Why Kids Love Baseball, and You Should, Too

The stadium scene.
Oct. 21 2013 3:20 PM

Why Kids Love Baseball

You may think it’s slow and boring, but my 8-year-old son knows it’s perfect.

This weekend I bought 3,000 baseball cards. They cost $30. That’s because nobody wants baseball cards anymore; the industry has shrunk to one-seventh of its peak size in the last 20 years. Baseball, too, has shrunk. Once America’s most popular sport, it’s now a distant second to the NFL, barely ahead of college football in terms of primary adherents. The age of baseball supremacy is over.

But not in my house. This is what my son’s desk looks like:

The desk of a baseball loving 8-year-old.

Photo courtesy Jordan Ellenberg

My son is 8, and he just finished his first season of Little League. Before he goes to bed each night he needs an update on the scores in the playoff games. And when he gets up in the morning the first thing he asks is how they ended. He can tell you everything you’d want to know, and actually somewhat more, about beloved Brewers like Carlos Gomez, Caleb Gindl, and Aramis Ramirez, whose jersey he wears to school as soon as it’s clean, once a week, summer and winter.

Advertisement

If baseball is antique, boring, and doomed, why does my kid like it so much?

One reason: It’s a kid’s game. The old story of Abner Doubleday writing down the rules of baseball in Cooperstown, N.Y., was debunked years ago. John Thorn’s magisterial 2011 book Baseball in the Garden of Eden tells a more historically grounded story. I used to make fun of Brooklyn hipsters who played kickball, but the truth is that the sport exists today thanks to the early-19th-century version of those hipsters, office workers who thought it would be a kick for grown-ups to play a popular children’s game, and to bet on the outcome for good measure.

So baseball started out with the benefit of the evolutionary honing that all informal playground games do. On top of that, it’s had almost two centuries to smooth down its rough spots as a formalized pursuit. No wonder it’s perfect. Baseball is to sports as ketchup is to condiments: something that doesn’t change much, not because of stuffy conservatism, but because almost any change would make it worse. It’s amazing, how effective the lure of baseball still is, how fast it grabs you. My son, before age 7, was willing to watch any sporting event with me, in a distracted, OK-daddy-is-there-going-to-be-ice-cream-at-this-thing fashion. And then, suddenly, baseball kicked in. He saw how it worked and he was hooked.

Some people find baseball boring, yes. But some people find ketchup boring. Those people can keep their jalapeño mustard and their March Madness.

But what about PEDs? What kind of terrible lessons is my kid learning from a sport whose biggest stars, like Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, are failing drug tests and getting suspended, or, maybe worse, failing drug tests and getting off on technicalities?

Here’s the thing about Ryan Braun. Kids in Wisconsin love Ryan Braun. He is undisgraced here. I see a kid in a Ryan Braun shirt every other day. As you can see in the photo above, my son has two Ryan Braun bobbleheads on his desk. Kids are smart; they understand what a rule is, that when you break a rule you get punished, and then after the punishment things go back to normal. And they understand baseball much better than scoldy sportswriters do. You cheer for the guys on your team because they’re on your team, not because you can assign them roles in whatever anxious moral drama keeps you up at night. Baseball isn’t a metaphor for the decline of society, or for our pastoral heritage, or for the idea of fair play. It isn’t a side you can take in a culture war. It is itself, and only itself. And it definitely isn’t here to teach us lessons.

I tried to make my son into an Orioles fan, like me. But the day at Miller Park he saw Carlos Gomez steal second, then third, then break for home, scoring on a wild pitch, like he was playing Atari baseball against a team of hapless 8-bit defenders, he became a Brewers fan for life. (To be precise, he describes himself as 70 percent Brewers, 30 percent Orioles.) We get along fine, in our mixed household. The inconsistency of our rooting interests doesn’t bother him. If there is a lesson baseball can offer us, it’s one about our deepest commitments; that they’re arbitrary, and contingent, but we’re no less committed to them for that. If I’d been born in New York, I might have been a Yankees fan, but luckily for me, I was born in Maryland, so I’m not. Jerry Seinfeld once remarked that baseball fandom, in the age of free agency, amounted to rooting for laundry. That’s not an insult to the game, as Seinfeld, a giant Mets fan, surely understood; it’s a testament to its deepest strength. My son’s love for the Brewers, like mine for the Orioles, is a love with no reason and no justification. True love, in other words.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.