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Andrew Kimbrell characterises the time of most sports as restricted by artificial, mechanised time-frames that evoke industrial efficiencies and productions. Baseball conversely is closer to a natural time with no pre-defined end point on a clock.

A Celebration of Natural Time

“The Clock doesn’t matter in baseball. Time stands still or moves backwards. Theoretically one game could go on forever. Some seem to.” —Herb Caen, noted columnist

Baseball has no use for standardized, digitalized, mechanized time. The other major sports have strict artificial time frames reminiscent of efficiency-driven industrial production (as in “time is money”) or militaristic action (as in “synchronize your watches”). Football has four fifteen-minute quarters (and of course “sudden death”), basketball has four twelve-minute periods, hockey has three twenty-minute periods, soccer two forty-five-minute halves. Baseball, by contrast, is played in natural, not artificial, time. There are no seconds ticking away on scoreboards, no two-minute warnings, no buzzers or buzzer beaters. Actually, it isn’t just the baseball game that could continue eternally—each of baseball’s nine innings, in fact, each of its eighteen half innings, could theoretically go on forever.

In our hyperactive, ADHD world, this meditative, “real life” time element in baseball has been called its downfall. The game is too slow, we are told, for the modern age. Mary McCrory once wrote that “Baseball is our past football our future.” Let’s hope not. It is true that a baseball game can seem like six minutes of action crammed into two-and-a-half hours. Pitchers and catchers give, receive, or shake off signs; batters step out of the box; other players or coaches go visit the pitcher to give advice or encouragement; pitchers nervously pace or blow into their hands between pitches. For the most part though, to the baseball fan, the natural pace is far from boring. In fact it’s experienced as a crescendo of cumulative tension. Any parent of a Little Leaguer, or fan during a crucial major league contest, knows that a game can indeed seem like “a nervous breakdown spread over nine innings.”

The timing of the baseball season also is a celebration of the year’s seasons even if in a bittersweet way. As Bart Giamatti wrote: “It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

Kimbrell, Andrew. 2012. “In Praise of Baseball.” Tikkun August 30, 2012. https://www.tikkun.org/in-praise-of-baseball

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Alan Edwards posits a distinction between natural time, and human constructions of time. Athletes are said to be able to train themselves to measure the relative amounts of humanly constructed time.

Ahh, Sunday is the end of daylight-saving time. Go to bed. Sleep in. Magically gain an hour of time.

Pretty nice, huh? Creation of time ex nihilo with a simple twist of the clock dial.

But wait a minute, you say — that hour didn’t appear out of nowhere. It’s the repayment of a one-hour loan we granted the universe back in April, when we set our clocks one hour ahead. All right — so where has that hour been all this while?

Being as it is an amalgam of nature and artifice, time is a tricky thing. The only natural divisions of time we use are years (the time it takes Earth to orbit the sun), days (one rotation of the Earth) and lunar months (the time it takes the moon to wax and wane). Hours, minutes and seconds are all human constructs…

The only thing that now connects human time with natural time is the year. The Earth’s orbit around the sun is currently measured by the positions of a variety of stars and quasars.

Since an official atomic second is slightly shorter than a “natural” second (it takes about 86,400.002 atomic seconds to fill an average solar day), every so often the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures outside Paris, the official worldwide arbiter of time, inserts a “leap second” into the year to make up the difference.

The Bureau International collects data from dozens of atomic clocks throughout the world, statistically compares them and comes up with an official worldwide time. The Directorate of Time at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo., are two of the contributors…

Far from a steady, flowing stream, time is relative: The faster one moves through space, the slower one moves through time and vice versa (and that’s not even taking into account gravitation).

Everyone moves through combined space-time at the speed of light — we humans, moving very slowly through space, make it up through rapid movement in time. Electromagnetic radiation, moving at the speed of light through space, doesn’t move at all through time. For light, time stands still.

But Einstein was right — we experience relative time every day. Numerous studies have shown that people perceive time to pass quickly when they are doing something enjoyable or concentrating hard, while time passes slowly while they’re waiting or bored. Time, in other words, really does fly when you’re having fun.

Relative time is helped by the fact that most humans have lousy internal clocks. Put a person in a room with no stimuli and tell him to call in an hour and he’ll usually miss the mark by a wide margin.

Some people, however, have trained themselves to sense time. An elite athlete, for example, can tell through a thousand tiny signs whether he’s moving fractionally faster or slower. Coaches take advantage of that innate sense with “tempo trainers” — tiny metronomes that sound tones in the athlete’s ear to time his movements.

“It’s a skill that takes a long time to learn,” said Deward Loose, swimming coach at Lone Peak High School in Utah County. “It’s kinesthetic awareness. Call it feel. It’s amazing to me. . . . The elite swimmers can tell the difference in 100ths of seconds.”

Great hitters see the baseball slow down to the point that they can count the stitches. The ball becomes huge for great tennis players. And it’s not only them. “A number of psychological studies have demonstrated that time expansion is well within the reach of common mortals,” said social psychologist Robert Levine.

