Baseball?! God forbid.”
“Face it, Fry. Baseball was as boring as mum and apple pie. That’s why they jazzed it up.”
“Boring? Baseball wasn’t—hmm, so they finally jazzed it up?”
Yes, in Matt Groening’s fictional 31st century, baseball is dead and gone. It has been replaced by Blernsball, a tetherball-inspired, rocket-powered, Tron-plus-pinball-plus-baseball monstrosity with enough bells and whistles to keep its futuristic spectators occupied. Throughout Futurama’s run, Blernsball served as a fun way for Groening to poke at baseball and the traditionalist (read: boring) 20th-century attitudes it embodies.
As ludicrous and absurd as Blernsball is, though, it’s remarkable in one sense: It’s one of a select few representations of a futuristic form of baseball we see in popular culture. This is not to say baseball hasn’t had a place in the American science fiction canon; of course it has. But in large part, even when baseball is used as part of a science fiction plot, it is used to evoke the past. Science fiction centered on baseball often relies on alternate histories or time traveling to the game’s golden age. The idea of a robust baseball league in the future, whether the near future or some far-flung corner of a centuries-away galactic empire, is rarely seen.
Consider, for instance, one of my favorite baseball science-fiction plots, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Commander Benjamin Sisko’s love of baseball is a recurring plot point in the series, meant in large part to symbolize Sisko’s connection to his past. Baseball is used in one episode to demonstrate the concept of linear time to a group of aliens who do not experience time the same way we lowly humans do. “Every time you throw this ball,” Sisko tells the aliens, “a hundred different things can happen in the game.”
But baseball is not thriving in the Star Trek universe. By the time Sisko took command at DS9 in the 24th century, professional baseball had been dead for some 300 years. According to the series lore, the last World Series took place in 2042, won by the London Kings and the legendary Buck Bokai, with only 300 fans watching the dying sport’s last hurrah in person. When baseball is played in the 24th century, as in the episode “Take Me Out To The Holosuite,” it is played only by holographic reproduction. Sisko is one of the few humans who still cares about baseball, and the games played by people like him and his crew resemble a modern-day reenactment of 19th-century baseball more than a major league contest.
For some reason, the death of baseball has proven easy to imagine for those plotting our imaginary futures. Perhaps that shouldn’t be so hard to believe. Baseball culture, as a rule, is defined by a connection to—if not an obsession with—the past. And if you ask newspaper columnists, baseball is dying constantly. Why wouldn’t the job be finished by the mid-21st century?
But this treatment of baseball I have seen in popular culture has left me with questions. Why does baseball seem not to have a place in our imagined futures? And does that mean anything for the future of baseball here in the real world?
Baseball, of course, never has been known for its forward-looking vision. When it has tried to look to the future, the results have been hilarious. Recall the late-’90s Turn Ahead The Clock promotion, in which 20 major league teams donned uniforms from the future, in an attempt to show what baseball might look like by 2021. The results were disastrous. Pirates pitcher Greg Hansell said, “It looks like Halloween came early.” Orel Hershiser said, “”We should have had a big top. If we can’t sell the product the way it is, maybe we should give it a rest.”
The uniform designers were limited. “We were trying to do what we could without adjusting the basic format of a baseball uniform,” Kevin Martinez, the Mariners marketing director who pitched the initial Turn Ahead The Clock promotion in 1998, told UniWatch. “For example, we weren’t going to use a unitard or anything else that might be so different that it would put our players at a competitive disadvantage.” So instead they worked with what they could by blowing up images and making everything shiny and brightly colored. The most innovative things about the jerseys—the backwards caps and shortened sleeves—were suggestions of Ken Griffey Jr.’s.
“Junior then went on to say that the team was going to play with their caps backward,” Martinez recalled. “I told him, ‘Junior, no team has ever done that—it will make us look like a softball team.’ He just flashed that smile of his and said, ‘It’s the future, Kev—anything is possible!’”
You wouldn’t know it from baseball literature, which is dominated by historical fiction. The most well-known fantastical baseball books, like Phillip Roth’s The Great American Novel or Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, are set decades before the years they were written. Look at any list of contemporary baseball fiction and you’ll see titles operating under a similar conceit: These stories are almost exclusively set in baseball’s golden age, with the twist provided by a subtle change to the history that defines the game.
