket prices) do not fit into modern lifestyles. There is serious concern about next generations’ fandom. Introducing official review of video replays sent even more chills up the spines of baseball analysts last spring. Comparisons were made with the gold star NFL, and football’s adaptability to, and leadership within, fans’ trending needs. In the spring, the zeitgeist was that the NFL had it all right, and the MLB was tone deaf. Could Jeter’s last Yankee Stadium at bat have drawn a starker new comparison in the wake of September’s sporting headlines?

Purists don’t want baseball to ever change as comparisons to prior eras give it a treasured, timeless element. While many still eschew the game due to length and pace, a case can be made that baseball lost its way in the dynamic, high-scoring steroids era, and has just returned to the right path and the right pace. Baseball was invented as a sport that ignores the time clock and plods along. As one of four major US sports, it stands by itself during the dog days of summer and a large part of the year. There are 160+ chances to catch a game, or catch up on game results, orders of magnitude more than any other sport. Over that time, we gain a lot of familiarity with the players, and their simple uniforms assure they are readily recognized on and off the field. Baseball was designed to be a very personal and communal experience that is savored slowly. Metaphorically, baseball is a subtle wine tasting whereas football is the over-indulgent keg party of sports. So what is today’s “America’s Sport”: baseball, football hockey, basketball, soccer or other? With a nod toward the most insightful comedian of our time, George Carlin, the answer may lie in our common humanity as much as it does in the sport itself.

Everyone who knows baseball, knows the name Derek Jeter. From day one, New York’s #2 has been a shiny star on and off the field, in the tradition of Dimaggio, Gherig, Cal Ripken Jr. and other greats. He doesn’t whine, he shows up and he’s always a threat. Just as importantly, and perhaps most rare of all, he knows when to leave the stage and not overstay his welcome. From all accounts, Derek Jeter is a class act, and that is coming from a lifelong Red Sox fan who is just as likely to say good riddance to him as to say goodbye. I think that once he removes the pinstripes, Jeter will always be welcomed in Boston. I state that opinion because Bostonians appreciate the Jeter lunch-pail hero, the same way it was appreciated in Bird, Neely, Bruschi, and others. When Jeter approached the plate as the last hitter in a tie game, needing a hit to advance runners and beat the Orioles, the script could not have been better written. The character, the personality, the place and time in a true pantheon of history are all backdrop to “the moment“ that seems to emerge more often and more differently in baseball than in any other sports. The Moment – how is it different in baseball?

“The Moment” in Sports

How are “moments” in other sports different from baseball? In football, it’s the final drive. As fans, we know the entire team has to perform, every player synchronized as choreographed. The clock, the situation, the coaching and a team full of players’ abilities versus their opponents determine if the offense advances and the nose of the football crosses into the end-zone. Games are often won and lost in a single athletic maneuver, but even for field goals, it always requires the actions of everyone on either side of the ball doing their job. When fans walk into a football stadium, they just don’t know if a moment will arise when a tie might be broken or a lead could be overcome. In this way, football is similar to soccer. As Germany proved during the World Cup, the arc of a well-kicked soccer ball dropping into a goal is followed by one’s eyes in the same manner that we follow a well-thrown football dropping over a wide receiver’s shoulder. While “the moment” may never materialize, when it does, the moment depends on teams working together, and savoring “the moment” often seems to occur in slow motion.

The sport of basketball is a continual back and forth, and a constant drumbeat of one athletic and agile play after another. As with all sport, there are many moments, but there can only be one game-defining “moment”. The only time that a lead matters is at the final tick of the clock. Coaching maneuvers extend or expend time on the clock, and the outcome in tight games brings to mind a game of musical chairs. The music might end mid-court, and as with football and soccer there may never be a chance for redemption. When fans first take their seats, they don’t know if there will be a final opportunity to make that game winning play. If there is a last shot, it’s usually challenged by at most two defenders. If it is a free throw at the line that must be hit, it is not challenged at all beyond the moment’s pressure on the athlete’s psyche. Once again, our eyes slowly follow the arc of the shot as it slowly drops into the basket – or not.

Hockey is similar to basketball in its back and forth pace (granted on ice). Like football, everyone wears helmets, facial expressions are harder to read, and line substitutions happen. Like basketball, it was not designed to be a one versus-many-sport (unless you are Bobby Orr). Like soccer or basketball, and much of football, you typically advance by passing. Like the others, when fans walk into the rink there is no guarantee there will ever be a “moment”. In hockey, there may be a final scrum crashing the net, or a delft maneuver by the puck handler to position himself in a spot where a last second shot might be taken. Players are a blur and your eyes and mind race to keep up with the action. It’s usually mano a mano, one shooter versus one goalie and the action happens so quickly that fans don’t have time to prepare themselves to savor the moment. Look away and it’s over. Hence, we don’t see hockey goal moments coming, and they are savored more during the air horn, after the fact. While fans are no less jubilant at winning a Stanley Cup, Super Bowl or NBA Championship, than they are at winning a World Series, what’s different in baseball are “the moments”.

