Whiffing, Fast and Slow

Something rekindled; baseball seemed all of a sudden a dramatic sport, filled with intellectual intrigue: the chess-like plots of the pitcher-batter duels, the way individual specializations harmonized with collective effort. I became the wearer of a White Sox hat, the austere black and white a sort of neighborhood camouflage, and then also an Astros hat, a commemoration of my years lived in Houston, the US’s most interesting and comfortless city. There was no better way to close out my day than by traveling to the Reddit thread with all the baseball streams. Or so it seemed until I watched Craig Kimbrel pitch and grew worried that what everyone else thought might in fact be true.

Is baseball boring?

Tim Anderson hitting the walk-off home run at the Field of Dreams game.
Tim Anderson hitting the walk-off home run at the Field of Dreams game. Photograph by Ron Cogswell.

One night in September I grew paranoid watching the White Sox. I had just been at a teach-in on gentrification in my neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side, where a group of squatter-artists clustered around a table in the back of the community garden to serve weed brownies. Given the material—dense, serious, depressingly familiar—weed brownies were a strange offering. But this was a fundraiser, my partner and I bought one, and then, my partner finding it uncooked and inedible, I ate it. I learned about the former neighborhood union trade school’s decision to flee the Latinx southwest for the white suburbs, the abandonment of the school’s sprawling campus along the river to the neighborhood’s south, and a non-profit hospital’s vulturous plot to buy the land from the city and lease it to developers. The brownie kicked in as I walked home, taking large, loopy steps to my apartment where I could do nothing but watch baseball.

The White Sox were playing the Royals. Rain fell noirishly in Kansas City. I nearly forgot to turn on my VPN. It was the seventh inning, and Craig Kimbrel—an elite yet often disappointing journeyman closer whose pre-pitch routine has him bent over, flat-backed and arms angled, like some ancient predatory bird about to flap—was striking the Royals out. Each pitch unfurled interminably. None of them struck the strike zone. He threw curveballs that whistled out of his hand and dropped outside the plate at the last minute; the batter whiffed, and Kimbrel contorted himself back into the parodic shape of a praying mantis. The lack of action was therapeutic, and also worrisome. Until recently I hadn’t watched baseball. Or rather I had as a kid. I grew up in the ’90s, in a village in the heart of the heart of Iowa a few hours’ drive from the Field of Dreams, and my dad was a baseball fan, my grandparents and great aunt were fans, and therefore I was a fan, until sometime in high school when I stopped and stuck to basketball, and then to nothing at all. I’d picked it up again as a late pandemic hobby after reading C. L. R. James’s great book on cricket, Beyond a Boundary, and learning afterwards that White Sox tickets cost $5. Something rekindled; baseball seemed all of a sudden a dramatic sport, filled with intellectual intrigue: the chess-like plots of the pitcher-batter duels, the way individual specializations harmonized with collective effort. I became the wearer of a White Sox hat, the austere black and white a sort of neighborhood camouflage, and then also an Astros hat, a commemoration of my years lived in Houston, the US’s most interesting and comfortless city. There was no better way to close out my day than by traveling to the Reddit thread with all the baseball streams. Or so it seemed until I watched Craig Kimbrel pitch and grew worried that what everyone else thought might in fact be true. Was baseball boring?

Throughout my life baseball has been in crisis. Or rather: a series of crises, both general and specific. The general crisis has something to do with America’s racial history, the twinned rise of Silicon Valley tech wizardry and neoliberal technocrats, the spectacular dimming of our attention spans, and maybe even the decline of the countryside. The specific crises flash and vanish from month to month across SportsCenter’s busy night sky: labor contracts, steroids, sign-stealing, ball-tampering, showboating, and needless but joyful late-inning blowout home runs. These minor crises are fleeting, even if they relate, sometimes in subterranean and sometimes in straightforward ways, to the larger senescence looming overhead—of which, as far as I’m aware, there exists only one compelling account. That night in September I was also under its influence.

