As I lay in a lounge chair at Thomas Hospital last week giving a pint of blood, I held my iPhone close to my ear to follow the playoff game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Pirates were coming off 20 losing seasons in a row, the longest losing streak of any professional team ever, in any sport, and their long-suffering fans were pumped as if this were the Second Coming of our Lord.
No one else in the room seemed interested in the game. That didn’t surprise me since the only other people there were two 20-something women who worked for the blood bank.
After I’d given my pint, one of them offered me a choice of two T-shirts with athletic logos on them. Both bore the words “Bleed for your team,” but neither shirt said anything about the Cardinals or the Pirates. One was in blue and orange and had a tiger on it, and the other was crimson with a gray elephant.
“Are those my only two choices?” I said.
“You’re not from around here, are you,” said the woman, with an air of certainty that implied she knew I wasn’t. I told her I’d grown up in Kentucky. “That figures,” she said. “If you live here, you’ve got to choose one or the other.” So I chose one. Next time I give blood, I’ll choose the other one.
This incident made me realize that America had changed since I was a boy. Or at least, I was now in a very different sort of place.
The World Series was called the “World Serious” where I grew up. Every year during the first week in October, all of us (or at least all the boys) brought our transistor radios to school so we could listen to the World Serious games (all played in the daytime back then). We held our earphones to our ears, following every pitch and hoping our teachers would think we were pondering English or math.
In 1960, our principal brought a television into the auditorium and allowed us all to watch the seventh game of the World Serious. When Bill Mazeroski hit his game-winning home run (for the Pittsburgh Pirates, yet), 200 students and faculty let out a collective whoop. The universally loathed New York Yankees had been slain in the most dramatic possible fashion.
Football and basketball overshadowed baseball in our inter-varsity games with neighboring schools, but at the professional level, nothing mattered but baseball. It was called the National Pastime, and for many of us, it really was.
I don’t think that’s true any more, and not just in football-crazy Alabama. An English friend asked me recently what America’s favorite sport was. I said that although baseball had contributed more to our national folklore, language, and literature, it was probably football.
This was confirmed for me when I read recently that lots more people watch football on TV than watch baseball. Basketball has also overtaken baseball in the Neilson ratings.
So is baseball dying, as some claim? It certainly has its problems, from steroids, to the slow pace of the game, to a season that should end on a pleasant October day but sometimes staggers exhausted into the November sleet.
But no, I’d say baseball isn’t dying. Football and baseball are very different games and appeal to different parts of the human psyche.
Football is hurried and violent; baseball is leisurely and graceful. Most football plays end with a jumble of people piled on top of one another so you can’t tell who is who; baseball plays are individual accomplishments and failures where it’s gloriously or painfully clear who is who. Unlike football, baseball has no clock — an inning can theoretically last forever. And perhaps most important, football is played once a week, whereas baseball is played every day so that if you’re crushed today, you wake up tomorrow thinking about your chance of redemption just a few hours hence.
I have learned to enjoy watching football (thanks mainly to my wife), but along about Jan. 1, when most folks around here are obsessing about the Bowl Championship Game, I’ll be counting the weeks to spring training.
Richard H. Schmidt is a retired Episcopal priest, editor and author who lives in Fairhope. He can be reached at email@example.com.