Joe Posnanski’s such a good writer, it’s hard to write about him without feeling woefully untalented. Still, his piece “Loving Baseball” for Sports Illustrated is a wonderfully written meditation on the summer game.
Still, one particular passage struck me more than the rest of the piece:
Here we are, 120 years later, in a very different America, and yes, all the time, we read that baseball can’t keep up with the pace of our everyday lives, that television ratings are down, that football long ago took over as the National Pastime. But is that really the surprising part? Or is the surprising part that America still loves and breathes baseball, long after barbershop quartets stopped singing, long after couples stopped waltzing, long after boxers stopped hitting each other with their bare fists. Why in the heck do so many of us still love baseball?
We’ve spent a lot of time in the last week writing about soccer, which is wildly popular worldwide and yet a curiosity at best for most Americans. There are a lot of posts on this site about hockey, which—despite Michele’s wonderful writing on the sport—is only slightly more popular with your average American than soccer.
I love niche sports. I love curling—the one with the sheet of ice, a bunch of rocks, and a guy with a broom. I will stop and watch almost any crazy sport in order to figure out the rules. On a trip to the UK I was mesmerized by hurling, which rhymes with curling but is more like soccer played by men with sticks, who use the sticks to whack each other while trying to play soccer. Or so I gleaned. I devoured Ken Tremendous’s epic story about cricket, a sport that it seems like a baseball fan would love if he only had a few spare days to watch a match.
But this is my point. I love lots of crazy niche sports, and I love baseball. And most of the time, I feel surprised that baseball is as popular as it is. All the games are televised. Millions of people go. Players are paid enormous sums of money. It’s covered by the mainstream media. My nine-year-old daughter plays softball, watches baseball games, and falls asleep with random radio broadcasts whispering in her ear from the MLB At Bat app on her iPod.
I’m not saying baseball isn’t a great sport. It is. And those of you who don’t think it is are philistines. What’s surprising to me is that so many people like it. It is slow, especially if you’re waiting for a big hit instead of looking at the finer details of the pitcher-versus-catcher match-up. It takes a long time. It has no clock and some arcane rules. It’s like a board game with grown men as the pieces.
During college I had a summer job in a deli run by a pair of Hungarian immigrants. The proprietor was the gruff-but-lovable type, heavy on the gruff. One day the subject of baseball (and soccer) came up. He was, unsurprisingly, on the side of soccer.
“Baseball? Is not sport,” he said in his thick Dracula accent. “Is game.”
Joe Posnanski’s piece has a lot of answers to the question, “What Keeps The Grand Game Great?” But it’s the question that caught me. I love baseball, but I also love that so many other people love it. Because anything this great and crazy and hard to follow should be a cult favorite, not a mainstream passion. And yet, here we are. Baseball. Still popular after 150 years. Who would have thunk it?
[Photo: My daughter the softball player.]