At the ballpark: Is the game the thing?

There was a bizarre game in Baltimore on Wednesday, and not just because Ubaldo Jimenez threw strikes, or Caleb Joseph, with a lifetime .227 average, hit them, raising his 2015 mark to .327.

The stadium had a public address announcer but no public, and a seventh-inning stretch even if there was no one taken out to the ballgame. In Baltimore, they play John Denver’s Thank God I’m a Country Boy at that intermission, meaning to whatever other problems the city has, we can add taste in music.

Joseph pretended to sign autographs for fans who weren’t there, Chris Davis pretended to flip balls into a crowd that wasn’t there and announcer Gary Thorne hushed his voice to No. 18 at Augusta decibels.

The official attendance was zero, which beat by 6 fans the record for lowest ever. And, no, that wasn’t a Marlins or Rays game — those always attract a few thousand people to root for the visitors. (1882, the Troy Trojans at the Worcester Ruby Legs.)

“None of this matters much, to be sure, except as an unexpected reminder of the massive and relentless add-ons and distractions of modern-day ball,” wrote Roger Angell on the New Yorker’s website. “The Kiss Camera, the racing mascots, the T-shirt cannonades, the God Bless, the deafening rock, the home-team anthem, the infield sweepers’ dance, the well-plaqued Hall of Heroes, the retired numbers, the gymnasium-sized souvenir shops, the Texas steak restaurant in right (with its roped-off waiting areas thoughtfully supplied with overhead screens), the pizzeria in left, the bleacher kiddie pool, and so on. Fans love this and eat it up, but (Wednesday’s) silent anomaly in Baltimore is a mirror reminder that what’s been taken away from the pastime isn’t the crowd but the game: what we came for and what we partake of now in passing fractions, often seen in a held-up smartphone.”

Angell, who began following baseball when the novelty was radio, is right, of course. Check out a game this weekend and notice how many fans behind home plate are talking on their smartphone, or texting on their smartphone, or taking pictures of the game or themselves on their smartphone, and doing almost anything but watching the game right in front of them.

It’s one reason baseball thinks the pace of play rules are necessary, because who could follow a game where there’s only a play per minute. Somehow, that doesn’t hinder the NFL.

Baseball has to sell itself to an audience which has the attention span of a Jack Russell Terrier. If you don’t wave a treat under its nose often enough, it looks away.

Who watches the game when there are mascots to entertain and hijinks on the scoreboards and wading pools in the outfield and concessions that pass for ethnic dining? Over time, baseball became overwhelmed by all the extras, as if going from dropdown screen to dropdown screen so often you can’t find your back to where you started. “The empty vessel makes the greatest sound,” Shakespeare wrote, and he could have been talking about the 21st century ballpark.

I once watched a game from a luxury box where there was enough to eat or drink for about 30 people. That’s what they did. Only a couple of us watched the game, which was the sidebar to the main attraction.

The easiest way at a game to get on camera, if you’re not a celebrity or don’t look like one, is to keep a scorecard. Who does that anymore? You have to be watching the game.

(Unless, of course, you were Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto. In Bill White’s book “Uppity” he described looking at Rizzuto’s scorecard and noticed all the plays marked WW. When he asked Rizzuto what that stood for, Rizzuto said: “Wasn’t Watching.”)

It used to be that the game was reason enough to watch it. And it used to be that newspapers were reason enough to read them.

A few more thoughts as the first month ends:

