The National Game?

Once upon a time, baseball was the national game.  For some it still is.  Others, I suppose, would pick football… or basketball, or even NASCAR.  I doubt we have the consensus on a national pastime that existed a generation or so ago with baseball… and I happen to think that’s sad.  It’s also revealing in a way that I often don’t see discussed.

As baseball aficionados have told me, one of the most difficult tasks in any sport is hitting a baseball.  Ted Williams said something to the effect that failing to hit the ball seven times out of ten was a great success, and batting over .333 for a career is likely to put a player on the short list for the Hall of Fame.  In fact, since 1900, the highest season batting average ever was .424, by Rogers Hornsby, and he is the only hitter during that time period to bat over .400 for three separate seasons.  The last hitter to hit over .400 for a season was Bill Terry in 1930.  By comparison, the worst fielding record by an outfielder playing a full season was .842, and generally the top-fielding outfielders literally miss no catches… with an average of 1.000.  For what it’s worth, that suggests to me a certain parallel with life in that new initiatives [hits] fail most of the time, while it’s critical not to make mistakes [in other words, make every catch].

So why does any of this matter?  Because it’s indicative of how American culture and values have changed over the past century, and I have my doubts about whether those changes have been for the better.

Baseball is a game of skill, and while one can argue, as Billy Beane has done as general manager at Oakland, that certain skills are overrated and others underrated, skills do matter.  It’s also a game of timing and finesse.  Even during the “steroid scandal” period, even all those overmuscled “power hitters” couldn’t manage better batting averages, no matter how far they blasted the ball. It’s also a somewhat slower game [some would call it glacially paced] compared to the increased appeal of football, basketball, and even NASCAR racing.

More important, sadly, appears to be the increased level of mayhem or violence present in those three.  There have been so many career-ending injuries in football that the NFL has been forced to investigate and make some rule changes.  Recent medical studies indicate that a truly significant percentage of football players have brain damage from repeated impacts.  Even basketball, which was largely a non-contact sport when I played in high school all too many years ago, has become so much more violent that knee and back injuries are commonplace, and now we’re beginning to see broken bones  — as witness what happened to Kevin Ware of Louisville in the current NCAA tournament.  As for NASCAR, the crashes become more and more spectacular.

In short, in terms of the national spectator pastime, it appears that Americans have opted increasingly against skill and strategy, against a quest for perfection against the odds, and for speed and violence in all forms… and this emphasis is everywhere, in such seemingly unrelated societal changes as emails replacing letters, and then tweets replacing emails… sorter, faster, and with a higher percentage of vulgar/violent language.  Or even in the rise of mixed martial arts, even more brutal, violent, and faster than boxing or wrestling.

These days I get more and more comments from first-time readers about my “pacing” – that it’s slow. There are other long fantasy series, but more and more of them focus on action and violence, not to mention sex. Many television shows are using technology to fractionally speed up the action, by snipping pauses, making faster cuts, etc.

So as Americans turn from baseball… what’s next?  Gladiatorial contests?  The Hunger Games?  Or something even faster and more violent?

And what does it say about us?


9 thoughts on “The National Game?”

  1. JakeB says:

    The only times I regret not having a TV in my house is during the NFL playoff season . . . that said, I’ve realized I’d rather go to a baseball game than a football game, even discounting the cost difference. In fact, I enjoy semi-pro games even more. The Camden Riversharks played at a stadium with $5 pint microbrews! Plus the games they get the spectators to play between innings — e.g. spin around 10 times then try to run to first base — are a lot more fun than listening to ads or what have you.

    It strikes me that there are a lot of other domains to which your comments apply. Another good example is the rise of the Slow Food movement. Mostly people over 30, I hazard, and presumably those not having to e.g. work two full-time jobs to survive, but a good example of a reaction to the unending rush to greater spectacle and speed.

    I continue to wonder what drives the increasing speed of entertainment both within a given program and the numbers of different types: pure boredom? the more hyper you are, the more hyper you can get? distraction from anxiety over our inescapable deaths?

  2. Tim says:

    In the UK, several years ago, John le Carre’s ‘Tinker Soldier Solder Spy’ was televised over 6 episodes. Many of my friends claimed this was slow-paced and boring compared to, say, Kojak. However, the greater depth and slower pace made for a far more compelling story. As do your Imager novels in my opinion. Keep to this pace – please.

