October 6, 1997
Essayist Roger Rosenblatt on the timelessness of baseball.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Another essay on baseball? Ah, no, please! I hear you, but just one more thing. It's about one more thing. You see, the difference between baseball and other sports is one more thing. Baseball goes on and on. I know, to those who dislike the sport, that's its worst feature--the seemingly interminable periods in which a pitcher looks in, shakes off a sign, shakes off another, steps off the mound, rubs the ball, steps on the mound, looks in again, and the batter steps out, that sort of behavior.
Even to those of us who love the game pointless stalling can get on the nerves. But the deeper, the beautiful timelessness of baseball lies in the simple fact that as the wise man Yogi Berra said, "It ain't over till it's over," meaning baseball is not ruled by the clock, meaning in basketball if there is one minute to play and your team is behind by 20 points, you lose. There's nothing that can save you.
In football the same. Hockey too is ruled by the clock. But in baseball time cannot take the game away from you. You do not watch the hands of a clock in fear or in despair. You watch people. As long as a single batter is up and there are fewer than three outs in the ninth anyone can win. Whoever figured that timelessness out as part of the structure of the game was a genius and definitely an American genius. Not to get too fancy about it but the time free condition of baseball is directly connected to American optimism, can-do-ism, individualism. Two outs--bottom of the ninth--the home team is down by say two runs. When that final batter digs in, the play by play announcer will invariably say, if he gets on, the tying run will be at the plate. Of course, the batter's probability of getting on base is up against all the usual odds, but no one says so.
Time is the future, and the future is always bright, from beginning to end. Oh, say, can you see? Not only that, the game depends entirely on the individual. Think of the New York Yankees in the fourth game of last year's World Series against the Atlanta Braves. I enjoy doing that. Down six to nothing, over midway through the game, down six to two in the eighth, facing Atlanta pitching the best in both leagues. What happens? An individual named Jim Lehritz comes up and, boom one more thing.
Or, if you prefer, think of the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series against the Boston Red Sox. Game six, extra innings, bottom of the tenth, two outs, one more thing happened again and again. Three straight hits, a wild pitch, and finally the individual Mookie Wilson hits a grounder to the individual Bill Buckner at first, who individually lets it go through to the outfield. Eternal joy for the Mets. Eternal infamy for Buckner. But the larger point was that the game wasn't over till it was over, and it was only over when a human being made it so--all of which is merely to say that as we find ourselves in the playoffs in World Series time it's time to take our hats off to the great old sport uncontrolled by time. That, when it comes down to it, may be the real reason we continue to love it.
Like nothing else in the modern world baseball goes only as fast as a person makes it go--fast food, Fed Ex, the Internet--all are tested and run by the clock. Not this game. This game--I'm delighted to report--can go on forever.
I'm Roger Rosenblatt.