I’d spent part of the afternoon reading veteran Sports Illustrated baseball writer and Fox Sports commentator Tom Verducci’s May 2021 state of the sport address, “MLB Can’t Wait Any Longer to Fix Its Pace of Play Crisis.” Once, Verducci says, there was beauty. Baseball aesthetics, like much else, peaked in the  ’70s and part of the  ’80s and slipped away as a new world consolidated in the  ’90s. If you watch a game from the  ’60s or  ’70s or  ’80s, an anonymous baseball official tells Verducci, “each pitch is as natural as taking a breath.” Pitchers threw brazen, modest fastballs destined for the strike zone, confident that their infielders would scoop up ground balls, their outfielders would make short work of flies. Batters swung freely, without inhibition, playing pitches back into the field with variety: less a game of swinging for the fences than one of singles skipping through the infield, doubles streamed into the opposite field. The more modest hits in baseball, the more action. At its essence the game depends on a progression from concentrated scarcity, as when all interest funnels into the showdown between pitcher and batter, to layered simultaneity, as the bases become crowded and movement flows in an uncertain, off-and-on torrent. Verducci argues that this progression has tipped fatally off-balance.

First came steroids, swelling arms, heads, and for a short time popular interest: as a kid, no baseball episode thrilled me as much as the St. Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire and Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa setting new home-run records in 1998—how lucky, I thought, to live in the Midwest, between these two great cities. (San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds smashed the record just three years later.) Fans swooned over the ascendance of the home run era. But meanwhile a change more lasting than the transformation wrought by steroids set in. Teams hired data-devouring Ivy League econ grads to quantify the game’s every aspect. A new ethos took hold, trickling down from the front office through managers and down to players, an analytic-obsessed start-up injunction most famously narrated by Moneyball: the keys to baseball glory lay in thick binders of information. Inside the binders were probabilities, and therefore directives. Swing this way against this pitcher for home runs, the most efficient way to score. Pitch this way against this batter to avoid home runs—and, to be safe, to avoid contact at all. The game grew conservative, the bases empty. Fast balls became faster and pitching changes more frequent; off-speed pitches, difficult to hit out of the park, became near-hegemonic. Batters swung less, and harder. Pitchers skirted around the strike zone with analytic ambition. Action dulled and distended—for now pitchers had to pause longer in between pitches to sieve through thickets of information crammed onto the tiny notecards secreted into their hats, or beamed to their managers on iPads in the dugout, or written on the wristbands worn by their catchers. Not only had teams created analytics departments, but each player had installed an analytics department inside their own head. Instinct and spontaneity became endangered arts. Baseball began to appear less like baseball, a living world of chaotic parts, than chess, an interiorized anti-drama of mathematical brilliance immune to visual pleasure.

Verducci’s story is a well-told tragedy, reminiscent somehow of Georg Lukács’s essay “Narrate or Describe?” which begins with one of the classic moments of Marxist sports criticism, as the magisterial Hungarian critic compares two horse races, one narrated by Tolstoy, the other described by Zola. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s horse race builds to a symphony of concerted action, no detail straying from the larger drama, pregnant with meaning and “narrated from the standpoint of a participant.” In Nana, Zola’s horse race features an inventory of “every possible detail,” providing “a small monograph on the modern turf” and investigating “every phase from the saddling of the horse to the finish,” all “described from the standpoint of an observer” and yet finally amounting to nothing more than “mere filler,” only “loosely related to the plot.” This latter instance is baseball’s predicament. Stuffed with analytics, the sport has lost the pleasures of flowing Tolstoyan drama, abstracting itself into the precise, meaningless world of Zola’s horse race. We watch today’s game and learn everything about modern turf and each batter’s Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm—and very little about life. And few of us watch. For my part, I continued to spend my nights streaming baseball, but something had changed, or risen to realization. Decline came to cloud every inning with a dullness I couldn’t unsee.

