Opening Day for Baseball and Bicycling

Opening Day is upon us, and my friend and colleague Cyrus “Moondog” Nygerski, who wrote an annual baseball column for several small California newspapers in the 1980s and 90s, is once again picking the Red Sox to win the World Series come October. A man ahead of his time, Moondog has been right three times so far this century, and I have no reason not to get back on the bandwagon this year.

More importantly, the sun has crossed the celestial equator, the clocks have sprung forward, and my bicycle awaits its spring tune-up in anticipation of the Kenduskeag Canoe Race.

On the first warm day after the time change, I donned my cross-country skis for what may have been the season’s final outing on the trails behind the University of Maine. Hatless, I skied a long loop over packed snow melting into mini-rivers in the low spots. Later, as I sipped a beer in a local watering hole, one of my students came in with a baseball and two gloves, looking for someone to play catch. Both gloves were right-handed, unfortunately, and though it was warm enough to ride the bicycle home, it wasn’t ready. But: skiing, baseball, and bicycling in the same day strikes me as the essence of spring in Maine.

In my last post, I wrote that walking, bicycling, driving, and flying embody separate orders of magnitude, in terms of speed and perception. As orders of magnitude rise linearly, the difference between them escalates exponentially. Driving is four times faster than bicycling, but sixteen times faster than walking. Driving is also much more regulated, as it should be. Most of us are licensed to drive a car. You can apply for a pilot’s license, but I imagine that the process is an order of magnitude more difficult.

This concept also applies to baseball. Anyone can play in Little League, but by high school the competition gets a bit more serious. The curve steepens through semi-pro leagues, college ball, and the minors. At the major-league level there are fewer than a thousand jobs for the best ballplayers in the world. As Jim Bouton wrote in Ball Four: “The biggest jump in baseball is between the majors and triple-A. The minor leagues are all very minor.”

The jump between bicycling and driving a car is just as dramatic. Bicycling is closer to walking than it is to driving. No one blamed Stephen King for the accident that nearly killed him. He was walking along the side of a road reading a book, minding his own business, completely within his rights. Nobody said that King should have been paying more attention. Yet the victim is often blamed when a driver, distracted or otherwise, runs down a bicyclist.

As a bicyclist, it is my responsibility not to run down pedestrians. They are an order of magnitude slower and more vulnerable. I’m subject to more rules than they are, but to far fewer rules than the driver of an automobile. Again, this is as it should be.

The letter of the law says I’m supposed to come to a complete stop at every stop sign and red light. Nobody rides a bike that way, but the “Idaho stop” (allowing a bicyclist to yield, rather than stop) is illegal in most states. Yet some people want to go even further, requiring bicyclists to get licensed and pay excise tax, as if bicyclists were a danger to drivers, and not the reverse.

Since cars are an order of magnitude more powerful than bicycles, it stands to reason that the onus for safety falls primarily on the driver of the car. This does not give bicyclists carte blanche to ride any way that want to, but it does mean, for example, that drivers need to respect the three-foot rule and a bicyclist’s right to control a lane of traffic when necessary. Bicyclists aren’t absent of responsibility. It’s a good idea to wear bright-colored clothing, and it’s the law to use proper lighting at night.

But I balk at the suggestion that bicyclists be licensed and taxed, and so should the parents of every ten-year-old who wants to ride to the ice cream stand on a warm summer evening.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: it takes seconds, not minutes, out of a driver’s day to slow down for a bicyclist or a group of bicyclists, to wait for a safe place to pass. Given the order-of-magnitude inequalities involved, thinking up new rules for bicyclists is like invoking the infield fly rule in a picnic softball game. It misses the point.

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