Baseball as a Leisure Sport

Thick, humid air pressed down on the fans in the old Busch Stadium, that summer afternoon in the early 2000s. I sat with my grandmother in a shaded section under the upper deck, a sweaty scorecard on my lap, pencil poised in my right hand. The tickets for the close, shaded seats had been given to me by one of my mother’s co-workers, for I had a reputation in high school for being a huge fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. It was not often that people heard of a teenage girl loving professional baseball, so when they had tickets to give away, they often offered them to me. I listened to the games on KMOX, learning the language of the game from the broadcasting legends of Jack Buck and Mike Shannon. In those days, I read the sports section of the paper every morning, carefully going over the players’ statistics and my favorite columnists’ analyses. I listened to a sports radio show every evening. And I managed to get free tickets to many games each season. This particular weekend, I had been to two games already, both of which had ended with walk-off hits by my favorite center fielder, Jim Edmonds. 

My grandmother was a St. Louis Browns fan as a child until the franchise was moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles in the 1950s. When I went to games with her, we always kept score. She told me stories of how people used to come to games dressed in suits and nice dresses, how the radio broadcast would be put through the whole stadium, and how people used to sit and watch the game with attention. They did not need between-inning entertainment or excessive concessions. Baseball was a sport of true leisure and precision, punctuated by the occasional incredible hit or play which highlighted the athletic skill of the players.

There is a certain purity of baseball when it is played for leisure, when the fans come out in an evening or on a leisurely weekend afternoon, ready to take in a ball game, whatever comes. There is leisure in the very rhythm of the game through the repetitive sound of the ball hitting the catcher’s glove, the umpire’s voice ringing out with “strike,” or the crack of the bat and the dash to first base. There is the practiced routine grounder, the loping fly ball, the quickly turned 6-4-3 double play, and the well-pitched one-two-three inning. The fielders attentive in the field, ready for what might come. The batter poised in the box with two eyes on the ball. All of these have potential to be restorative like true leisure. At its best, the playing and viewing of baseball is a leisurely experience, akin to contemplation, and at its worst, it becomes a place of idleness and utility. 

The Good of Leisure

Josef Pieper, in Leisure: The Basis of Culture writes about the importance of leisure for human life explaining:

The ability to be “at leisure” is one of the basic powers of the human soul. Like the gift of contemplative self-immersion in Being, and the ability to uplift one’s spirits in festivity, the power to be at leisure is the power to step beyond the working world and win contact with those superhuman, life-giving forces that can send us, renewed and alive again, into the busy world of work.

I have often compared slow baseball games to the traditional Latin Mass of the Catholic Church, with everyone facing the same direction. The field goes on to infinity into the outfield. The game has its own pace, outside of time. The pitcher dominates the game with precise pitches, responding to the guidance of the catcher, as his team stands behind him facing home plate. And the attentive fan follows along with a scorecard. Baseball, for the fan disposed to contemplation, is about much more than just who will win, or how many hits a batter will have. It has potential to restore the soul. Pieper explains how “leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, and a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.” Baseball is properly viewed with a contemplative, quiet disposition, open to whatever may come, whether it is a low-scoring pitcher’s duel or a hitter’s big game.

Mindless entertainment drains our minds, lowers our intellectual capacity, makes it even harder for us to sit still and contemplate beauty and the divine, especially present in a human bringing glory to his creator through true athleticism.

Last spring was our family’s first experience of children in a baseball league. I registered my youngest daughter and my son for an age group with a limited skill level. Twice a week for two months, our family went out to the baseball diamonds at the city park and watched children attempt to play baseball for an hour. The games were made up of fielders chasing down infield grounders, making half-hearted throws, and occasionally actually catching a ball in a glove. Most kids made it to first base after failing to hit the machine-pitched ball and being given the tee, and, because of the fielding, most of them made it around the bases to home plate. There was a lot of sitting in the infield dirt, making little mounds with hands, and several injuries from batted balls due to players looking elsewhere. Further, proper base running and fielding required continual coaching. Nearly every inning ended at the six-run limit instead of with three outs.

Yet, even these games, where athletic ability was not particularly exhibited, embodied the leisure of baseball. A lot of waiting interrupted by a roar from the bleachers when someone hit, fielded, or caught a ball. It was a way to spend a summer evening with our family, with the kids eating Airheads from the concession stand, and long chats with fellow parents. But mostly it was the timelessness of baseball, as the kids went through the motions for the sheer joy of being on the field with a glove in hand. And whether we saw it or not, there was something deeper. 

