Tuesday, April 08, 2014

That white little sphere

I was sixteen years old when I touched a real Major League baseball for the first time. Of course, I had seen other baseballs, and I'd been playing softball since I was eight or so, but to hold a genuine Major League baseball was to hold something precious, something far more valuable than its price tag indicated.  I had been given the beautiful sphere by a friend of my grandfather who owned a local sporting goods store; it was a gift to have signed because I had won a celebrity bat girl contest and was allowed on the field for Reds batting practice at Riverfront Stadium. The Reds also gave me a ball. Suddenly I had two of the beautiful things - one I had signed by Barry Larkin and the other I stored in a box to keep it in pristine condition.

A couple of years later I snagged a foul ball off the bat of Joe Girardi, then a catcher with the Rockies, and this one had the scars of battle smeared on its side. Scuffed and dirty, it was as perfect as the other two genuine Major League balls in my collection. My collection remained at three for seven or eight years, when I bought one of the balls they had specially made for Ripken's streak. I collected other baseballs, too, commemorative balls, balls from every stadium I visited, balls with the logos of teams I liked, but they weren't genuine Major League baseballs, crafted to perfection by the hands of skilled (though underpaid) workers. Then one day Ryan Zimmerman was supposed to be at one of those winter caravan events, so I took the precious, clean ball out of its box and brought another, cheaper ball for the other guys. (What? You do it, too!) Zimmerman didn't show up, so the pretty white sphere went back in the box.

I got it out when the Reds came to town in 2007 and I stalked the players at their hotel. Ha! I merely had lunch sitting next to manager Pete Mackanin and his wife and watched the team arrive to the hotel and hang out in the lobby. I saved that pristine ball until the right player came along and then Brandon Phillips enthusiastically signed for me before the Lobby Nazi told me I couldn't ask them for autographs anymore. No matter. My ball was inked by one of my favorite players.

I had saved that ball for fifteen years.

Recent studies have been conducted on young children about delayed gratification. This was never a thing when I was traipsing the concourses of Riverfront Stadium. You could go to a store and not see a child throwing a tantrum because his mother wouldn't buy him a new toy, or if you did encounter one, his mother would likely say no. This was about the time when the buds of the Age of The Spoiled Child first sprouted, when SoundScan divided music - and us - into genres, when cable news shouted at us twenty-four hours a day, and when luxury boxes ensured that our childhood playgrounds would be imploded and our beloved game would become less accessible to us common folk.

Then came the internet.

The Reds website in November 1998

I remember the first time I used the internet, or rather, one of the first times, as it all blends together now. Netscape, the browser was called. I had a university email address and then discovered I could have a Netscape address and I thought email the greatest invention in the world except few people I knew actually had an email address. I don't remember any particular website, though I know I'd laugh if I saw them now. As more people joined the wonders of the world wide web, we thought we had reached the peak of technological advancement. Then came MySpace.

That was the beginning of the end of the civil web. Now strangers in vast numbers could connect with like-minded strangers who shared their interests and dislikes. As technology progressed, discourse declined. Blogs appeared, beginning with writers and thought leaders before spreading to the - how should I put it - lesser informed populace. Internet commenting fell into ruin - anyone with a keyboard could say whatever they wanted regardless (or irregardless, as many would say) of his level of knowledge about a particular topic. Conversely, one could choose not to engage with those who held differing views at all, ensuring he remained in a bubble as like-minded individuals reinforced the ingrained notions he harbored. Finally, we moved into the age of Facebook and Twitter, real-time forums where success means discarding all notions of delayed gratification. We've moved into the age of Now.

Show me a youth who'd put a baseball away in a box for fifteen years to save it for the perfect time. Why, when he can get his mother to go out and buy another one in the age of Now? We have movies on demand, road rage, fast food and microwave meals, even line-jump passes at Disneyland. Everything is so fast that no one takes the team to do research, frame an argument, or check his emotions. We're all guilty. Social media destroyed this blog, distracting me from writing while pulling readers away from what's now called long-form. How many people who start to read this have even gotten this far? And what has all of this Now brought us? Misinformation, SHOUTING MATCHES, fired employees, and unabridged hysterics in all realms, especially in baseball, a sport that is played nearly every day for half of each year, mostly outside, in all geographies.

What I think is happening to fans of many teams is suffocation by Now. Now destroys our perspectives, eradicates pause, occupies our reason and dulls our senses. Now is the reason fans of some teams, including the Reds, are throwing in the proverbial towel on the season. The less eloquent among us say, "This team sucks" or let out uncivilized expletives for a lack of skill in expressing ourselves. Others use sarcasm or what they think is sarcasm, while some try to justify their cynicism with numbers they've thrown together as quickly as they can.

I go back to that delayed gratification study of preschoolers. The study found that the happiest children were those who were able to wait for a treat - marshmallows, I think. They learned that there was, indeed, a future that was much more rewarding than immediate gratification. One hundred and sixty-two games make up a Major League Baseball season, not seven games, not twenty games, not eighty-one games. By succumbing to Now, the hysterical are zapping all the joy out of baseball. Negative energy rubs off on all around you, and it will rub off on the teams you purport to love.

Do me a favor. Go find a baseball, a genuine Major League baseball, and hold it in your hand. Smell its leather. Rub its 108 raised red stitches. Mimic a throw, or better, throw it, let it hit someone's glove, hear that pop. Experience baseball. Take a breath. Relax. Some of us are still getting snow. We haven't even started yet, so stop your whining and enjoy the damn game!

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