Saturday, June 18, 2011

It Happens Every June, Except Sometines in May

Turned on the Red Sox game last night, and in the course of some Brewer's "quality at-bat," that wonderful euphemism for "sure is hitting a lot of foul balls here," a familiar seasonal emotion came over me. Part ennui, part frustration, part bewilderment, it could best be expressed by the following exclamation -- "Can't you guys DO something out there?!"

Not even Roger Angell would deny that baseball is a slow game. This in no way prevents it from being a wonderful lovable game, most of the year. But never does baseball seem quite so slow, and never does that slowness seem quite so irritating, as in the first week following the end of the NHL and NBA playoffs. And the more attention a fan paid to those playoffs, the more tedious baseball appears to be.

Here in Boston, we paid quite a lot of attention to the playoffs. Accordingly, my tolerance for relief pitchers who nibble away to 3-2 counts, never high, was somewhere below the price of Greek government bonds last night.

This isn't a permanent condition. It's an illness of the calendar like pollen allergies. It's beyond the power of the human psyche to go from the frenetic universe of the winter sports played with all the money on the table to the measured activity of not-quite midseason baseball, a world so lacking in definition that the freakin' Pirates still have hope. Nobody can shift gears from the mindset expressed by Jack Edwards to that expressed by Joe Castiglione without a certain amount of grinding in the frontal lobes.

I've committed myself to basketball and hockey and their speeds for some months now. Getting back to baseball speed requires a period of adjustment. Getting back to a sport that's not at its climactic moments requires even more adjustment.

Baseball is even slower in October than it is in June, as the high stakes of the playoffs make every player and manager very very very careful about what they're doing. But in October, six foul balls on a 3-2 count aren't an irritating bore, they're an excruciating emotional torture. Hockey and basketball are just as fast in February as they are in May, but they don't feel that way. After the Super Bowl, what's duller than regular season NHL and NBA action, when players appear as uninterested as I am? Golf is about 1000 times slower than baseball, but the US Open doesn't FEEL slow -- because it involves athletes competing for one of the biggest prizes in their game. The fan feels the commitment more than the action or lack of same.

My seasonal malady is a man-made illness, a product of the sports industrialization that began around 1965 or so. Once upon a time, in my lifetime even, there were gaps in the sports calendar. The NBA and NHL playoffs ended in March and early April. Football ended on January 1, baseball in early October. Fans were given time to adjust their spiritual body clocks. They had no choice but to follow each sport from its beginning to end.

Now, it's a rare weekend where somebody in some game is not playing for some championship or other. Even dull old late June has Wimbledon. Quite unwittingly, sports have bred consumers who are high-stakes adrenaline junkies. And the need to feed that jones has become an increasingly big part of sports business. Nobody is out there saying they WANT more teams in the baseball playoffs. But Bud Selig can't think of any way of keeping his customers happy but upping the dose on their possible elimination fix. Mark my words, the NCAA tournament will eventually give up and let EVERY team in the field, then push back the start to Valentine's Day.

High-stakes withdrawal only lasts about a week. Soon, I'll be able to listen to Don and Jerry babble about cab rides in Detroit without feeling homicidal or even considering such dialogue as a reflection of the origins of the word "pastime." But for today, I'm left with a dilemma that doesn't make me feel too good about myself.

If Rory McIlroy doesn't start blowing it, I'm going to be one bored sports consumer this weekend.


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