By now, you’ve all heard the classic George Carlin routine about baseball and football. If you haven’t, you haven’t yet found the Internet and are not reading this now. Here’s a snippet, just to get you in the mood:
“Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game. Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.”
“Baseball begins in the spring, the season of life. Football begins in the fall, when everything’s dying.”
He describes how one is a fun, childlike game, and one is comparable to a war. There is one other difference that has manifested itself more since the great comedian’s passing — more people tune in for football.
Yes, even with its hiccups, football wins the ratings war (defeating handily such cinematic brilliance as “Honey Boo Boo”). It is huge in the fantasy divisions, a juggernaut in merchandising, and is generally referred to as the most popular sport in America.
BUT, and make no mistake about this, baseball is still America’s pastime.
This may be due to the literal definition of the word. A pastime is something you do more passively. And there’s little more passive than sitting for three hours watching a baseball game. (Well, there’s fishing, but that’s significantly less attended than all but a Miami Marlins game. There’s irony in that statement.)
Football is active and engaging. So the term pastime seems out of place.
We still have a joy in our hearts for the sport of baseball. It’s an enduring classic. Attending a charity event recently for the Harold Pump Foundation, baseball legend Steve Garvey channeled his inner James Earl Jones (“Terence Mann” from “Field of Dreams”) when, describing the allure of his sport, he told me, “The one thing that’s been constant over the years with wars and famines, inflations and recessions, baseball’s always been there and that’s why we love it.”
Former Cardinals centerfielder and base-stealing giant Vince Coleman told me, “Baseball’s always exciting to me and the funnest part is that keeps it exciting is you see guys going out stealing bases obviously to excite the crowd.”
And he tells me, with lightening-quick* Billy Hamilton coming through the Reds’ farm system, we’re gonna be seeing even more flash soon.
(*It should be noted that Hamilton has not been run against any act of nature so it remains to be seen if he is genuinely lightening-quick.)
There may indeed be a renaissance of the game. In order to look into the future, we inevitably look toward the past. Home runs are down, base-stealing is up, and, as the great Reggie Jackson told me, “The glasses are back in style now, the aviator glasses” which he made fashionable as he patrolled the outfield several decades ago.
But what of the changes to the league, in the form of an extra wild card. Will they diminish the fondness people have for the game? All-time great and lifelong member of the All-Classy Team Joe Torre assures me, “It’s gonna be great. I think the one-game playoff is gonna be a Russian roulette. I just felt in the past that the winner of the division didn’t get enough of an advantage and now I think that this levels the playing field, because if you get in the wild card, you’re going to have to win that extra game in order to get into the playoffs.”
And the fans are not going away. This is part of who they are, their upbringing. Actor Billy Bob Thornton embodies that statement. The die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan was watching the game (as he does 162 times a year) before having to leave it early to attend the charity function. He grew up playing baseball.
An Arkansas native, he gravitated naturally to the red birds because, “Their Double A club, the Arkansas Travelers, were in Little Rock, so we saw all those guys come through Little Rock, and it was the closest team because we had no pro team.”
A lot of the fun comes from the rivalries deeply engrained in a team’s culture. Thornton explains, “We’re natural-born enemies with the Cubs, but… Chicago is one of my favorite cities in the world and I love the people there and our rivalry with the Cubs. There’s actually more respect within that rivalry than you might think. I love the Cubs much more than I do the Brewers or the Reds. The Reds have done a couple of things to my Cardinals that I’m not too fond of.”
Love or hate, both are emotions based in passion and the game, though slow-paced and superficially mellow, maintains a white-hot heat just beneath the surface. It’s different than other sports, but that’s another of baseball’s unique attributes.
Garvey, who lest we forget set the National League record for consecutive games (1207) played over seven-and-a-half seasons, sums it up by saying, “Each sport is inherently important and appealing to certain fans. Our games, it’s a long season, 162 games and playoffs; around 80 games in hockey and basketball; sixteen to get to the playoffs in football. So they all have their nuances. Baseball is timeless. the clock’s not gonna run out.”
George Carlin couldn’t have said it better. It’s timeless. It’s our pastime. And it will always be.