There are those who will forever romanticize the game of baseball, speaking in a reverent tone about its place in American culture . I have never quite bought into the party line. Baseball is just a sport that I have followed since childhood because I like its easy pace and endless statistics. That “Field of Dreams”-style rhapsodizing makes about as much sense to me as building a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.
So why did I find myself this past weekend at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., standing in front of Tom Seaver’s plaque, caught in a moment of…reverence?
In a sense, I was simply mourning a great pitcher who defined my New York City and New York Mets-loving childhood. Seaver, who passed away last summer, was so much a part of the baseball franchise in the ’60s and ’70s, including its World Series championship year of 1969, that he was nicknamed “the Franchise.” And that was indeed the very time when I came of age as a baseball fan and started obsessing about things like a pitcher’s ERA or number of strikeouts. I still remember when Seaver set the record in 1976 with nine consecutive seasons of 200-plus strikeouts.
But in a larger way, I was taking stock of the game and what it has meant to me through the years. These players with their plaques on the wall have been the running thread of my life going well beyond childhood. I paused similarly at a few other plaques — notably, Gary Carter, another late Mets great who helped the team win its second championship in 1986. And I took note of every Hall of Famer who had a connection with the Miami Marlins (formerly the Florida Marlins), the team I started following when I moved to the Sunshine State in the ’90s and continue to track since returning to my hometown of New York more than a decade ago.
So, yeah, maybe it was finally the occasion to get a bit rhapsodic about baseball.
My timing was arguably perfect in that Major League Baseball had just hosted its first-ever “Field of Dreams” game — a contest between the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox staged in the very Iowa cornfield where the 1989 Kevin Costner picture was filmed (technically, a new baseball diamond was created for the big-league game).
The made-for-TV event came as no surprise. Baseball is doing whatever it can these days to reel in fans, both diehards like me and, more importantly, a new generation. The sport has taken a big hit in recent years, with attendance declining from a high of 79 million in 2007 to 68 million in 2019, the last 162-game pre-pandemic season (in 2020, a 60-game schedule was played).
Among the oft-cited reasons for the decline: the lengthening duration of games (the typical contest now takes more than three hours) and the increasing cost to buy tickets, food and souvenirs (in 2019, the average all-in price for a family of four was $234.38, according to one report). And let’s not forget the competition from other sports, from basketball and football to even English Premier League soccer. In a word, baseball simply isn’t as cool as it once was.
I’d argue that some of the latest attempts to make the game relevant and appealing are destined to fail. Take the rule designed to shorten extra-innings games by having a runner start on second base during each team’s turn at bat. It strikes me as desperate gimmickry that ignores one of the bizarre joys of watching a contest that goes beyond nine innings — namely, the thought it could go on for many more innings with teams depleting their rosters and struggling to figure out how to get an all-important run in the process. I don’t want baseball to be “quick” — I want it to embrace its bizarre lengthiness.
The average price for a family of four to attend a major-league baseball game was $234.38 in 2019, including tickets, parking, food and souvenirs, according to one report
I also want it to embrace its everyday inner dramas — those riveting battles between star pitchers and star hitters, those intense games between clubs with deep-seated rivalries — instead of creating faux events like the “Field of Dreams” game.
And I want to realize its power comes not necessarily from competing with “hotter” sports but from realizing the value of its own formidable history. It’s what occurred to me time and time again as I walked through the Hall of Fame. I saw the heroes of my childhood (and my baseball-loving father’s childhood) in context of the players of today. I suppose you can do the same with other sports, but baseball’s timeline goes back to the 19th Century — the history is the game.
In the end, all I know is that baseball has become my salvation during the pandemic. Especially last summer, when I couldn’t go to a movie or still found face-to-face meetings with friends a bit awkward in those pre-vaccination days. The game was something I could obsess about — my Marlins made it to the playoffs! — in a way that brought me back to childhood.
And for the record, I did watch the “Field of Dreams” game. Some of the made-up drama — Costner entering the field from the rows of corn stalks — struck me as corny (pardon the pun). But the actual game, with an explosive ninth inning by both clubs and a game-winning homer by the White Sox, was as gripping as, well, a good movie.
Little wonder that Major League Baseball has plans to bring the event back next summer. Maybe a trip to Iowa is in order.