Baseball, Time, and the Value of our Humanity

Published on: Sep 02 2011 by Abe Stein

With the Red Sox and Yankees playing these past days, there has been much that has been said and written about how slow the game of baseball has become. Mark Texeira, first basemen for the Yankees recently complained about the pace of the games saying, “I can’t stand playing a nine-inning game in four hours. It’s not baseball. I don’t even know how to describe it.” Rob Neyer reminded us yesterday that baseball is no more quickly played today than games were 10-15 years ago, and explains how a rule change in 2007 to speed up time between pitches is not effective. Baseball is unique, in that the game is not bound by constraints of time. The game simply ends whenever the 9 innings (or, in the event of ties, however many innings are needed) have been exhausted. This is not to suggest that time is irrelevant to baseball, simply that it is understood not as something that expires but as the metric for sequence, as a constant, an x axis. The symbolic power of time in baseball is profound, evidenced by a rhetoric of perpetuation, of redemption, and of rhythm.  

I was fortunate Wednesday to have been party to a fabulous discussion, with other CMS graduate students and faculty, of Sherry Turkle’s new book Alone Together. Her text, if I may be so bold as to summarize, explores how new technologies like robotics and emerging social media (Facebook, Instant Messaging, SMS) may be undermining our social interactions, leaving them impoverished. She writes about how computation and expedited communication through email and cellular devices has encouraged new levels of multi-tasking; that our technologies enable us to do more, but also raise our expectations for our productivity. It is a well written book that, despite its faults, expresses a reasonable contemporary anxiety. I find myself sharing Turkle’s anxiety, but I feel that she has perhaps misplaced blame on the technologies we use, rather than focusing on a larger, ideological cultural crisis.

The synchronicity of these events struck me today. On the one hand, we hear the critics of baseball’s pace, demanding the optimization of a game for which time is not understood as a measurement of productivity. On the other, we have Turkle criticizing technology for the unreasonable, and detrimental demands of an ever multi-tasking society. Both criticisms seem to resonate on opposite poles of a fear that we have tragically redefined the value of our humanity as a function of our productivity.

We have all heard the proclamation that our time is valuable. We may have once considered this to be a simple declaration akin to the  relentless aphorism about life being short, and that we should “make the most of it”. The problem, as I see it, is that we now try to understand our lives in the terms of an economy of production. We consider experiences (or worse objects) to be the output of our humanity, and we measure the quality of our lives on our ability to maximize the quantity of our output relative to time spent. It is not an unfamiliar business problem, and we even have special consultants who can improve workplace “efficiencies”.

The problem is we are not businesses, and we should not be measuring our lives on principles of an economy of mass production. The startling truth buried in Turkle’s book may be that we have continuously diminished the value of time-intensive experiences like personal reflection, deep interpersonal communication, or even simple silence. We have chosen to sacrifice these needs for the sake of perceived efficiency, tethering ourselves to our emails and calendars, extending the reach of our working selves for the sake of our pursuit of happiness.

I’m reluctant to suggest that baseball is a remnant of our pastoral selves. The game is the bastard child of the industrial revolution, and the sport’s relationship to urbanization in America is complex. I do wonder, however, if the lack of a time constraint in baseball represents a need to reconfigure the value of our lives. Bernard Suits argues that games are, by definition, different from work – that they are “goal-directed activities in which inefficient means are intentionally chosen.” And yet with some games, the addition of time limits as a constraint bind play to time in a way that encourages maximization of output in accordance to the other rules of the game. Score as many points as time allows. Control possession of the ball until time runs out. Baseball however does not encourage optimized output as a function of time. Pitchers may have pitch counts, and batters may strategize to extend games (see Red Sox v. Yankees) but the limitations here are physical in nature, not bound by the course of time.

Baseball is reflective. Baseball is rhythmic. Baseball begs us, even as spectators, to be inefficient. Baseball asks us to put down our iPhones, to stop checking our email, and to step out of the batter’s box for a moment to take a deep breath between pitches.


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