How we spent the baseball strike

John Updike, novelist and baseball fan, who in his time has composed lovely little poems on Ted Williams and Fenway Park, was the man to discover the good side of the baseball strike. He had never realized, he confessed, how much time he wasted following baseball.

Mr. Updike happens to be one of the country's most prolific writers, and it will be difficult to measure by his output of novels, short stories, and book reviews (not to mention essays on baseball) just how much literary America has benefited by the benching of the national pastime in the summer of '81. But we might mention that in the period of five recent strike-ridden weeks he did publish three long book reviews in the New Yorker -- a performance that would certainly be described in baseball parlance as "a torrid pace."

The question is: How representative can we take Mr. Updike to be of baseball's compulsory abstainers? Did the absence of X number of hours of baseball result for everybody in X number of hours of productivity?

We only wish it were so. In our own case, for instance, we spent a lot of our baseball-bonus time watching what we did with it -- or mostly did not do. In other words, we caught our baseball-liberated self falling into the taffy-pull syndrome, which also sets in about the middle of the second week of every vacation.

Put simply, the law of the taffy pull goes like this: given a larger than usual amount of time, the beneficiary will be inclined to stretch out whatever has to be done in order to fill that amount of time, no matter how large it is, no matter how little there is to be accomplished. Thus a vacation breakfast can occupy you practically until lunch. At the taffy-pull rate you squeeze out toothpaste, you barely have time to brush your teeth in between.

Even after you've stretched it as thin as it gets, free time still demands choices. On those days when we would have settled down in the bleachers or in front of a telecast, we found we were making nine innings worth of lists about what to do with all that pure leisure.

As Carlton Fisk, the best catcher in baseball, remarked in some horror, speaking for the players: "I have to think of something to do each day."

And what did the baseball-deprived fans think of to do after they threw away those lists? See Sebastian Coe run. Watch Tom Watson putt. For all often the roving Roman eye merely roved on to the next circus.

Mr. Updike may not appreciate what an extraordinary feat he managed -- taking spectator time and converting it into participant time instead of just changing the angle of slump in his easy chair. As a friend with an easy chair once observed, giving most people more time is like giving the oil companies more money -- they don't seem to get any quicker to the drilling.

Time is the great credit card, and the way a lot of us abuse it is a terrible reflection on our character.

But what are we saying? That the greatest gift you can give people is less time? Not at all.

What we are saying is that somewhere between overachieving and underachieving -- between the mad sprint and the slow-motion shuffle -- there has to be a golden mean: a poised use of time that gives a new meaning to the word "use." In the novel that made Mr. Updike celebrated, "Rabbit, Run," a former basketball hero, baffled because life is not a sport, dreams of an ideal coincidence of work and play -- the dribble and the lay-up as an act of salvation, so to speak.

How Rabbit Angstrom would have suffered through the baseball strike!

Rabbit's dream remains our dream too -- of a dance with purpose, at a perfect tempo, in that no-guilt zone between duty and pleasure.

Maybe if the pro football players go on strike we'll find the time, at last, to work out the eq uation.

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