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Weeds: Baseball becoming a drag

There are things I’ve loved my entire adult life: my wife, Miller Sellner Implement, beer. Pam’s not really a thing, but you know what I mean.

Then, there are things I’ve loved even longer, as far back as I have memory: my parents, cheese, baseball.

In the early Sixties, brother Dean brought home an interest in the Minnesota Twins from Faribault Braille School. Summer days with a transistor radio set to WCCO for Twins’ games were as routine as milking cows. I grew up listening to Mom, Dad, and Herb Carneal.

Appealing players like Killebrew, Oliva, and Kaat cemented that relationship. Later there were days meeting friends in the Baltimore lot. In my mind, I can still walk you around Metropolitan Stadium with a smile on my face. I could do that with the Metrodome, but it would be with a frown, recalling the imprisonment of baseball there. That sentence ended with the delightful return of grass and sky at Target Field.

Like any relationship, there were bumps on the way in my long affair with baseball. Strikes and lockouts jerked fans around. Trading Rod Carew stung. The designated hitter: just because we’re used to it doesn’t make it less wrong. Regardless, every Opening Day brought me back filled with anticipation for the lovely marathon that is a baseball season.

2020 was hard on lots of us for lots of reasons. Just as I was starting to engage with Spring Training, boom, it ended. No one knew whether that was for a week or a month. It turned out a truncated season began in August with cutout fans and piped-in crowd noise. Some oddball rules made it seem like a pretend season, and I never had much interest.

2021 was going to be a Return to Normal. I went to a few games at Target Field. Nothing beats a day at the ballpark; that hasn’t changed. But as the season went on, my interest waned. It wasn’t just that the Twins were bad. That’s happened before. My whole attention to baseball was fading to dark. By September, the games barely registered on my mental radar.

It struck me last week that I didn’t watch one inning of the World Series. That hasn’t happened since Kennedy was in the White House. I found myself wondering. “Wha’ happened?”

I’ve talked about this with friends. I hear similar sentiments. “I’m just not as interested as I used to be.” “It’s harder to watch a whole game.” The fact that I and my buddies remain baseball’s main audience is not a good sign for the sport. We are an aging fan base for sure.

I’m talking about pro baseball here, the Twins in Twins Territory. You can still find school games, kids ball, and town teams at the comely ball parks we are blessed to have around here Those are a pleasant and inexpensive way to spend time outdoors in our short season of sun.

But something is going on with the game at that upper level, where players make lots of money and fans spend a day’s wage to sit in the stands.

Most obvious, is the that the games take longer. It’s always been an attraction of the game that there is no clock. In the past, I considered myself lucky to see extra innings. More time at the ball yard. But now there is tedium, with mind-numbing spaces in the game.

Long ago when I played Bi-County baseball, we had a dear old ump named Otto Siewert. After every third out, Otto would begin chirping, “OK, off the field, let’s go, get out there, hustle it up, let’s go, let’s go.” We found it amusing, but it did quicken the pace. Major League Baseball could use Otto.

A couple years ago, I went to Detroit to see the Twins play the Tigers on Labor Day weekend. It occurred to me that it was almost exactly twenty years before that I took daughter Anna to Detroit to see a couple games at old Tiger Stadium. I looked it up, and the games we saw in 1999 were under two and a half hours. The games in 2019 were all over three hours.

Nine inning games approaching four hours are not uncommon. In the past, a crisply played pitching duel might have us out tailgating in two hours. To blame? Television, batters tugging their batting gloves, and a shrinking strike zone all have a piece.

Then there are pitching changes. Lots of pitching changes. A playoff game this year had sixteen pitchers. Nine innings, sixteen pitchers! No one ever came to the ballpark excited to see a parade of relief pitchers.

When I was going to a game in the past, I would anxiously check out who the starting pitchers were and create scenarios in my mind for that day’s game. The starting pitchers had lead roles in the drama I was about to see. Now a starting pitcher going five innings is rare as hens’ teeth.

Someone figured out that when a batter sees a pitcher a third time, his odds of succeeding go up. So, we come to the role of statistical analysis. A few decades ago, Bill James led a group of smart people looking inside the game and plucking out truisms that weren’t true. That was exciting for young fans like I was then. It was hip to be analytic.

At first analytic believers stood outside the gate and lobbed stones at baseball. Over time, they were invited in and began to appear in management. Now, the former stone throwers are in charge.

Strategy shifted. Strikeouts and home runs came to be valued, so much that a player can strike out 200 times and be in the lineup if he hits home runs. Rod Carew took five years to strike out 200 times. Strikeouts and home runs have their place. But neither is as exciting as a triple off the wall and cheering as the runner rounds second base.

In ways the game has become predictable, dull, and slow. Perhaps this will cycle around and my fandom will return. Pam knows that when I go into the nursing home, I want to watch baseball games all day. That’s still the plan. I guess I can get a nap if the game goes four hours.

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