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Best of BP: The Other Aging Curve

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This article was originally published January 23, 2023.


Larry Parrish steps into the box, his stance upright, to face… it’s impossible to tell. The baseball game looks like a child’s watercolor; the orange-clad Giants pitcher is numbered 40 but his name is indecipherable. I assume it’s Greg Minton, because I want him to be. The astroturf and dirt are monochromatic; the fans, a smudged array of polite ovals. Mustaches are assumed. The anonymous starter hucks a curveball that dives downward and Parrish swings clumsily over it, his helmet tumbling into his lap and into his hand. Eight seconds later, he does so again, and again catches his helmet amidst strike three, before floating off stage left.

It’s hard not to feel a certain surreptitiousness to watching these old baseball games on the internet, and not because they’re uploaded without the express written consent of Major League Baseball. Games like these feel like they’re meant to be forgotten, like old magazine articles ripped free of the bindings, severed from their time. The storylines and the drama of the game, and the identity of every one of its actors have been scrubbed clean. It feels like watching the light of a distant star finally reaching Earth, knowing that a billion miles away, its source has already gone out.

Giants first baseman Mike Ivie throws out a long-levered swing on a Dan Schatzeder pitch—who knows which kind—and drives it into a patch of empty, sea-blue seats in left. The nearby Montreal fans don’t even seem to react, adding to the uncanniness of the scene. The fans behind the plate, too, look motionless, even as the pitchers work at double speed. The effect is almost like watching a pantomime, enacted by people who have studied baseball but never played it. 

Watching baseball like this is almost an invasion, finding someone’s adolescent writings, or worse, old love letters. History without context isn’t history; it’s just fiction with the serial numbers filed off.

***

I’m trying to read the Shakespeare drama Coriolanus. Okay, that’s not actually true. I’ve given up trying to read the Shakespeare drama Coriolanus. It’s not that people think the play is bad—they don’t tend to think of it at all—but it just doesn’t have whatever it is that all the big ones have. The structure, laid out in brief, actually reads like one of his better ones: Roman nobleman becomes a hero defending his country, but because of his pride, he is hated and eventually banished by its citizens. Then he comes back with allies, prepared to destroy the country he saved. Corolianus was the Bard’s final tragedy, and the critics paid to cover the gamut generally consider it to be up there with the top-shelf stuff. It doesn’t really have that big speech, or that big moment, to capture the hearts of readers. So it just kind of got forgotten.

(It should be noted that Ralph Fiennes did put together an adaptation in 2011, which received critical acclaim. It should also be noted that the production made back a third of its $7.5 million budget.)

That shouldn’t be surprising. It’s a wonder that we’re still consuming almost anything more than 400 years old. It’s not like Shakespeare scripts are easy reads, especially in Act I, Scene i, where the lines are delivered by commoners using contractions like “stale’t,” “an’t” and “you’st” that were meant to be confusing even at the time. Shakespeare has aged, and the reason that we appreciate the works we do is that we have these bridges that lead us back to him, modern performances and translations and reimaginings that fill in the gaps when the occasional phrase or even scene go over our heads. We work hard to keep Shakespeare great.

Everything ages. Not just people, but everything that people do. We all start off as statues and go out like trunkless legs of stone. 

***

My father had a friend who was an artist. Before I was born he fought in World War II, helped found a department store, hung out with my dad, worked as an architect, built a small cottage out in the woods, did an art show every couple of decades. He had a studio where he painted, and drew, and listened to old records and got depressed when his eyesight started to go and he couldn’t paint or draw. My parents would invite him to stay with us every couple of months, and set him up on a couch in the family room with hours of hand-taped Masterpiece Theater episodes, Poirot and the like, that he couldn’t watch in his television-free home. Between these sessions I would foist myself on him, ask him to draw with me or play board games and generally reinforce his decision to live alone in the woods and never have children. 

The artist passed away about a decade or so ago, just before my own children were born. We took care of his things, donated to the museums the art they wanted, and I gathered up much of the rest, the works no longer in progress, the dead ends, the shadows of things. I adored it all. The pieces of failed and half-finished art made him feel more alive than his “real” paintings. One box I found was just an entire stack of index cards with images cut out of magazines and pasted to them: angles of the human body he found interesting, perhaps, or unique shades or shapes or hues. We also uncovered a collection of journals that he kept throughout his life, some of them passing thoughts, others directed on his studies or his craft. 

Sometimes I try to read them but I never get very far. A single page is often enough to get lost in; perhaps it’d be different if I were an artist and not a writer, if I were able to see the unmade paintings in the world he did. Even the words about the pictures feel like searching for a wedding ring in an underbrush of ideas. My father is dutifully scanning the pages in his own retirement, and I’ll keep the books when he’s done, safe in my little library. I haven’t read them all because I can’t bear the thought of there being an end to them.

