Ryan and I have long argued that Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season should be a federal holiday. But baseball’s popularity isn’t what it was even thirty years ago. There are many reasons for this: the steroid scandal, the strike of 1994, new technologies that have made watching other sports on television a lot more exciting, as well a general ratcheting up of our need to be “entertained” every second of every day. Baseball isn’t “entertaining” like basketball or football, though I’d argue both of those sports are less wildly exciting than people claim. How many two-yard runs up the middle can one watch? And how many Milwaukee Bucks games get the adrenaline raging?
Baseball is now seen by many as something past its prime, especially as football games are the most-viewed programs of any kind each week. But this way of valuing a sport misses the point. Football’s season is only 16 games, whereas the baseball season stretches out for 180, if you include the playoffs. Its rhythms are more like our own lives: we must get up, go to work, go home, and find joy where we can. Maybe people look to sports for something other than dailiness, but I have always loved the slow pacing of baseball. It fits into my life perfectly. I can duck in and duck out, have it on in the background while I do other things, give it my full attention as the bases load and anticipation builds. I don’t want to sound like a D-list academic in a Ken Burns documentary, waxing poetic about a game in 1912 I never saw, but the folks who talk almost gleefully about baseball’s “demise” are missing out on something important, and something uniquely American.
In honor of August baseball, here’s the A.E. Housman poem “To An Athlete Dying Young.” Maybe baseball needed to die in the 1960s for people to really appreciate its virtues. I’m glad it’s still going out there every day though.
To An Athlete Dying Young
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.