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Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017 12:20 am

In the boring summer time

It’s time to talk – and talk – about baseball

ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH SIMMONS/TNS

 

It’s summer, when spouses (usually women, but not always) show up in ERs seemingly catatonic because their mates have begun talking, again, about the Cub curse or the Cardinal way. Baseball itself is not inherently boring, even if it is mystifying to the non-fan. The game, like tour cycling, cricket or government, is one of those topics that is more interesting the more one knows about it. The problem is not that the baseball fan happily acquires that knowledge but that he (it is almost always a he) insists on sharing it.

In one episode of “Ripping Yarns,” their ‘70s TV series, Michael Palin and Terry Jones told the story of Eric Olthwaite, an English boy who was so boring that his parents pretended to be French so they wouldn’t have to talk with him. The baseball bore has much the same effect on people. Anyone who has attended a game at Lanphier Park has seen some version of this scene: A fan is engaged in an extended discourse while his seatmate – often a spouse, or a defenseless child – furiously crams hot dogs down her throat like a mortar man shoving shells down the barrel of a 60-mm mortar upon hearing the Germans had just counterattacked. Hunger does not cause this desperate gorging, rather the hope that the noise of constant chewing will save her from hearing again how Rube Pustule would have hit .400 in the 1938 Texas league except that the team bus broke down outside Tick Bite, Oklahoma, and caused him to miss his last four at-bats of the season.

I think it was 1983 that I first realized that I had become a baseball bore. While reading Paul Fussell’s excellent new book, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, I came across these words: “The World Series and the Super Bowl,” wrote Fussell, “give every man his opportunity to perform as a learned bore, to play for the moment the impressive barroom pedant, to imitate for a brief season the superior classes identified by their practice of weighty utterance and informed opinion.”

He got me out on a called third strike.

The very concept of the baseball know-it-all was dismissed by that sage of The Hill in St. Louis, Yogi Berra, who said, “In baseball you don’t know nothing.” (I think so anyway. One of the things we don’t know about baseball is whether Yogi Berra actually said it.) It used to be true. Tactics, from making a lineup to when to call a steal, were based on lore rather than evidence – belief, in short, rather than knowledge. Thanks to big data pitch analysis and Bill Jamesian statistical analysis we now know much more about how much less we knew about the game than we thought we knew.

This has had the same effect on the baseball bore that the Great Society programs had on the white supremacist – it invigorated him, by providing a new context for bigotries that had grown stale. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “New data has made old baseball arguments more recondite, but also more illuminating and fun.”

Fun? Tell it to the wife.

Today’s fan has access to vastly more information about the game. Whether that information always leads to knowledge about how to play the game is being debated. We do know that the possession of knowledge does not by itself make one a bore. The true baseball numbers nerd is, like any scientist, skeptical of his own hypotheses and open-minded about those of the guy in the next seat. The baseball bore, in contrast, is dogmatic and intolerant. Bruce Rauner on the subject of Illinois politics is what a baseball bore sounds like in the offseason.

The classic baseball bore tends toward the tedious, but banality induces similar effects. Few players are as interesting talking about the game as they are playing it, indeed few things are as tedious as listening to a baseball player talk baseball – apart from pitchers and catchers, that is. The minds of the latter, being constantly occupied for the whole of a game, are kept exercised, while field players exhibit the same mental rot that we see in corporate spokespersons and mothers of toddlers.

They have no-smoking sections at ballparks today, and “family” no-drinking sections. Ballparks on the West Coast even have special sections for dogs. Why not a “bores only” section, with seats with foldaway writing ledges handy for filling out scorecards and power plugs and Wi-Fi for their laptops? (Baseball bores settle arguments with data, not their dukes.) Everybody would be happier. The city of Springfield won’t have money to fix up Lanphier Park until the last retired cop draws his last breath, and thus his last pension check, but we can dream.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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