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How to understand the US obsession with baseball

Emerald chessboard: Cleveland’s Progressive Field before the start of game one of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. This year’s contest is in the warmer climes of Houston and Los Angeles. Photo/Getty Images

The US dubs the summit of its domestic baseball competition the World Series, which says it all about the sport’s importance to Americans. 

A best-of-seven baseball series being played between American League champions the Houston Astros and National League champions the Los Angeles Dodgers will determine which team will hold the World Series title for the next 12 months.

Only a pedant and a non-American would note the hubris of declaring a competition that is domestic (other than the inclusion of Canada’s Toronto Blue Jays) a “World Series”. American fans will assure you that if other countries competed, the US would win anyway. There is certainly no bigger baseball competition in the world, none more prestigious or expensive and none with more followers. The “world” claim may not be too far-fetched after all.

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Without question, the titleholders will have earned their place at the top of the US 30-franchise pile. This year, baseball’s regular season began on April 2 and ended 2430 games later on October 1. By then, the 15 teams in the National League and the 15 in the American League had each played 162 games. If all seven games are required in the best-of-seven 2017 World Series – the finale of baseball’s annual calendar – there will have been only a handful of nights in eight months in which there has been no major league baseball on TV. Baseball authorities seem to fear that if public attention wanes for longer than it takes to get from Halloween to spring, when the fields thaw out, the audience might go elsewhere.

“There isn’t another [American] sport with a season like baseball has,” says Jonathan Kronstadt, a former senior editor of The World of Baseball and co-author, with Larry Moffi, of Crossing the Line. The book is a collection of biographies of every major African-American baseballer from 1947, when Jackie Robinson was the first black player to break from the Negro leagues to sign with the Dodgers, until 1961, when the Boston Red Sox became the last major league team to racially integrate.

The World Series used to directly follow the regular season, but to maximise audiences and income, baseball authorities are loath to have one series when they can instead have a series of series. This means that after the regular season, there are wildcard games, then the best-of-five play-offs to determine the two top teams in each league, which then play a best-of-seven series to determine the league champions.

Aroldis Chapman: on US$86 million over five years. Photo/Getty Images

That saw the Dodgers defeat the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros beat the New York Yankees. The schedule potentially pushes the season into early November, risking some games being played in wintry conditions, though with home games this year in LA and Houston, that risk is averted. “It’s ironic to me that to make more money they play the most important games of the year under conditions that are far from ideal,” Kronstadt says. “Last year, the Cleveland Indians played the Chicago Cubs. Fortunately they struck good weather or they could have been playing in 40 degrees Fahrenheit [4°C].”

However, the long season may also be part of baseball’s attraction. The game is known in the US as “the nation’s pastime” – a nostalgic phrase evoking fathers in the park playing catch with their kids. “For a lot of people, baseball is there on TV every day for them,” Kronstadt, 60, says. “If they’re fighting with their wife or their husband and their kids are being annoying and the boss is a pain, they know they can disappear into the minutiae of baseball. For a lot of people, there are not many things any more that are the same as they were when they were kids. For a lot of Americans, men in particular, baseball is something they can rely on, especially given the pace of change that people of my generation have gone through. A box score [scorecard] is still the same and that, I think, is comforting for a lot of people.”

Originating in the US, baseball is as quintessentially American as Mom, apple pie and debates about gun control. But as in many sports, baseball followers are drifting away and not being replaced by a younger generation. Last year’s World Series clash between the Cubs, who had endured a 108-year drought since last holding the title, and the Indians, who hadn’t won since 1948, provided a fillip. The best-of-seven series was drawn 3-3 after six games, heightening interest in the final. It was tied 7-7 after nine innings apiece – the length of a standard game – then endured a rain break before the Cubs prevailed 8-7 in the 10th innings. In doing so, the teams pulled in 40.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen figures, the third-highest viewership for a single telecast on US TV last year. It was beaten only by the Super Bowl (112.6 million viewers) and the Super Bowl post-game (70.3 million). The Oscars was the only top-10 event in 2016 that was not a sport.

The long season means each team needs a large squad of players who are increasingly specialised. The analysis of field placings, the swing of the ball and pitcher selection, combined with endlessly poring over statistics, make baseball aficionados similar to their cricketing counterparts. One difference is that major league baseballers attract eye-watering salaries, which bother some fans, but the specialist roles simply add to the pieces on the so-called “emerald chessboard”. “A lot of people see it as a very cerebral game. I think that’s bullshit, but it makes them feel better,” Kronstadt says.

One role, for example, is “the closer”, a pitcher who comes on for only the final innings to try to stop the batting side from scoring. This season, the New York Yankees set a record closer’s salary, signing Aroldis Chapman from Cuba for US$86 million ($123 million) over five years. Major league baseball is major-league business. More than prestige will accrue to the 2017 World Series winners.

This article was first published in the November 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.