I associate my deep attachment with immigrating to the United States from Dublin in 1979 and landing in Pittsburgh on the eve of the Willie Stargell-led Pirates’ glorious playoff run. As I practiced an American accent in the mirror, I quickly understood the currency I would acquire if I could rattle off RBI, ERA and batting average statistics with the speed of the boys who lived on our block. Play ball!
As I grew up and, in my 20s and 30s, spent thousands and thousands of hours listening to or watching baseball games, I developed a more multidimensional rationalization for my passion. I described all the life lessons that baseball teaches: the importance of resilience in a game where the best hitters on Earth sit back down dejected 60 percent of the time; the centrality of teamwork and solidarity over individual feats, as playing on a winning team requires moving a runner over, hitting a cut-off man and calling the right pitch for one’s battery mate; and the necessity (I made this argument even before Bill James and Billy Beane helped revolutionize baseball’s front offices) of mastering data and history to make sensible judgments.
When I became United Nations ambassador, I delighted in the prospect of taking foreign diplomats to Yankee Stadium or Citi Field to showcase what I view as one of America’s greatest “soft power” gifts to mankind. But the response from other ambassadors was, almost invariably, the same. “Any chance we could join you at an NBA game instead?”
Herein lies the conundrum that Jacoby takes on in her endearing and thought-provoking new book: Since nostalgia and tradition are inexorable parts of baseball’s appeal, we love in baseball what we have always loved and don’t take well to changes. However, owing to the Age of Distraction and the dwindling numbers of African American, young or female fans watching the game, it is reasonable to ask whether baseball needs to broaden its appeal in order to endure.
Jacoby warns that, while baseball is enjoying “an unprecedented era of financial success,” and while Game 7 of the Indians-Cubs World Series in 2016 was the most-watched baseball game in 25 years, there is a real “dissonance between a game that demands and depends on concentration, time, and memory and a twenty-first-century culture that routinely disrupts all three with its vast menu of digital distractions.”
Jacoby fell in love with the game in her grandfather’s bar in a blue-collar community just south of Chicago. As patrons tuned in to games — on the first color TV in the neighborhood — Jacoby sat on her bar stool and found herself entering “the previous seven decades of American history.” She was hooked. When she lived in Moscow in 1969, she phoned the U.S. Embassy regularly to get the latest Mets score. To this day, her remedy for insomnia is watching the Mets’ Game 6 comeback in the 1986 World Series against the Boston Red Sox. Because she, like all baseball fans, has experienced both heartbreak and triumph — and because neither announces itself in advance — she retains the sense, almost no matter what the score, that anything can happen, because at some point in history, it has. She believes that the slow pace of baseball provides a space for fans to feel involved in decision-making, something other sports do not allow. “Conversation, for every serious fan, is a part of the game itself,” she writes, “and pauses are assets rather than liabilities.”
Jacoby isn’t thrilled with the efforts Major League Baseball has made to modernize itself. She points out that most of the adjustments designed to shorten the game have shaved off several minutes at most — hardly enough to redeem those who want instant gratification and believe, to their core, that in baseball, most of the time, nothing happens. As she writes, “I do not think M.L.B. can institute any rule changes that would make real inroads into the shortened attention span of the young without fundamentally altering the game.” She rightly worries that the league risks destroying the village to save it.
In the end, Jacoby fastens on the only real cure for the vulnerabilities she diagnoses. Baseball will not be saved by catering to the Age of Distraction — by introducing more stingray tanks in the outfield (as the Tampa Bay Rays have done), serving the best sushi in concession stands (as Seattle and San Francisco do), or requiring fewer pitching changes or the equivalent of a pitcher’s shot clock (as Major League Baseball is considering).
Instead baseball will retain its audience by doing what it is already doing — tailoring more youth programming for demographics like girls and African Americans, who are less likely to watch as adults because they play the game far less as kids. But more than this, it will thrive by embracing its fundamentals, the very qualities that those in a hurry often shun: patience, concentration, and the alluring sense of possibility bounded not by a clock but simply by performance (and getting that last out). In other words, rather than contorting itself to accommodate our Age of Distraction, baseball should provide a sanctuary from a culture that needs to slow down. And it is baseball’s timeless remove from the speeds and appetites of everything happening outside the stadium that will ensure its appeal.
“This,” Jacoby writes, “is why baseball matters and why it matters even more today than it did in the past. The game stands up and out in the lowest-common-denominator American culture of distraction, disruption, and interruption.”
It is hard to be confident that what might be described as letting baseball be baseball will solve the many challenges Jacoby and others have identified. But “Why Baseball Matters” makes a convincing case that this approach — combined with a bigger push to introduce little league into underserved communities — is more likely to succeed than Major League Baseball’s on-again, off-again efforts to make itself more like the NBA.
My 8-year-old son is the kind of person Jacoby worries baseball will lose. A Washington Nationals fanatic, he has been sneaking into my room in the middle of the night since he was 4 to check the final score of the evening Nats game on the MLB At Bat app, which Jacoby reports is opened 8 million times a day. I have cringed most mornings when I have watched him scan the At Bat video highlight menu, which privileges home runs over stellar defensive plays. And I have ignored my normal parental strictures on screen time, effectively begging him to watch the “condensed game” instead of the highlights, lest he come to see life as a menu of individual achievements and instant gratification.
Yet what I have seen develop alongside my son’s longing for the long ball is a capacity to sit — when he is allowed — transfixed for hours by the intricacies even of a Nationals spring training game. When I tried again this year to explain that what happened in a split-squad doubleheader in March in Florida just didn’t matter, his green eyes flashed with rage and exasperation. “Mommy,” he said. “I can’t believe you said that. It is baseball. Everything matters.” In that moment, I felt utterly confident about the future of the national pastime.
[CORRECTION: Previous versions of the photo caption with this article incorrectly described a 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game. Willie Stargell’s teammates are embracing him after the game, not after his home run; the team’s opponent was the Chicago Cubs, not the Cincinnati Reds; and the Pirates clinched the National League East, not the National League title.]
By Susan Jacoby. Yale. 200 pp. $26