Ah, spring! The season of renewal, when green returns to the landscape, bringing with it a feeling of new beginnings, of hope arriving again after long nights of darkness. Spring, the season when the entire year seems to truly begin.
I’m talking about baseball, of course. As everyone knows, a new year does not truly commence until someone, somewhere, is playing baseball. And this year my friends Rory, Michelle, and I were able to ring in the new year in central Florida, home of spring training, those casual weeks where professional baseball players prepare for the year while playing casual scrimmage games in cozy little ballparks. It’s nothing like the typical major league game, which has become a circus of sensory input: raucous sound effects, fireworks, glitzy pre-produced videos and advertisements, mid-inning entertainments where six-year-olds play video games to win prizes. Spring training ball has some of those things, but they feel like shrugs, and you grow to enjoy them: the utilitarian scoreboards; the Washington Nationals’ single sound effect for foul balls, endlessly repeated; the Atlanta Braves’ announcer’s irritated blitzes through more or less everything he is forced to say. Actually, the Braves’ stadium, because of its location (inside ESPN Wide World of Sports, in turn inside of Disney World), is the most major-league of spring training parks: there’s a scoreboard that can display images, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is grotesquely punctuated by fireworks (a garish interjection after “bombs bursting in air”; we burst out laughing), and the center field grass is mowed to feature a gigantic Mickey Mouse head.
But the poor Braves’ circus of a home field is the exception that proves the rule: that spring training isn’t Serious Sports, it’s there for our pleasure. Once a year we don’t have to worry about whether or not our team wins, or how the playoff picture looks, and we don’t have to scream over stupid plays that cost games. Heck, the score doesn’t even matter. This week the Washington Nationals let a game end with their pitcher taking the batter’s box and watching three strikes, because why not? Spring training is what baseball would look like if nobody was watching, except that people are allowed to watch.
Seeing baseball for the first time in five months, and driving nearly one thousand miles for the privilege, does prompt a question to slip into my mind: why love baseball?
As if it’s possible to answer that. Let’s try. I like to describe baseball as a canvas, the most social of sports. Baseball is the game you go to with friends, and the salient thing is that you’re with your friends, not that you’re watching a game. Football doesn’t permit that sort of casualness, for whatever reason, and basketball takes place in arenas which approach the deafening loudness of jet engines. At a baseball game you can sit back, relax, and watch the flow of action–like people-watching, or going to an outdoor bar with tasteful entertainment.
The tempo of baseball is slower, too. On a television screen, the pace gets boring, because 75% of a game is spent watching a single camera angle of a pitcher preparing to pitch. Plus, there are those annoying announcers, who care so much about the game, whereas if you were there your eyes would be casually scanning the field, soaking everything in, waiting for the action.
Now, there’s another thing. Baseball is the delayed-gratification sport. Basketball games can involve 220 points scored in 48 minutes (the record for a 48-minute game is 320, or one point every 9 seconds). American football goes in fits and starts, with long pauses and spurts of action, like baseball, only in football at least the teams have to move around, and everyone has to run, and for a split-second chaos might break out. In its delayed gratification, slow tempo, and weird timeless feeling–like you could go away for 15 minutes and not miss a single run scored but somehow miss an essential part of the narrative anyway–baseball is most like soccer. I can’t peel my eyes off a soccer match even though I know nothing big is likely to happen; the same is true in baseball. You at least get a sense, in the very small moments of those sports, that you’re witnessing some sort of grand story play out, like the quieter scenes in an epic novel which make the big climax all the more rewarding.
That must be part of the appeal: the slow beat of baseball, the way that every few innings big things start happening, releasing all the narrative tension that has been building up in the expository parts of the game. And then there’s the look of it. Baseball fields are beautiful.
Look, we as Americans have a bizarre obsession with grass. The Boomer generation is fixated on having gigantic lawns around their houses, and mowing all the crisp green Kentucky bluegrass. Our parks are mostly great big green expanses of grass; it’s sort of our all-time favorite plant. And a lot of sports take place on it: soccer, rugby, ultimate Frisbee, golf. But none of them offers the fascinating symmetry, riveting color, or strange curving perfection of a baseball diamond.
I’ve started to realize how little television captures the experience. On television, you have a constant reminder of the score; when I’m not really watching a baseball game, I care deeply about the score, but I’ve found that when I’m actually at one I can enjoy it without even being sure who’s winning. Plus, television brings close-ups on players spitting or just generally looking fat, things nobody makes you watch when you have seats in the park. And there’s the beauty of the diamond sloping away from you, the behavior of all the other players as they wait for a pitch, the banter between a baserunner and an umpire, the way it’s all so darn relaxing. A training game in Florida is all about fresh beginnings; at the start of a game, the baseball field is clean, waiting for something to bloom upon it. We aren’t in a hurry; we can watch and wait. We’ve seen this before and we’ll see it again but it always feels like we’re coming home.
In other words, baseball is a lot like spring.