And so ends another summer of empty lawns. They were green lawns, they were well-mown lawns, but they were empty lawns: Another whole baseball season, come and gone, when I didn’t see a single kid playing catch with his dad at dusk, or on a Saturday morning. With his brother. With his sister. I didn’t even see any kids tossing a baseball in the air by themselves.
And it’s not just the lawns that are empty. It’s the school baseball fields. It’s the community recreational fields. It’s the perfectly laid-out Little-League fields. It’s all the places where you used to see kids with bats and balls and gloves. They’re empty.
By the way: I’m not the only one who’s noticed that America’s pastime seems to be heading increasingly into the past, by the way. One of the experts is asking the same question. One of the kids who used to spend his evenings tossing a front-lawn baseball.
“Where are the kids who used to be hitting fly balls?” Jim Bouton asked me the other day. “Where are the kids playing running bases?” And if Jim Bouton is worried, I’m definitely worried.
If you’re a fan of the game when it was truly the nation’s pastime, you know Jim Bouton. In his playing days with the Yankees in the Sixties, he was known as Bulldog, for his unrelenting ability to come right at you, start after start. He threw so hard his that would fall off his head. In 1963, he won 20 games and made the all-star team. He’s also known for writing one of the greatest baseball books ever, Ball Four.
Now Bouton is seventy. He looks about thirty years younger. The lines on his face all point to a smile. He has the face of a guy who’s eternally playing childhood baseball. In fact, the former Yankee is working on a memoir about his childhood.
But the look on his face on the day I met him was a worried one.
“The only time you ever see kids on a baseball field,” Bouton told me, “is when a van pulls up to the field, and all the kids pile out, already in their uniforms, ready for the game. But the fields are empty the rest of the time.”
So what’s going on? Is the disappearance of summer evening neighborhood baseball a canary in the coal mine? Is it like the bats and the frogs disappearing, only signaling a cultural shift instead of a climatic one?
I do know this: attendance in baseball parks from coast to coast is down. In the major leagues, this is understandable. A big-league ticket costs big bucks, and big bucks are in short supply these days. But more worrisome is that the minor leagues are suffering, too. And the minors were supposed to be our baseball refuge. They had a resurgence a decade ago: cheap tickets, good baseball. But even in the heartland, the pulse is now weakening. If minor-league attendance is down, I’m worried.
Even attendance at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is down. If you’re a baseball optimist, you can chalk it up to bad weather in upstate New York this summer. If you’re a realist, though, you can sense the fading of the game that once captured our dreams, at the level where it can’t afford to be fading: with the next generations. With the kids who no longer want to replace their schoolbags with a baseball glove as soon as they step off the bus.
So where are they? Where are the kids on the lawn? The easy answer is that they’re playing video games, and it’s true, of course. Maybe they’re playing a videogame called MLB 09: The Show. We can only hope.
“Where are the kids on the lawn?” I asked a friend the other day. “They’re inside playing videogames,” he said, as if that answered it all. But the video games are a symptom, not a cause. The video games are there for a lot of reasons: start with the disconnections in families in a society where both parents work because the middle class has disappeared. Then consider how much the passive television screen took the outdoors out of our lives. Put a video console in a kid’s hands today, and he’s instantly at home.
But there’s something else at work here: the videogames, where everything is slambang and speedy, are slices of the kids’ generation’s pace: a world where instant is the speed they’re used to. Instant texts, instant messages, instant reality, instant gratification. Watch a kid play a videogame. Or play one yourself, and you’ll see what I’m talking about: 95 percent of the games, whether they’re war games or race-car games, or any games, move fast. And the action movies they watch cut from scene to scene in half a second.
The trouble, of course, is that each of us has only so much attention; if you slice it a dozen ways at the same time, then the gratification you’re getting is diluted, and shallow. You’re in such a hurry that the real emotional payoff becomes irrelevant, or lost.
And baseball is a long-term-payoff. A real-life 1-0 game stretched over nine innings –for me, the best kind of baseball game, with tension at every turn, with every baserunner leading off first, hoping to find a way home — is out of their reality. Baseball moves slowly. In real time. The time we used to keep. When something new didn’t have to happen every second. When life moved slowly enough for us to smell the popcorn, which is what the old stadiums always smelled like.
Now: to be fair, we can blame Major League Baseball for this, too, because baseball games have created a new kind of time: they’ve become ridiculously slow. Watch a game from the nineteen sixties or seventies – a game that probably lasted an hour and forty-five minutes — and you’ll notice that batters never stepped out of the box between pitches. Today, on every pitch, they step out of the box, adjust their wristbands, their batting gloves, but mostly they just linger for the cameras in vanity. And we can blame ourselves here, too, we can chalk up all of the strutting to our modern star culture, where everyone wants to be looked at, and we seem to be fascinated by them. If baseball really wanted to put more fans in the seats, it could cut 45 minutes out of every game by insisting that batters stay in the box and just play the damned game.
But then you’d have to tell men making millions of dollars that it isn’t them we want to see, it’s the game. And that would be a lie. Time was, the appeal of the game was the team, not the player. Time was, guys were proud to be part of a team first, and proud of themselves second.
But that’s all water under the bridge. We can’t peel back time. Or change its pace. We can’t convince kids that instant-everything isn’t the way to go. Their phones and keyboards tell them otherwise. And we can’t force baseball’s union to peel back salaries, lessen the burden of the price of a day at the ballpark, give each and every kid a chance to spend endless summer days at the new stadiums, watching the pros up close. We can’t tell the athletes that it isn’t all about them. Because today, it always is.
But what we can do is give our kids a chance to taste what baseball is all about. There’s a reason they teach history in their schools. Why not let them feel it? We can take the time to put aside a few minutes to bring out the baseball gloves, so they can feel how amazing it is when a baseball sinks its way into the leather webbing of a glove. To know that time spent throwing a baseball back and forth isn’t wasted time. It’s time passing the way it’s supposed to be passed. Accompanied by the sound the crickets singing when a summer sun sets,
Oh, and by the way: running bases? That was a game that every kid used to play. All you needed was three kids, two gloves, a baseball and a couple of sweatshirts to use as bases. The idea was to try and run between the two bases guarded by your friends without getting tagged out. My friends and I used to play for hours. Back when an hour was something you wanted to last forever.