The Glorious Tedium of Our National Pastime

Lessons from my grandfather.

Author by Rachel Rosenblit
Credit: Megan Schaller

It was on sick days or summer breaks—whenever there were midday hours to kill—that my parents would drop me at my grandparents’ house, a 10-minute drive from our home in Atlanta. We’d play cards, and I’d help my grandma clip coupons while she watched her “programs,” glacially paced soap operas that had been on the air for decades.

My grandfather had his programs too—like soaps, they were long and convoluted, with deep-rooted rivalries and characters who felt like family. They were baseball games. Three-plus hours apiece. There was running, sliding, diving; but in between, there were sun-drenched stretches of nothing, or so it seemed: hushed huddles and ape-ish sign language exchanges between grown men who chewed and spit and scratched as though they had nothing pressing to do. Old people liked boring things, I guessed.

If you’d asked me back then about all the current proposals to make baseball a more exciting, fast-paced game—trimming the length, adding a pitch clock, etc.—I would have said, instate ’em all! (Actually, it was the late ‘80s, so something akin to, “Like, totally.”) Who, besides old folks, could enjoy this?

My grandfather had been an athlete in his day, and by the time I knew him there were traces of that life—sinewy limbs, golf on Sundays, bowling league on Wednesdays—but if he was winning any races in his 70s, he was damn sure doing it as the tortoise, not the hare. Not because he moved slowly, which he never did—I can still picture his quick, agile clip into a rainy parking lot, off to pull the car around. It’s more that he was measured, brimming with intent about seemingly meaningless things. To watch him eat a slice of pie, you could practically hear a nature documentary narrator eking out a verb per minute: “He angles his utensil…he pierces the crust.” Between each bite, coffee (“Mmm”), then back to the fork, and so on. He wasn’t winning any pie-eating contests; but then again, wasn’t he?

I don’t recall ever seeing my “Zadie,” as we called him, in a rush. He had an elegance that made it hard to imagine him harried, and easy to believe his whole life had been a sort of slow burn. There was the small frozen town he was from, Bradford, Pennsylvania, home of the Zippo lighter and a website that boasts “unhurried simplicity.” There were the perfect cursive curlicues peppered throughout five years of love letters—postmarked from stations in North Africa, France, Italy, Germany—to my grandma, the southern gal he’d wooed at a USO dance before shipping out as a World War II engineer. There were the thousands of receipts he diligently cross-checked during 25 years as a sportswear shipping clerk in Atlanta. There was the way he’d wait. And I mean that literally, and reverentially because it’s such a thing of the past: waiting! Patiently. Free from anxiety or resentment, from devices or screens. In line at the post office with neither huff nor puff, a single crisp envelope in hand. At my grandma’s hair salon, where she took hours to get colored and curled by John, the other man in her life. At my brother’s Jewish Community Center basketball games—how we’d all wait for this mess of 5’5”-and-under adolescents to make a basket—before driving us home in his purple Cadillac.

Patience, yes; but more than that, grace. That was his thing. Back in Bradford, he’d been attracted to sports that required it, or they’d been attracted to him—diving, swimming, tennis, golf, bowling, ping pong, pool; those gymnastics rings you keep still with quivering arms while the rest of your poised muscles try not to give out. And baseball. There’s a photo of his local team—Goodman Pipe, his uncle’s scrap metal business—that I’ve always loved. Two rows of young, sporty men in matching caps, jerseys, and old-timey wide-cuffed slacks: the faces are wan and long, each more drained and hopeless than the next—because the team stunk? Because it was Depression-era rural America? But then there’s my Zadie, bottom left, with the gentlest smile and an unmistakable twinkle in his eye. I used to love scanning the faces clockwise from the top—sweeping past all the constipated glares and ending on his here’s-lookin’-at-you gaze.

I’m not sure if he was any good at baseball. I know he won a pentathlon when he was 16, that he was a versatile athlete—so probably decent? But maybe he couldn’t throw worth a lick or dropped as many balls as he caught. All I know is that he loved the sport. He was enamored of it. I can close my eyes and see him on the couch, legs outstretched, arms folded behind his head—was that my grandma asking where her pocketbook was? No matter—and there he’d stay, transfixed, for nine innings straight.

If he wasn’t watching, he was listening. My mom remembers most of her childhood car rides soundtracked by a game on the radio, Zadie swept away at the wheel. They often went as a family to Cracker Stadium—now a Whole Foods—where the minor league Atlanta Crackers (I guess “Rednecks” was taken?) played before the Braves came to town in 1966. Their apartment had no air conditioning, so a summer night game, the heat breaking after dusk under the stadium lights, was an escape for everyone, not just my Zadie.

My grandma had a story she loved to tell: In 1946, shortly after getting engaged, she and Zadie were halfway home from a Crackers game before she realized the diamond from her ring was gone. She insisted they go back; he insisted they’d never find it. Back at their seats, as the cleaning crew swept around them in semi-darkness, she spotted a yet-unswept mound of shells from the peanuts they’d eaten. My grandfather sparked his Zippo lighter, and shining atop the mound “was the sparkle of that diamond!” There was always magic in the game for him.

