Let’s face it, baseball season goes on and on. It starts in April and doesn’t really end until October: nearly two-thirds of the year. For some reason, when other sports seasons go on and on–both the hockey playoffs and the basketball playoffs take forever–people find it a problem. But you hardly ever hear complaints about baseball.
For one thing, it occupies summer, its prime season, all by itself. Compared to other sports Baseball is a leisurely game. Running bases is strenuous, but being a game of failure (getting a hit three times in ten at bats is considered a high water mark), actually getting a chance to run is rare. Soccer players would run themselves to death in the heat of summer, and football players have to be very careful about the heat when they begin late summer practice in their heavy pads. Theirs is a game for a cooler season. Baseball offers just about the right amount of activity for summer.
And when it is being played in other seasons, it is at its best. In spring, there is the sense of optimism, of possibility. The team made some great trades in the off-season. That rookie who looked so good last season is coming into his own. Our starting pitching is better than ever. This is our season. In autumn, it’s the playoffs and the World Series, and you’re not going to miss that, even if you do have to flip channels between the baseball game and the football game.
But why such a long season? It’s mostly economics. If you own a successful team and stadium, and want to maximize profitability, you play more games. Fill up those seats as often as you can. Major League Baseball rules say the season cannot be more that 183 days long, nor less than 178. The American League expanded from 154 to 162 games per season in 1961, followed by the National League in 1962, and most starting players on the average team play most of the games in the season, so team owners get the most bang for their salary buck.
But it’s also a lot of what the market will bear. Baseball is popular. It was once the only team sport Americans had to watch, the National Pastime, so the season expanded to fill in all of the time that the weather was nice enough to play it. Allen Guttmann, a professor at Amherst, once ascribed baseball’s popularity to ‘its place in the cycle of the seasons.’ This sentiment was clarified by Bart Giamatti, who later became baseball commissioner: ‘The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer . . . and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you in the fall alone.’ In my hometown, where baseball has a great tradition and where the team is often featured in post-season play well into October, there are many people who resign themselves to a kind of listless funk until spring training starts up and they begin hearing reports of grapefruit league play. Thus baseball can define the seasonal year in a way that no other sport can.
John R. Sharp is a psychologist who specializes in the effects of seasons on human emotions. In his book The Emotional Calendar he talks about the depression of winter, the insomnia of spring, the nostalgia of autumn; but he also writes about seasonalities, which he defines as human events which happen traditionally within specific climatic seasons, such as the beginning of the academic year, the winter holidays, summer vacation, and yes–sports seasons–that can have profound effects on our emotions and sense of well-being.
I am not the biggest baseball fan, though I do miss being able to dial up a Cardinals game on my car radio in the colder months. But to all my friends who experience a sense of inconsolable loss between October and April, I offer my understanding that they are not alone, and that their emotions are very real. I also offer the encouraging thought that it’s late March, and we have only a few weeks to go until Opening Day.