Sports of all sorts interest me, and I can be a bandwagon fan of any Bay Area sports team: the Warriors currently, the 49ers a couple years ago, Cal football from 2004-2008. I’m watching Cal-Hawaii in March Madness as I type this. But baseball is the only sport I’m in for rain or shine (well, they don’t play in the rain, but you get me). It’s the only sport I’ve followed in some capacity every year since 1993, the year Barry Bonds joined the Giants and they won 103 games. It’s the only sport I’ve ever had a fantasy team in (two at once for a few seasons). Thinking about it, it’s the only sport I’ve spent any money on, like, ever, unless you count beers while watching basketball or soccer in bars, or provisions purchased for the odd Super Bowl party. (I’m even the sports blogger who doesn’t have ESPN, since, following only one sport closely and outside of my chosen team’s blackout radius, I can get by with an MLB.tv subscription.) My sports library is a bunch of baseball books (Bill James, Roger Angell, Moneyball) and one non-baseball book (Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, although I owned The Blind Side for a while before selling it). This blog is just an outlet for my thinking about sports, and I’ve thought far, far more about baseball than any other sport.
But a lot of the time, the more you think about something, the more you fail to think about it, because you fall into patterns of thought that become invisible to you, and you start to accept or reject premises according to those patterns of thought rather than according to your reasoning. So in honor of the resumption of baseball, I’d like to consider a complaint that is ubiquitous among those who don’t like baseball and reflexively rejected by those who do: the complaint that baseball is boring.
We can chalk up some of the ubiquity of “baseball is boring” to the unthinking repetition of cliche; it’s a safe criticism and people love making those. But we can’t just dismiss it, because it means something when all the criticism goes only one way. Some people find football too violent; some are mad because it’s not as violent as it used to be. But no one thinks baseball’s too fast-paced. If we want to really understand baseball, part of that entails understanding why so many people have this complaint, which could explain why it’s fallen into a distant second place of the most popular American sports.
Let’s look at what makes sports interesting or boring, and how baseball stacks up to other sports on those criteria:
Close games are interesting; blowouts are boring.
This one is universal. There’s nothing about baseball, as far as I know, that produces more blowouts, and actually there’s arguably more chance of an improbable comeback in baseball because there’s no clock: you can come back from any deficit as long as you keep not making outs. At the same time, though, when a comeback doesn’t happen, it’s often more deadly than in other sports, because baseball doesn’t really give losing teams many options to help them get back in the game (about which more below).
Momentum changes are interesting; the inevitable is boring.
Baseball doesn’t have any turnovers, which hurts its potential here, but the aforementioned lack of a clock allows for the big inning, which helps. So this one is probably a wash.
Choices are interesting; a straight line is boring.
Strategic choices give fans something to talk about and second-guess. Football is probably the leader here; basketball and soccer have less in the way of intricate arrangement of pieces but still rely on formations and offensive and defensive strategies. But baseball, as DH proponents love to point out, has little in the way of in-game strategy: there just aren’t enough double-switches to alter the game too much. There’s strategy that goes into lineup selection—my personal reason for opposing the Designated Hitter—and strategy around when to bring in a new pitcher or hitter, and how to set the defense, and that’s about it on the team level. There’s strategy on the level of individual players—the pitchers and catchers have to strategize extensively about how approach each hitter, and hitters are presumably being strategic about how to approach each at-bat—but that kind of strategy is mostly below the visible surface. From the fan’s perspective, it’s just one person after another coming up and trying to get a hit.
Furthermore, the relative paucity of strategic choices in baseball bears on the point about blowouts. Baseball, unlike other sports, doesn’t have many high-risk high-reward plays that can be undertaken in more desperate situations—the Hail Mary pass, pulling the goalie—which have the side effect of jump-starting the drama, even though the team that’s behind usually loses anyway. There are some high-risk high-reward plays—the stolen base and the squeeze play, mainly—but they require someone to get on base first (and usually with less than two outs, or else most of the strategic toolbox is moot). It’s like if a football team couldn’t try a Hail Mary until it had achieved at least one first down on the drive.
Variation is interesting; repetition is boring. (We could also say: Athletic creativity is interesting; rote tasks are boring.)
Every sport has its own set of tasks which are not interesting to watch: free throws, kicking the extra point, making meaningless passes to run out the clock. Not all of these are easy to do in the sense that I could do them—hell, even some basketball players make less than half their free throws—but within the context of professional sport, they’re totally unexceptional. It’s not just that they don’t require, relatively, a lot of skill; it’s also that they always look pretty much the same.
One thing that makes a sport exciting, then, is creativity, and the leader in this category among major American sports has to be basketball. It’s no coincidence that basketball is experiencing a popularity boom brought on by Vine, which allows you to watch isolated brilliant plays again and again on a six-second loop, stripped of all game context. In fact, basketball is probably the only major sport that can still be exciting in a rout, because weaker competition allows players to better exhibit their remarkable athleticism; that’s why the Harlem Globetrotters are a viable entertainment draw. The opportunity for dazzling athletic skill is also soccer’s great asset; that’s why it’s o jogo bonito (“the beautiful game”). And American football, if not as richly creative as these sports, still offers plenty in the way of balletic athleticism—not to mention brutal hits, which are creative in their own grisly way.
Baseball, by contrast, is just not a great sport for highlights. Most at-bats end in routine plays—groundouts and lazy fly balls— but even the successes look unremarkable: whether or not it’s really “the hardest thing to do in sports,” hitting a baseball is anything but a rote task, yet one single up the middle looks much like another one. Of course, your average jump shot in basketball isn’t anything to write home about either, but swinging a bat doesn’t allow the kind of creativity that inspires the best basketball shots. Even home runs, unless they’re really majestic, aren’t all that exciting to watch out of context. I can watch highlights of Giants all day—Bonds hitting home runs, Lincecum striking out batters, Cain throwing a perfect game. With players from other teams, I can take it or leave it, since most of the highlights are things like “watch Player X single in the go-ahead run in a game you don’t really care about.”
