We talk about baseball in terms of memory. The memories made with grandparents, memories between fathers and sons, of another outing to the ballpark that was made immortal by a walk-off homer, a player stealing home, or a triple play.
I have memories like those too: my grandmother calling my attention to the television screen whenever Darryl Strawberry was at bat and cutting out the “baseball cards” of my Mets from milk cartons bought at the corner store. She was a Brooklynite and Dodgers fan. Her husband, a fan of the Giants. And so our household was destined to embrace the Mets. I remember the crisp April day in 2006 at Shea Stadium when Tom Glavine dueled Dontrelle Willis and our team cemented a hot start to one of the most exciting and heartbreaking seasons of baseball in my memory.
But one of my best baseball memories is from a mega-bookstore in suburban Virginia. Before the advent of smartphones, I received a text message while I was browsing the history section. It was from a friend I’d had since high school, sent to me and two other Mets fans. We had made a very irregular habit of catching a few games a year together, but life was making that more difficult. All the text message said was, “Are you watching the game?”
I knew instantly what meaning those five words had just developed among the four of us. The stock of regular-season baseball games for any one team is already overwhelming for the players, and for the fans: 162. You cannot watch all of them and have a life beyond being a spectator. What my friend had done was establish a code that we would use for several more years. I knew instantly why he sent this. “Are you watching the game?” indicated that a Mets pitcher was currently making a bid for a no-hitter.
The economy of those five words was necessary. They urge you to get to a television as soon as possible. And they preserve the boyhood superstition that even to say the word “no-hitter” is to invite a jinx that will destroy the effort. Up to that point in history, the Mets had never had a no-hitter, from their founding in 1962. It was a confounding thing given the great pitchers they had, from Tom Seaver to Nolan Ryan to Doc Gooden. These text messages would come a few times a season. And they were a reminder that, even as our lives, our careers, and our wives and girlfriends started pulling us apart, the national pastime still united us.
One of the most profound statements ever made about baseball appeared in these pages nearly 30 years ago. Joe Sobran surveyed all the glories of baseball: the way it captured his youthful imagination, the way the game could be divided into discrete skills, exercised in discrete moments, and the way baseball, alone among the major American sports, preserved a legible tradition, allowing the current era of play to be understood in a coherent history of the sport and connecting generations of fans with one another.
And then he came to his startling conclusion:
A key difference between baseball and democracy is that in baseball the winners don’t get to rewrite the rules. And it never occurs to the losers to blame the rules for their losses. Our deepest norms of order can still be seen in operation on the diamond when they’ve been adulterated everywhere else. Baseball is our Utopia — not in assuring us of the victories we dream of, but in guaranteeing ideal conditions even of defeat.
It was a fitting, even beautiful conclusion for National Review. Baseball: a republic, not a democracy. But we should look at baseball today and marvel again. The Republic of Baseball lives on. But in our age its renewal and triumph is over and above technocracy. Baseball is defeating — assimilating, really — the wonks who would have remade it. And it calls us out of ourselves, it gets us to put down the screens in our hand and enjoy, in person, a game made of muscle, leather, eye black, and dirt.
If baseball is a republic unto itself, more must be said about the peculiarities and glories of minor baseball leagues that nurture young talent and nurse major-leaguers who are recovering from injury. Compare them with the junior circuits of other sports. College football and basketball exist for the colleges, their alumni, and cable television networks. Big college sports is a moneymaking bonanza for everyone but the athletes who generate all the value. The best college games are played on primetime cable television. These sports belong to specific college towns, and the benefits flow to certain regions. Their pageantry is beautiful and grand, but it exists as if behind a gated community. Unless you belong to the school in some way — a proposition that is expensive — the victories can never truly be “yours.”
