the long game

words: david hollander and robert gurland

Another year, another Opening Day, and with it another, this time even more insistent, public push by the baseball commissioner to speed up America’s pastime by urging or instituting rule changes: a pitch clock, limiting the use of relief pitchers, eliminating the need to throw actual pitches to intentionally walk someone; and even starting extra innings with a runner on second base.

Why? Because, the commissioner believes, the young people are disinterested. The “pace of play,” league brass assumes, has to mimic the pace, content and quality of Millennials’ digital habituations. The next generation's field of dreams is content on demand!

Yet recent trends in consumer behavior demonstrate the commissioner is wrong. The kids, it turns out, want exactly what baseball is and has always been.

Before we ask whether Major League Baseball is embracing the right reforms to make their product cool with young’uns, it’s worth recalling that eternal marketing truism: Once an old suit says something is cool, it no longer is.

But let’s dig deeper, into the research. The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, a critically acclaimed book by Bloomberg Business writer David Sax, shows with copious data and academic studies that digitally-dependent consumers increasingly want what is real, not virtual. They want tactile adventures and real-world encounters.

That’s why the vinyl record industry is booming. Same with the explosion of pen-and-paper products and the comeback, not obsolescence, of brick-and-mortar retail. Suddenly, Amazon finds it expedient to build physical stores.

It’s why the likes of Monopoly and other games are back; Millennials are cramming waiting lists at board-game-themed cafes in major North American cities. It’s why the hotly anticipated new video game of the moment is “Walden.” Yes, Walden, based on the Henry David Thoreau idyll. It takes six hours to play. The object: stillness.

Walden, in development for nearly a decade by Tracy J. Fullerton, the director of the Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, is, he told the New York Times, “ a way to “ [G]ive you pause in your real life: Maybe instead of sitting on my cellphone, rapidly switching between screens, I should just go for a walk.”

Slowness, the kind that baseball offers and inherently demands, is the relief from digitalism, a need state so widely recognized that content makers and game developers are embracing it in digital formats.

To anyone who thinks seriously about it, baseball's inherent virtue of slowness is really its greatest marketing asset. Marketing is, in large part, about making your product memorable, making it stand out.

In Slowness, Milan Kundera writes:

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

A man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down.

Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.

In existential mathematics that experience takes the form of two basic equations: The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.

MLB’s constant marketing of baseball as anti-slow and digitally accessible (buy the convenient AtBat app, hail the commercial supremacy of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, also called “BAM tech”) may be the reason why it’s becoming a forgotten game for the generation its executives so badly want to court.

Baseball’s very identity, what makes it not only marketable but an indelible part of American memory, is the feel of going to the park and experiencing something pastoral, summerlike, indifferent to time, a sanctuary from the constant bleat of digital updating. That's the game's value proposition which should be marketed, not bludgeoned or masked or shunned.

Yet this all may stem from something deeper. America is no longer the America of folklore. We are no longer the America Jacques Barzun was exalting. We have become disenchanted with democracy as it is too slow, to messy, ponderous and plodding. We want to be taken care of by a big, strong daddy who solves problems just by saying he’ll do so. Trump posed as the Messiah and promised deliverance, but we clearly failed in our vetting process, discounting intelligence and experience and placing an individual with a serious diagnosis at the helm. If he were a baseball player he would be in the mail room or Single-A.

Leave the game alone; but perhaps shorten the season. The essence of the game is not compromised by the shortening of the season. Money is lost but this is not to be mourned. It may well be that scaled back player salaries may  result, however they will still make enough money to "eke out a living" for both themselves and their progeny. The team ownership could well afford a cut-back in profit without requiring an outflow of sympathy for their loss.

In the main, those who are concerned with time, as in the length of games, rather than time as in the length of the season, are the culprits who seek to compromise the very essence of the game ... seeking to invade its pace of play in the interest of brevity. It is the timelessness of the game, the irrelevance of the clock that sets the game apart from other sports — from the rest of contemporary life — that is under attack. The generation of digital natives that has inherited the game appreciates this, apparently, more than the guardians of the game realize. So who are we changing the game for?