I wasn’t the one who scheduled a five week break from school over the five weeks of the year farthest from either end of Baseball Season, but I did choose to make the most of it regardless. So over my five weeks of Winter, I found myself attending five New York sporting events with home teams wearing orange and blue. They weren’t the Mets, but they were the next thing.
In the five games I attended, the Knicks, ultimately, were 4-1. Until the ugly loss to the Clippers, they had been 4-0, but it quickly became apparent that my perfect record would not prevail. Robin Lopez was ejected, the back of the bench finished out the fourth quarter, and the Knicks went home with a 28-point loss.
While there’s nothing overtly wrong with winning four basketball games while losing one, as I watched far more games than I ever had in such a concentrated span, basketball began earning unconscious comparisons to America’s Game of Baseball in my head, and each day, I looked at it less and less favorably.
Not that there’s anything wrong with basketball: along with football and hockey, I’d put it in a three way tie for second-best major sport. They all have their positives and negatives, and their different elements make them appealing in different ways. And while an evening watching any of them is better than just about anything, they’re all clearly and decidedly in second. They’re fine; they’re just not baseball.
I found myself thinking of baseball as the Knicks began, to channel Walt Clyde Frazier, hacking and whacking, fouling DeAndre Jordan every time the Clippers got the ball so that the crowd of 20,000 could watch DeAndre Jordan miss free throws, followed by the Knicks – too often – missing shots of their own. It’s a strategy condemned widely as ineffective and boring – so of course, everybody does it. And as I watched, I thought wistfully of how nothing like that would ever happen in baseball.
Of course, in one sense it’s an extremely specific problem: in baseball, there are no personal fouls, so there’s no issue. But comparing more generally, there’s a distinct difference between the two sports. You’ve got basketball, in which an irregularity in the rules allows teams to foul their way to success. And then you’ve got baseball, in which the rules, having evolved to perfection over the history of the game, would never allow such a thing. Imagine if you could gain a strategic advantage by making an error, or could make a miraculous comeback by walking every batter you faced rather than giving them a chance to hit. You can foul every possession, and you get the ball back. But you walk every batter, you don’t get any reward. You messed up, and you’re not getting anything out of it.
That’s the best thing about baseball: there’s no urgency involved, no scrambling to beat a rapidly expiring clock. Well, there is urgency, but of a different kind: a controlled urgency, the urgency that says our time may be running out, but we’re not done until it’s over. You can’t rally from 12 points down in basketball with ten seconds remaining, but five run walk-off rallies in the bottom of the ninth are not at all unheard of. Until the game ends, everyone has a chance – the epitome of what sports are meant to be. Always play to the whistle – the first lesson in any sport, on the first day of practice. And yet, in many, it doesn’t hold true during blowouts. The Knicks played almost the entire fourth quarter with the back end of their bench in, and this was an important game, considering the Knicks, going in, were one game out of a playoff spot. They just accepted it: there was no way they could win. It’s a glaring comparison: in baseball, it ain’t over, as we all know, until it’s over.
The whole issue of the clock is one of the things that makes baseball truly unique, and, regrettably, possibly one of the major reasons that its place at the forefront of American sports has shifted in football’s direction. Most people, it seems, don’t want any breaks in their sports: they don’t want any pauses in the action, any time to regroup, any wasted space that could have been filled by gameplay. It’s why that oft-quoted statistic came to light: only twelve minutes of every NFL game are actually taken up by game action.
And most people see that, and complain about how much time is wasted. But I see that, and think, since when is some extra time a bad thing?
They may not be seen as such nowadays, but sports are, or once were, recreational activities. They were supposed to be fun, even relaxing. You played – or watched – to clear your head after a week of hard work, or to find some physical outlet for mental exhaustion. Obviously, we’ve moved beyond that – or backward from it. Sports aren’t relaxing anymore, as the fan to my left would attest. He complained the entire game, touching on every topic he could think of: how bad the Knicks City Dancers were, how he didn’t understand why they kept fouling DeAndre Jordan, how he didn’t like the way Kristaps Porzingis was shooting, how the Knicks bench wasn’t passing well enough down 28 points, and on, and on, and on. He was many things, but relaxed wasn’t one of them.
Once again, I found myself remembering a night at Citi Field: Chris Heston’s no-hitter, which I was in attendance for. As Ruben Tejada struck out to end it, I slammed the empty seat next to me in frustration, attracting the attention of an older man sitting a row above me.
“Sure, it’s frustrating,” he said. “But in 20 years, you’ll be glad you saw it.”
And there’s a baseball fan for you. There’s a man who has his baseball priorities straight.
Baseball is not all about the wins, although of course a win is preferable to a loss. It’s about the experience, the community, the competition. And its fans fit the sport perfectly – they, or perhaps we, care deeply about outcomes, but also about experiences. In its immediate aftermath, I didn’t think I would ever be glad to have seen the Mets no-hit by a no-name rookie. Now, it’s not even a question: I’d give anything to return to that day. It was a day at the ballpark, watching my team, and that kind of day, whether it results in a win or a loss, is the kind of day you remember.
Or, at least, the kind of day you should remember. The kind of game a baseball fan will remember. And that’s why baseball is, and will be, America’s pasttime. That’s why baseball is the greatest game in the world.