I'll probably watch the World Series when it finally comes along this year (barely ahead of the first Christmas lights in store windows, thanks to the absurdities of the present major league schedule). I still have that much connection with baseball. But no more than that. Well into the season's final month, I have no idea who's in first place. I'm not even sure how many leagues or divisions or whatever there are for teams to be first in. Nor do I care.
I used to. Twenty years ago, I went to a dozen, perhaps 15, games a year at Baltimore's old Memorial Stadium, usually with one or another or all three kids and sometimes my wife as well. Most other nights I listened on the radio, even when the Orioles were on the West Coast and the games didn't end until 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning. When the Birds won, I took a quiet feeling of satisfaction upstairs in the darkened house, and if they lost, it would take me a little longer to fall asleep while I relived the crucial play or blown call that cost them the game.
No more. Once in a while, if someone invites me, I go to a game, but I haven't gone of my own accord for years. I don't remember the last time I listened to a game on the radio. I notice the Orioles game score in the morning paper most days, but I know almost none of the players' names and have usually forgotten by the time I finish the paper whether they won or lost.
It's hard to reconstruct the gradual process of disaffection, but I think it began when they put up that infuriating video screen above the outfield wall.
Many fans will have no memory of this, but the interval between innings used to be a pleasant moment of respite, time to chat with your companions or look over your scorecard or, perhaps, if the inning had been a dramatic one, simply sit quietly and relive the excitement.
Then the entertainment gods became jealous and decreed that leaving fans to think their own thoughts and find their own ways to amuse themselves, even for a minute or two while the teams on the field changed sides, must henceforth be forbidden.
Instead, 30-foot-tall ballplayers with fuzzy features would reenact on the DiamondVision screen the home run swing or the strikeout or double play they had just performed on the field, or the magnified team mascot would dance on the dugout roof. Or the thing would yammer at you to come out and support the team, as if you'd come to the stadium accidentally, thinking it was a yard sale or a bus station. "Come to Bir-r-r-r-dland," it screeched one year. "I'm in blankety-blank Birdland," a friend of mine muttered, as we both tried to ignore it. Couldn't be done. It was like trying not to pay attention to some loudmouthed drunk.
There were other reasons I fell out of love with baseball. Closers, for one. Since all the teams seem to have done it, I suppose the odds must say it's smart to pay some pitcher millions of dollars a year to pitch only the ninth inning--almost every ninth inning when the team is ahead, no matter what the score or what else has happened.
But I hate it. I've loved pitching duels since I watched Vic Raschi of the Yankees throw a 1-0 shutout in the first big league game I ever saw, when I was 7 years old. When a pitcher has thrown eight great innings and is ahead by 1-0 or 2-1 or 3-2, I want to see him out there in the ninth. Take him out if he falters, sure. But give him a chance to win his own game. Seeing some overpaid oaf come in and blow a tight game in the last inning leaves a bad taste in the mouth, a sense of unfulfillment.
I got to the point that any time a starting pitcher was lifted after a strong eight innings, I hoped the closer would get beaten, even when he was on the team I wanted to win--a conflict of loyalties that surely had something to do with the weakening of my partisan fervor in general.
Last year, when the baseball world declared that the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run contest had cured every ill and won back all of baseball's disenchanted fans, I was happy for those who regained the magic, but I wasn't one of them. McGwire and Sosa seem like gracious and admirable men, and I was happy for them, too, but it was hard not to remember, even if nearly everyone was too polite to mention it, that lousy pitching and worse umpiring deserved some of the credit for the excitement.
The ludicrous inflation of ticket prices also helped drive me away. As did the unconscionable lengthening of between-inning breaks to allow for more TV commercials. And the loss of team character and cohesion as players switched clubs more and more frequently for more and more bucks.
I suppose it's possible that I will return to baseball. But I doubt it. In June, I went to a game for the first time in several years. It was a glorious evening and a pretty good game, too, at least until an Oriole runner on third base forgot how many outs there were and got doubled up to end the inning, squelching what had been looking like a promising comeback.
Between innings, interspersed among the promotional messages, the screen showed images from cameras turned on the stands, so that those picked out by the electronic eye could scream and wave ecstatically at their gigantic projected selves--our latest form of self-worship. And during play, the replays seemed to swallow up and diminish the real action on the field, a perfect expression of a culture in which moving images on a screen are so powerful that they all but annihilate people's experience of their own lives.
All the joys of watching television, right there in your $18 ballpark seat! It destroys the value of seeing with your own eyes. It obliterates the knowledge that real life happens, and then is memory; life doesn't repeat itself in slow motion or from another angle.
Being there isn't special anymore. That's why I no longer care to be there.
Arnold Isaacs is a writer living in Anne Arundel County. His most recent book is "Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy" (Johns Hopkins University Press).