  • Could the White Sox be any more wishy-washy with how they’ve handled 22-year-old pitcher Carlos Rodon? They could be bold and thrust him in their rotation, where John Danks (5.64 ERA) and Hector Noesi (5.23) are doing their best to offset the $128 million investment the team made on free agents in the offseason. Or they could be timid and leave Rodon, the No. 3 pick of last year’s draft, in the minors, where he’s pitched just 34.1 innings. Instead the White Sox did neither. They called Rodon up, stuck him in the bullpen and have him pitching mopup. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of opportunity to do that on a team which has lost its last two games by a combined 20-4. But appearing in one-sided games is helping neither Rodon nor the White Sox, and his worth as a counter to the Cubs’ promotion of Kris Bryant is long gone. If that was why the White Sox called up Rodon before either player or team was ready, it’s the kind of feckless move that makes the White Sox the White Sox.
  • And exactly why is it that at least two teams over the last nine months think Jeff Samardzijia is a panacea for what ails them? Samardzijia is a 30-year-old pitcher with a career 3.89 ERA, 102 ERA+, 7.1 WAR in eight seasons, a 37-50 record, and two 200-inning seasons. For that, the Athletics gave up young shortstop prospect Addison Russell, and the White Sox gave up Marcus Semien, who’s filling the position Russell would have had the Athletics not traded him. Semien, who can also play second and third, two other positions the White Sox are weak at, has a .284/.330/.455 offensive line, outperforming White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez (.209/.247.313) at every one. Samardzijia has a 4.78 ERA and his most aggressive offering was charging Lorenzo Cain in the brawl with the Royals. Yes, it’s only a month, and a lot can change. But Samardzijia is a free agent after the season, and the White Sox are better off not compounding their mistake by re-signing him. Let the next sucker pony up $20 million per for six or seven years.
  • Cardinals lefty reliever Randy Choate appeared in nine games in April for the sum total of 2.2 innings. At this rate, he’ll pitch in 69 games and 20.2 innings over the season. Of course, Choate has a 6.75 ERA; at that rate, he may not make the end of the season.
  • Hanley Ramirez may not win a Gold Glove in left, but he’s hit 10 homers, knocked in 22 runs and is slugging .659. He’s not what’s wrong with the Red Sox.
  • The Red Sox’s poor start may seem like a precursor to trading for the Phillies’ Cole Hamels, but the team has a 5.04 ERA. Joe Kelly has a 4.94 ERA, and that’s the best among Boston starters. Justin Masterson is at 5.16, Rick Porcello 5.34, Clay Buchholz 5.76 and Wade Miley 8.62. And offense is supposed to be down. How many days of the week would Hamels start?
  • Not much bothered Madison Bumgarner in pitching the Giants to the World Series title last year, but we’ve now found something that does: Alex Guerrero. He’s the Dodger infielder who popped up off Bumgarner last week and then spun around at the plate in frustration. Bumgarner took offense — to the spin, not the popup — and, according to the lipreaders at Deadspin, said, “You’re not that f—ing good,” to Guerrero as he passed by. A couple of points: 1. Guerrero might be that good, if the Dodgers would let us find out. He hit 17 home runs and slugged .621 at AAA last year (albeit Albuquerque) and has hit five homers in 26 at-bats this year. The Dodgers may not know how good Guerrero is, but if Juan Uribe is their third baseman, they should want to find out. 2. Bumgarner might want to pass on making a judgment. Guerrero popped out. Embrace the result. If Bumgarner is lobbying to succeed Adam Wainwright and Brian McCann as defender of the right way to play the game, then say so. Then we’ll have another fight to pick with him.
  • Bumgarner didn’t stop there. After finishing with Guerrero, he took on Washington pitcher Max Scherzer, who spoke out in favor of the DH after Wainwright’s injury. Scherzer: “If you look at it from the macro side, who’d people rather see hit — Big Papi or me? Who would people rather see, a real hitter hitting home runs or a pitcher swinging a wet newspaper? Both leagues need to be on the same set of rules.” Bumgarner, who hit four homers last season, stood up for hitting pitchers everywhere. Bumgarner: “He knew the rules. Whatever much he signed for – what did he get, again? – he didn’t have a problem signing his name. He didn’t have a problem with hitting then. I’m sure he had his pick of anywhere he wanted to go.” Score one for Bumgarner, even if Scherzer used macro. If Scherzer was lobbying for the job of commissioner, he might be surprised to know the job is filled. Also, it doesn’t pay as well as his current gig. And folks would rather see Big Papi hit than Andres Blanco, too, who somehow has made 726 plate appearances over eight seasons. Besides, if we didn’t have pitchers hitting, we’d be deprived of the three-run single by Jordan Zimmermann this week. It actually would have been a double but for that whole running hard to second thing.
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    2 Responses to At the ballpark: Is the game the thing?

    1. Excellent piece but the best part is finding out Roger Angell is alive and well. Gotta read the New Yorker more often. I have the app.

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