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Guest Toteboard: Baseball and the 'Sweet Nuthin'

Herman's Toteboard is pleased to feature its very first guest column. The author, Aiden Downey, is a Georgia-based writer, Renaissance man, and rabble-rouser.

Once again Herman’s Toteboard got me thinking, this time about the intended and unintended consequences of speeding up the game of baseball. I have not watched a game with the new rules so cannot speak to what it’s like to see a pitcher have to contend with a pitch clock as well as a pitch count, but the whole idea of shortening a baseball game by limiting the time taken between the so-called ‘playing’ -- or better yet, action -- is an opportune a moment to stop and contemplate what this might mean in terms of our ongoing struggle with and against time.

In some ways, baseball can be thought of as one of the few sports played in and with a different conception of time. In sports like football and basketball, time is always running -- and therefore always running out. In timed games, the clock is of central importance, and often dictates the way the game is played. The running of ‘two minute offenses’ or intentionally running the clock down and out are prime examples of this. So is a ‘time out,’ which while stopping the game clock does so by starting another clock, as time outs are, somewhat paradoxically, timed. And perhaps the most salient aspect of setting a time limit for a game is that the outcome of the game is often decided long before the game is over.

And then there's baseball, where a clock does not dictate or decide games. Outs and runs do, and getting someone out or scoring a run can take seconds, minutes or perhaps hours. In theory, doing so could conceivably take forever. As such, time unfolds differently during a baseball game. This alternative conception of time makes a whole host of seemingly superfluous phenomena, from pitchers stepping off the mound to do nothing more than rub the ball to batters stepping out of the box before every pitch to go through a ritual adjustment of their batting gloves, helmet and of course, cup, not only possible but also probable. In my own experience of playing the game, nobody is in a hurry or hurries up as there is no buzzer to beat. The ebb and flow of the game creates its own sense of history, and of time, to the point where the game dictates time rather than the other way around. For while baseball games are started at a particular time and assumed to last about three hours or so there is always a chance that they could drag out longer, sometimes much longer, sometimes into the next day.

So why the sudden need to speed up the game? From what I understand, the powers that be felt that fans would like wasted time cut out of the game, that this would make for a better viewing experience for fans. Cutting down on the down or dead time (mostly between pitches and pitchers) would make the game both more exciting and shorter in duration. But I cannot help but think that we, as a society, have come to believe that we have no time -- and with good reason. Feeling constantly pressed to maximize our use of time, we have now found baseball and it’s antiquated relationship with time to be unbearably slow and -- wait for it (or not) -- boring. We are so busy, so over-scheduled, so pressed to do and get-r-done and check boxes, that rather than seeing our relationship with time as a problem we instead have put baseball on a clock to better fit into our busy lives. We want the players to hurry up and play the game more like we live our lives.

Interestingly, the clock in baseball does not limit the time the game is being played but rather the time between plays. Much like a play clock in football, it limits the amount of time taken between plays. But in baseball, exactly what the play or action is depends on whom you ask. Some consider pitching to be action, while others consider hitting the ball into play to be the action, or at least the beginning of it. Regardless of where your action is, the actual time the ball is ‘in play’ is at best a small fraction of the time for the overall game. I would be surprised if a baseball is moving or in play for more than 5 minutes in an entire three hour game, by which I mean the ball is in the act of being pitched, hit, fielded or thrown. And so the rest of the time is spent doing what? That's the part we as fans struggle with. Even with all the Jumbotron screens at baseball stadiums and the screens we carry with us, we struggle to sit there and endure all that seemingly wasted time.

I wonder if ESPN Sports Center had something to do with our increasing impatience with baseball. I know people who don't watch baseball games anymore. Instead they watch the highlights. They cannot sit through a game because they get bored. I do not think phones have helped, as they have made people even more bent on endless and uninterrupted stimulation. Watching people swipe through TikTok and Instagram posts, I can only imagine how much they would love to swipe the pitcher taking his time right off the field. But maybe the problem is not that there is a lot of time being wasted in baseball games. Maybe it is quite the opposite. Maybe time is being taken and experienced for what it is (all we have) rather than treated as a scarce commodity (something we don’t have) that must then be hoarded or maximized.

I have been wondering what would happen if we were able to magically transport thirty or so Atlanta Braves fans from a game today back to a Braves game in 1950. Beyond the obvious differences in what the game, players, and fans look like, I wonder what they would notice about how the 1950 fans took in the game. What would they make of so many people stuck there with nothing to occupy them- no huge or small screens to stare at- between pitches, batters and innings? I think the modern fans might have a hard time sitting through a 1950 game because they would struggle with all the down or dead time, struggle to occupy themselves while they wait, struggle to make something out of nothing, so to speak.

