A Brit Learning Baseball Through Books: Why Baseball Matters

“The game stands up and out in the lowest-common-denominator American culture of distraction, disruption, and interruption. For me, this distinction makes baseball the most intellectually stimulating, emotionally satisfying, and downright glorious pastime ever devised.”
– Susan Jacoby
It’s not likely that you have any doubt about why baseball matters if you’re reading this column. But you might, like me, be presently questioning the point of rooting for your team if they’re on a four-game losing streak after showing some optimistic early season promise. If the best you can say about your team is that at least they’re still 4th and not 5th in their division because they’re not as bad as the Orioles (sorry, Orioles fans), is it really worth tuning in for the daily frustration of watching them take a lead, only for the lead not to matter when the opposing team gets home runs with the aid of an apparently magical rally goose?
Well, of course it is. It was still, to use Jacoby’s phrase above, “emotionally satisfying” to watch Yangervis Solarte run the bases with childlike energy and vigour after hitting his second home run of last night’s 4-7 loss to the Tigers. And I’ve gotten as much of a kick out of the rally goose as anyone else, if only because I look for any excuse to use the phrase ‘the goose is loose’ in tribute to everyone’s favourite cranky old baseball grandad and potential future Bat Flips and Nerds interviewee Goose Gossage. As Jacoby says, these things are at a distance from the noise and relentlessness of today’s digital culture, and the more our culture of distraction grows, the more solace I take from the measured narrative of baseball.
Susan Jacoby is a writer who not only understands this fully, but celebrates it and reveres it, whilst also having brilliant ideas and practical suggestions about how to keep people interested in the game of baseball and for building baseball’s future. And this is actually what Why Baseball Matters is: a guide to keeping the game relevant and interesting in the age of distraction, rather than an overtly philosophical treatise on the importance of the game as the title might imply (the title, incidentally, is made to fit in with Yale University Press’ yX list of titles, all of which are titled ‘why X subject matters’). At the same time, the book’s academic context and erudite phrasing make it a highly intelligent work, but it’s also very accessible, to ‘statsy fans’ (as Jacoby calls them when discussing fantasy baseball), casual fans and non-fans wishing to understand the game or gain an insight into why people still care about a game that is, in Jacoby’s words, “played in essentially the same way as it was when my grandfather watched it as a teenager a century ago and when he passed it on to me as a child in the 1950s.”
Jacoby’s age and impressive list of publications is an asset to her writing, allowing her to reflect on watching baseball as a child (and the shocking event of witnessing a Cubs fan calling Jackie Robinson the n-word from the stands) through to rooting for the Mets as an adult and experiencing unadulterated joy at their miraculous 1986 World Series win, all of which are told with personality and touching fondness whilst still keeping her well-trained academic eye on the intricacies of the game and its history. Perhaps most interestingly, Jacoby has also interviewed teenagers and young adults for the book, in an effort to gain some insight into why MLB, under commissioner Rob Manfred, is obsessed with trying to shorten the average game time in an attempt to appeal to younger viewers who apparently want more action and to spend less time on things generally.
My opinion, which is shared by Jacoby and which I’d venture to say is shared the overwhelming majority of our readers here, is that shortening the average game time from a little over three hours to closer to two hours won’t make any difference at all to the levels of youth engagement or to the building of youth fandom. Jacoby’s writing on the subject is certainly the most informed, considered and lucid take on the subject of engagement and pace of play, so the book is worth picking up just for her writing on that, which is still current as it was only published in 2017. She manages to get to the heart of the problem, which seems to be swept under the carpet most of the time, which is that school sports budgets in the US are dwindling, and kids aren’t being exposed to the enjoyment of playing the game in the way that they used to, though MLB’s Play Ball initiative is undoubtedly doing excellent work in offering opportunities for young people to get in the game.
Significantly, though, Jacoby links the issue to the broader issue of income inequality in the US, which I also believe is a broader problem and an indicator of the central issue of fans being made when they’re exposed to the game at a young age, in relaxed, friendly and open settings where they can play, watch and engage on their own terms. This is how the game will survive, and I actually don’t doubt for a second that it will. In our native UK, at least, it’s a growing sport. Still niche, but every year more and more people get into it, both as players and fans, and those fans create other fans, and this is happening largely at a grassroots level, but with the same shared joy and intellectual pleasure that Jacoby has been lucky enough to experience her whole life. Why Baseball Matters is a fitting tribute to that pleasure, and it made me feel good about being not only a fan but also a millennial fan who appreciates the game as an oasis in the age of distraction – all the more so for being a continent removed from where MLB games take place.
It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, though. As Jacoby writes as she concludes her epilogue of practical suggestions for keeping the game fresh, “Baseball’s unique selling propositions are timelessness, logic, and history,” and those three things are universal. So when I tune in to the last game of the Jays-Tigers series tonight, it’s these three things I’ll be looking for. Everything else – home runs, double plays, maybe that elusive win in defiance of the magic goose – is a bonus.
A huge thanks to Yale University Press for providing me with a copy of Why Baseball Matters in exchange for a review.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.