Monday Superlatives

Technology has completely ruined baseball for me

October 9, 2017
2009 Yankees
Jim McIsaac

There's just one superlative this week. It is "Worst Baseball Fan," and it is me.

In 2009, living in Brooklyn, I attended roughly 15 Yankee games, including one in the divisional series (THIS ONE!!) and one in the ALCS. My tactic was to take the 4-train north from my office in midtown, stand on the subway platform at 161st st. in the Bronx, wait for a new train and all its passengers, and shout "College kid here, just need one ticket! Can't pay a lot, don't care where I'm sitting!" The "college kid" part was not strictly true—I was 26—but I had very little shame, and it worked as a sympathy ploy. I rarely paid more than $10 for a ticket, and if the seat was a nosebleed, I'd sneak down into the good second-level tier along the first base line with no trouble. (I'm one of the world's foremost experts on that front.)

I'd stay for the whole game, read a book between innings, maybe get a hot dog and beer. It was glorious. When I wasn't actually at Yankee Stadium, I watched the games on the YES Network. When the Yanks were on the west coast, I put on John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman on WCBS 880 and tried to stay up until the end. Usually, I did. I doubt I missed more than five games that season, and I blogged about the team almost every day. The Yanks won the World Series, too, beating the Phillies in six games, and it felt like a reward for my devotion. It's the absolute highlight of my existence as a sports fan.

Eight years later, I swear to you that I can't watch a game. Not one. I can't do it. My attention span has been so totally decimated by thousands of hours on the Internet that my brain is ruined for baseball.

It didn't happen right away—I moved to North Carolina in 2010, and for the first two years I ordered the MLB package so I could keep watching my favorite team. I never hit 2009 obsession levels, but I was okay. By the end of the second year, though, I was tuned out enough that I couldn't justify buying it for a third year. Plus, the Yankees were the featured team on FOX weekend baseball and ESPN's Sunday night games often enough that I could still catch them a dozen times or more per year. Sometimes I listened to the radio.

Gradually, though, watching the games become more and more intolerable. The things I loved became like chores, and it got to the point where I couldn't even pretend to be having fun. For instance: Where once I had enjoyed a long, important at-bat between a crafty pitcher and a resilient hitter—and even savored it as a riveting duel of almost artistic proportions—now I was just frustrated. Each successive foul ball irritated me more and more, and I longed for a quicker resolution. I kept at it for a while, bound to baseball and the Yankees by a sense of loyalty, but how long can loyalty last without the element of love that inspired it in the first place?

Baseball asks so much of you, and it rewards your patience and interest tenfold, but something had changed in me. Maybe life had become more interesting, and maybe my need to find meaning in the Yankees had diminished. Maybe the obsession of 2009 and earlier was a fever that wore off with age. But I don't think that quite explains it. I think there's something deeper. I think that the thousands of hours I'd spent connected to the Internet, more and more every year, had trained me to expect instant feedback. In the absence of the immediate or semi-immediate dopamine rush I'd come to expect, I became ill-at-ease in a way that verged on anger. And no sport triggers that jittery disquiet—a feeling almost like withdrawal—quite like baseball.

It didn't help to watch baseball in front of a computer, either. In fact, I think baseball is the sport that suffers most from the second-screen experience. I still enjoy watching the majors in golf just as much as before—paradoxically, it would seem, since golf is much slower. But there's a critical difference, which is that golf only asks you to pay attention to one shot at a time, and there's always a resolution to that shot. It's either good, bad, or neutral, and then you can wait for the next shot. In the meantime, you're free to tweet, do a crossword puzzle, read your uncle's insane Facebook political post, whatever. Football, which is so regimented and predictable in format, while still delivering high drama and frequent reward, might be the perfect sport for the Internet age. Soccer and basketball are so free-flowing, mostly, that they can hold your attention, and since the length of games is standardized, there's always a finish line in sight. (Though I have given up college basketball, aside from my alma mater's games, due to the utter failure of referees to institute to break the stalemate of brutish play and institute a more aesthetically pleasing style of game, a la the NBA). Tennis is mostly the same in its flow and rewards, and only becomes aggravating in long deuce games.

With baseball, though, and you can throw expectations out the window. Commit to a game, and you might be there for two hours, or you might be there for four. Each game, each inning, each at-bat is of indeterminate length. There's very little promise of excitement, so if you can't enjoy the minute details, forget about payoff. And if you dip out, even for ten minutes, you lose the flow, and it stops feeling like you're part of the experience. Baseball needs your total focus—you're either all in, or you're all out—and my brain has been so compromised by the Internet that I'm incapable of rising to the challenged. I have been forced into self-exile.

Which is a shame, because I still believe that baseball is our most unique and perhaps our spiritually richest sport. It sounds a little strange to attribute great import to a professional sports team, but the 2009 Yankees were meaningful to me. Even worse—they gave me a sense of purpose during a time of personal stress (flimsy as that sounds for someone who had no connection to the team), and in that way made my life better. I put in so much of myself to that team, so much of my time, that I felt a sense of total ecstasy when they won. I could live to 100, and I don't think sports will ever matter that much to me again.

As for today? The Yankees are in the playoffs, just like in 2009. They're likely on the verge of losing to the Cleveland Indians in the divisional series, and I haven't watched a single game all season. I didn't watch when they played the Red Sox, a rivalry which used to occupy my thoughts for an entire day. I didn't watch their do-or-die Wild Card game over the Twins. I turned on the Friday's playoff game during extra innings, saw a Yankee runner get picked off second, and then got bored and turned it off long before the Indians' walk-off win.

All I can say now is that I'm thankful time is linear, and the 2009 version of myself can't confront the 2017 version. Imagine the disappointment! He'd probably break my computer in half and hustle me away to some re-education camp in Cooperstown. His efforts would be in vain. Now that my attention span has been broken, I'm not sure it's possible to unbreak it. I take steps to maintain some semblance of humanity—I use a flip phone, for instance, so my out-of-house moments are Internet free—but it's hard for me to imagine a future where baseball is an integral part of my life.

We're over, baseball, and I mean this sincerely: It's not you, it's me.


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