I remember hearing the philosopher Alan Watts talking about our obsession with time, and how we treated it as something to be compressed, maximized, and saved rather than lived. He used the metaphor of listening to music to make his point, arguing that one would not go to a concert and expect the band to rush through the playing of songs. The music would be played in time, with less pressure to be on time (except in a musical sense). I think the same thing holds true with baseball in the sense that each game takes on a time and life of its own, and that while, at least in theory, the game could go on forever, it will, like all things, end all on its own. But more and more many of us squirm with the game’s blatant general disregard for ‘our’ time for several reasons. First, it sticks our nose in our own dysfunctional relationship with time -- and perhaps our lives. Second, baseball games refuse to fit neatly into our overstuffed schedules. And finally, baseball games can, if one is not vigilant, induce boredom, which I like to think of as akin to an autoimmune disease. But rather than stopping to contemplate our own often neurotic relationship with time and maybe even trying to slow our lives down we instead opt to speed up the game.

I remember the comedian Steven Wright making a joke about how he had bought every time saving device (e.g., a microwave) and yet after years of using them couldn't find any of the time he had supposedly saved. Where did it all go? Good question. I cannot help but think about the now common practice -- that the Toteboard has succumbed to only because its author cannot figure out how to remove the feature -- of posting how long it will take a reader to read a particular blog or post. While it makes a certain sense to give people an idea of how much of their time it will cost (yes, I went there) to read something, there is an implicit pressure to make the post as short as possible because the shorter it is the more likely someone is going to stop and read it. This is because we have convinced ourselves that we do not have time to read a thirty-minute article. But a two-minute post? I can do that. Thirty seconds? I can do that all day. And sometimes I feel like I do, and I am not even on social media. Or do a post that states it will take anywhere from 2-4 hours to read it? That takes a long yet indeterminate amount of time, much like a baseball game? Or a life?

And to further complicate matters, there is the all too common practice of skimming an article rather than reading it, so that a ten minute ends up taking 5, 3, 2 or even none minutes. But at what point in the skimming are we not reading anymore? Are we simply passing our eyes over text, registering a word or sentence here or there while we delude ourselves into thinking we have understood it? I wonder if the same can be said of baseball, that at a certain point the game (which is predominantly the space in between the so-called action) gets condensed down into something else -- something that is no longer baseball, but rather a sort of CliffNotes of baseball designed for us, people living a CliffNote-like life. I believe the the real 'game' of baseball is at least in part about how the game itself plays with time, how it takes its time. I think that this aspect of the game is what so upsets the ticking clock we have installed in our head. Maybe our own struggle to ‘take in’ a baseball game is in part because we have lost the facility/capacity to take time, to take our time, in such a radically different way.

I listen to a local college radio station that still broadcasts the college’s baseball games. I stumbled across a game the other day, and stopped for a moment (that’s all I had) to take in the soothing voices of the broadcast team as they narrated for me what was happening on the field and then their thoughts about it. Along with their voices, every so often I could hear the familiar sound of a bat hitting a ball, followed by fans cheering. Then it would settle back down, and when I put my ear closer to the radio I could hear vendors hawking food, a plane flying overhead, and that familiar hum of a crowd of people waiting for whatever was about to happen.

And then, out of nowhere, I heard absolutely nothing. At first I thought the station might have gone temporarily off the air, but then after one or two almost unbearably long seconds the announcer broke the silence to remind me of the pitch count, “Two and two the count, one out, runner on first, Tech up by one here in the bottom of the 4th.” And then back we all went to the collective silence, players, fans, announcers alike, all waiting patiently for the pitcher, who I imagined to be walking around the mound or shaking off signs from the catcher, to start his slow, purposeful windup and deliver his pitch.

Those simultaneously fleeting and alarming seconds of silence stayed with me, as they are emblematic of how much my, and perhaps our, relationship to time has been radically altered over the course of my lifetime. I had at first read that silence as a sign that something had gone wrong, that the broadcast had been interrupted and that I was now missing out on the action. But nothing was happening, and for a brief moment the announcer did not do his job and fill the airwaves with chatter, instead allowing that nothingness to be passed along to me. And while at the time I could not grasp and therefore experience it in all of its glorious emptiness, I found myself missing it as soon as it was over. There was something to that nothing, something remarkable in its indescribable ephemerality and poignant futility. Perhaps it is even the sound of the ‘sweet nuthin,’ as Lou Reed put it, that ever so elusive soundtrack for life as it is actually meant to be lived and how it might be lived if we did not allow our twisted notion of time to turn our lives into something to be counted and kept. I fear it as also the same ‘sweet nuthin’ that modernity has, with all of its advances and advantages, effectively rendered us allergic to. So much so that we are hard at work -- at a feverish pace of course -- trying to eradicate it from our increasingly frantic, fragmented and frightening lives, minds and games.


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