The exceptions—the baseball plays that make reliably great highlights—are defensive plays (hence Web Gems) and baserunning plays, which is one reason why it’s so harmful to baseball that football now gets most of the track-and-field-style athletes. (Another reason it’s harmful is the loss of racial diversity, since, for whatever reason, so many of the fastest athletes in American sports are black.)
Progress is, if not interesting, a necessary condition for interest; stasis is boredom itself.
Not everything that moves the game towards completion is interesting, but anything that takes up time without moving the game forward is bound to be boring (with the exception of freak events and, notably, hockey fights). All sports have dead air—timeouts, replay reviews, changes of possession—and baseball, to its credit, is taking steps to cut down on its problems in this regard. The problem in baseball isn’t that it has more dead time than other sports—I have no idea—but that there are so many little pockets of dead air that interrupt play without warning: players stepping out of the box or off the rubber, mound conferences, meaningless pickoff throws. Since these are tiny and unexpected, they can’t be covered by commercial breaks or trips to the nacho stand, so they add to the perception that the game is boring. (This is also one of the reasons diving is so harmful to soccer: it’s not just that it’s pathetic and unsportsmanlike, but also that the game screeches to a halt for the trainer to assess the nonexistent injury.)
High-leverage situations are interesting; low-leverage situations are boring.
At last, baseball’s strength. The inspiration for this post was a bit from Hannibal Buress’s newest standup special, where he criticizes baseball for being boring: “Give me situational baseball. Give me bottom of the 9th, tie game, bases loaded, full count, two outs. But don’t show me what led up to that shit.” The West Wing, apparently finding itself with some time to fill up in an episode, expressed something similar:
HOYNES: I love sports, I just can’t get next to hockey. See, I think Americans like to savor situations. One down, bottom of the ninth, one run game, first and third, left-handed batter, right-handed reliever, infield at double play depth, here’s the pitch. But scoring in hockey seems to come out of nowhere.
For high-leverage situations, situations where the fate of the game depends on one moment in time, you can’t do better than baseball. So why isn’t this enough to counteract the sport’s reputation for boredom? For one thing, it’s significant that both of the above quotes focus on the iconic bottom of the ninth, where Thomson, Gibson, and Carter reside: for the casual fan, that’s when the leverage is most obvious, even though the actual turning point may have occurred some innings earlier, making it seem like nothing truly exciting happens until the end (“don’t show me what led up to that shit”). For another, some games never have any particularly high-leverage situations, so by the time the ninth rolls around everyone’s heading to their cars anyway. (Also, surely it’s not a good sign that baseball’s greatest asset itself requires a technical term like “high-leverage situation” to cover it.)
So what follows from all of this? Looking at the above (and acknowledging that there are probably a lot of factors I didn’t think of—share ’em in the comments!), I think I have a better understanding of why so many people are bored by baseball. Rather than an unpredictable series of twists and turns, it generally feels like one thing following another, where the events are not exactly predictable (you don’t know who’ll get a hit when) but also rarely deviate from a narrow range of patterns. The game’s excitement comes to a large degree from a number of tense high-leverage situations, but the events leading up to those situations are indeed often unremarkable to watch, at least compared to the astonishing athleticism of a soccer goal or a tackle-breaking run.
But are these problems? Does baseball need to change to become more engaging? Well, I certainly think baseball should do whatever it can to eliminate boring elements of the game that have no benefit. Cutting down on the time between innings and the number of time-outs and mound conferences is a good start, but I’d go further. I’d like to see fewer pick-off throws (Bill James proposed imposing a one-ball penalty on a pitcher who unsuccessfully throws over more than a certain number of times). I’d like to see the intentional walk eliminated—why should the catcher be able to stand up before the pitch is thrown? Baseball needs to be more open to making changes that would make it more entertaining without harming the product on the field.
At the same time, now that I’ve considered why so many people find baseball boring, I no longer feel defensive when I’m confronted with that opinion—like if my favorite sport is boring I must be a boring person. What I’ve realized, instead, is that the straightforwardness that makes baseball seem boring to some also allows more in-depth study of the game situation. There’s a reason no one brings a scoresheet to a football game, a reason why basketball isn’t a great sport to hear on the radio: the way its moments are frozen in time between pitches allows fans and broadcasters time to assess and contemplate the state of play. I’m not saying baseball is somehow “smarter” than other sports—the contemplation we give to those moments can be brilliant (Jon Miller) or banal (Rex Hudler). I’m saying that the more you know the game, the farther it is from boring, because what seems straightforward to the casual fan may be anything but. We shouldn’t reshape the game just based on what casual fans think: basketball also has the problem of casual fans thinking that nothing matters until the end of the game, but true fans know better.
Of course, I don’t mean that I want baseball to only be for the baseball nerds and everyone else can go hang. In fact, there’s even something to be said for embracing the boredom as a draw for casual fans. In the routine I mentioned above, Hannibal Buress had another line on baseball: “A baseball game is good to go to if you’ve got a friend you haven’t seen in eight years, and you want to just go somewhere and talk for a few hours with no interruptions.” He meant it disparagingly, but to me this is one of baseball’s great strengths. Friends and I have enjoyed ballgames where we’re watching every play with rapt attention, and we’ve enjoyed games where we’re just catching up in a picturesque setting and following the game only during those high-tension moments. Thanks to its leisurely pace, baseball makes few demands on its audience. It’s happy to give you back exactly what you put into it, and there aren’t many forms of entertainment like that anymore.