Meanwhile, minor-league baseball is played in most midsize and small cities across the country, leaving only a few Plains states out. The major-league teams, through their affiliates, reach out deep into the country. For some fan bases, minor-league teams become extensions of the major-league squad that they love. The most dutiful fans of the Mets from Queens will gather together in Coney Island for their Cyclones. The Boston Red Sox grabbed the Sea Dogs franchise in nearby Portland, and now Mainers can watch balls sail over their own version of the Green Monster in left field.
There is a humility in minor-league baseball. The pay is small, perhaps too small. The crowds are usually small, or barely existent in the low-A leagues. Sometimes the towns are small, and the culture of the minor-league game still has something of a local circus and vaudeville about it. Former National League MVPs such as Ryan Howard and future Hall of Famers such as Chase Utley put on their cleats and mash homers in small towns such as Batavia, N.Y., wearing jerseys that say “Muckdogs” on them. But minor-league fans are passionate fans. And these local franchises, often owned and supported by local businessmen, put on a great family-friendly show several nights a week. Aspiring relief pitchers and minor-league lifers throw pails of water at running plastic sausages. And as July comes around you usually get a game and fireworks. The Muckdogs had their own team poet, Bill Kauffman, who once worked for the American Enterprise Institute.
And, as in republics, experiments with new rules and approaches to the game are conducted locally in these minor-league settings. The Astros tested the theory of the “tandem” starting pitchers. Based on data about how pitchers are becoming significantly less effective their third time through the batting order, the team tried to assign two pitchers to go three or four innings each. It failed.
Baseball is now in the midst of overcoming the technocratic ambitions of its “rationalized” version. The “Moneyball” revolution, named after the 2003 bestselling book (and film) about how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane discovered undervalued talent by privileging Ivy League statisticians over scouts in advising him, has left an enormous mark on the game.
Data showing that velocity is one of the key ingredients to pitcher success have caused a dramatic spike in the league-average velocity of fastballs. Defensive shifts have swallowed up the grounders that sluggers can power through a traditional infield defense. Bullpen usage is at an all-time high and climbing. We live with baseball dominated by the three true outcomes: strikeouts, home runs, and walks. The game is interrupted more, with pitching changes and timeouts. Individual at-bats are slower. A languid game in the dog days of summer can be a dull pleasure. Sluggish games are not.
But like all revolutions, rationalized baseball undervalued tradition, experience, and local knowledge. It discounted those things that cannot be measured. The story of the last ten years or more is the humbling of this revolution. And the story of the next ten is likely to be the remediation of sluggish baseball.
Baseball wonks could not measure pitch-framing and dismissed it, raining abuse on Tim McCarver and other baseball men as dinosaurs and mythmakers. But new forms of measurement allowed the nerds to see that McCarver and others were more right than they knew.
The rationalizers dismissed character and leadership ability. They dismissed the idea that some players were bad for clubhouses even if they were high producers on the field. In other words, they treated players like number generators who would, over time, spit out data that could be just slotted into one row or another on an Excel spreadsheet. The integration of rationalized-baseball revolutionaries into the front-office machinery of baseball has been a humanistic reeducation for the revolutionaries.
Bill James had to admit that a wide range of the things that dataheads dismissed as mythical or the product of luck and chance, from clutch hitting to “pitcher ability to win close games” to “base-running ability,” may in fact be real. That their rejection of them had been based on methods that are “unreliable to the point of being useless.” They simply discovered the limits of measurement. And further, after being brought into the Red Sox, James admitted to cringing when people inspired by his previous data Jacobinism dismiss the human element. Baseball players have their own, developed sense of player hierarchies and status. They want to win, yes. But, like all other workers, they want to be respected as human beings too.
Other innovations and deformations wrought by the data revolution are being scrutinized and, in the most desperate cases, addressed by rule changes. New research by Russell Carelton shows that defensive shifts are leading to more walks for a variety of surprising reasons, and teams may have an interest in going back to more-traditional defensive alignments. The sluggishness of games may be addressed by rules limiting the explosion of bullpen usage, restoring at least some ability to compare relievers by era. And the sluggish-paced baseball game may disappear with the advent of the pitch clock, an innovation this author detested on principle but has accepted after seeing the product tested in the minor leagues.
