So I’m sitting in this dive bar, the kind of smoky, alcohol-only, Yes-We-Have-Keno type of dive bar that every man’s been in at one time or another, either because they were curious or they were broke. In my case, it’s the latter, and not that my personal welfare class really matters, but this bar is in my neighborhood, walking distance from my home, cheaper than a minor league stadium and therefore pretty much all a bar needs to be to keep a man and his driver’s license working together for his greater good.
I drink dark wheat beer. I love it. I drink it so much, one of this dive’s bartenders, a skinny little thing named Shea, calls me Dunkel. She thinks she’s clever. Lots of amphetamine addicted high school dropouts think they’re clever, which either says something negative about the value of a high school education or something negative about the value of being clever.
On this wintery Monday night, the bartender is an old white man named Jack who worked in one of the first gay bars ever in St. Louis, or so he says. No one cares argue with him about that point and all the regulars, even some of the older fellas, feel a little strange about being served by a man who appears to be on his second hip, but he talks good football in a deep voice that finds a way to make me laugh without saying much and he knows that a good Irish Coffee needs no cream.
The place starts to fill up with football fans, as wintery Monday nights seem to permit, and I gulp down the last of my beer. The man next to me, a plump little block of humanity that goes by the nickname Gerbil (I never asked…) says to me, "Baker, do you even care to watch football?"
"It’s a fine sport, Gerbil. But baseball is my favorite."
"Oh hell," says Gerbil. "Baseball is so slow and boring. There’s a reason that football is more popular. It’s more exciting! It’s got more strategy. It’s faster. It’s got higher energy."
Now, all of this is stuff I’ve heard before and stuff I don’t care to further explore. I am not the kind of fellow who believes one sport to be better than another any more than I can believe that one kind of cat could be better than any other kind of cat. People have preferences. If not, there’d only be one kind of sport and one kind of cat. I hate cats. Don’t know why I brought them up.
Anyway, I’m getting ready to head on out when Gerbil says, "I mean, I don’t even know why in the hell people bother to play baseball. How in the hell did such a silly sport come to be?"
Now, I’m not known much for talking but my fighting days are behind me and Gerbil’s words were of the fighting variety so I told him what he needed to know.
"Baseball, my little refrigerator of a friend, was designed in part because Americans did not like and could not understand cricket, but they still wanted to hit projectiles with a stick. Hitting projectiles with a stick is very fun and tricky. Over the years this great game turned into America’s pastime, I believe, because it came to represent in part what it meant to be an American. There is an individual, mano-a-mano matchup inherent in every baseball plate appearance; one man using his skills at the plate up against another using his skills from the rubber. It’s as fair as a boxing match and it happens at least 54 times a game. In baseball, a fielder is part of a cohesive unit, part of a team, but everybody comes to bat and everybody is expected to hit. It’s just a matter of when and how much. Baseball represents the rugged individualism of an expanding country. A country we used to be."
"Maybe so," says Gerbil, spitting tobacco juice into a paper cup. "But that era’s been over for a long time. The country’s built. And it was built on war. And football reminds people of war. Baseball is too slow to keep people’s interests. Attention spans aren’t what they used to be. Face it friend, baseball may be popular, but football is the pastime of America."
"Built on war?" I ask.
"Damn right," he says. "Don’t tread on me."
I put on my coat and walk outside, lighting a smoke after I pass through the doorway. Outside, the city of St. Louis is dark and cold, the day-old snow turning the colors of my cigarette ashes. As I walk down the alley to my red-brick home, I hear my neighbor screaming something at the television screen. No doubt enrapt with the war-like nuances of America’s pastime.
I hate winter. Just hate it to hell.