Taking a very patient look at baseball

IT is a truism that people nowadays show less patience than they used to -- and that wasn't any too much, was it? It is further agreed that the all-time elitists of impatience -- the hurry-hurry record-breakers of this Age of Impatience -- are Americans.

Well, if there's one thing that can make you lose your patience, it's unobservant remarks like these.

No patience? Tell it to the baseball fans who have been following the national pastime from the last snows of April until the first snows of October. Once upon a time, after a full season of 154 games, the World Series would be staged -- and that was quite enough baseball, thank you, for a horse-and-buggy fan. But here we are, we jet-setters of the short attention span -- or so it is alleged -- dillydallying out the season to 162 games, and then inventing another delaying device known as the playof f.

At first the playoffs were best-of-5. But why rush things? So this showdown-before-the-showdown was stretched out, like a leisurely yawn, to best-of-7, the same as the World Series -- which may go to best-of-12 any year now if somebody can coax Howard Cosell to come back and fill the empty autumn air.

The supposedly antsy Americans of 1985 are driving their aerodynamic, 120 m.p.h. automobiles -- inch by inch, bumper to bumper -- toward the ballparks of Kansas City and St. Louis, then stacking up in all-night lines with canteens and sleeping bags, camping out for tickets.

And this is the high-velocity part of the story.

Once in the ballpark, a fan must really slow down, adopting the patient, plodding rhythm of a farmer plowing behind a very tired horse. For what else is the tempo of baseball?

A survey of a routine inning of baseball breaks down the so-called action like this:

Pitches per half-inning: 15 -- at 90 m.p.h. each, requiring maybe a total of 10 seconds.

Throws to first base to hold a base runner: 10, requiring maybe 30 seconds, allowing for theatrical tags.

Changing sides at the half-inning: 3 minutes.

Total time: 12 minutes, of which less than a minute is actually action.

More than nine-tenths of baseball time is spent fidgeting -- patiently fidgeting. The pitcher tugs at his cap, picks up the resin bag, scuffs the dirt on the mound, huddles with the catcher, studies the defensive formation of his outfielders, removes an invisible speck of dust from his left eye, pounds his glove -- does almost anything but pitch.

Meanwhile, the batter tugs at his cap, practices his swing, scuffs the dirt in the batter's box, studies the defensive formation of the third baseman, removes an invisible speck of dust from his right eye, pounds his bat -- does almost anything but hit.

How can anybody playing this game or watching it be called impatient?

But that's baseball, you say. The rest of living `a la '85 is burning rubber in the fast lane.

Oh, really? A lot of the speedsters in the fast lane get there in the morning via the slow lane, otherwise known as sunrise jogging. The tortoises who are not jogging are weight lifting -- an exercise so slow it practically stops.

And on the weekends, right at the top of the impatient American's list of favorite recreational activities, it is fishing. We're talking virtual still life now. Fishing ``begets peace and patience,'' Sir Izaak Walton said, declaring it ``calm'' and ``quiet'' beyond all other activities -- the waiting game as an oil painting.

Far from being impatient, modern Americans deliberately fill their days with trials that would drive Job to screaming.

A Vermont couple has just completed a 10,000-mile row across the Pacific, from Peru to Australia. Six hours a day of sculling per rower, seven days a week, for 13 months. Can an age in which something like this happens be called the Age of Impatience?

It is, rather, an age of double rhythms, where we commute between patronizing fast-food restaurants and playing gourmet chef in our own kitchen -- where we strap a bicycle to our sports car and vroom to the country for a slow spin. We buy a computer to be efficient, then endlessly hack away night and day at tasks designed never to be completed. After that, we sand down the computer desk and refinish it as an 18th-century craftsman would.

Still, the ultimate example has to come from public life, and here the dual-speed citizen finds himself in a world where his fellow Americans can't wait to spend another urgent trillion dollars on the military -- but are patiently prepared to let the deficit ride on forever, like a surfer who has found the perfect wave. You can't beat that for patience -- not even at a baseball game, when everybody's interrupting all that gradualness to take a nice, slow seventh-inning stretch.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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