Pieper explains:

There is also a certain happiness in leisure, something of the happiness that come from the recognition of the mysteriousness of the universe and the recognition of the mysteriousness of the universe and the recognition of our incapacity to understand it, that comes with a deep confidence, so that we are content to let things take their course.

Baseball embodies this letting of things take their course. It has its basic rules, to contain the play of the game, but for the most part, things take their course, in their leisurely, methodic way.

The Big Leagues

At the end of the children’s baseball season, we made our summer visit to St. Louis to visit my family. The Cardinals had one game in town the week we were there. So, for old times’ sake, we dished out the cash for tolerable seats in the nosebleeds, along the first baseline, and ventured downtown on a Friday with my parents and brother. We left the children under the supervision of our teenage daughter with a movie. The tickets were steep, for the Cardinals were playing the Cubs.

We parked half a mile away, still paying quite a bit for parking, and hiked our way through the crowd to the stadium. Once in our seats, we could scarcely converse with each other because of the noise of the loudspeakers. So, we sat in our row, my parents on one end shouting the occasional comment while I could really only speak comfortably to my husband and brother on either side.

The first thing I noticed before the game was that the players could actually throw and catch the ball with skill—quite a change from the seven- and eight-year-old games I was accustomed to. As the game began, I attempted to enter the leisure of the game. We joined the crowds in the guided cheers. We commented on the statistics and tried to have a generally good time. I even managed to have a meaningful heart-to-heart with my brother, which the long, relaxed games allow for. With all of the athletic ability exhibited through the line drive down the third base line, the impressive diving catch, and the runner thrown out stealing, something felt off. 

With each occasional game I go to, and those I listen to or have the opportunity to watch, professional Major League Baseball seems bent on becoming a place of entertainment and capitalistic gain, rather than a place of old-timey leisure. 

I took part in a survey this year from the MLB, which made me realize that I am not the target audience for the MLB. As I answered questions demonstrating my minimal attendance of MLB games (my home team is over 500 miles away and rarely plays the local team) and my lack of interest in the elaborate statistical side of things, I realized that perhaps they do not care what I think. I will not provide them with much capital, even if I let my app on my phone renew so that I can follow the Cardinals’ losing season this year. I am not willing to pay the steep price for tickets or hunt down deals that might make taking a family of six affordable. 

When the MLB announced their new rules this year, including using larger bases and incorporating a pitch clock, since fans asked for “more runs” and “shorter games,” they showed that they do not care about pure, leisurely baseball. They do not care about lowering themselves to the level of mindless entertainment that our culture seeks.

Further, professional sports are meant to be a place to exhibit athleticism and human excellence. And these new rules make it easier for the players to get on base, and steal bases, which means that their general skill level will go down. They are trading skill level for entertainment value. In a sport of true leisure, the athleticism is enhanced not degraded. For example, like the larger bases, they use a double-sized first base in youth leagues, as children are learning the skills. 

Mindless entertainment drains our minds, lowers our intellectual capacity, and makes it even harder for us to sit still and contemplate beauty and the divine, especially present in a human bringing glory to his creator through true athleticism. But most people do not realize that this is a true human need, what we are meant for.

Pure Baseball

A couple of weeks after our outing to the new Busch Stadium, I went with my family to a baseball game of teams in the Minnesota Townball League, a league comprised of current and former college players. Each adult paid $3 to get into the game, while the children were free. We sat on bleachers under a shady overhang behind home plate and took in an afternoon game. Children ran around the outside of the fences collecting foul balls. Concessions were affordable, and we could bring in whatever food we wanted. 

This game, this league embodied the joy and leisure of baseball for me. The only action on the field was from the ball being thrown and hit—no between-inning nonsense. There was no pitch clock or digital strike zone, but humans ran the game with their own sense and minds. And the rhythm and leisure of the game were there. There were well-practiced routine plays, diving catches, and a come-from-behind win for the home team. It showed skill and gave us leisure.

I chatted with my kids about the rules of the game, the plays, the pitches. We were able to fully relax and take in the game. In one way, it felt like we were sharing in the tradition of the knothole kids, who in the early twentieth century peered through the knotholes in Major League fences to enjoy the leisure of baseball. They went for love of the game—for the purity of the leisure of it, to enter into a contemplative state of their soul whether they were aware of it or not.

Another season of my children’s baseball has begun. Practices are already rolling; games have also begun. After a long, record-setting snowy Minnesota winter, I am ready for the leisure of a hot summer night and the rhythm of pure baseball. We plan to catch a few more townball games this year. And as for the MLB, they can keep their capitalistic-entertainment-ball. Perhaps the purity of the other leagues will reform the big leagues one day. For the human soul needs the joy of true leisure.