But these, too, will age. These words still connect me to the man I knew, but they cannot connect my children to him once my library becomes theirs. The same will be true of my words with their grandchildren. After all, art requires at least some level of external context. It must live somewhere. The greatest works of art and literature, the things that we collectively decide matter and should be remembered, last so long because they seem to exist out of time: They speak to an unchangeable element of humanity. But they too are grounded in a world, and that world falls away. Books like Huckleberry Finn and The Canterbury Tales require, for different reasons, a certain amount of strain in the translation to the modern audience. Those strains eventually overcome the bonds that hold things to us, the sinews snap, and they disappear, feeding the soil to grow other trees. 

***

Baseball has lately found itself struggling with that same strain of translation. The sport is often criticized for the average age of its fanbase, but it also belies the fact that the game has held onto its fans. For all the (often valid) issues people raise about the accessibility of the game, and its pacing issues, baseball connects itself with its history far better than other American professional sports. The football of my own childhood in the early 80s is barely even football anymore, given the dramatic changes to that sport’s rules and practices. Baseball from half a century ago may look like it was played underwater, but the numbers still feel real.

The strain is growing, however. No small part of this comes from within the game itself, which has begun to accelerate in much the same way football and basketball did when their own inefficiencies (establishing the run, setting up the half court offense) fell by the wayside. (It’s to the credit of the sport and its design, I think, that this process began earlier and has reached this stage later than its brethren.) There’s also the external forces that have played upon the consistency of our hallowed numbers: the steroid era, which laid havoc to Hall of Fame ballots for a decade, as well as the more recent fluctuations in the ball itself that have made numbers, and even metrics scaled on those numbers, untrustworthy. 

These elements, I suspect, aren’t enough to stray beyond the variations of the past, the little ice ages of 1968 and 1987. What I believe is truly aging the sport more rapidly in the past is the way we consume it. The ubiquity of modern video, for example, and the quality of that footage, renders a videotaped 1990s ESPN broadcast nearly as ancient as the language of Shakespeare. But perhaps the most single divisive element of what we consider “modern” baseball from the past is the language we use to describe it. 

For most of my life, if there were a Family Feud poll question on what year marked the beginning of modern baseball, the number one answer would probably be 1947. Baseball rosters were finally complete again after the end of the second World War; Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier; it was also the first year cataloged by the baseball cards that got included in the Beckett Baseball Card price guides. That 1947 mark eventually lost its luster as people came to terms with the fact that Branch Rickey didn’t end racism in baseball, or that the rapid expansion of the 1960s had a major effect on the sport. When Sam Miller once claimed that 1988 was the first season of real baseball, it felt hyperbolic… and yet increasingly, I found myself drawing the same line. After all, it’s the farthest back we have individual pitch data in Retrosheet.

Now, however, that number almost feels conservative. Our language has changed again, with so much of the way we categorize and describe the game coming from stadium-camera data that goes back a mere eight years. Ken Griffey Jr. arrived in the second year of Sam’s modern age, played 21 seasons, and we’ll still never know the exit velocity of a single one of his home runs. That sentence sounds ridiculous, and for readers of my age, it’s meant to be, but as the shadows of the Statcast Era lengthen, everything before it will feel like watching grainy UHF television, or reading middle English. It’ll still be there for us, but it won’t be the same. It’ll require that extra layer of translation, the strain. It’ll be baseball, but not quite.

***

If I ever decide to pick Coriolanus back up, and try to decode it, I have one new option at my disposal: I can ask Shakespeare himself about it. As if the work of historians weren’t hard enough in the modern accelerating age, conversational artificial intelligence programs like chatGPT have been given human skins, play-acting at humanity while giving erroneous, and sometimes horrific, answers while wearing the masks of dead people. Translating the past into the present, and drawing meaning from it, is difficult enough without text boxes pretending to skip the line.

The temptation is understandable, because the alternative is unthinkable: that the things we do will someday vanish, no matter how hard we try. Even for writers, people who are so terrified by the notion that they make themselves miserable trying to capture everything they can and hold it down, pinned to the page by words, for someone, anyone. 

The lies of the bots are bad enough, but the most damaging thing about them, the ultimate lie, is the idea that history can be bypassed, that with enough data and enough machine learning, we can combine the past and present into a single tense. That nothing will ever be forgotten, that it can be instantly recalled, that there is no strain. That those handwritten notes on my shelf, the temperature at Ebbets Field on a summer day in 1949, and the philosophies of dead artists are all just data to catalog and retrieve. Because the loss of that strain, as painful as it can be, is vital; it is an act of creation. By reaching into the past, by trying to understand and reflect, we are shaped by it, just as the future will be shaped by us. My artist friend is dead, and he lives through the way his art touched mine, as mine might someday to another. 

Something will be lost, eventually for good, in that translation. It’s like a cultural game of telephone. Corolianus becomes a connection you discover as you admire the hubris of some fallen celebrity. That blurry, haunted Giants-Expos game ceases to be real, as each person in attendance forgets it, but it continues to exist in a new form, a world of ghosts and ideas, so blurry that you have to create the rest of the story yourself. John Curtis pitches a shutout victory, only to become Greg Minton, then Kirk Rueter, then your own father. The blurrier it gets, the more it all blends together. Then you squint, and realize that modern baseball hasn’t even happened yet, and you’re someone else’s oval.

Thank you for reading

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