THE BAT stays with me. Isn't that strange? I did so many amazing things on this crazy cross-country trip in search of what baseball means in 2011. I ate a Dodger Dog. I marveled at the artistry of Adrian Gonzalez's swing. ("Artistry" is the only word that comes to mind; if the swing could be frozen, it would be in the Louvre.) I chatted with Vin Scully, took in a game with Bill James on an afternoon when the temperature topped even the heat of Justin Verlander, watched Prince Fielder uncoil his wonderfully violent swing. I contemplated eight simultaneous big league games while eating pizza in Manhattan's East Village, then, 15 hours later and 157 blocks to the north, drank in the sound of a city in full celebration of history. I munched Cracker Jack in Cooperstown, that little American village where people so desperately want to believe baseball was invented.
And so ... why the bat? Why does the bat keep reemerging in my mind, like a summer song that won't stop repeating? It's just a bat. It might not even be regulation size. No one used it to crack his 3,000th hit or smack his 500th homer. This bat was never even used in a major league game, or a minor league game, or a Little League game, or any real game at all.
Still ... Why do I think it's all about that bat?
Baseball is a game out of time. This is the sport's defining quality, its badge of honor. The people who love baseball—the poets, the stat geeks, the bleacher bums, the second-guessers, the former pitchers, the collectors—we love baseball for its timelessness. It is a game without a clock. "Keep the rally alive," the marvelous Roger Angell wrote, "and you have defeated time."
The people who do not love baseball feel its timelessness too. They lampoon a game that feels ... so ... yesterday. They mock baseball for not having a clock, for its interminable pauses, for sparking so little violence and motion, for struggling to adapt (No replay? Really?), for being measured by numbers well to the right of decimal points. "You made me love baseball," Lisa told Bart on The Simpsons. "Not as a collection of numbers, but as an unpredictable, passionate game beaten in excitement only by every other sport."
Baseball is a game out of time. And that's what started me on this trip. Think about this for a moment: What else but baseball connects us to America of, say, 1891? What else has burned so long in our consciousness? The American population in 1891 was less than one quarter of what it is now. That was before movies, before television, before radio, before Hershey bars, before Wrigley gum, before even Brett Favre. America the Beautiful had not been written. Dracula did not exist, no Roosevelt had yet been president. Football, under different rules, was played only at a few colleges, there was no golf U.S. Open and until the end of that year basketball was a game bouncing around in the fertile mind of a YMCA instructor named James Naismith. The Olympics, more than 1,500 years since their last staging, would not resume for another five years.
But ... America had baseball. Cy Young was not an award but a 24-year-old kid who won 27 games. Sliding Billy Hamilton stole 111 bases. Cap Anson led a segregated National League in RBIs for the eighth time at age 39. A light-hitting but speedy outfielder named Billy Sunday quit baseball to begin a new life as an evangelist. Attendance soared and salaries skyrocketed, leading The New York Times to lament that baseball was "no longer a sport, but a business."
Here we are, 120 years later, in a very different America, and yes, all the time, we read that baseball can't keep up with the pace of our everyday lives, that television ratings are down, that football long ago took over as the National Pastime. But is that really the surprising part? Or is the surprising part that America still loves and breathes baseball, long after barbershop quartets stopped singing, long after couples stopped waltzing, long after boxers stopped hitting each other with their bare fists.
Why in the heck do so many of us still love baseball?
The Dodgers are bankrupt, but the promotions department obviously has been working overtime because tonight's game is both Andre Ethier Throwback Bobblehead Doll Night and Salute to Mary Hart Night. This irresistible double whammy—springy-necked dolls of the Dodgers' third-best player and an all-night tribute to the longtime host of Entertainment Tonight—has brought a sellout crowd of 56,000 to Dodger Stadium for only the second time since Opening Day. They used to sell out games here almost every night.