When C. L. R. James was writing Beyond a Boundary in the late  ’50s, a similar crisis threatened the world of cricket. Ticket sales had plummeted. Bowlers had begun resorting to an excess of negative bowling, throwing the ball defensively to prevent batsmen from hitting. When hittable balls finally arrived, batsmen leaned forward cautiously, watching the ball off the bat and directing it to a safe destination in the field, refusing to surprise the defense by taking the ball against the break and lifting it long overhead. The sport had dulled. Commentators offered technocratic solutions: committees were appointed, reports filed, with experts recommending tiny reforms like adding a fourth stump. But these would do “no harm” and “no good,” James wrote. In a chapter called “The Welfare State of Mind,” he argued that the crisis had deeper social roots: cricket had become the expression of “specialized performers” in a “security-minded age,” the play less of artists than “of functionaries in the Welfare State.” Its attitude could “be summed up in one word—security.” The work of one of the 20th century’s most original Marxists, a romantic thinker devoted equally to individual genius and democratic participation, James’s argument was less an attack on the welfare state than a critique of its stultifying pre-’68 cultural effects, the mental blockades it had erected, whether in politics or sports, to revolution.

Security, the welfare state of mind—is this contemporary baseball’s problem? How could it be? But there is a more general story implicit in James’s diagnosis. Like crises in politics, crises in sports erupt when a sport expresses a dominant social tendency while refusing to embrace a deeper or emergent social desire. So it goes with baseball—or so it seems, at least, if we cast Verducci’s analysis into an allegory. Today’s game takes part in a key irony of our time: the expert-guided, bottom line–oriented obsession with the kind of efficiency meant all along to produce inefficiency. Universities slash programs and stiff service workers while ballooning their endowments and the size of their administrations. Nursing homes understaff in order to turn government contracts to perverse profits. The Pentagon outsources to private mercenaries, extending their forever wars as the military budget mounts. And pitchers exhaust themselves—and the patience of their fans—by throwing 100 pitches by the end of the fourth inning, marshaling the radiant science of analytics to avoid giving up home runs.

Despite his critique, James had hope in cricket’s future. Greatness would rise again. A daring approach to the game, as to life, would win out. Someday batters would reinvent creativity; they would work their way past the mental blocks foisted by the welfare state on the brains of the global north and burst into a period of renewal, coming from “Pudsey or South Sydney, Nawanagar or Bridgetown” to “give new satisfactions to new people.”

Can we imagine the same for baseball? For all its openness to analytic transformation, the sport preserves a self-sabotaging air of aristocratic conservatism. It began life in denial—cloaking the sport’s peasant origins in pre-industrial England with fabricated tales of indigenous American birth, baseball’s early sponsors wove their patriotism together with class exclusion. Their baseball was the pastime of an American elite. Already popular among workers and farmers in the town squares and village commons of the early rural US, baseball formalized through gentlemen’s clubs like the New York Knickerbockers, the Social Base Ball Club, and Brooklyn’s Enterprise Club. The clubs’ socialites paid membership fees, wore dapper uniforms, finished their games with lavish suppers and dances set to the tunes of live bands, and were, in the words of baseball’s great historians Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills, “more expert with the knife and fork at post-game banquets than with bat and ball on the diamond.” They outlawed swearing and drew up voluminous by-laws to codify proper etiquette. Nearly 180 years later, shades of these origins linger. From frowning over celebratory bat flips to punishing players for hitting home runs when their team leads by huge margins, strange courtly codes remain, their policing visited almost invariably on Black and Latino players—and occurring, moreover, amid a wider decline in the sport’s popularity among Black Americans, who now number just 8 percent of the MLB’s players, as opposed to 20 percent in the ’70s. Meanwhile other reasons for baseball’s loss of popular vitality accumulate. Verducci’s analysis shows how the sport is only getting slower, but slowness was hardly ever something baseball lacked. Structurally outmoded, tortuous to our app-addled brains, still touchingly indebted to its rural roots—from its pajama-like uniforms to its antiquarian pine-sap “sticky stuff” scandal, baseball is one of the only sports born in the 19th century that still feels like it belongs there, as much Civil War reenactment as late-capitalist spectacle.

