Tuesday, April 7, 2009

On Opening Day, and Why It No Longer Matters (To Me)

When I was 12 years old, I developed an abiding love for a game called Statis-Pro Baseball. This is what is known as a "strategic baseball simulation board game"--in other words, it was a sort of haven for uber-geeks like me in the days before video games came into existence*. In fact, I played Statis-Pro Baseball virtually every day for several summers ; I played it alone, in my parents' basement, while listening to Def Leppard's "Hysteria" or catching a daytime baseball game** or watching David Letterman or tuning into the grainy late-night signal of WFAN, beamed from three hundred miles to the east, from the metropolis of New York City. It was actually quite fun. I enjoyed my solitude. I enjoyed immersing myself in the numbers. I was a weird little dude.

Statis-Pro Baseball was played with cards, and I had a set of cards from the 1983 season, and I had a misguided notion that I would eventually play an entire season of games with these cards, based on an actual major-league schedule. I did not seem to realize that in order to do this, I would have to spend my entire life in my parents' basement.***To this day, I can still inform you about the minutiae embedded in those Statis-Pro cards. I still associate certain players with certain numbers (for instance, I can tell you that Bob Knepper had a PB of 2-7, though I can no longer remember what that means. Every man, I suppose, is required to maintain a certain amount of useless information in his memory. This is mine.)

I've been thinking about those Statis-Pro cards now that Opening Day has arrived, and I've been thinking about how deeply I cared for baseball, and how caught up I became in the culture of baseball: In Statis-Pro, in the Bill James Baseball Abstract, in that very thorough and nerd-ridden Elias book, in Rotisserie League Baseball,**** in all the numerical deep-sea diving that has produced a generation of general managers and Baseball Prospectus writers. Here's the difference between me and them: At some point, I began to care less and less about these things. And here I am in 2009, twenty-six years after Bob Knepper and his PB, and I find that I hardly care about baseball at all. In fact, baseball generally seems like nothing more than a protracted impediment keeping me from football season. And it's hard to know exactly why this happened, but I have some theories.

I think it begins with my schizophrenic rooting interests: My father was a Yankee fan (he grew up in New York), and yet I grew up in central Pennsylvania, rooting (briefly) for the Pirates in the wake of We Are Family, and then for the Phillies, after Tug McGraw hurled his glove toward Skylab upon clinching the World Series. For a time, I supported both the Phillies and the Yankees, and then I got to high school and began wondering why I should support anything my father supported, and then came the Mitch Williams meltdown of '93, and the strike of '94, and I started to wonder why I should support any of these teams at all. I will admit it: I had a hard time with that strike. It was, I think, the stupidest thing I've ever seen in pro sports in my lifetime. It made me wonder why any of these people deserved my allegiance. It made me think that baseball***** presumed that it could do whatever it wanted and get away with it merely because Ken Burns was on their side.

(Since then, I've become a Red Sox fan. This happened involuntarily, after I moved there to Boston graduate school in 2000, and I presumed that I had latched on for 86 more years of heartbreak and angst, and not to a franchise that would become the Gap of baseball clubs, a team that would sell thousands of pink hats, a team that would be represented on celluloid by the worst late-night talk-show host since Magic Johnson.)

Anyway, I don't think baseball's sense of its own cultural superiority has changed, given what's happened since then. I've been in baseball clubhouses, and I've never felt comfortable inside them. It always seems like you're eavesdropping on a table of ornery jocks in the high-school cafeteria. It is, by far, the most insular sport I've ever been around, and the ongoing steroids fiasco has only reinforced that fact. And while it's true that baseball also has the richest intellectual history of any game, I still imagine that most baseball players in most baseball clubhouses would cheer if one of their teammates gave George Will a swirlie. This is why the argument between baseball "purists" and SABR-metric geeks has essentially degenerated into Revenge of the Nerds, Part V; it's because there is something inherently crude about baseball, about men scratching and spitting and hurling spheroids at each other, something that transcends the overt violence of football and the pituitary lottery of basketball, something that the purists are afraid is being taken away from them. (In this way, baseball is far more conservative than football could ever be.)

Of course, it's not just them. It's me. I've changed. I grew up in a college town, among college sports, and so I have an inherent bias against the mercenary world of professional sports. I grew up worshiping at the altar of college football, and I find now that football has every element of a game that a man could possibly wish for: It is fast, and it is violent, and it is steeped in strategy. And baseball--well, baseball just seems so slow.

I know: That's the point. Baseball is a background sport. But even when I keep it on in the background, and try to read a book, I find myself wondering: Has Manny Ramirez been at-bat for three-and-a-half hours, or is it just me?

This does concern me a little, because I often worry that the Internet and all its attendant speed is warping my brain, but it is part of a much larger picture. Baseball is the only game I watch that somehow seems childish to me, and I suppose the steroids saga--even though I am generally indifferent toward the morality of it--was the last straw. I understand that the game remains incredibly popular in certain pockets of the country (including the Northeast), and yet it has never seemed less culturally relevant. And I wonder if I've just outgrown it, or if somehow, America is outgrowing it, too.

*True story.
**For some reason, my cable system in central Pennsylvania did not include Chicago's WGN, yet WGN was included in our newspaper's cable guide. This was an unecessary tease. It also caused me to miss several thousand hours of Harry Caray marveling at children in sombreros; I suppose it also forced me to play outside, rather than waste away a fine July afternoon watching Leon "Bull" Durham and Warren Brusstar.
In the end, it is a wash.
***Which I suppose would make me a prototypical blogger.
****I started my first Fantasy League in 1987, with four teams. I think I was the only person who understood what we were doing, and even I wasn't sure. The statistics were transcribed from USA Today and added up with the same Texas Instruments graphing calculator that landed me a D+ in trigonometry. My friend Ben's team was known as the Craighead Commie Killers, and at one point I mistakenly began abbreviating his franchise as the CCC's in the stat sheets, and then I refused to change course merely because I liked the alliteration. This is why Ben is now a doctor, and I am not.
*****And I speak not of the actual game here, but of the Powers That Be.
******An outstanding blog about baseball cards, and I find I love baseball cards much more than baseball itself.

(Photos: Tabletopbaseball.org, Cardboard gods******)

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