Bart Giamatti, the former baseball commissioner, once wrote an essay, a favorite of nostalgia-mongers like Bob Costas, about the tragic beauty of the game and how it “breaks your heart.” I’ve never gone in for this type of sentiment about the sport—for example, I find the movie Field of Dreams treacly and loathsome—but I have to admit that Game 4 was almost heartbreaking.
Not because of who won or lost, but because of all those deadeningly anticlimactic intentional walks. Barry Bonds, the Babe Ruth of Our Time, came to the plate four times and got exactly one chance to swing the bat. Imagine if other sports worked the same way—if Tiger Woods stepped up to the tee and instead of letting him swing, his competitors just agreed to give him a par or a birdie and move on to the next hole. Golf’s TV ratings would evaporate just like baseball’s have.
Unfortunately, there is no one to blame for this, and there is no practical way of outlawing the free pass. We have to live with it, just like we have to live with many other frustrating aspects of the game. Being a baseball fan requires patience and work—there is no adrenaline rush to compensate for all the hopes and expectations it routinely dashes—and it is not surprising that Americans in general are increasingly unwilling to invest themselves in it. You have to be something of a freak to admire the strategic beauty of an intentional walk.
It was precisely that sort of freak I was hoping to find when I decided to watch Game 4 from one of the funky beer joints on the periphery of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. I expected that the city’s more committed baseball fans might choose to watch the Series there. From them, I thought, I might be able to develop some theories about why baseball just doesn’t seem able to transcend geography. There are two great teams in the World Series. Why does it matter so much that both are from California?
Unfortunately, in the shadows of Yankee Stadium, I found a black hole of disinterest. Most of the strip was sealed up like a tomb. Only one place was even open for business, a seedy tavern on 161st Street. The long bar there was occupied by exactly eight people, two of whom had their heads down and appeared to have lost consciousness. A frisky couple seemed to be midway through a clandestine extramarital date and were moving swiftly toward their own inside-the-park home run. A woman who told me she had just lost her job at a nearby hospital was busily scratching away at instant-loser lottery tickets. Three junior members of the Bronx DA’s office sat in a tight, defensive cluster, drinking their drinks like they had been dreaming of them all day.
The game was shown on six TV sets, visible from every seat in the bar, but only the bartender and I paid any attention. He railed nonstop about Bud Selig and the evils of profit sharing, as if reading from a script provided by George Steinbrenner.
I asked him why nobody seemed interested in the World Series. He thought it was obvious. “Baseball is a slow game,” he said. “Most of the time, everybody is just standing around waiting for something to happen. And if they are a bunch of guys you never heard of, well …” He trailed off and looked up at the TV set as Benji Gil, the Angels reserve second baseman, stepped up to the plate.
“Like that guy,” said the bartender. “I don’t know him from boo. And unless he hits this next ball 500 feet, I never will.” Benji Gil struck out and went back to the dugout a forgotten man.
In the eighth inning, baseball fans across America finally got their fix —Barry Bonds in a non-walk situation. Best of all, it came against the Angels’$2 20-year-old Venezuelan phenom, Francisco Rodriguez, aka K-Rod, and it was a brilliant duel. K-Rod skimmed a slider on the outside corner for strike one, fooled Bonds completely with a vicious, diving curve for strike two, and then on a 2-2 count, went after the outside corner again. Bonds made the classic (and for him, uncharacteristic) mistake of trying to pull a ball away from him and dribbled it to the first baseman. It was an astonishing piece of pitching, almost as impressive as Ramon Ortiz’s strikeout of Bonds the night before, but to the channel-surfer sitting at home, it was, in all likelihood, a touch underwhelming.
The bartender then launched into another extended anti-Selig tirade. Desperate to change the subject, I finally asked him if anyone ever came in and ordered a Buttery Nipple. “Oh sure,” he said, “I get all types in here. But I just pour ‘em a beer, and say, here, suck on this.”