“Make some NOISE!” The P.A. recording exhorts the crowd. “Clack! Clack! Clack! Clack! Clack! Clack! Clack!” the speakers pump to enhance the noise generated by a few obedient fans. It’s the third inning of a scoreless early-season game, and a batter has just reached base via a two-out base on balls.
Baseball is the rare sport with long stretches of quiet, with sunny days where spectators can hear seagulls cry and fastballs thump the catcher’s mitt from the upper deck. These pastoral stretches are punctuated by violently hit baseballs flying out of the stadium at 100 mph, or by players sprinting around the bases and kicking up dirt, or by fielders leaping into the air to snag line drives. But the quiet moments are increasingly rare. Major League Baseball is committed to addressing complaints that the game is boring, slow, and short of “action”—the complaints of people who don’t like baseball, in other words. Baseball must be sped up, they say, or at least the experience of watching a game must be; the game must be made to seem faster, more intense and action-packed.
The quiet of baseball, where the senses are lulled or the tension builds, must be abolished, filled by thumping music. Each batter gets personalized “walk-up music,” usually a 20-second snippet from his favorite rowdy song. Between innings, we get sing-alongs, clap-alongs, kiss-cams, and video-scoreboard games, all accompanied by the stadium’s high-powered sound system, capable of volumes that make side-by-side conversation in the distant decks possible only by yelling. It’s the kind of aural assault usually reserved for military psy-ops.
While dramatic music has a long association with spectator sports—organ music began playing at Chicago’s Wrigley Field in 1941—today’s stadium-sound experience goes far beyond gentle noodling on a Hammond organ to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Sports stadiums are increasingly designed to amplify crowd noise, but it’s not the sound of 50,000 fans in full throat that sends people home with ringing ears—it’s the constant racket and relentless thump of disjointed music or recorded noise, whether electronic handclaps or the sound of pipes banging together. The sounds express big league baseball’s nervousness about the game’s relevance in the modern world and its effort to make it into what it can never be: an action-packed spectacle, with fans forever bouncing on the edge of their seats, dancing in the aisles, or throwing their fists in the air.
Major league baseball has already implemented new rules allowing teams simply to “announce” intentional walks rather than go through the formality of throwing four pitches. This move adds zero action to the game, while subtracting the rare but quirky possibilities that intentional walks present—sometimes things don’t go as planned when a pitcher throws four balls out of the strike zone, on purpose. Minor league and college baseball already enforce a “pitch clock”—where the pitcher must deliver the ball within 20 seconds—and major league baseball men are considering it. Pitch clocks have reduced game times by 12 minutes, on average, though they have also altered baseball’s delicate pace, especially in late-inning, close-game scenarios.
Let other sports blast music and noise every second: baseball should stop to smell the roses—or at least the manicured lawns and neatly graded base paths that have resonated with Americans for so long. As Roger Angell wrote:
Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young. Sitting in the stands, we sense this, if only dimly. The players below us—Mays, DiMaggio, Ruth, Snodgrass—swim and blur in memory, the ball floats over to Terry Turner, and the end of this game may never come.
Last week, facing off against Los Angeles Angels rookie pitcher Jaime Barria, Brandon Belt of the San Francisco Giants set a record with a 21-pitch at-bat that lasted 12 minutes and 45 seconds. Baseball will never defeat time, though it used to be quite pleasing to go out to the ballpark and try. Now, though, the assault on the ears and the constant stimulus sound increasingly like unsubtle hints to go home.
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