The Clock Begins To Tick

It’s April 3rd.  That means baseball season begins tonight in Houston and in other places, and that means time itself begins to move for a lot of us, after its long suspension in winter.

I exaggerate, of course, but not by much.  For millions of us, Opening Day does in fact represent the start of the only seventh-month period of the year that truly means anything.  Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell understood this truth when he wrote his now-famous collection of essays, Why Time Begins On Opening Day, a still-valuable effort to reveal the heart of baseball’s attraction that is only somewhat dated by the all the references to 1980s players like Mark Fydrich, Mike Schmidt, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Robin Yount.

I’m convinced that it’s the structure of baseball that gives it its initial fascination.  The game has evolved, to be sure, but the basic structure has been there for a long time:  the mathematical rightness of 3x3x9 (three outs x 9 innings = 27), repeated over and over again, and harmonized–since 1962, anyway–with 81 games (9×9) home and away, is reflected in the triangular shape of the field, with its inviting expanse of green grass, upon which all of us used to play and work.

Yet there’s another element the sport reflects, as all sports do, and that is time.  Baseball’s treatment of time, however, is unlike any other sport’s.  In every other major team sport except baseball, teams play against the clock:  sixty minutes in football; forty-eight in basketball.  Baseball, on the other hand, has no clock, except the new, minimal one of twenty seconds instituted this season to ensure that the pitcher makes his pitches to the batter in a timely fashion.  That’s fair.  Nobody wants to dawdle out there.  Even that clock, though, will be honored more in the breach than the observance.  The game sets its own rhythms, and the players play until one side wins, until the issue is truly decided by what somebody does, not a clock on the sidelines.  Within the structure of baseball, then, within an individual game, time itself has no meaning; we play until somebody’s won.  In this way, baseball reflects, and has always reflected, our common hope for eternity, our sense that, somewhere on the planet, a green paradise truly does exist, within which our youth and our strength may be preserved.  Outside the stadium, of course, the seasons slowly pass, but those inside are only dimly aware of the changes.  The chill of October always startles us, and we always feel, at the end of things, that we were going to have more time than we actually had.

But the time we do have, from early April to the sweet, cool, first days of October, is enough.  That expanse of time, filled with the whoosh of the ball and the crack of the bat, teaches us that, no matter how we start, we can end well.  A team that wins only fifteen of its first forty-five games might yet be NL champions.  It can teach us the obverse truth, too:  a team with the best record in the league might be caught at the wire in September and miss the playoffs altogether.  Part of baseball’s sweetness is that it teaches us to measure time properly, day by day.  And it tells us that human accomplishments are not to be measured by a mere singular moment of excellence or error, but by the totality of what we do, day after day, during the lengthy brevity of our lives.

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