Baseball is back and so, too, are the usual complaints that the sport is an interminable affair with little action save for the occasional angry waddle to the diamond by a red-faced manager eager to harangue an umpire. "Nation Already Sick of Baseball," The Onion joked last week.
There's some merit to the argument that baseball isn't living up to its billing as America's favorite pastime. For the past 30 years pro football has been the nation's most beloved game; 35 percent of adults named it their favorite sport this year, more than twice as many as the 14 percent who picked baseball.
Yet the explanation for that gap — that baseball is boring — is way off base. On the contrary, baseball is great specifically because nothing happens. Or more accurately, because nothing happens most of the time.
First, let's dispel the myth that baseball is a pit of inaction. There are about 18 minutes of live play in an average baseball game, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis; there are only 11 minutes of action in a single football game. If baseball is boring because nothing happens, then football must be the sports equivalent of Waiting For Godot.
Still, very little does happen in a baseball game. There's plenty of time devoted to pitchers standing idly on the mound and batters fiddling with their gloves. There are long bouts of dead space in every game, in every inning, in every at-bat.
And you know what? I love it. I'm with Joe Posnanski, who remarked a few years ago that "many of us love baseball not in spite of these failings but because of them."
All the excitement in a baseball game is immeasurably heightened by the pauses, the breaks in action fueling the anticipation of what's to come. Before the pitcher releases the ball, anything can happen. After he does — well, the batter often whiffs. Or he doesn't even swing. Maybe he grounds weakly to short, or bunts the ball into his foot and gives everyone a good laugh.
The point is that the game is defined not by constant awe-inspiring moments, but rather by its dearth of them. That's what makes a towering grand slam, a walk-off hit, or a perfect game so incredible. Statistically, none of these things are supposed to happen with any kind of regularity. But they do happen. And when they do, you can't believe they did.
The lack of action makes you appreciate pivotal moments all the more. There's nothing more tense than waiting on a pitch in a two-out, one-run game in the bottom of the ninth. One swing could tie the game. One swing could lose it.
And that's the other thing about baseball. There's no time, only outs, leaving open endless possibilities for teams to come back and win, no matter how long the odds.
Compare that to this most recent Super Bowl, which was utterly unwatchable after the first half. We all knew how it was going to end. And though Seattle didn't finish with the ball, games do often end with the leading team kneeling over and over again until time expires. Super exciting, right?
That could never happen in baseball, with the winning team simply scratching their butts and loafing on the field, refusing to throw a pitch. Now that would be boring.
Baseball is different and weird and therefore great. If not for baseball's quirks, poor Steve Bartman is still some faceless dude and not Chicago's greatest villain since Al Capone. Instead, the Cubs, five outs from their first World Series in almost six decades, imploded. A 3-0 lead turned into an 8-3 hole, and the Cubs haven't been back to the NLCS since.
Baseball can be cruel like that. The game's listlessness gave rise to those intense emotions. Each pitch held the possibility to move Chicago closer to or further from the World Series. The game was over, until it wasn't.
Baseball leaves open the possibility for anything to happen on any play. Most of the time, nothing happens. But the sheer possibility that something might makes the sport transcendent.