It is because of the fans, too, that baseball has assimilated those who would have revolutionized it. Fans and players still care about the drama of the game and don’t see it merely as an occasion for putting more numbers into spreadsheets. No-hitters, perfect games, and hitting for the cycle still thrill us, as does the drama of an individual at-bat. So does any moment that we think of as “clutch.” These may be statistically insignificant in the long run, but they are the heart of the game. The data revolution came, but it never did quite conquer. Its highest ambitions were rebuffed, and, like a rookie’s, its facile conceits about the game were humbled.
Allen Barra has written that baseball remains America’s pastime because, unlike football fans, baseball fans turn out for games. “Baseball’s appeal is largely regional, while football’s is national,” he wrote in 2013. “Baseball is followed locally, generally by fans who go to games. Football is followed on TV by fans who seldom, if ever, go to the stadium to see the games in person.” One study shows that over 90 percent of football fans have never been to a football game. That is not true with baseball.
Baseball asks us to get outside, and the environment of baseball games is so transporting. There are few more explicit pleasures than a summer day when a baseball game almost dulls you into an afternoon nap only to snap you back into alarmed attention. Baseball does this because, unlike soccer or hockey, a few bad at-bats can lead not just to one run but to a rally. The crooked number makes baseball different, even novel, among sports. Baseball still contains the drama of dueling, between pitcher and batter, that you would find in boxing or tennis. And yet it also contains the team drama and sense of chemistry that basketball, hockey, and football give to fans. That is, among American sports it is the best of all worlds. And, as of now, baseball has no sudden rule changes to speed up its ending. You play until the game is over. Like most things in life, the contest is not constrained artificially.
We love this game because it still has the power to summon us out of ourselves. We are becoming a bent-neck people who look down at our screens. Sometimes we are looking down at those screens at baseball games, it’s true. But the atmosphere of a ballpark shared with friends provides better and more pleasant distractions than anything that can be programmed as an algorithm. Each city in baseball seems to have season-ticket-holding “characters” who fill up a stadium with morale. Some travel there — many television viewers are familiar with “Marlins Man” from the last few years. But the dearest one to me is “Cowbell Man” from my own Mets. Edwin Bolson is at nearly every home game, hitting a cowbell and wandering the stadium. My phone cannot compete with the diverse, crazy, endearing citizenry of baseball’s republic.
I remember when I sent the “Are you watching the game?” text to my group of friends on June 1, 2012. Johan Santana was pitching for the Mets. Santana was a thrill to watch all the time, even on a dismal Mets team that gave him no run support. He poured his guts into every breaking pitch. And he frequently shattered his elbow or ripped his tendons in the process. On that June night he was on fire. I got the responses, from two friends, “Yes!” and “Yes!” And then, from the third, “I’m at a wedding.” I replied with an unusually deep cynicism and urgency: “Half of weddings end in divorce. This is a once-in-a-lifetime event.” All I can report is that there were no hurt feelings. This was serious business.
The four of us have differences of politics, religion, and class attitudes. There’s the socialist, the upwardly mobile progressive, and you can guess what role I play. I suspect that as we get older, as we escape from the immediate midlife demands of career or children, baseball will call us back to each other. As Barra points out, baseball fans go to the park. Instead of “Are you watching the game?” the text will be “Are you free for the game?” And in CitiField, or one of its successors, we’ll get together and put away our phones and our differences. We’ll hear the organ, the languid murmur that falls over a summer crowd, the bellowing umpire, the sound of dirt being churned up by a sliding cleat. And when we catch that golden moment of action, our cheers will be indistinguishable. The Republic of Baseball lives on: E pluribus unum.
This article appears as “Why We Love the Game” in the April 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.