The worse it gets, the more I need baseball. The worse what gets? Well, what have you got? Watched the evening news lately? Some days, the promise of a three-hour break from what novelist Philip Roth called "the indigenous American berserk" draws me like a fountain in the desert.
Roth, of course, was a great baseball fan. He even wrote a 1973 book called "The Great American Novel" -- a ribald saga about a New Jersey minor league team whose owner rented the stadium to the War Department, forcing his team to play the entire season on the road. If not Roth's best, it has moments of antic hilarity. He told an interviewer that he had more fun writing it than any of his other novels.
When I was a kid, baseball was unquestionably the most important American sport. Nothing else came close. Debating the relative merits of Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider and Willie Mays -- Hall of Fame center-fielders for the three New York teams -- consumed much of my youth.
In my neighborhood, which team you supported was a more reliable indicator of personal identity than race or religion. We didn't know from politics, but we all knew Monte Irvin. (My dad played semi-pro ball with Irvin, and he never quit talking about it.)
We also played baseball every day in warm weather. Also whiffle ball, stick ball, stoop ball, etc. To be a boy back then was to play baseball. You didn't have to be an all-star, but you did have to know the game. When somebody said they didn't understand the Infield Fly Rule, what they were telling you was they basically didn't understand anything.
These days, not so much. Indeed, a whole genre of "baseball is doomed" articles appear regularly in the sporting press. The latest is called "Why No One Watches Baseball Anymore" by Pete Zirin, sportswriter for The Nation. I know what you're thinking. The Nation has a sportswriter? Along with all those articles about "the inspiring energy of progressive women"? Yeah, and a lively, provocative sportswriter at that, if a bit dogmatic for my taste.
There's no doubt that baseball is less central to American culture than it once was. But then no one sport is anymore. Zirin cites polls showing that only 9% of Americans call baseball their favorite -- the lowest since Gallup started asking. In Monte Irvin's heyday, it was in the 30s.
When the Pirates' Bill Mazeroski hit a walk-off home run to win the 1960 World Series, so many kids were covertly listening on transistor radios that a subdued roar went up in my high school. That wouldn't happen today. World Series games are played at night, and young people pretty much aren't into it. Gallup says only 6% of Americans under 34 favor baseball.
Eleven percent favor basketball and soccer.
I love basketball too; soccer sometimes. Football only intermittently. Here in SEC country, the local football team plays a dozen games -- three they can't lose, three they never win and six maybes. No sooner does one disappointing season end than everybody yaks obsessively for eight months about the next. Meanwhile, I've watched 100 Red Sox games. I think football is a game for people who don't like sports as much as drinking parties.
But that's just me, although football's slipping in popularity too. But here's the thing: You don't need to know one thing about football to watch it on TV. Baseball, you do.
Zirin says that his problem with baseball is that "the games are too damn long." He cites the recent Red Sox-Yankees series in London, England, as an example. Both games lasted around 4 1/2 hours. "Though a typical game falls more in the three-hour range," he writes, "this is too damn long."
To me, it's just right. Three blessed hours of taut competition in which he who shall not be named, won't be. Perfect. The problem with the London games was playing in a soccer stadium whose aerodynamics made pitchers unable to control breaking balls. So it became Home Run Derby.
The score was 17-13, for heaven's sake. That's a slow-pitch softball score. The English crowd seemed enthralled, but it wasn't big league baseball.
Speed things up? Absolutely. Put in a 30-second pitch clock; limit hitters to one, maybe two timeouts per at bat. Stand in there and hit.
The dramatic effect of defensive shifts could be altered by requiring two infielders on either side of second base. More situational hitting, fewer second basemen swinging for the bleachers and striking out.
Mostly, though, major league baseball needs to sponsor more youth leagues. You play baseball, you learn to love it.
Zirin also confesses to being a Mets fan like my brother Tommy, making the yearly transition from "Let's Go Mets" to "Fire the Manager and Burn the Stadium."
Usually in July, come to think of it.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com