Mourning the loss of old-time baseball
Three cheers for spring. I’ve been through many of them — some would say too many — and for most of those years, this young man’s fancy didn’t turn only to love. When April arrived, baseball arrived.
All together now…“Take me out to the ball game…Take me out with the crowd…”
Ah, the crack of the bat. Ah, the umpires who would screech, “Yerrrr out!”
Ah, those legendary teams of yesteryear — the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Philadelphia Athletics, the St. Louis Browns. Ah, the quotes uttered by the wondrous manager of the Yankees, Casey Stengel. “Most people my age are dead. You can look it up,” said Casey, memorably.
I’m still a big fan of love, but as this spring heads toward summer, I’m no longer a big fan of baseball.
Once upon a time, it was an actual athletic event. Runners ran. Outfielders sprinted. When a relief pitcher was summoned from the bullpen, he double-timed to the mound. Today, he rides on a golf cart, or walks as if he has all the time in the world.
It’s not surprising that baseball has given way to every other sport — in terms of dollars, in terms of the calendar, and in terms of buzz.
All too often, in today’s version of baseball, a pitcher will throw a pitch. The batter will then step out of the batter’s box, adjust his batting glove six times, knock imaginary dirt out of his spikes six times, take six practice swings, and only then gingerly reassume his batting stance. This ballet is repeated after almost every pitch. Watching grass grow is more action-packed.
The pitcher is no better than the batter. When he should be winding up and throwing, he is pawing the dirt with his feet. He is telling the catcher, with shakes of the head, which ten kinds of pitches he doesn’t plan to throw. He will often pick up the rosin bag and play with it for 15 seconds. Please.
The visits of managers to the mound are the stuff of high comedy — and more needless delay.
The manager will walk ever so slowly to the pitcher’s side. He might utter a couple of profound thoughts once he arrives, on the order of, “You should be throwing strikes and not balls.” Then he will continue to stand there and try to look strategic.
Half the time, the umpire has to come out to tell everyone that this is a sport, not a PowerPoint presentation.
Once upon a time, when my hair was its original color, baseball games took two hours. Today, they usually take more than three.
Once upon a time, the best players on any team would not just earn their money with home runs. They would steal bases and chase down enemy fly balls.
Today, these not-so-super superstars don’t try to steal because they might strain a hamstring. Nor do they chase down fly balls because, half the time, they don’t play in the field.
They are what’s called “designated hitters,” which means they lumber out of the dugout four times over the course of an evening, fail an average of three of those times, then do nothing in between except call their brokers or their girlfriends.
I almost forgot — baseball arguments.
An umpire will make a call. Various members of one team will vigorously object. They will surround the umpire, call him vile names, kick the dirt and stomp around like so many wild ponies. This extended protest usually stops action for at least three minutes.
Oddly, this isn’t always a bad thing, because the arguments are often more entertaining than the game.
Baseball knows it has a snooze problem. It has tried to address it by imposing a time limit between pitches, and by offering instant replay of disputed calls. But the time limit isn’t restrictive enough, and instant replay is yet another way to kill pace.
I admit that I am the victim of sentimentality and of the hero worship of my boyhood. I revered Mickey Mantle. I worshipped Yogi Berra. I look at today’s multizillionaire superstars, whose statistics are no better and are sometimes worse, and I change the channel to the NBA playoffs.
Should baseball impose a limit of seven pitches per at-bat? Should baseball ban at-the-mound visits by managers? Should baseball somehow be played by the clock? (It’s the only major sport that isn’t.) Should baseball disallow warm-ups between every half inning (these now consume an average of 20 extra minutes per nine innings)?
Any or all of that would help. But none of it would help this former fan return to the hosannas he used to utter.
When baseball begins each spring, I yawn deeply and remember how much fun this game used to be in the 20th century. It simply isn’t anymore.
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.