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American sports have always had their own special sense of time. Football ‘s two minute drill is the epitome of compressed tension. The phrase is now a national metaphor for decision-making under time pressure. Football is time bound in other respects as well – the 30 second clock, micro-seconds for determining “in the grasp,” 3 time-outs a half, even the hang-time for punts is the object of critical attention. Basketball too has its digital markers. The 24 second shot clock, the 3 second in the lane rule, and the pandemonium of buzzer beating baskets in the final seconds.
Baseball is another story. The ‘national pastime’ moves at a leisurely pace. Its progression is marked by innings instead of a clock. Players take pretty much as long as they want – to get set on the mound, to get comfortable in the batter’s box, to engage is all the small mannerisms that we learn as kids. The game is downright un-American in its indulgence of time in our get-with-it and pro-active society. Whereas football provides an apt motif for our society – endless committee meetings interrupted by brief bursts of violence; baseball just ambles along. Outfielders can practice their swings between batters, infielders chat with umpires; teammates can josh each other on the bench, and fans have time to catch up on the day’s paper between innings – or even between pitches. Only the pitcher and catcher seem to be working. One key player, the designated hitter, can get piles of money just for walking from the bench to the plate 4 or 5 times a day to swing a 2 pound bat. Cast in that role for his valedictory sojourn with the Seattle Mariners a couple of years back, Ken Griffey jr. got into the habit of snoozing in the clubhouse between plate appearances. It wasn’t until June that he was missed.
Americans’ obsession with time makes baseball an anomaly. Maybe that is why it no longer is the country’s primary field of dreams. At times, it seems that nostalgia and inertia are all that keep it going. Never really a city game, today’s urban America relies heavily on imports from Latin America to keep the national pastime up to standard. Immigrant workers, yes – but entirely legal, even when playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Crass commercialization of all big-time sports, collegiate as well as professional, has changed some of this. For football, it has meant more committee meetings lasting longer. Advertising breaks of greater duration occur at irritatingly frequent intervals. After scores, after the ensuing kick-off, during injury time, and arbitrarily decreed by officials on orders from on high whenever there is a backlog of bought commercial space. The game itself at times seems only the occasion for networks to harvest financing from sponsors. The Super Bowl once stood out for this affliction. The formula now is extended to all games, even those between two inept losers. That means at least 3 hours spent in front of the T.V. before the outcome is arrived at– two-thirds of it commercial time. We take this as normal. In fact, though, the NFL didn’t register its first 3 hour game until the notorious ‘Heidi’ match between the Jets and Raiders in 1968. That record stood for several years before Monday Night Football managed to challenge it on occasion by providing live entertainment in the announcers’ booth.
Basketball has fared somewhat better – not out of any commitment to keeping alive the pristine spirit of sport. There simply are no natural break points other than a limited number of time-outs and the end of quarters. No league official yet has imposed on referees the requirement that they blow the whistle every 4 or 5 minutes even if that means interrupting a dazzling run of baseline moves and dunks. Basketball generally has kept more of its identity as fun and just a game than have our other two major sports. The joking mood of announcers and T.V. commentators is both cause and effect. No counterpart in a broadcasting booth at a football game would ever think of acting up in this manner. No owner or sponsor would stand for it.
Baseball is the main victim of infinite time elasticity as induced by its commercial take-over. An already slow paced game is now so drawn out as to teeter on the edge of tedium. In this year’s playoffs, the string of commercials has grown so long that the viewer is hard pressed to remember which series he is watching when play resumes. In the ninth inning of one high scoring game, I had the distinct impression that the bearded Detroit Tiger had been clean-shaven during batting practice. Then again I may have gotten him mixed up with someone on the Red Sox last week.
The slowdown in baseball has been aggravated by dilatory pitchers and the antics of managers. The former seem to consult their inner selves between each throw. As for managers, compelled to prove their brilliant mastery of baseball strategy so as to keep their lucrative jobs, they have made the decision whether to replace a pitcher something akin to Obama’s mulling over his Syria options. The calculus is complicated by the lefty-righty obsession and the tally of pitches thrown by the starter – a number so important that it soon will be refined to specify the relative strain on the arm of fastballs and curves. I have a vague infantile memory of the Dodgers’ Don Newcombe once pitching both ends of a double-header – winning the first and throwing six shutout innings of the second. These days such a Herculean effort would bring down the combined wrath of the players union, his agent, the cognoscenti who make their living from baseball post mortems – and likely a human rights group or two.
The transformation of sports into big business has had other effects. Free agency, of course, has hugely improved the living standard of athletes. That is a welcome change from the era of indentured servitude – up to a point. For fans, it raises an identity problem. In the old days, the Giants or Dodgers were a team of individuals who became virtual members of your household for years at a stretch. Many worked at ordinary jobs in the towns where they both played and resided. Now the turnover in baseball or basketball means a constant shuffling of personnel – not unlike the pick-up teams on sandlots whose composition changes from Saturday to Saturday. Your attachment is less to persons than to your favorite team’s logo and uniform color. And even the latter is susceptible to change. Is the Rangers color bright red or blue and white? You can’t tell the team without a scorecard.
So it is with sorrow that I have to pronounce the national pastime passé. No mourning called for. After all, the imaginary field of dreams these days for America’s brightest – if not best – is the trading desk at Goldman Sachs.
What of the other “football” or soccer – the “beautiful game” that enthralls most of the world? Soccer’s trademark is continuous flow. There are no breaks in the movement except for the half-time interval – a nightmare for networks and advertisers. It also was a nightmare for viewers since the decisive action takes place for only a few seconds. Thanks to instant replay that no longer is a problem. Still, soccer never has caught on in America and that is not likely to change. All sorts of reasons are given: there is not enough scoring, the restriction to using only the feet and head seems abnormal if not downright perverse, and the tactical element is a well hidden secret except to the cognoscenti. There is a brief flurry of interest, somewhat contrived, every four years when the USA manages to qualify for the World Cup – thanks to a geographical draw that has it playing the Central American and Caribbean minnows of the sport. Promises of an historic breakthrough rise up like soap bubbles only to be pricked when the Americans meet stiffer competition.
Other than those with roots in soccer infatuated lands, the vast majority of Americans can take in only small doses the spectacle of athletes in knickers kicking each other’s shins before reaching for a dusty copy of War & Peace. I’ve long suspected, though, that the truly alien aspect of soccer is the big role played by fortune – or fate, or chance, or luck, or whatever you may call it. With so few goals scored, outcomes often are decided by a stroke of luck as unpredictably someone’s leg accidently deflects the ball, or the one over extended referee imagines a foul “in the box.” Most national cultures accept that the blind, uncaring dictates of fate are part of the human condition. Not Americans who truly believe that they are masters of their fate. For them, it is individual initiative, enterprise and an enduring can-do spirit that determines rewards – in this life and the next.
Each nation’s way of handling fortuna reflects its cultural character. Italians have faith that they can out-maneuver the forces of destiny – even at times conniving with dark satanic elements. The Germans are stoic. The English, who invented the game, act as if virtue were its own reward yet are puzzled when they are not crowned with victory. The Brazilians make sure that they enjoy themselves whatever outcome awaits them. The Argentinian game is marked by fitful neurotic energy shadowed by doubt. The South Koreans approach the game with the same dour diligence they applied to lifting up their economy by the boot straps. Russian play exhibits all the various traits of the Karamazov brothers.
We’ll see what attitudes the Chinese bring to the games of life.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.