The Moment in Baseball

In many ways, baseball mimics our lives. In baseball, the clock never determines the game’s outcome. Unlike the other clock-bound sports, when you walk into the park you know that the last hitter always has a chance for redemption. Fans are certain that a ‘last’ pitch in the 9th inning may either end or extend any game, and insurmountable leads can fall prey to a daisy chain of good hitting and/or lucky breaks. This anticipation of a guaranteed moment of triumph or despair is a key difference with the other major sports. It was baseball (indeed, another Yankee) that coined the phrase “It ain’t over until it’s over”. Red Sox fans have tasted the dirtiest waters and the sweetest nectar from this fact alone. In life, we all want a last chance. It’s built into our psyche, just watch any kid plead for a do-over.

Another thing that appeals to our humanity, and one important reason we go to the park and watch baseball, is the juxtaposition to the daily challenges that we all face. Unlike the other sports, in baseball there is one hitter against nine opponents, chief among these is a gifted specialist hurling a pitch in a number of talented ways at speeds of 90 plus miles per hour. Hitting a baseball is said to be the most difficult thing to do for a reason. Go to a batting cage and try it sometime. The moment in baseball begins mano a mano, pitcher versus hitter, but getting wood on the ball is only half the challenge. Hitting the ball well, so that it travels beyond the reach of the nine opponents, adds exponential difficulty to “the moment”. It needn’t be an Ortiz-esque homer. As in Jeter’s case last month, a quick single past the first baseman may do. In baseball, the hitter’s moment isn’t dependent on other teammates. In baseball, it is one hitter versus many fielders, with a pitcher, catcher, coaches and fielders all conspiring against him. Everybody, friend or foe, is waiting on that one discrete moment when the pitch crosses the plate – anticipation. In baseball, as in poetry, literature and cinema, the challenge makes the hero. When we consider our own challenges in life, at times we see ourselves facing insurmountable odds, one person against the world, reaching at the right moment to take a swing at the right time and in the right direction, and hoping that fortune allows us to advance our own team’s (family) future.

What about the vilified pace of the game? Yes, at times the games will drone on, but there is a flip side. In baseball, the pace of the game allows our collective gaze the time to be prepared and focused on “the moment”. This anticipation makes it more of a deep collective experience, something that appeals to our common humanity. The pace of the games lulls our focus onto the moment the pitch crosses the plate, and the speed-of-sound crack of the bat wakes us from our collective hold-your-breath stare into that one hopeful and communal moment. As Kahlil Gibran said the mountain is clearer from the plain, so the significance of “the moment” would not be so well enjoyed were it not for the silent focus and collective understanding preceding it. Taken together, baseball’s legacies and player familiarity, chance of redemption, magnitude of challenge, silent communal focus, and split second hopeful awakening make “the moment” in baseball unlike any other sport.

Baseball is Life

When we get into the question of what is “America’s Sport” today, it may well be found in the NFL, but baseball continues to be “America’s Favorite Pastime”. The term “Pastime” is derived from ‘pass time’. Baseball is a good way to pass time together on a hot summer day, or a chilly fall evening. It was never intended to keep us on the edge of our seats for the entire ballgame. Part of the experience is having the time to get away from our day’s challenges, and passing that time enveloped in a quaint and friendly environment where we encourage our hometown players to overcome their own challenges. When they do so, we feel like we do so as well. Except for the catcher, baseball players are not covered in shielding and padding, so we see their size, their faces and their expressions, friend and foe alike. Personalities in other sports (superstars excepted) don’t shine as brightly off the court/field/ice as a typical baseball player does on the streets of Boston, New York or Kansas City. In many ways, I think baseball players just seem more humanly accessible to us.

There are statistics, historical references, legendary personalities, and great plays that may or may not pertain to any time during any game when we hear that crack of the bat. These moments are precious to baseball fans, in part because they happen so instantaneously, and in part because they happen so surreptitiously. Whether it’s at Fenway Park or your local Little League field, “the moment” in baseball is more apt to seem frozen in time because it is discrete and expected, making it more easily frozen into our memories. Baseball was never about a long drive to the end zone or finish line, positioning for the sudden slap shot that might or might not occur, tapping the slow rolling putt, causing the last minute penalty, or running out the clock at the end of the game. It is all about relaxing first and then fully engaging the senses at a focused moment in time, just as the athlete does. Baseball is as much about preparing ourselves to be surprised, thrilled, and redeemed as it is about savoring the sudden game-deciding moments themselves.

I’m hoping for a great game 7 tonight. Baseball’s longer history, compared to other major American sports, does make witnessing any record-making moment seem more significant. Jeter’s situation does not happen everyday, but he had his share. After all, he is the same player who reached 3,000 hits with a home run, and unlike most, he is virtually the same performer during post seasons as the regular season. The situation always made Jeter. This year’s last Yankee Stadium game was only historically significant due to Jeter. In this case, Jeter made the situation. That says a lot. While I would never go so far as to say we were all Yankee fans at Jeter’s last NY at bat (certainly not) most of us felt good for him getting that hit. He was incredibly consistent, and once again under incredible scrutiny he did not disappoint. Jeter’s last hit in NY was poetic. Baseball is poetic. Poetry is life. Baseball is Life.

As for the Red Sox, there’s always next year, sports fans.

Writer’s Note: Feel free to click this YouTube link to take a second look at brilliant George Carlin’s views on baseball and football. It’s worth suffering through the commercial.