    We do not have NASCAR over here. F1 is our equivalent, and as soon as it gets dangerous or one team wins consistently, the rules change which restrains the blood-lust. Again, people I visit complain that the interest has been lowered – and I suspect they only want to see crashes and blood. Like the Romans.

  3. Thomas R. says:

    I think that one of the problems is that the faster the pace on some things, the less you have to think! This, I think is why so-called graphic books are a favorite of the young. No thinking, instant gratification.

  4. Jim S says:

    I don’t think Kevin Ware’s injury is a fair inclusion here; it wasn’t caused by contact, just a fluke bad landing.

    With that said — I agree that we’ll probably not be able to name another “national” sport. I only blame part of it on pacing or an increased desire for violence or bread & circuses. Part of that is the increasing diversity of our country, and the greater self-segregation or perhaps non-integration of groups within. I remember a movie we saw in grade school; a new immigrant came to the US, and when one of the children started to speak in their native language, the father stopped him, and insisted that he speak English. He wanted his children to integrate into the culture. Now — and I’m not trying to say that there aren’t good things had by maintaining cultures, and we’ve also always had local communities with strongly maintained ethnic traditions, even isolation — but I can’t tell you the last workday that I didn’t have to use a foreign language because I’m dealing with people who simply don’t feel that they need to learn English. In a like way, they don’t learn baseball or football… They continue to play soccer. (Not that soccer isn’t a worthy sport!) The point I’m trying to make is that, unless there’s a change in the culturalization patterns, we won’t have a “national” sport because we won’t have a national culture. Which is another problem…

    Also — to go along with several of your recent blog entries about our current educational system… It takes a level of thinking to follow a slower paced novel or drama. Kids that can’t make inferential leaps unless led along each step may not want to read a book or watch a drama that requires a deeper level of thought to keep up with.

  5. I’d agree with you on the fact that Kevin Ware’s injury was a fluke, but the fact that it’s practically dominated all the stories and news reports suggests that the media are milking it for all it’s worth… and the numbers of basketball injuries are way up, as is the amount of contact.

  6. Daze says:

    Another example on pacing is the series “The Killing” (talking the original Danish series here, never having seen the US remake). I saw several criticisms that amounted to “it’s just an episode of CSI dragged out to 20 hours” – which effectively says “crime, forensics, solution” is all that matters in the story, and please skip all that development of character and intense study of what it does to a family to have their child murdered. Maybe it is true for some people that almost all films would be better directed by Michael Bay, but hopefully there are still enough of us in the other camp saying “Please write more books like these, Mr Modesitt.”

  7. Brian says:

    In the 1970s, I played Little League Baseball. Dreamed of making it to the Little League World Series. Never happened. Every August I tune into the games from Williamsport. Great sportsmanship, great competition and I always remember the ‘dream’. I’m happy for the kids that managed to realize it. Baseball left the small town where I played about 20 years ago. They play softball. But that’s not real baseball. Baseball is overhand pitching from a mound for starters. They game is also unique in that the defense initiates play (as does cricket).

    To a generation that has been conditioned by high speed internet that provides instant access, microwave dinner in minutes, action games and movies and instant this and that, baseball is boring. Too much standing around where not much happens. Kids play soccer now. That comes closer to providing constant action. One doesn’t really have to think. Baseball is a cerebral game. Anticipating what might happen is almost as interesting as what actually does happen. As many of LEM’s blog entries in the past can attest, cerebral is in very short supply among young people and adults today. Too busy reacting instead of thinking. Baseball is simply a symptom of a greater malaise.

  8. Kristina says:

    I agree that sports, movies, books are getting more violent. Unfortunately, more violence/fast paced action in movies and books seems to breed more of the same. But it leaves a lot to be desired. I hope you hear from many fans who enjoy the pacing of your books. We appreciate reading books that provoke thought instead of just the mindless junk too prevalent today.

  9. Richard says:

    Compared to most Wheel of Time books, your pace is positively hectic! I wouldn’t say that the popularity of fast paced action novels is a new phenomenon – look at Edgar Rice Burroughs. I find it interesting that modern fantasy novels are often expected to be much longer and more detailed than in the past. I do agree with your general point – the desire for instant gratification is far more common today.

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