But somehow the tedium of baseball’s aesthetic decadence has added a new layer of drama, suffused with potential Jamesian social import. As I’ve continued to watch I’ve started to observe, in stupor or in clarity, a conflict take shape between the dominant, conservative, analytic-obsessed mode of play that has dulled everyone’s senses for two decades and a more radical, less predictable, more human and pleasurable style that can’t help but flare up from time to time. It’s fun to watch for the signs—to see the White Sox aesthete Tim Anderson swing at everything, with a great lack of discipline and great success, or to witness the Astros giant Yordan Álvarez startle pitchers by going brashly after the first pitch, teasing the infield’s defensive shift by dribbling the ball into the opposite field. Taking my half-mystical, half-materialist cues from James, it seems to me that hope lies here, in the felt social meaning of this dauntless style, rather than in the technocratic fixes (pitch clocks, fewer pitching changes, larger bases) trotted out by today’s commentators, in mimicry of their midcentury cricket counterparts. People don’t seem very much to like baseball anymore, and probably in the coming decades their minds won’t change. But their objections speak to larger social dynamics. Perhaps baseball’s aesthetic renewal hangs on the bold, inventive play of players and managers who look these social constraints in the face and overthrow them, at the local level of the swing or the pitch, in ways we recognize and respond to as fitting into grander desires: for novel excitements, for daring, for confidence in a kind of popular humanism.

There’s no better time to witness the drama of baseball’s decline—and perhaps the specter of its renewal—than October. The Atlanta Braves, a team that spent half the year below .500 and wasn’t favored to make it past the first round, ascended into the World Series, powered by a stifling infield and the sudden superstardom of outfielder Eddie Rosario. They faced the Astros, a dominant franchise in recent years loathed for cheating their way to a 2017 World Series victory. One day the Astros were beloved for buoying up a city devastated by Hurricane Harvey; two years and one additional World Series appearance later, it was revealed that one of their coaches had installed a monitor outside the dugout that routed live images from a centerfield camera, allowing them to steal the opposing team’s signs, divine which pitch was coming, and then bang on a trash can to alert the batter.1 They got punished, brought in new management, and this year returned yet again to the World Series, the thick stench of corruption dissipating from the artificial domed air of Minute Maid Park.

The first batter of the series went yard. Hits piled up on both sides. Atlanta scored in a hurry. Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies stole second, giving us all the right to walk into Taco Bell and demand a free taco. Things seemed, at first, exciting. Then the series yawned. The story became the Braves’ masterful pitching, forcing groundouts and pop-ups, holding Houston’s renowned offense nearly hitless—third baseman Alex Bregman appeared trapped in the labyrinth of some intractable math problem, while mighty José Altuve could do nothing but shake his head on the way back to the dugout.

Briefly, the tables turned. In today’s game it makes analytic sense to pull starting pitchers early, rotating through an eternally fresh roster of short-burst hurlers. But the postseason has a way of undoing these high scientific pretensions. Overused, forced to pitch night in and night out, Atlanta’s bullpen pitchers grew tired. The Astros clawed back, seeming once again like the league’s premier offense. The series returned to Houston, Astros down three games to two. If the joy of professional sports’ fandom lies in involving yourself in the mood of a whole city or region, then I had relocated my emotional life back to Houston. Atlanta soon ended the fantasy. Braves ace Max Fried, a tall, thin, twitchy 27-year-old whose face bunches up into a handsome grimace when he stalks the mound post-pitch, threw six elegant innings, his soft arching strikes returning Houston’s batters to their previous state of cluelessness. Houston stayed scoreless; Atlanta wrapped up its first World Series win since the ‘90s with a 7-0 blowout. The final game featured extravagantly launched home runs, impressive pitching from Atlanta, good defensive plays on both sides, but not much drama. Though enough, still, to keep me alert, tense and foolishly hopeful through nine.

  1. For all its high-tech flourishes, the Astros scandal was above all atavistic, like so much else in baseball. These days cheating looks like the Pandora Partners, or Uber, or storing some celebrated contemporary artwork in the storage unit of an offshore tax haven. In baseball, meanwhile, corruption and misconduct don’t seem to have evolved far beyond 1919. Trash can–banging, hats, “foreign substances”—in an algorithmic era baseball’s misdeeds remain stubbornly homespun. 

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