I was 15 when he died, and it was probably a few years later that I started to love baseball, to realize it was a lovely way to spend a few hours. There’d always been a passing interest: As a tween in Atlanta in the ‘90s, when the Braves went from “worst to first” and kept winning, baseball fandom was almost a mandate. So I didn’t fight it. I bought the NLCS Champs t-shirts, developed crushes on the hunkier players. In fifth grade, Zadie took me and a friend to a game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and from high in the outfield, we giggled through binoculars at David Justice’s butt every time he bent at the waist. My interest in baseball went as deep, would last as long, as a middle school fling—I could have sworn. But as years passed, something about the sport, its hypnotic rhythm or its sneaky way of being compellingly complicated but feeling soothingly simple—hooked me.

Baseball wasn’t boring, it turned out; single-digit me had it wrong. There was a leisurely tempo, sure, with enough interludes to mark up a longhand scorecard or to digest indigestible nachos. On TV, announcers could riff and prattle, or detail a pitcher’s entire resume in between strikes. But “boring” was a misnomer. If you were paying attention, wheels were turning constantly—wordless dances between outfielders, between basemen, between the catcher and everyone. There were explosive moments—grand slams, dugout-emptying fistfights, walk-off homers—and in the meantime, chess pieces were moving, upping the ante, before your eyes.

I won’t pretend I was the one paying attention, exactly, or that I’ve ever been a stat-spouting savant. I’ve spent as many games distractedly day-drinking as I have locked in; I possess zero understanding of why that left-handed batter got thrown a slider on a full count, and wait, was that a slider? I still need refreshers on finer points, things like suicide squeezes or the infield fly rule. (Maybe because it’s ludicrously subjective and un-rule-like? Anyway.) But a decade after my Zadie died and long after my team’s winning streak ended, I was confounding various roommates in various small apartments with my desire to watch a game, transfixed, for nine innings straight.

Powers that be have long suggested ways to make baseball more “exciting”—and mostly, the game’s resisted. To the 1973 motion to use a designated hitter, half the league responded with a big, fat, still-in-effect No Thanks. Among tweaks that stuck, last year they agreed to signal intentional walks with a finger point instead of lobbing four uninspired balls. This season, they started limiting mound visits, so there are fewer private huddles while the other team kicks at the dirt. Lately, as the world has seemed to speed up all at once, execs are obsessed with the sport’s “pace of play” problem, and proposals keep flying like so many pop-ups to—out of?—left field. We can whittle the game to seven innings, they say; maybe less is more, and more people will want to watch less baseball. We can implement a pitch clock: just throw the ball already! Or when a team’s trailing in the ninth, why not let them bypass the batting order and send up whoever they want, like a mini all-star game? Would LeBron sit on the bench, the MLB has reasoned if the Cavs were down with seconds left? We could even take a cue from a new practice in the minors, and the 11th inning could start with a runner on second, aka “in scoring position.” Isn’t sports about scoring?

I get it. Baseball’s a business that needs to sell tickets and $15 Coors Lights, to attract cord-cutting millennials and ratings. It can’t sit around grumbling at corporate sponsors to get off its astroturf lawn. But to me, the pace of baseball isn’t a problem. It’s a gift. Call me a relic; a fogie; accuse me of being as old as my grandfather always seemed to me to be, but in a time when everything feels as fleeting as a firefly—er, Snapchat message—baseball is something to luxuriate in. A televised game can feel meditative, yet still, at times, cinematic, with lingering close-ups on sweaty-browed pitchers and narrators building suspense as bases load. At the ballpark on a summer evening, you settle in with a family-size bag of sunflower seeds, you feel the sun melt away. Can you watch a sunset in fast forward? Would you want to? True fans don’t mind when games aren’t home run bonanzas—we delight in the deadlocked tension of a pitcher’s duel. We don’t get weary in extra innings; when the players look depleted and keep trotting out to the field for another go, that’s when we cheer for them the most, feel most connected to their desperation to hold on a little longer—until someone inevitably sends a ball flying deep into the night sky.

Has anyone gotten antsy while listening to a no-hitter on satellite radio in his self-driving car? Checked his smartwatch 14 times in the 14th? Probably. But baseball’s never been concerned with fitting into our modern lives, or really with modernity at all; this is a game unabashedly steeped in nostalgia. There are still stadium-wide singalongs in the seventh inning; corny uniforms inexplicably accessorized with belts; managers who ring the bullpen on a landline, as if that doesn’t look more absurd with each passing generation of iPhone. Baseball’s a little in love with its own history. So no wonder it hasn’t been quick to chip away at the things that make baseball, baseball. Staying the same is what keeps the game connected to its legacy; and what keeps me feeling connected to my Zadie, who watched this sport at this pace, who relished those sun-drenched stretches as I do. And by the way, he would roll over ten times at that runner-on-second nonsense.

I never asked, but I’m sure Zadie loved baseball for all the obvious reasons—because it’s a gripping, connective pastime with heartbreak and triumph to spare. But I imagine he was also unconsciously drawn to it because the ethos of baseball echoed his own. The measured, practiced strategy; the implication of an “earned run” and the effort it took to score opposite a perfectly positioned army. The idea that you could be slow and steady—cunningly loading the bases, thoughtfully crafting a pitch sequence—and win the race. That you were rewarded for your patience, for noticing how one shaky domino—a sloppy bunt, a too-eager runner, a wild pitch—had sent the rest of them toppling over. The notion inherent to the game of savoring things worth savoring, and waiting on things worth waiting for.

They just don’t make them like that anymore.

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