Why Does Anyone Watch Baseball?
Harry Cheadle: Hey Ben, I think baseball is starting up again soon. I have no real way of knowing this for sure because I don’t watch the games or pay attention to the box scores, at least not anymore. As a kid, I loved the sport and watched Baseball Tonight on ESPN all the time to see the diving catches, homers, and bloopers, and in college I was in a fantasy league, so I had a reason to keep up with all that. But then I stopped watching ESPN, then quit checking box scores, and now whenever I see a baseball game on at a bar I’m reminded that a baseball game is ten guys and an umpire standing on a field doing almost nothing almost all the time. Why does anyone watch this sport?
Ben Johnson: If you’re going to think that abstractly about it, why does anybody watch any sport? We’re all going to die someday and human existence is meaningless. You’re right, though, baseball is starting back up. And I get the question. It’s, relative to other sports, why follow baseball? I agree with you that it can be mind-numbingly boring, but if you think of boredom as the great American luxury rather than an encroaching menace that can only be kept at bay by thunderous LeBron James dunks, a baseball game can be a pleasant thing to idly sit though. Especially since we all also have computers in our pockets we can dick around with (and watch thunderous LeBron James dunks on) during commercials. I could wax poetic about baseball, but my easiest answer for your question is a question: Assuming baseball is “almost nothing,” why wouldn’t you want to sit and do almost nothing as often as possible just for the sake of doing almost nothing? Keep in mind, we’re all going to die someday and human existence is meaningless. "Almost nothing" seems like a pretty natural state. Maybe I’m just naturally a lazy fuck though.
Harry: Hmmm, I guess if you think of baseball like that, as a break from the constant stimulation we get bombarded with (I’m glancing at Twitter and listening to iTunes as I write this), it makes sense. But then it’s less like a sporting event and more like meditation. If I’m going to do “almost nothing” I’d rather read a novel or cook a meal. But beyond our own personal preferences for what to do with the vanishing amount of time we have on earth, it’s pretty clear that more and more people are turning away from baseball—check out this graph of World Series TV ratings from Wikipedia for evidence. As a fan, are you OK with America’s pastime becoming less and less popular, until it’s on par with hockey or poker or competitive snare drumming, or does something need to be done to “save” the sport’s popularity?
Ben: I like to leave the game on when I read or cook because it makes me feel like a 70s TV detective. You could do a lot of things to make baseball more entertaining. Like for instance go back to allowing amphetamies. Baseball was a lot more exciting when everybody on the field was tweaked out of their minds. I’m not worried about “saving” baseball money-wise though. Ratings for the World Series might be down (we’ve had a lot of dud Series recently—look at the average numbers for games 6 and 7), but revenues are exploding across the board. I hate that I know this, by the way. What I really worry about is, how does a regular human being like me all of a sudden give a shit about real-estate development revenue in Chavez Ravine? You’ve stopped caring about baseball—how much of that is revulsion at the money aspect of things, and how much is not caring one way or another about the Texas Rangers? Would you come back if something cool happened, like Fernandomania or Linsanity?
Harry: I think the number one thing baseball needs to do to get me to watch is speed the game up—somehow limit all those time outs that both the batter and the pitcher take. Games can take three hours, and three hours is too long for anything to take. People have been complaining about game length for years, but nothing has been done at all, as far as I know. I guess that’s because revenues are up and the owners don’t care.
The greed of owners like Jeff Loria of the Marlins doesn’t bother me, since you’ve got owners like that in every sport. And not that you brought it up, but the players' steroid use has nothing to do with my lack of interest either. I think the main reason I don’t care about baseball is that I’m a fan of the Mariners, who are one of the many, many teams in the league that don’t really have any hope for the future. The lack of a salary cap hurts smaller-market teams, and the bizarre (to me, anyway) exclusion of foreign players from the draft means bad teams have a harder time improving through getting their hands on young, franchise-changing athletes. For me to get drawn back in, my team would have to become a contender—which I guess makes me the most casual type of fan.
As a less casual fan, is there anything about the current game you’d change?
Ben: Oh shit. You’re a Mariners fan? Yeah, you’re right. Fuck baseball. Forget about baseball for a while. Focus on Major League Soccer.
They’re probably going to speed up the game a little over the course of the next few years. This off-season they got rid of the fake throw to third, real pickoff throw to first move that pitchers sometimes do to stall when they’re out there thinking about their grocery lists while a reliever warms up. It is a microscopic victory, but a step in the right direction. Others will follow. Owners are mostly worried that faster games will mean less ad time to sell, but there’s plenty of dead air while the broadcast is going that can be eliminated. They will come around as more and more of their revenue comes from paying online viewers.
The patent unfairness of baseball between large and small markets is troubling. Then again, your pal Jeff Loria has proven that if you play your cards right you can get VERY rich indeed from a small-market team provided you remove scruples from the equation. Basically, small-market teams have smaller success windows and longer rebuilding phases with no guarantee of any timetable for a turnaround if the front office isn’t smart. That’s when you start getting really excited about new general managers, and that’s rough territory. You’re in it now as a Mariners fan, but it’s not a forever thing. Even for the Royals or the Pirates. For them it’s a “most of forever” thing, but there’s no rule against them running their team as well as the Rays’ management has.
I wouldn’t consider myself too much more than a casual fan. How formal can you be as a baseball fan? I just don’t mind watching a losing team all year. It’s still fun. Guys who play baseball for a living are usually complete fucking weirdos who are bored all the time. Funny, strange stuff happens. If your team is awful, sometimes you end up with a left fielder who might be high. Professional baseball’s periphery can be just as entertaining, if not more so, than the big heroes winning the World Series and socking home runs. Once you resign yourself to the idea that this whole thing is a story about people, it makes the winning sweeter and richer. When a Bryce Harper comes along, you can either go, “Oh cool, Bryce Harper,” or, if you paid attention during the lean years, you can appreciate Harper even more because he’s not Terrmel Sledge. Look at him. Terrmel Sledge. That’s his name. God bless you, Terrmel Sledge, wherever you are.
Do you have a current favorite Mariner? What about Felix Hernandez? You’ve got to love a guy who can say “I’m Larry” with this degree of ineptitude. Your team has personality. You could watch them if you found yourself not doing anything at any point during the 162-game schedule. You’d be OK. And then you could waste even more of your time shooting the shit with dudes like me. Come on. It’s fun. Terrmelllll Sledggggge. Joinnnnn usssss.