I went to a high school baseball game the other day.
No surprise there, but what was a surprise was the reaction of some fans to the age-old practice of player chatter.
When one team had its turn at bat, all but the batter and the on-deck hitter crowded into the dugout, shouting encouragement to the batter and otherwise enlivening the atmosphere with innocuous noise.
There was nothing directed at the opposing pitcher, save for the general decibel level, but the batter had to hit amid the loudness, too, so who had the edge?
Yet at different points of the game some fans complained the noise was unsportsmanlike, something that didn’t belong in baseball.
And I suddenly thought to myself, when did a baseball field become a library?
The only possible situation when chatter might have been construed as something other than supportive came when the pitcher and batter had the same first name, but the nature of the chatter should have made clear no one was being harassed.
The two umpires in charge of the event, perhaps knowing better than most the history of chatter within the game and themselves accustomed to ignoring such talk, monitored its tone, but didn’t feel compelled to shut anyone up.
Chatter has been an energizing part of baseball for generations, from Little Leaguers chanting the generalized “hey batter, batter” to the slightly more provocative “be a pitcher, not a belly-itcher.”
A generation ago, kids were encouraged to chatter up, whether in the dugout supporting their batter or in the field backing their pitcher. It also helped make the time go by faster for young fielders with nothing else to do between pitches but pick dandelions.
Nowadays that practice largely has faded away, particularly at the older levels and so much so that when a team does opt to chatter it’s sometimes seen as unsportsmanlike because it’s unusual.
But it seems as though anything that can add to the excitement of baseball — particularly for younger players — should be encouraged, not quieted, so long as it doesn’t involve personal attacks.
Participation in youth baseball generally has trended downward in recent years, partly because many kids find more satisfaction in more up-tempo sports such as soccer, football and basketball.
Many Maine high schools struggle to attract more than 12 or 13 players, as some athletes opt to spend the spring extending their basketball seasons through AAU play or by competing in club soccer.
Even college baseball has taken a hit, particularly in the Northeast where several Division I programs have folded.
And in the America East Conference that includes the University of Maine, baseball and softball aren’t even seen as the league’s premier spring sports anymore, having relinquished that title to men’s and women’s lacrosse.
Clearly the sky is not falling yet for baseball in America. Major league attendance remains strong, though the average age of the fan base keeps skewing older.
While the issue of chatter in the dugout won’t be the determining factor in the future viability of baseball in Maine and across the country, stewards of the game should remember that the sport’s competition isn’t confined to any particular scoreboard, but in getting kids to stay with the sport as opposed to getting their athletic fix elsewhere.
Baseball can be loud and sportsmanlike at the same time.