by Cecilia Tan
Time is a crucial element in many competitive sports. In a race, the fastest time wins. In football or basketball, the team with the lead can run out the clock. Figure skating routines are of a prescribed length. But time in baseball is not measured in minutes nor in hundredths of a second. It is measured by the deeds of players, their accomplishments or their failures. This is, I believe, why umpires are so loath to tell pitchers or batters to hurry up, despite the prescriptions of the Rule Book. Because to clock the action on the field is anathema to the spirit of the game.
It's only when not playing the game that time takes over again. When a player goes on the disabled list, his sentence is measured, fifteen days, sixty days. Home team batting practice from 5pm to 5:45.
Now the powers that be, including the television barons, would like to see the game sped up. Years ago, they say, baseball games took a lot less time. What they seem to forget is that one reason that the games took so much less time was that they did not pause every half inning for three minutes or more of commercial announcements. Most spring training games still finish in two and a half hours, despite the fact that every batter is still trying to find himself at the plate, and despite the fact that there is a pitching change every two innings. Baseball moves at whatever pace is necessary.
So why is it, if games were shorter twenty years ago, did they seem so much longer to me then? Perhaps it's that, as a child, everything seems to take longer. A year which zips by now would have been a significant fraction of my life when I was seven, eight, nine years old.
I remember my father taking me to see games starting when I was about five. Back then, a trip to a game was a major excursion. It was more like spending a day at an amusement park than, say, going to see a movie. We'd pack food, as if we were camping out. Even when I was ten years old, I remember the games seeming endless. It was not because I was bored—far from it—it was like a different measure of time took over. An afternoon at the ballpark had plenty of time for a hot dog, an ice cream bar, a knish, plus the fried chicken and fruit and other goodies mom had brought. There was time to roam the stadium, exploring the ramps and souvenir stands and escalators. There was time to forget all about school—like we were on vacation. We never wanted them to end, either, except for the fact, of course, that if the game didn't end, then our team couldn't win. Our team in those days was the Yankees, and Yankee Stadium was our amusement park, our Disneyland.
Nowadays I live hundreds of miles from the Stadium, but I still go down there a few times a year for a reunion with my parents and family. They say the Yankees play slower games, on average, than any other team. Thank goodness! Now that I'm a grown-up, those three and a half hours in the ballpark seems like a precious short time. Because the game can still make me forget school/work/deadlines, but all too soon, it's over, and we're waking up from the dream and back to reality. There's just this brief window of time in which to bask in the baseball.
Remember twi-night doubleheaders? I know the players didn't like them, but for me, that was the greatest. That really was an all-day excursion. Dad liked to park in this tiny parking lot right near the giant Louisville Slugger outside the Stadium, and you had to get there early for that. These days that parking lot is gone, replaced by a multi-level garage. But in those days, we'd be two hours early at least for the first game, and sit in the upper deck eating fried chicken and watching batting practice. Then we'd have that whole game, and then a break, and then ANOTHER game. Gluttony. That's what it was. And we loved it.
Now, whether I am seeing a game at Fenway, or in a small Florida spring training facility, or some minor league park, I always like to arrive as early as possible. And I'm typically still standing in my seat until the last player has left the field, the final announcements have been made, and most of the rest of the spectators have left. Anything to make it last just a little longer. Because baseball time, magical as it is, does come to an end.