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4 reasons our national pastime is past its time

Number retired: July 22, 1973 Yankee/Career Stats: .285

Number retired: July 22, 1973
Yankee/Career Stats: .285 AVG, 2,148 H, 358 HR, 1,430 RBI
No one is more of a winner than Yogi Berra who has 10 World Series wins under his belt, a record that may never be broken. Berra is one of the few men who played with both DiMaggio and Mantle in the most successful era of the Yankee franchise. Berra appeared in 15 straight All-Star games and collected three MVP awards along the way. Photo Credit: Newsday / Joe Epstein

Rob Manfred, the new commissioner of Major League Baseball, is 56. That makes him a year older than the average TV viewer of the last World Series.

And that tells you all you need to know about the decline of our national pastime. Manfred knows it, too, which is why he's trying to speed up the game. When baseball season begins next week, hitters will be required to stay in the batter's box -- except when time is called -- and pitchers' warm-up time between innings will be limited.

Manfred also touts MLB's phone app, designed to appeal to a younger demographic. But no rule change or Silicon Valley gizmo will rescue baseball from its geriatric doldrums. Unlike its more popular competitors, football and basketball, baseball is rooted in our agrarian history. It dates to an era when most Americans lived on farms and villages, not in cities or suburbs.

So the national pastime is past its time, in at least four ways:

1.Despite the limits on pitcher warm-ups, there's no game clock in baseball; you keep working until you're done, just as you'd do on a farm. The season starts in the spring -- when crops are planted -- and ends in the fall, around harvest time. And whereas other sports are played in stadiums or arenas, we can watch baseball in places with names like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

2.Baseball differs from place to place, resisting the standardization that marks so much of modern life. Outfield fences vary in distance from home plate, so a pop fly in one ballpark can become a home run in another. Even MLB lineups change each day, because of the human limits baseball imposes. Barring injury, players in other sports can compete in every game. But the best baseball pitcher takes the mound every fourth or fifth day, so the team's starting cast is always in flux.

3.Many players still spend the off-season hunting or fishing, two rural endeavors. Like these hobbies, baseball requires a mix of patience and attention: you have to wait a long time for the right moment to strike. And as hunters and anglers often go home empty-handed, baseball players become accustomed to failure; even the best hitters succeed just three out of 10 times. That helps account for baseball's culture of superstition, another reminder of its pre-modern origins. Many pitchers still won't step on the white basepath line as they walk from the mound to the dugout.

4.Until very recently, baseball conjured the mystic bonds that tie us together as Americans. In 1886, Grover Cleveland became the first president to welcome baseball's champion team to the White House; in 1910, William Howard Taft began the tradition of throwing out the "first pitch" of the season. And after World War II, Jackie Robinson's integration of the formerly all-white major leagues connected fans to grand American themes of justice and equality.

Since then, however, baseball has lost its patriotic rationale. So Manfred should revive it, targeting the passions of today's youth. Several recent surveys of our so-called millennials have revealed them to be concerned about the state of the country, and profoundly committed to improving it.

They're specifically worried about education and the environment. What if both causes were heavily advertised in every baseball game and telecast, with a fraction of all revenues going to schools and clean energy? That might appeal to younger Americans, who want to do good while they're having fun.

From the designated hitter rule in the 1970s to the speedup reforms this spring, baseball has tried to recruit new fans by changing the rules of the game. What our national pastime really needs, however, is a new connection to the nation itself.

There's no app for that.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University.


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