See Shoeless Joe or The Iowa Baseball Confederacy by W.P Kinsella, fictional tales based on the real world of baseball in the early 20th century. Or The End of Baseball by Peter Schilling, a book that imagines a world in which Bill Veeck raided the Negro Leagues to break the color barrier in 1944 rather than waiting for Branch Rickey’s experiment three seasons later. Even books like Brittle Innings, by Michael Bishop, a creative spin on Field of Dreams that sees a Frankenstein-esque monster emerge instead of benevolent ghosts, relies on a setting in baseball’s golden age to set its stage.
I don’t begrudge these writers for using these narrative techniques to tell their stories. Baseball has a rich history full of vivid symbolism, giving writers loads and loads of content to work with. The power of that history is a big reason why so many of us became fans, and as such, it serves as a perfect hook to bring baseball fans into a fictional world, especially when that world has easily recognizable callbacks to baseball’s Golden Age. It’s so common because there is demand for these kinds of stories, and authors like Kinsella and Schilling deserve credit for meeting that demand.
The trope of the baseball field as Eden, the one pitched by baseball’s storycrafters like Albert Spalding and Henry Chadwick, is buried so deep in the collective baseball mind that it has become the primary mode of exploration of the game in fiction. This is no coincidence; Spalding and Chadwick were, as John Thorn wrote in Baseball in the Garden of Eden, “conscious architects of legend, shapers of national identity, would-be creators of a useful past and binding archetype,” all of which play a major part in baseball’s literary canon.
But the imbalance in the number of backwards-looking stories in contrast to forwards-looking stories is striking. It seems apparent to me that there is a severe lack of imagination present when it comes to baseball’s future. Anything is possible in the future, as Griffey reminded us, and yet precious few authors and creators have taken advantage of this level of creative freedom.
I think this lack of imagination makes itself painfully apparent, for instance, when Major League Baseball attempts to implement stylistic changes to the game, like its recent pace-of-play measures. Ideas like a pitch clock and the elimination of the four-pitch intentional walk read less as genuine efforts to make the game faster but rather artificial ways to deflate game times that get passed off as innovation. Pace-of-play initiatives and other attempts to adapt baseball to a rapidly changing sports media environment won’t work if they are simply efforts to minimize a statistic like time of game.
None of this is to say we need to approach baseball fiction with a completely clean slate, nor do we need to stop producing the kind of historical baseball fiction that currently dominates the market. But I do think there is a lot to gain from a robust exploration of baseball’s possible futures.
Science fiction is a valuable genre because it allows us to explore what society can look like in a future where today’s arcane rules no longer apply. It’s not just about technology. It’s about imagining universes in which social relations are different, the way we consume games is different, and the way those games fit into our lives is different.
As entertaining as historical baseball fiction can be, those stories don’t help us answer these questions.The 20th-century game has been explored over and over again. I want to see baseball in a post-capitalism world. I want to see baseball in a post-gender world. I want to see baseball in apocalyptic futures. I want to see baseball in an expanding galactic empire. I want to see baseball in a world where America is no longer a global superpower. And I want to see baseball in universes I haven’t even begun to imagine yet.
Commander Sisko’s baseball obsession comes up in another Deep Space Nine episode, “If Wishes Were Horses,” in which a subspace distortion (for the less sci-fi inclined, consider it as merely a plot device) results in a number of holograms created by the ship’s computer becoming real. One of those is Buck Bokai, the star shortstop of the last World Series winners in the mid-21st century, whom Sisko programmed into the ship’s computer so he and his son could watch Bokai’s games and even toss the ball around with the legendary player on the holodeck.
Bokai continually attempts to connect with Sisko, asking the ship’s commander to take a few ground balls with him. When Sisko angrily tells Bokai he wishes he had more time for this, Bokai responds “Well, that was baseball’s epitaph, wasn’t it? Nobody seemed to have time for us anymore.”
This, I feel, is a constant fear for many baseball fans—not just that nobody has time for the game of baseball itself, but for the values the game stands for, as well. This is the source of the every-present cries that baseball is dying. It’s true, the baseball of our youth, whenever that happened to be, is constantly dying, but in its place is reborn something else, something new. When the stories we tell about the game don’t reflect that, but instead keep attempting to revive an era long gone, an era today’s baseball fans—or the young people who don’t yet know they’re baseball fans—have no connection to, is it any wonder they don’t have any time for us?
That is why I think baseball—from MLB executives to those fans who would proselytize the game’s benefits—needs an infusion of imagination. We need to remember that anything is possible in the future. Because If we can’t imagine a future for our game, why should we expect new generations of fans to see one for themselves? After all, if we wait around too long, our grandkids might just be the first to choose Blernsball over baseball.