Friday, September 30, 2005

Striking out on the way to first base

First, this administrative update: The long-promoted NPR story on (cable shopping network) QVC and entrepreneurship aired yesterday on NPR's Day to Day. the archived audio can be found here.


The traffic meters on this site (not to be confused with the Traf-O-Teria traffic meters mentioned yesterday) indicate that Saturday is by far the slowest day for this feature. So we'll jump the gun on the monthly posting of our humor column from Northern Arizona's Mountain Living Magazine, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Longest Magazine Title for a Free Magazine. Also, the Red Sox-Yankees series this weekend is a good excuse to post a column on baseball, if for no other reason than it'll get my mind off whether the Red Sox pitching staff is actually the reincarnation of the group that pitched for my Wheaton Boys Club team in 1981. If Jason Varitek signals for David Wells to throw a "straight ball" this evening, I'll know for sure.

While we're at it, commentator Susan Orlean's NPR piece on the mystery of why "Sweet Caroline" is played during the 8th inning of every ballgame at Fenway Park was a great piece of radio, and worth checking out (after you've listened to my story on entrepreneurship, of course).

Anyway, here's this month's column:


It’s October, which means we baseball fans have only a precious few days left to discuss the importance of batting lefty against a right-handed pitcher, the unsung heroics of veteran second basemen, the evils of the designated hitter, the endless cycles of renewal with the advent of each baseball season, the – HEY! COME BACK HERE!

You’ll have to excuse me – avid baseball fans like me are a little paranoid that our game has fallen from the mantle of America’s pasttime in recent years. That’s partly the fault of inflation – steroid-inflated muscles, inflated statistics, grossly inflated salaries, inflated ticket prices. But there are also far more distractions today (arena football, televised skateboarding, Supreme Court nomination hearings) than there were when our grandparents were busy throwing away our parents’ baseball cards.

Casual baseball fans often complain that baseball is kind of boring. I’ll concede they sometimes have a point. My second year of college included a class on the literature of baseball (demonstrating just what Maryland taxpayers were willing to support in the ‘80s), in which our professor insisted that one of the appeals of the sport lies in its relationship to “anthropological vegetation myths.” He might be right, though to prove it, I’d need to learn exactly what an anthropological vegetation myth is. But it seems unlikely that a NASCAR fan would connect stock car racing with say, the fertility cycle, or Fermat’s Last Theorem, or evolutionary biology. (Come to think of it, stock car racing and evolutionary biology may be mutually exclusive concepts.)

If you don’t know exactly what’s going on, watching baseball can seem less exciting than watching televised Scrabble (“Ooooh! A double-word score! That’s gotta hurt the challenger’s chances, Bob.” “Boy, you’ve got that right, Ralph. But look! He’s spelled ‘zygote’! What an amazing comeback we’re witnessing…”).

But the experience of going to a football, or a basketball game is a pretty one-dimensional exercise: You go, watch the game, drink a beer or ten, shout at the referee, get stuck in postgame traffic, and go home. During the game, the crowd makes so much noise, you can hardly hear the PA system, let alone have a conversation with the person next to you.

Baseball, on the other hand, plays out over three or four hours, allowing you the opportunity to sample a variety of cuisines (tubular, liquid, frozen) through the course of a sun-drenched afternoon, while missing a minimum of game action. You can study the game and anticipate the manager’s next move. And during lulls in the action, the atmosphere of the ballpark is such that you can contemplate the game, or consider its connection to anthropological vegetation myths, or even have a meaningful conversation.

To this day, I can remember an afternoon in the Lower Reserved section of Veterans’ Stadium in Philadelphia one Spring day in 1988. The Phillies were changing pitchers, and I finally had a quiet moment alone with a girl on whom I’d had a life-threatening crush for months. The late afternoon sun cast her face in the loveliest of glows. It was now or never. I turned to her and said… “You know, the Phillies really ought to bring in a left-hander.”

You know, maybe the end of baseball season isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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