Thus we can, with enough effort, implement Thomas Mann’s instruction:

“Hold fast the time! Guard it, watch over it, every hour, every minute! . . . Hold every moment sacred. Give each clarity and meaning, each the weight of thine awareness, each its true and due fulfillment” (Edwards 2003).

Edwards, Alan. 2003. ‘Timekeeping has a long, interesting history.’ Deseret news October 23, 2003. https://www.deseretnews.com/article/515040547/Timekeeping-has-a-long-interesting-history.html

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Paul Gitting reports on the lack of control that humans have over the natural temporality of grass growing rates. This is distinguished from the ways that different rates of growth can be experimented with technologically. This latter form of growth, identifiable in court management at a tennis tournament, is a socially framed phenomenon that is opposed from a natural timing of grass that cannot be rushed.

Wimbledon grass faces Olympic race against time and nature.

Andy Newell from the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) gives Wimbledon head groundsman Eddie Seaward and his staff expert scientific advice on that preparation and admits that any delay into a third week would be a serious problem.

“They don’t want to lose time because they are already on such a fine edge and even a day would mean you lose 5% of your preparation, and that could be crucial,” he told CNN…

“We worked on them just a couple of years ago to prove to LOCOG that we could do that within a short period of time, get the courts back in pristine condition,” Seaward told CNN.

But trial run or not, it’s still a daunting prospect with little room for error. The grass must be cut to an exact 8 millimeters for optimum performance, and Seaward and his team have to keep a wary eye on that unpredictable British weather — ground temperature and humidity levels are constantly measured.

For this reason, the expertise of scientists and agronomists is so important. STRI has been advising Wimbledon for over a decade. At its main testing center in a little corner of West Yorkshire, in northern England, its staff have recreated their own versions of Centre Court — trialing different varieties of grass to provide the best and most resilient surface.

“We can test the grasses that they may use in the future here, ” said Newell, STRI’s head of turf grass biology…

Newell believes that the soil texture underneath the grass is just as important in determining the playing characteristics, but knows that when hosting the biggest sports show on earth, aesthetics are important.

“The idea is that we get the court to look the way it’s going to look on the opening Monday of Wimbledon.”

But he warned: “It all comes back to nature, and nature can’t be rushed.”

Gitting, Paul. 2012. “Wimbledon grass faces Olympic race against time and nature.” CNN. July 5, 2012. https://edition.cnn.com/2012/07/05/sport/tennis/tennis-wimbledon-grass-olympics/index.html

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Martin Aronson describes baseball as the sport which is the most closely associated with natural time. This is because unlike a sport like football which divides its playing time into equal periods of humanly measured time, baseball’s playing time is open in a manner which reflects nature’s rhythm.

My basic premise is that in many rich and subtle facets of the game, baseball is a metaphor of life, mirroring its tempo, rhythm, and essential character. The most basic illustration of this is probably baseball’s association with the season of spring – indeed it may certainly be considered the prime rite of spring in our culture. Spring is, of course, the season of rebirth, and baseball renews itself each year in the popular consciousness just when the crocuses are poking their tips out of the earth in the first stirrings of the revival of nature after winter’s end.

One need not belabor the point that spring is also associated with youth and innocence, conjuring up a whole magical world of childhood memories, of which baseball is a great part for many of us. There is a natural connection among spring, youth, and baseball, recapturing that carefree time of simple heroes, boyhood cheerfulness, and the capacity for pure joy before all the worldly woes of adult life dulled our sensibilities…

The basic association of baseball with spring and youth has further implications in terms of life and, indeed, cosmic cycles, so I should like to consider baseball as related to the phenomenon of time. Baseball, it could be argued, is the sport that reflects the truest expression of natural time in its tempo and texture. Unlike football and basketball, for example, it is divided into innings and half-innings (not fixed, measured quarters), retaining natural breaks and shifts from offence to defence. In its actual pace, it accelerates at points of action and excitement, then reverts back to a relaxed, casual undertone, very much like the great game of life itself. Some may criticize it as boring, and perhaps at times it is, but that is the balance and rhythm of nature…

In keeping with this theme of the essential naturalness of baseball, I’d like to direct your attention to the basic open-ended structure of the game. Baseball transpires in a timeless world; you can throw out the time clocks, scorning them as reality does. There are no set periods for the duration of action, no artificial time constraints. Like nature, a baseball game takes the amount of time it needs to run its course and complete itself. It will not be hurried, circumscribed, or aborted (hence the extra-inning game). It is interesting to note that the course of action during an afternoon game will often follow the rhythms of the day, reflecting the phenomenon of time passing from the bright cheer of the late morning, to the sharp focus of midday, to the shadowy light of late afternoon. And even after the last out of the game has been recorded, the ghost of time lingers, for win or lose, good day or bad day, there is always tomorrow – and the next day, and the day after that – always the promise of a new beginning, a new time to redeem and develop. That is Life, friend, if you learn how to master the mystery of time (Aronson 2006, 12-14).

Aronson, Martin. 2006. Cogito: A collection of essays. New York, Lincoln, Shanghai: iUniverse.