Friday, 2 October 2015

On the Sweet Monotony of Baseball

How do you feel after a long haul flight? Even in this age of increased legroom and comfort, taking a plane from one destination to another is still a disconcerting ordeal. It usually takes me a couple of days to overcome the tiredness, rebalance my eardrums and get back up to speed with the world. A simple task like unpacking the case can seem like a gargantuan challenge a few hours after landing, let alone playing in a world class sports league before watching millions.

So just take a moment to contemplate the life of a Major League Baseball star, traipsing from airport to hotel to ballpark and back to airport; visiting too many cities to name, too many time zones to comprehend; all while playing a three-hour game every single night.

The physical toll of America's National Pastime is well documented, but the immense mental and emotional stress it imparts is largely unseen, like that encountered by a touring circus or show. However, it's very real, and very complex.

People in the stands only see a ballplayer in uniform earning millions of dollars for playing a child's game. They don't see the human side; the gnarled underbelly; the quiet chaos of a life on the road. They don't see a guy who arrived in Boston at 2 am on a plane from Toronto, got to sleep at 4, woke again at 9, got to Fenway for 11 and started the game at 1. They see only statistics on a scorecard, digits in the win column, not jet-lag in the soul or weariness in the body.

Could you tolerate that constant exertion? Could you tolerate being away from your family for weeks and months at a time, missing chunks of your children's growth? Could you survive in the big leagues, regardless of an ability to hit the curve?

The few that do are worthy of huge praise. They are devotees to the sweet monotony of baseball, a game without a clock but possessing a very real, very oppressive calendar. Yes, they get paid better than any sportsmen in the world, but life isn't all about money. It takes a certain amount of fortitude and courage to play 162 baseball games in 26 weeks and not succumb entirely to the trauma of it all. Regardless of salary, that's a struggle deserving of respect.
The grind.
No other sport plays so many games. Baseball's seemingly infinite schedule is totally unique in the athletic lexicon. Here in Britain, whenever I first tell people that each Major League team plays a minimum of 162 games every year, they're totally dumbfounded. It's impossible to envision Manchester United playing almost nightly for six months in the Premier League, with just fifteen days off in that span if they're lucky. That's what makes baseball so special, so different, so authentic. The game is mightier than those who play it, which adds a whole new dimension to the experience.

If you factor in 30 exhibition games in spring training and hopefully 12-20 in the playoffs, the very best Major League teams can play well over 200 games each season, which from March to October resembles an eight-month odyssey of constant repetition. Accordingly, baseball isn't a sprint, but it also isn't a marathon, that one-off endurance event usually followed by months of recuperation. Rather, baseball is an almost sickening tale of obsession; a ceaseless war of mind-numbing monotony; a relentless rhythm of terrific tedium.

The thought of 200 games per year is an imposing one, but even that number doesn't scratch the surface of what effort is required to navigate a Major League season. Not only does baseball have more games on its schedule than any other sport, but in turn, each one of those games takes longer to consummate than anything else in the athletic realm, with the exception of test cricket and snooker.

The average length of a Major League game this year is 2 hours and 54 minutes. If we extrapolate that to a 162-game season, that's 469 hours, or 19 whole days of play. Then, if we factor in the players arriving two hours before a game and leaving two hours after it, they spend 1,117 hours on average at ballparks during the regular season alone. That's 46 whole days. Add in two months of spring training and a few weeks in October, and we're looking at over 1,500 hours, or 64 days, spent in stadiums per year. If we expand that again to encompass a full 15-year career, a successful player will probably spend over 900 full days at the ballpark. That's over two-and-a-half years spent showering, dressing into uniform, stretching, hitting in cages, watching video, dealing with media, and playing baseball. That's a monumental task, regardless of how well somebody is paid.

In 2013, a Wall Street Journal study found that, while it usually takes three hours to complete, a baseball game typically includes just eighteen minutes of actual action. Thus, the players have a lot of hours to fill, a lot of time to waste, eating sunflower seeds and staring out at a game of startling inaction.
Time to kill, hours to waste.
Consider the life of big league catchers, who squat behind home plate and call signals for roughly 150 pitches per game, replicated perhaps 140 times per year. Consider the grind of big league umpires, who call upward of 300 balls and strikes per game, and are castigated for making a single mistake. And consider the plight of big league announcers, who spend more time in the booth than their own bed, and speak to the fans more than their own families.

For those involved, it's easy to see how a basic striving for Major League survival can obfuscate the romance and love they feel for baseball. But, for fans, all of that is of minimal importance. We only see the finished product, like a video game or movie. We take comfort in the banality and extract identity from the unending routine of baseball, that most beautiful of symphonies.

As fans, we watch the games of our chosen team, spending those same mounting hours with our favourite players, announcers and fellow rooters. We experience the same grind, but it invigorates us, provides us with sustenance, and allows us to live vicariously through a team or superstar. Baseball provides structure to our summer. We don't always know what tomorrow will bring, in terms of work and interaction, but from dawning spring through looming fall, we do know that the boys of Mudville will be waiting every night, ready to enlighten our mood through their mastery of repetition.

To us, baseball is often just a three-hour visual experience. We watch the game, enjoy its undulating beauty, then switch off the television and head for bed. The players, however, keep moving through the night, like pixies twinkling underground, before resurfacing again when we need them tomorrow.

That exacts an incredible toll on players, who deal with immense pressure on top of huge physical discomfort throughout a season. In some quirky way, Yogi Berra was correct when he said that baseball is "ninety percent mental and the other half is physical." That sentiment is heightened in our modern context, where games take thrice as long as they once did and players are scrutinised like never before. Much more stress and psychological strain is placed on players nowadays, and it's a wonder they don't succumb entirely to exhaustion.

Within the enormous, daily grind, on that slow but relentless road, all manner of emotions arise on a Major League team, which is a sharp encapsulation of society, compressed to boiling point. These guys share the euphoria of success and the agony of failure; the frustration of slumps and the anger of living in close proximity to teammates who make them laugh, cry, joke and rage in equal measure. The emotion lingers and blends into a complex broth that, by late September, can often be toxic.

Ultimately, there is a huge juxtaposition between how we enjoy baseball as a surface pastime, and the immense effort, dedication and sacrifice that goes into creating The Show. Baseball presents a clean and glitzy image, honed by PR gurus and marketing experts, but beneath that veneer, there is a grimy tale of sleepless superstars, nomadic enigmas and tired intermediaries. They're the guys who give so much so that we can enjoy a sport of rich entertainment, and they're the guys who deserve more respect and deeper compassion from the fans as a result.

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