Monday, June 30, 2014

Baseball, we hardly knew ye

It occurs to me that although I never liked baseball as much as I did football, back in the days when I liked them both*, there was something about the drama and romance of baseball that I did like.  Call it the concept of baseball, if you like.  One of the reasons I'm still drawn to vintage broadcasts of old games is that it captures for me the essence of what I liked about baseball: the increasing excitement and tension as a pitcher worked his way in to the late innings of a possible no-hitter, the announcers following the time-honored tradition of dancing verbally around what was happening; the creeping shadows of the light towers and flagpoles as they inched their way across the infield during a day game; the whispered conversations at the mound in the late innings of a tight World Series game, with bunting hanging from the railings and the rising rows of faces of fans captured in the background; the very nature of the World Series itself as the early October showdown between the two best teams in baseball, in the days before interleague play and endless playoffs.  It's not quite the "Green Cathedrals" schlock you here, but it will do.

*Now, I have little time for either of them, at least at the professional level.

As I read back through that paragraph, what strikes me the most is that most of the charm of baseball had to do with the evolution of things - the late innings of a no-hitter, the creeping shadows, the seventh game of a World Series that was the culmination of an entire season of baseball. For some, the attraction of the game was Opening Day, when the umpires cried, "Play Ball!", when every team shared first place, and the hopes of remaining there at the end of the season; for me it was the time after the Seventh Inning Stretch, crunch time, money time, the clock about ready to strike midnight.  I don't quite know what that means, but I like the thought of it.

However, as my interest in the game has faded beyond indifference, it's been much harder to find the words to describe why.  There's the pace of the game, which makes a glacier look like an F1 racer; the endless situational substitutions, which end any momentum a game might have had and thrust most post-season games far beyond even my bedtime, the emphasis on sabermetrics, which makes a simple game much harder to comprehend; the endless commercials, which makes a fidgety fellow like me want to change the channel even in the middle of a no-hitter (which I actually did once; predictably, I missed no action.)  There's the drug scandal, the diffidence of players who are clearly in it for the money, the lack of roster cohesiveness from one season to the next.  When one looks at the deteriorating national TV ratings for baseball, I'm right there with them.

I finally found something that begins to describe why I've stopped being interested in baseball; this column by Grantland's Charles F. Pierce, on the tenure of Commissioner Bud Selig, sums up quite nicely the near-revulsion I have toward the game, the kind of disdain that only a former fan can have.  As Pierce points out, the game is now run by corporations disguised as businessmen, with an eye mostly for the bottom line, and governed by a commissioner who's nothing more than a lackey for the owners.  Pierce writes that "with Bud Selig, the office of the commissioner of baseball finally, completely, and probably perpetually became a management position." In other words, the suits run the game, and in this case I'm not talking about umpires, who don't wear suits anymore anyway, and whose out-of-control egos are just another part of the problem.

I want you to read Pierce's article, so I'm not going to say much more about it other than that it's clear to me that anyone who doesn't have a lifelong love of baseball, who doesn't have a team that they live and die with (even marginally), who doesn't have a memory of how the game used to be when, in the words of the HBO series, "it was a game," is probably going to read this and see everything that's wrong with the sport, and very little of what's right.  I still get great pleasure watching old World Series games from the '50s and '60s, even though I already know who's going to win, even if it's not the team I was rooting for, even though I may have seen the game two or three times already.  The fact that I find that more exciting than a "live" game, with the outcome hanging in the balance, is a sad commentary - and I use the word "sad" deliberately.

Here are Pierce's closing words, but again check out the article in full:
That will be Selig’s legacy — success and labor peace and nothing that ever would disturb the horses to discomfit the folks in the luxury boxes. Those people were his primary constituencies anyway. The rest of the game’s fans will be told to cheer Bud Selig into retirement for all he’s done for The Game. He has been a successful steward of the game’s economy. Why anyone outside of a boardroom would raise their voices for that is beyond me, but, as I said, I don’t get baseball at all.
It used to be said that rooting for the New York Yankees, back when they were in the Series every year and won most of them, was like "rooting for U.S. Steel."  We don't have U.S. Steel to root against anymore, so maybe we should just say that rooting for Major League Baseball in the era of Bud Selig is like rooting for the U.S Government.  Not a very appealing thought.

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