Over the last dozen years, the pre-war curses of the Red Sox, White Sox, and Cubs have been abruptly discontinued. The career home run record has been broken, and the Mets finally have their no-hitter. The .400 mark has emerged as the last grand conquest, just in time to see the batting average devalued by statisticians. Mike Trout, one of the best young hitters baseball has ever seen, is building a fearsome statistical Colossus in America’s second-largest market, and an overwhelming majority of Americans has never heard of him. Tim Tebow is our country’s most famous active baseball player by an enormous margin, the most tasteless statement that has ever been true. Baseball has never been more at home in its 7:30 time slot. Baseball is in syndication.
NASA spent 25 million human-hours of work -- about 3,000 years -- to build the Pioneer 10 space probe. In 1972 they stuck it on top of a rocket and made it the fastest object ever assembled by Man. Pioneer 10, which weighed nearly 600 pounds, shot away from Earth at nine miles per second. That’s about 20 times faster than a round shot out of a pistol.
It doesn’t seem possible. It’s difficult to imagine a place where there are only a handful of atoms per cubic foot, and there is nothing to provide resistance. An object can move extraordinarily fast for a very long time in the absence of anything else.
Baseball has no single inventor, it was built across generations. Kids in 18th-century England played a game in which they stood over a thing they called "home plate" and were given three tries to hit a ball. The sport evolved gradually before exploding in popularity during the Civil War, which, for all its disaster and sorrow, was largely composed of absolute boredom. Otherwise-idle soldiers in camps flocked to baseball in the absence of anything else in the world to do.
Since then, a few minor recalibrations have been made -- raising and lowering of the mound, contraction and expansion of outfield fences, a brief 1887 experiment with a fourth strike -- but baseball’s chassis has remained unchanged.
Pioneer 10 was wildly over-engineered, since once it was in space, little about it could be changed. The craft’s thermoelectric generator, designed to provide power for two years, ended up working for decades, but power output eventually deteriorated such that only some of its 11 scientific instruments could be operated at any given time. Adjustments were occasionally made: perhaps the plasma analyzer would be switched off to allow power for the meteoroid detectors, or the photometer’s power would be redirected to one of the telescopes. Apart from minor adjustments such as those, NASA could change Pioneer 10 no more than a farmer in Nebraska can change your slice of toast.
Baseball has tried to change. Occasionally, it makes humiliating attempts to reposition itself as some variant of XTREME. In 1999 the Skybox Thunder set of baseball cards was released, with each card featuring a rap lyric about that player. Mike Lansing’s:
One … two … three, four, five. Brother, your game is all the way live. With all your skillz, you’re bound to thrive.
The Coneheads are goin’ buck wild when it’s your turn to start. Control that’s second to none is what sets you apart. True that.
Dear God in Heaven. I’m also reminded of a commercial on one of the promotional DVDs we had to play all day on the display TVs at RadioShack. I’ve seen it a literal thousand times, and remember it plain as day: Cal Ripken, Jr. stands in a sound stage, stares at the camera, and solemnly asks, "think you’re baseball’s most extreme fan?" The camera nudges left to reveal second baseman, third son, and noted fuck face Bill Ripken, who mean-mugs with a pointed finger: "prove it!"
Cal Ripken, years later, on the challenge of evangelizing baseball to today’s youth:
Look, if someone doesn’t know how to coach baseball, it can be the most boring sport in the world, sharing one ball with eight players and a pitcher.
Ripken goes on to offer some possible tweaks that could propel interest in the game, but this cake has been baked and it is too late for recipes. It was too late for recipes some sixty-plus years ago, when Major League Baseball introduced Rule 8.04, which mandated that pitchers could not take more than 20 seconds between pitches. It was virtually never enforced, and then the clock was shortened to 12 seconds and equally ignored. It turns out that no one gives a hoot. Baseball fans love baseball, not a baseball-like product. They did not come here for any future of anything, they are here to luxuriate in the sun and the sounds and the eternal, wonderful present.
Baseball is a finished product. Having completed all primary missions, it will simply continue to exist until it doesn’t, which is probably eons from now. The median age of those watching nationally-televised baseball games is 56, so yes, it probably is retreating to the American background.
Baseball is a creation too odd to repurpose, and too fixed to be recalibrated. That is fine. It is fine for something to be wildly popular for quite a long time and then fade into something less popular, all the while unchanging, forever extant. It is where and what it is supposed to be.
On March 2nd, 2002, a day shy of its 30th anniversary in space and decades after it was expected to stop working, Pioneer 10 shared its final bits of scientific data with Earth. Months later, NASA received one final, meaningless signal from the craft, as though to say, "hi. I am still here."
It has never spoken to us since, probably because its total onboard power is an estimated 65 watts -- about one light bulb’s worth -- and it’s trying to broadcast a message from 10 billion miles away. It continues to streak through the galaxy at an estimated seven miles every second; it probably could have made it from New York to Mexico since you started reading this. But after all, how much does speed matter if there is nothing to pass or overtake? For all its terrifying speed it is going nowhere, because nowhere exists to go.
NASA believes Pioneer 10 still exists, far beyond the realms of night and day. The rocket gave it a little spin that day in 1972, a spin it probably has to this day, moving from back to belly every few seconds, basking in an eternal, beautiful present.